Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

October 31, 2014

In “Our Machine Masters” Bobo says the age of artificial intelligence is finally at hand, and he has a question: Will we master it, or will it master us?  Mr. Cohen, in “An Old Man in Prague,” says Sir Nicholas Winton saved Jewish children, and for decades said nothing. The deed speaks for itself.  In “Apologizing to Japan” Prof. Krugman says Western economists were scathing in their criticisms of Japanese policy, but the slump we fell into isn’t just similar to Japan’s. It’s worse.  Here’s Bobo:

Some days I think nobody knows me as well as Pandora. I create a new music channel around some band or song and Pandora feeds me a series of songs I like just as well. In fact, it often feeds me songs I’d already downloaded onto my phone from iTunes. Either my musical taste is extremely conventional or Pandora is really good at knowing what I like.

In the current issue of Wired, the technology writer Kevin Kelly says that we had all better get used to this level of predictive prowess. Kelly argues that the age of artificial intelligence is finally at hand.

He writes that the smart machines of the future won’t be humanlike geniuses like HAL 9000 in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They will be more modest machines that will drive your car, translate foreign languages, organize your photos, recommend entertainment options and maybe diagnose your illnesses. “Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize,” Kelly writes. Even more than today, we’ll lead our lives enmeshed with machines that do some of our thinking tasks for us.

This artificial intelligence breakthrough, he argues, is being driven by cheap parallel computation technologies, big data collection and better algorithms. The upshot is clear, “The business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to forecast: Take X and add A.I.”

Two big implications flow from this. The first is sociological. If knowledge is power, were about to see an even greater concentration of power.

The Internet is already heralding a new era of centralization. As Astra Taylor points out in her book, “The People’s Platform,” in 2001, the top 10 websites accounted for 31 percent of all U.S. page views, but, by 2010, they accounted for 75 percent of them. Gigantic companies like Google swallow up smaller ones. The Internet has created a long tail, but almost all the revenue and power is among the small elite at the head.

Advances in artificial intelligence will accelerate this centralizing trend. That’s because A.I. companies will be able to reap the rewards of network effects. The bigger their network and the more data they collect, the more effective and attractive they become.

As Kelly puts it, “Once a company enters this virtuous cycle, it tends to grow so big, so fast, that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our A.I. future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general-purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences.”

To put it more menacingly, engineers at a few gigantic companies will have vast-though-hidden power to shape how data are collected and framed, to harvest huge amounts of information, to build the frameworks through which the rest of us make decisions and to steer our choices. If you think this power will be used for entirely benign ends, then you have not read enough history.

The second implication is philosophical. A.I. will redefine what it means to be human. Our identity as humans is shaped by what machines and other animals can’t do. For the last few centuries, reason was seen as the ultimate human faculty. But now machines are better at many of the tasks we associate with thinking — like playing chess, winning at Jeopardy, and doing math.

On the other hand, machines cannot beat us at the things we do without conscious thinking: developing tastes and affections, mimicking each other and building emotional attachments, experiencing imaginative breakthroughs, forming moral sentiments.

In the age of smart machines, we’re not human because we have big brains. We’re human because we have social skills, emotional capacities and moral intuitions. I could paint two divergent A.I. futures, one deeply humanistic, and one soullessly utilitarian.

In the humanistic one, machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things. In this future, differences in innate I.Q. are less important. Everybody has Google on their phones so having a great memory or the ability to calculate with big numbers doesn’t help as much.

In this future, there is increasing emphasis on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. People are evaluated more on these traits, which supplement machine thinking, and not the rote ones that duplicate it.

In the cold, utilitarian future, on the other hand, people become less idiosyncratic. If the choice architecture behind many decisions is based on big data from vast crowds, everybody follows the prompts and chooses to be like each other. The machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.

I’m happy Pandora can help me find what I like. I’m a little nervous if it so pervasively shapes my listening that it ends up determining what I like. I think we all want to master these machines, not have them master us.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

An old man went to Prague this week. He had spent much of his life keeping quiet about his deeds. They spoke for themselves. Now he said, “In a way perhaps I shouldn’t have lived so long to give everybody the opportunity to exaggerate everything in the way they are doing today.”

At the age of 105, Sir Nicholas Winton is still inclined toward self-effacement. He did what any normal human being would, only at a time when most of Europe had gone mad. A London stockbroker, born into a family of German Jewish immigrants who had changed their name from Wertheim and converted to Christianity, he rescued 669 children, most of them Jews, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. They came to Britain in eight transports. The ninth was canceled when Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The 250 children destined for it journeyed instead into the inferno of the Holocaust.

Winton, through family connections, knew enough of the Third Reich to see the naïveté of British officialdom still inclined to dismiss Hitler as a buffoon and talk of another war as fanciful. He raised money; he procured visas; he found foster families. His day job was at the Stock Exchange. The rest of his time he devoted to saving the doomed. There were enough bystanders. He wanted to help. Now he has outlived many of those he saved and long enough to know that thousands of their descendants owe their lives to him.

Back in Prague, 75 years on, Winton received the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor of the Czech Republic. The Czech Air Force sent a plane. He was serenaded at Prague Castle, in the presence of a handful of his octogenarian “children.” The only problem, he said, was that countries refused to accept unaccompanied children; only England would. One hundred years, he said, is “a heck of a long time.” The things he said were understated. At 105, one does not change one’s manner.

Only in 1988 did Winton’s wartime work begin to be known. His wife found a scrapbook chronicling his deeds. He appeared on a BBC television show whose host, Esther Rantzen, asked those in the audience who owed their lives to him to stand. Many did. Honors accrued. Now there are statues of him in London and Prague. “I didn’t really keep it secret,” he once said. “I just didn’t talk about it.”

Such discretion is riveting to our exhibitionist age. To live today is to self-promote or perish. Social media tugs the private into the public sphere with an almost irresistible force. Be followed, be friended — or be forgotten. This imperative creates a great deal of tension and unhappiness. Most people, much of the time, have a need to be quiet and still, and feel disinclined to raise their voice. Yet they sense that if they do not, they risk being seen as losers. Device anxiety, that restless tug to the little screen, is a reflection of a spreading inability to live without 140-character public affirmation. When the device is dead, so are you.

What gets forgotten, in the cacophony, is how new this state of affairs is. Winton’s disinclination to talk was not unusual. Silence was the reflex of the postwar generation. What was done was done because it was the right thing to do and therefore unworthy of note. Certainly among Jews silence was the norm. Survivors scarcely spoke of their torment. They did not tell their children. They repressed their memories. Perhaps discretion seemed the safer course; certainly it seemed the more dignified. Perhaps the very trauma brought wordlessness. The Cold War was not conducive to truth-telling. Anguish was better suffered in silence than passed along (although of course it filtered to the next generation anyway.)

But there was something else, something really unsayable. Survival itself was somehow shameful, unbearable. By what right, after all, had one lived when those 250 children had not? Menachem Begin, the former Israeli prime minister whose parents and brother were killed by the Nazis, put this sentiment well: “Against the eyes of every son of the nation appear and reappear the carriages of death. … The Black Nights when the sound of an infernal screeching of wheels and the sighs of the condemned press in from afar and interrupt one’s slumber; to remind one of what happened to mother, father, brothers, to a son, a daughter, a People. In these inescapable moments every Jew in the country feels unwell because he is well. He asks himself: Is there not something treasonous in his existence.”

Winton’s anonymity, for decades after the war, was of course also the result of the silence or reserve of the hundreds he had saved. How strange that seems today, when we must emote about everything.

The deed speaks — and occasionally someone lives long enough to know in what degree.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman, who is in Tokyo:

For almost two decades, Japan has been held up as a cautionary tale, an object lesson on how not to run an advanced economy. After all, the island nation is the rising superpower that stumbled. One day, it seemed, it was on the road to high-tech domination of the world economy; the next it was suffering from seemingly endless stagnation and deflation. And Western economists were scathing in their criticisms of Japanese policy.

I was one of those critics; Ben Bernanke, who went on to become chairman of the Federal Reserve, was another. And these days, I often find myself thinking that we ought to apologize.

Now, I’m not saying that our economic analysis was wrong. The paper I published in 1998 about Japan’s “liquidity trap,” or the paper Mr. Bernanke published in 2000 urging Japanese policy makers to show “Rooseveltian resolve” in confronting their problems, have aged fairly well. In fact, in some ways they look more relevant than ever now that much of the West has fallen into a prolonged slump very similar to Japan’s experience.

The point, however, is that the West has, in fact, fallen into a slump similar to Japan’s — but worse. And that wasn’t supposed to happen. In the 1990s, we assumed that if the United States or Western Europe found themselves facing anything like Japan’s problems, we would respond much more effectively than the Japanese had. But we didn’t, even though we had Japan’s experience to guide us. On the contrary, Western policies since 2008 have been so inadequate if not actively counterproductive that Japan’s failings seem minor in comparison. And Western workers have experienced a level of suffering that Japan has managed to avoid.

What policy failures am I talking about? Start with government spending. Everyone knows that in the early 1990s Japan tried to boost its economy with a surge in public investment; it’s less well-known that public investment fell rapidly after 1996 even as the government raised taxes, undermining progress toward recovery. This was a big mistake, but it pales by comparison with Europe’s hugely destructive austerity policies, or the collapse in infrastructure spending in the United States after 2010. Japanese fiscal policy didn’t do enough to help growth; Western fiscal policy actively destroyed growth.

Or consider monetary policy. The Bank of Japan, Japan’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve, has received a lot of criticism for reacting too slowly to the slide into deflation, and then for being too eager to raise interest rates at the first hint of recovery. That criticism is fair, but Japan’s central bank never did anything as wrongheaded as the European Central Bank’s decision to raise rates in 2011, helping to send Europe back into recession. And even that mistake is trivial compared with the awesomely wrongheaded behavior of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, which raised rates despite below-target inflation and relatively high unemployment, and appears, at this point, to have pushed Sweden into outright deflation.

The Swedish case is especially striking because the Riksbank chose to ignore one of its own deputy governors: Lars Svensson, a world-class monetary economist who had worked extensively on Japan, and who had warned his colleagues that premature rate increases would have exactly the effects they did, in fact, have.

So there are really two questions here. First, why has everyone seemed to get this so wrong? Second, why has the West, with all its famous economists — not to mention the ability to learn from Japan’s woe — made an even worse mess than Japan did?

The answer to the first question, I think, is that responding effectively to depression conditions requires abandoning conventional respectability. Policies that would ordinarily be prudent and virtuous, like balancing the budget or taking a firm stand against inflation, become recipes for a deeper slump. And it’s very hard to persuade influential people to make that adjustment — just look at the Washington establishment’s inability to give up on its deficit obsession.

As for why the West has done even worse than Japan, I suspect that it’s about the deep divisions within our societies. In America, conservatives have blocked efforts to fight unemployment out of a general hostility to government, especially a government that does anything to help Those People. In Europe, Germany has insisted on hard money and austerity largely because the German public is intensely hostile to anything that could be called a bailout of southern Europe.

I’ll be writing more soon about what’s happening in Japan now, and the new lessons the West should be learning. For now, here’s what you should know: Japan used to be a cautionary tale, but the rest of us have messed up so badly that it almost looks like a role model instead.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 28, 2014

Oh, cripes.  In a spectacular, flaming pile of turds called “Why Partyism Is Wrong” Bobo actually says that political discrimination is more prevalent than you would imagine, and its harmful effects haven’t been fully considered.  The hypocrisy is mind-boggling…  Mr. Cohen, in “A Climate of Fear,” says we have the remorse of Pandora, and that the technological spirit we have let slip from the box has turned into a monster.  Mr. Nocera asks a question:  “Are Our Courts For Sale?”  (Joe, everything in this nation is now officially for sale…) He says in the post-Citizens United political system, ads are affecting judges and becoming corrosive to the rule of law.  No shit, really?  Who’da thunk it?  Here’s Bobo’s flaming bag of dog poop:

A college student came to me recently with a quandary. He’d spent the summer interning at a conservative think tank. Now he was applying to schools and companies where most people were liberal. Should he remove the internship from his résumé?

I advised him not to. Even if people disagreed with his politics, I argued, they’d still appreciate his public spiritedness. But now I’m thinking that advice was wrong. There’s a lot more political discrimination than I thought. In fact, the best recent research suggests that there’s more political discrimination than there is racial discrimination.

For example, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood gave 1,000 people student résumés and asked them which students should get scholarships. The résumés had some racial cues (membership in African-American Students Association) and some political cues (member of Young Republicans).

Race influenced decisions. Blacks favored black students 73 percent to 27 percent, and whites favored black students slightly. But political cues were more powerful. Both Democrats and Republicans favored students who agreed with them 80 percent of the time. They favored students from their party even when other students had better credentials.

Iyengar and Westwood conducted other experiments to measure what Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School calls “partyism.” They gave subjects implicit association tests, which measure whether people associate different qualities with positive or negative emotions. They had people play the trust game, which measures how much people are willing to trust different kinds of people.

In those situations, they found pervasive prejudice. And political biases were stronger than their racial biases.

In a Bloomberg View column last month, Sunstein pointed to polling data that captured the same phenomenon. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of Republicans and Democrats said they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone from the other party. By 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they would mind.

Politics is obviously a passionate activity, in which moral values clash. Debates over Obamacare, charter schools or whether the United States should intervene in Syria stir serious disagreement. But these studies are measuring something different. People’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

There are several reasons politics has become hyper-moralized in this way. First, straight moral discussion has atrophied. There used to be public theologians and philosophers who discussed moral issues directly. That kind of public intellectual is no longer prominent, so moral discussion is now done under the guise of policy disagreement, often by political talk-show hosts.

Second, highly educated people are more likely to define themselves by what they believe than by their family religion, ethnic identity or region.

Third, political campaigns and media provocateurs build loyalty by spreading the message that electoral disputes are not about whether the top tax rate will be 36 percent or 39 percent, but are about the existential fabric of life itself.

The problem is that hyper-moralization destroys politics. Most of the time, politics is a battle between competing interests or an attempt to balance partial truths. But in this fervent state, it turns into a Manichaean struggle of light and darkness. To compromise is to betray your very identity. When schools, community groups and workplaces get defined by political membership, when speakers get disinvited from campus because they are beyond the pale, then every community gets dumber because they can’t reap the benefits of diverging viewpoints and competing thought.

This mentality also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.

The personal is not political. If you’re judging a potential daughter-in-law on political grounds, your values are out of whack.

Well, if she supports the teatards it probably means she’s a narrow minded little bigot, which are not values I support…  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I don’t know about you, but I find dinner conversations often veer in strange directions these days, like the friend telling me the other evening that the terrorists calling themselves Islamic State could easily dispatch one of their own to West Africa, make sure he contracts Ebola, then get him onto the London Underground or the Paris Metro or the New York subway, squeezed up against plenty of other folk at rush hour, and bingo!

“I mean,” he said, “I can’t possibly be the first to have thought of this. It’s easy. They want to commit suicide anyway, right?”

Right: We are vulnerable, less safe than we thought.

A mouthful of pasta and on he went about how the time has come to blow up the entire Middle East, it’s done for, finished; and how crazy the energy market is right now with the Saudis trying to drive down prices in order to make costly American shale oil production less viable, which in turn should ensure the United States continues to buy Saudi crude even now that it has become the world’s largest oil producer.

But of course the Russians are not happy about cheap oil, nor are the Iranians, and the bottom line is it’s chaos out there, sharks devouring one another. Nothing happens by chance, certainly not a 25 percent drop in oil prices. Somebody would pay for this plot.

Not so long ago, I struggled to remind myself, this guy was brimming over with idealism, throwing in a big investment-banking job to go to the Middle East and invest his energies in democratic change, a free press, a new order, bending my ear about how the time had come for the region and his country in particular to join the modern world. Nothing in the Arab genome condemned the region to backwardness, violence and paranoia. His belief was fervid. It was married to deeds. He walked the walk for change. I was full of admiration.

Then a shadow fell over the world: annexations, beheadings, pestilence, Syria, Gaza and the return of the Middle Eastern strongmen. Hope gave way to fever. When Canada is no longer reassuring, it’s all over.

We are vulnerable and we are fearful. That is the new zeitgeist, at least in the West. Fanaticism feeds on frustration; and frustration is widespread because life for many is not getting better. People fret.

Come to think of it, our conversation was not encrypted. How foolish, anybody could be listening in, vacuuming my friend’s dark imaginings into some data-storage depot in the American desert, to be sifted through by a bunch of spooks who could likely hack into his phone or drum up some charge of plotting against the West by having ideas about the propagation of Ebola. Even the healers are being humiliated and quarantined, punished for their generous humanity, while the humanoid big-data geeks get soda, steak and a condo in Nevada.

There were cameras and listening devices everywhere. Just look up, look around. It was a mistake to say anything within range of your phone. Lots of people were vulnerable. Anyone could hack into the software in your car, or the drip at your hospital bed, and make a mess of you.

What has happened? Why this shadow over the dinner table and such strange fears? It seems we have the remorse of Pandora. The empowering, all-opening, all-devouring technological spirit we have let slip from the box has turned into a monster, giving the killers-for-a-caliphate new powers to recruit, the dictators new means to repress, the spies new means to listen in, the fear mongers new means to spread alarm, the rich new means to get richer at the expense of the middle class, the marketers new means to numb, the tax evaders new means to evade, viruses new means to spread, devices new means to obsess, the rising powers new means to block the war-weary risen, and anxiety new means to inhabit the psyche.

Hyper-connection equals isolation after all. What a strange trick, almost funny. The crisis, Antonio Gramsci noted in the long-ago 20th century, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. There is something in the air, fin-de-siècle Vienna with Twitter.

Hope, of course, was the one spirit left behind in Pandora’s Box. One of the things in the air of late was a Google executive dropping to earth from the stratosphere, a fall of 135,890 feet, plummeting at speeds of up to 822 miles per hour, and all smiles after his 25-mile tumble. Technology is also liberation. It just doesn’t feel that way right now. The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

One of the most shocking ads aired this political season was aimed at a woman named Robin Hudson.

Hudson, 62, is not a congressional or Senate candidate. Rather, she is a State Supreme Court justice in North Carolina, seeking her second eight-year term. It wasn’t all that long ago when, in North Carolina, judicial races were publicly financed. If a candidate spent more than $100,000, it was unusual. Ads mainly consisted of judicial candidates promising to be fair. Any money the candidates raised was almost entirely local.

This ad in North Carolina, however, which aired during the primary season, was a startling departure. First, the money came from an organization called Justice for All NC — which, in turn, was funded primarily by the Republican State Leadership Committee. That is to say, it was the kind of post-Citizens United money that has flooded the political system and polluted our politics.

And then there was its substance. “We want judges to protect us,” the ad began. The voice-over went on to say that when child molesters sued to stop electronic monitoring, Judge Hudson had “sided with the predators.” It was a classic attack ad.

Not surprisingly, the truth was a bit different. In 2010, the State Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether an electronic-monitoring law could apply to those who had been convicted before it passed. Hudson, in a dissent, wrote that the law could not be applied retroactively.

As it turns out, the ad probably backfired. “It clearly exceeded all bounds of propriety and accuracy,” said Robert Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice. Hudson won her primary and has a good chance of retaining her seat in the election next week.

But her experience is being replicated in many of the 38 states that hold some form of judicial elections. “We are seeing money records broken all over the country,” said Bert Brandenburg, the executive director of Justice at Stake, which tracks money in judicial elections. “Right now, we are watching big money being spent in Michigan. We are seeing the same thing in Montana and Ohio. There is even money going into a district court race in Missouri.” He added, “This is the new normal.”

To be sure, the definition of big money in a judicial election is a lot different than big money in a hotly contested Senate race. According to Alicia Bannon at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a total of $38.7 million was spent on judicial elections in 2009-10. During the next election cycle, the total rose to $56.4 million.

But that is partly the point. “With a relatively small investment, interest groups have opportunities to shape state courts,” said Bannon. Sure enough, that is exactly what seems to be going on. Americans for Prosperity, financed by the Koch brothers, has been involved in races in Tennessee and Montana, according to Brandenburg. And the Republican State Leadership Committee started something this year called the Judicial Fairness Initiative, which supports conservative candidates.

In that district court race in Missouri, for instance, Judge Pat Joyce, a 20-year judicial veteran, has been accused in attack ads bought by the Republican State Leadership Committee as being a liberal. (“Radical environmentalists think Joyce is so groovy,” says one ad.) Republicans are spending $100,000 on attack ads and have given another $100,000 to her opponent, a man whose campaign was nearly $13,000 in debt before the Republican money showed up.

It should be obvious why this is a problem. Judges need to be impartial, and that is harder when they have to raise a lot of money from people who are likely to appear before them in court — in order to compete with independent campaign expenditures. An influx of independent campaign money aimed at one judge can also serve as a warning shot to other judges that they’ll face the same opposition if their rulings aren’t conservative enough. Most of all, it is terribly corrosive to the rule of law if people don’t believe in the essential fairness of judges.

Yet there seems to be little doubt that the need to raise money does, in fact, affect judges. Joanna Shepherd, a professor at Emory Law, conducted an empirical study that tried to determine whether television attack ads were causing judges to rule against criminal defendants more often. (Most attack ads revolve around criminal cases.) She found, as she wrote in a report entitled “Skewed Justice,” that “the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants.”

“There are two hypotheses,” she told me when I called to ask her about the study. “Either judges are fearful of making rulings that provide fodder for the ads. Or the TV ads are working and helping get certain judges elected.”

“Either way,” she concluded, “outcomes are changing.”

Brooks and Krugman

October 24, 2014

In “The Working Nation” Bobo gurgles that there is a clear agenda for job growth that can materially and spiritually reinvigorate America. We just need to be willing to pursue it.  In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say:  “Thatcher and Reagan leapt from the stagnant pond of their own self-absorption and left the rest of us to slowly drown in whole oceans full of plutocratic effluent.  That Brooks gives credence to Michael Strain’s cynical “all you need is a bus ticket and a dream” advice to the unemployed actually strains credulity. But what would reading a Brooks column be without the voluntary suspension of disbelief and a sense of humor?”  In “Plutocrats Against Democracy” Prof. Krugman says that the desire to suppress the vote in Hong Kong isn’t really so different from the agenda of the political right in the United States.  Here’s Bobo:

During the Cold War era, Western economies delivered broad and growing prosperity for the middle class. This nurtured a general faith in political institutions and culminated in the democratic triumphalism of the 1990s.

In a new essay called “The New Challenge to Market Democracies,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues that this era is over. In Europe, growth has stagnated and unemployment is at catastrophic levels, especially for the young. Japan is afflicted with economic stagnation and demographic decline. In the United States, the middle class is hollowing out. The median annual earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees have not increased in three decades.

A tree known by its fruit, democratic capitalism, Galston observes, has not produced the expected crop. This has led to a loss of confidence in the regime. Galston’s essay is about how economic problems degrade the national spirit and lead to a loss of faith in the whole enterprise.

I think the malaise can be pinned down more precisely. In our meritocratic culture, satisfying and stretching work has become a psychological necessity. More than ever before, we are defined by what we do. If you are of prime age and you are not in the labor force, or engaged in some deeply stretching activity like parenting, then you will begin to feel drained inside. If you are in a dysfunctional workplace with bad personal relationships and no clear purpose, a core piece of you will begin to degrade. If you are not earning enough money so you can feel respected, and live without desperate stress, you will begin to lose confidence and élan.

And that is what’s happening today. The labor force participation rate is at its lowest in decades. Millions are in part-time or low-wage jobs that don’t come close to fulfilling their capacities. Millions more are in dysfunctional or unhealthy workplaces, but they don’t feel they can leave because they don’t think there are other jobs out there that pay the same amount.

The country is palpably in the middle of some sort of emotional recession. Yet over the past five years, the political class has done essentially nothing. That will fill future generations with astonishment and should fill the current generation with rage.

It is precisely at this moment that leaders are called upon leap past the current moment and to point the way to the sun-drenched path ahead. You may disagree with every policy they ever uttered, but Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher leapt beyond the stagnant mood of the late 1970s.

If you get outside the partisan boxes, there’s a completely obvious agenda to create more middle-class, satisfying jobs. The federal government should borrow money at current interest rates to build infrastructure, including better bus networks so workers can get to distant jobs. The fact that the federal government has not passed major infrastructure legislation is mind-boggling, considering how much support there is from both parties.

Other shifts are more fundamental, but should be the signature themes of the next political era. First, the government should reduce its generosity to people who are not working but increase its support for people who are. That means reducing health benefits for the affluent elderly. But it means, as Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute recommends, increasing wage subsidies when employers hire the long-term unemployed and issuing relocation subsidies so people in high unemployment areas can move.

Second, the tax code could do a lot more to encourage work and investment. Ideally, we’d move to a progressive consumption tax. But at least we could have the sort of tax reform that Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have suggested, which would simplify the code while subsidizing middle-class families. The fact that Washington hasn’t even made a run at serious tax reform is another sign of utter political malpractice.

Third, the immigration system should turn into a talent recruiting system, a relentless effort to get the world’s most gifted and driven people to move to our shores.

Fourth, there has to be a doubling-down on human capital, from early-education programs to community colleges and beyond. Today, too many people are focused on the top 1 percent. But, as economist David Autor has shown, if you took all the wealth gains the top 1 percent made between 1979 and 2012 and spread it to the bottom 99 percent, each household would get a payment of only $7,000. But if you take a two-earner, high-school-educated couple and get them college degrees, their income goes up by $58,000 per year. Inequality is mostly a human capital problem.

This isn’t rocket science. Vast majorities support every idea I’ve mentioned here. It just takes a relentless focus on job creation, bold political leadership and a country willing to be shaken out of its fear.

I love the way he says “only $7,000.”  Just because it’s chump change to you, Bobo, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t save people from bankruptcy.  Cripes, but he’s a jerk.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s always good when leaders tell the truth, especially if that wasn’t their intention. So we should be grateful to Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, for blurting out the real reason pro-democracy demonstrators can’t get what they want: With open voting, “You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies” — policies, presumably, that would make the rich less rich and provide more aid to those with lower incomes.

So Mr. Leung is worried about the 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population that, he believes, would vote for bad policies because they don’t make enough money. This may sound like the 47 percent of Americans who Mitt Romney said would vote against him because they don’t pay income taxes and, therefore, don’t take responsibility for themselves, or the 60 percent that Representative Paul Ryan argued pose a danger because they are “takers,” getting more from the government than they pay in. Indeed, these are all basically the same thing.

For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.

In fact, the very success of the conservative agenda only intensifies this fear. Many on the right — and I’m not just talking about people listening to Rush Limbaugh; I’m talking about members of the political elite — live, at least part of the time, in an alternative universe in which America has spent the past few decades marching rapidly down the road to serfdom. Never mind the new Gilded Age that tax cuts and financial deregulation have created; they’re reading books with titles like “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic,” asserting that the big problem we have is runaway redistribution.

This is a fantasy. Still, is there anything to fears that economic populism will lead to economic disaster? Not really. Lower-income voters are much more supportive than the wealthy toward policies that benefit people like them, and they generally support higher taxes at the top. But if you worry that low-income voters will run wild, that they’ll greedily grab everything and tax job creators into oblivion, history says that you’re wrong. All advanced nations have had substantial welfare states since the 1940s — welfare states that, inevitably, have stronger support among their poorer citizens. But you don’t, in fact, see countries descending into tax-and-spend death spirals — and no, that’s not what ails Europe.

Still, while the “kind of politics and policies” that responds to the bottom half of the income distribution won’t destroy the economy, it does tend to crimp the incomes and wealth of the 1 percent, at least a bit; the top 0.1 percent is paying quite a lot more in taxes right now than it would have if Mr. Romney had won. So what’s a plutocrat to do?

One answer is propaganda: tell voters, often and loudly, that taxing the rich and helping the poor will cause economic disaster, while cutting taxes on “job creators” will create prosperity for all. There’s a reason conservative faith in the magic of tax cuts persists no matter how many times such prophecies fail (as is happening right now in Kansas): There’s a lavishly funded industry of think tanks and media organizations dedicated to promoting and preserving that faith.

Another answer, with a long tradition in the United States, is to make the most of racial and ethnic divisions — government aid just goes to Those People, don’t you know. And besides, liberals are snooty elitists who hate America.

A third answer is to make sure government programs fail, or never come into existence, so that voters never learn that things could be different.

But these strategies for protecting plutocrats from the mob are indirect and imperfect. The obvious answer is Mr. Leung’s: Don’t let the bottom half, or maybe even the bottom 90 percent, vote.

And now you understand why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots. American politicians don’t dare say outright that only the wealthy should have political rights — at least not yet. But if you follow the currents of thought now prevalent on the political right to their logical conclusion, that’s where you end up.

The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 21, 2014

Bobo thinks he’s going to tell us all about “The Quality of Fear.”  He babbles that the reaction nationally to Ebola is rooted in weaknesses in our cultural fabric.  I’m sure that the ginning up of pants-pissing terror by the media has nothing to do with anything…  Mr. Cohen, in “China Versus America,” ‘splains how Chinese “harmony” and American “freedom” produce the dangerous clash of two exceptionalisms.  Mr. Nocera, in “A World Without OPEC?”, thinks he knows how the shale revolution has weakened the power of the oil cartel.  In the comments “sdavidc9″ from Cornwall had this to say:  “To write an article on the future of oil without mentioning global warming is oh so Republican. We are fighting over seating arrangements on the Titanic.”  Here’s Bobo:

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.

The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death. Philip Roth once wrote: “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” In cultures where death is more present, or at least dealt with more commonly, people are more familiar with that second person, and people can think a bit more clearly about risks of death in any given moment.

In cultures where people deal with death by simply getting it out of their minds, the prospect of sudden savage death, even if extremely unlikely, can arouse a mental fog of fear, and an unmoored and utopian desire to want to reduce the risk of early death to zero, all other considerations be damned.

Given all these conditions, you wind up with an emotional spiral that develops its own momentum.

The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear. It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.

In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought. Fear is, in the novelist Yann Martel’s words, “a wordless darkness.”

Ebola is a treacherous adversary. It’s found a weakness in our bodies. Worse, it exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture.

Go change your underwear, Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Singapore:

Let us take it as a given that the post-1945 world order with the United States as dominant nation has begun to unravel, that China is rising to inherit the earth, that the unease of our times has much to do with that difficult transition, and that violent conflict is a normal accompaniment to the passing of the baton from one great power to the next. America stood tall at the end of World War II. It also stood on a vast field of corpses.

Let us further posit the far-fetched hypothesis that humankind has learned from history. It must then be determined to avoid another conflagration. Happy talk of hyper-connectivity is not enough. The dream of the victory of enlightened self-interest in the name of the collective good on a shrinking planet was an ephemeral late 20th-century illusion. What will matter above all is the capacity of the United States and China to avoid fatal misunderstanding. In a state of mutual incomprehension, clashing interests will escalate.

How far China and America are from understanding each other became clear to me the other day as I listened to George Yeo, the former Singaporean foreign minister. He set out his view of the United States as a “missionary” power filled with the righteous conviction that it must usher the earth to liberty and democracy, and of China as an anti-missionary power convinced by its own bitter experience of foreign domination that nonintervention in the affairs of other states is a necessary form of respect. Far from cynical exploitation, Yeo argued, China’s non-judgmental approach to other powers was above all a reflection of its own history, a form of moral rectitude. The West’s perception of Chinese bullying and ruthless mercantilism was just plain wrong.

Yeo is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man with a deep knowledge of China and considerable experience of life in America. I can’t help seeing cynicism in China’s readiness to extract resources from the realms of dictators or democrats and its unreadiness to do as much as America in stopping Ebola or the killers who call themselves Islamic State. I am sure that, for President Xi Jinping of China, the sight of America getting enmeshed in another Middle Eastern skirmish has its satisfactions. But Yeo made me wonder. Can the missionary mindset begin to comprehend the non-missionary worldview, or even accept such categorization?

The core problem is two forms of exceptionalism, the American and the Chinese. The United States is an idea as well as a nation. Americans, even in a battle-scarred inward-looking moment such as the present, are hard-wired to the notion of their country as a beacon to humanity. President Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular in part because he has interpreted a popular desire to regroup as license to be satisfied with hitting singles and avoiding strike-outs. That is the attitude of an unexceptional nation, which can never be America’s self-image.

But Chinese exceptionalism is no less powerful. It holds up China as a uniquely non-expansionist power over millennia of history, bringing harmony in a Confucian expression of its benevolence — a China standing in contrast to the predatory West. The Communist Party, with its mantra of “peaceful rise,” has fashioned an effective pillar of its ideology through the integration of Middle Kingdom thought. As Joe Studwell, the author of “How Asia Works,” put it to me in an e-mail, the party with “not much socialism to cling to, has reached into Middle Kingdom exceptionalism by resurrecting Confucius, starting Confucius Institutes all over the world.” The result, as Yuan-kang Wang, an associate professor at Western Michigan University, has written in Foreign Policy, is a widespread belief in “historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture.”

Exceptionalism, in all its forms, is tenacious. Tell Tibetans about China’s peace-loving culture. Tell Iraqis about America’s dedication to liberty. The contradictions, and failings, within the beliefs do not diminish them. I believe, still, in the overall beneficence of American power, the fundamental yearning of the human spirit for freedom, and the unique American identification with that desire. Xi’s clampdown on the Internet, his attempt to clean up corruption when corruption must be endemic to any one-party state, his expansionism in the South China Sea, and his difficulties with a stubborn pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong all strike me as demonstrating the internal contradictions of “harmony” and “peace” within a Chinese system that has generated prosperity but increasingly stifles the open debate more prosperous people want.

Europeans, with their experience of 20th-century devastation, would argue that all forms of exceptionalism are dangerous, the missionary and non-missionary equally so. They have settled for less in the interests of quiet. America and China will not do that in the foreseeable future, and so their relationship must be viewed with guarded pessimism. In war’s aftermath there are no exceptions to human suffering.

And now we get to Gunga Din:

Forty-one years ago this month, the Arab oil embargo began. The countries that were part of it belonged, of course, to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries — OPEC — which had banded together 13 years earlier to strengthen their ability to negotiate with international oil companies. The embargo led to widespread shortages in the United States, higher prices at the gas pump and long lines at gas stations. By the time it ended, the price of oil had risen to $12 a barrel from $3.

Perhaps more important than the price increases themselves was the new world order the embargo signaled. The embargo “set in motion geopolitical circumstances that eventually allowed [OPEC] to wrest control over global oil production and pricing from the giant international oil companies — ushering in an era of significantly higher oil prices,” as Amy Myers Jaffe and Ed Morse noted in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that was published last year at the 40th anniversary. Twice a year, OPEC’s oil ministers would meet in Vienna, where they would set oil policy — deciding to either hold back or increase oil production. There was always cheating among members, but there was usually enough discipline in the ranks to keep prices more or less where OPEC wanted them.

As it happens, the title of that Foreign Policy article was “The End of OPEC.” Jaffe and Morse are both global energy experts — she is the executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, and he is the global head of commodities research at Citigroup — who say that if America plays its cards right, OPEC’s dominance over the oil market could be over. I think that day may have already arrived.

“OPEC is not going to survive another 50 years,” Morse told me. “It probably won’t even survive another 10. It has become extremely difficult for them to forge an agreement.”

When Morse and Jaffe wrote their article last year, the price of oil was more than $100 a barrel. Today, the per-barrel price is in the low- to mid-$80s. It has dropped more than 25 percent since June. There was a time when $80 a barrel would have been more than satisfactory for OPEC members, but those days are long gone. Venezuela’s budgetary needs requires that it sell its oil at well above $100 a barrel. The Arab Spring prompted a number of important OPEC members — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to increase budgetary spending to keep their own populations quiescent. According to the International Monetary Fund, the United Arab Emirates needs a price of more than $80 to meet its budgetary obligations. That’s up from less than $25 a barrel in 2008.

Not long ago, Venezuela asked for an emergency OPEC meeting to discuss decreasing production. Iran has said that such a meeting is unnecessary. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is primarily concerned with not losing market share, so it will continue to pump out oil regardless of the needs of other OPEC members. This is not exactly cartel-like behavior. The next OPEC meeting is scheduled for late November, but there is little likelihood of an agreement.

And why does OPEC suddenly find itself in such disarray? Simply put, the supply of oil is greater than the demand, and OPEC has lost its ability to control the supply. Part of the reason is a slowdown in global demand. China’s economy has slowed, and so has its voracious appetite for oil. Japan, meanwhile, is increasingly turning to natural gas and nuclear power.

But an even bigger part of the reason is that the shale revolution in North America is utterly changing the supply-demand dynamic. Since 2008, says Bernard Weinstein, an energy expert at Southern Methodist University, oil production in the United States is up 60 percent. That’s an additional three million barrels a day. Within a few years, predicts Morse, America will overtake Russia and Saudi Arabia and become the world’s largest oil producer.

What’s more, according to another article Morse wrote, this one for Foreign Affairs magazine, “the costs of finding and producing oil and gas in shale and tight rock formations are steadily going down and will drop even more in the years to come.” In other words, the American energy industry might well be able to withstand further price drops easier than OPEC members.

When I got Jaffe on the phone, I asked her if she thought OPEC was a spent force. “You can never say never,” she replied, and then laid out a few dire scenarios — mostly revolving around oil fields being bombed or attacked — that might make supply scarce again. But barring that, this is a moment we’ve long been waiting for. Thanks to the shale revolution, OPEC has become a paper tiger.

Brooks and Krugman

October 17, 2014

In “The Case for Low Ideals” Bobo gurgles that the idealism of President Obama’s 2008 campaign seems foolish now, but idealism, a different kind, still has a place in American politics.  In the comments “Diana Moses” of Arlington, Mass. had this to say:  “I found myself trying to put my finger on why this column comes across to me as self-serving. I guess it sounds to me as though the writer is basically saying, “The system works for me, too bad if it doesn’t for you.” ”  Exactly.  It’s FYIGM.  Prof. Krugman, in “What Markets Will,” says the financial turmoil of the past few days, especially in Europe, has policy crusaders again sure that they know what the markets are asking for.  Here’s Bobo:

Let’s say you came of political age during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Maybe you were swept up in the idealism. But now you’ve seen an election driven by hope give way to an election driven by fear. Partisans are afraid the other side might win. Candidates are pawns of the consultants because they’re afraid of themselves. Everybody’s afraid of the Ebola virus, ISIS and the fragile economy.

The politics of the last few years have made you disappointed, disillusioned and cynical. You look back at your earlier idealism as cotton candy.

Well, I’m here to make the case for political idealism.

I’m not making the case for the high idealism that surrounded that 2008 campaign. It was based on the idea that people are basically innocent and differences can be quickly transcended. It was based on the idea that society is easily malleable and it’s possible to have quick transformational change. It was based in the idea of a heroic savior (remember those “Hope” posters).

I’m here to make the case for low idealism. The low idealist rejects the politics of innocence. The low idealist recoils from any movement that promises “new beginnings,” tries to offer transcendent “bliss to be alive” moments or tries to fill people’s spiritual voids.

Low idealism begins with a sturdy and accurate view of human nature. We’re all a bit self-centered, self-interested and inclined to think we are nobler than we are. Montaigne wrote, “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.”

Low idealism continues with a realistic view of politics. Politics is slow drilling through hard boards. It is a series of messy compromises. The core functions of government are negative — putting out fires, arresting criminals, settling disputes — and much of what government does is the unromantic work of preventing bad situations from getting worse.

Politicians operate in a recalcitrant medium with incomplete information, bad options and no sleep. Government in good times is merely dull; when it is enthralling, times are usually bad.

So low idealism starts with a tone of sympathy. Anybody who works in this realm deserves compassion and gentle regard. The low idealist knows that rallies with anthems and roaring are just make-believe, but has warm affection for any politician who exhibits neighborliness, courtesy and the ability to listen. The low idealist understands that those who try to rise above the messy business of deal-making often turn into zealots and wind up sinking below it. On the other hand, this kind of idealist has a full heart for those who serve the practical work of legislating: James Baker and Ted Kennedy in the old days; Bob Corker and Ron Wyden today. Believing experience is the best mode of education, he favors the competent old hand to the naïve outsider.

The low idealist is more romantic about the past than about the future. Though governing is hard, there are some miracles of human creation that have been handed down to us. These include, first and foremost, the American Constitution, but also the institutions that function pretty well, like the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve. Her first job is to work with existing materials, magnify what’s best and incrementally reform what is worst.

The businessman might be enamored of disruptive change, but the low idealist abhors it in politics. The low idealist liked Obama’s vow to hit foreign policy singles and doubles day by day, so long as there is a large vision to give long-term direction.

The low idealist admires a different kind of leader; not the martyr or the passionate crusader or the righteous populist. He likes the resilient one, who maybe has been tainted by scandals and has learned from his self-inflicted wounds that his own worst enemy is himself.

He likes the person who speaks only after paying minute attention to the way things really are, and whose proposals are grounded in the low stability of the truth.

The low idealist lives most of her life at a deeper dimension than the realm of the political. She believes, as Samuel Johnson put it, that “The happiness of society depends on virtue” — not primarily material conditions. But, and this is what makes her an idealist, she believes that better laws can nurture virtue. Statecraft is soulcraft. Good tax policies can arouse energy and enterprise. Good social programs can encourage compassion and community service.

Low idealism starts with a warts-and-all mentality, but holds that people can be improved by their political relationships, so it ends up with something loftier and more inspiring that those faux idealists who think human beings are not a problem and politics is a mostly a matter of moving money around.

Of course Bobo’s crowd only wants it to move in one direction.  Welcome to the new Gilded Age.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

In the Middle Ages, the call for a crusade to conquer the Holy Land was met with cries of “Deus vult!” — God wills it. But did the crusaders really know what God wanted? Given how the venture turned out, apparently not.

Now, that was a long time ago, and, in the areas I write about, invocations of God’s presumed will are rare. You do, however, see a lot of policy crusades, and these are often justified with implicit cries of “Mercatus vult!” — the market wills it. But do those invoking the will of the market really know what markets want? Again, apparently not.

And the financial turmoil of the past few days has widened the gap between what we’re told must be done to appease the market and what markets actually seem to be asking for.

To get more specific: We have been told repeatedly that governments must cease and desist from their efforts to mitigate economic pain, lest their excessive compassion be punished by the financial gods, but the markets themselves have never seemed to agree that these human sacrifices are actually necessary. Investors were supposed to be terrified by budget deficits, fearing that we were about to turn into Greece — Greece I tell you — but year after year, interest rates stayed low. The Fed’s efforts to boost the economy were supposed to backfire as markets reacted to the prospect of runaway inflation, but market measures of expected inflation similarly stayed low.

How have policy crusaders responded to the failure of their dire predictions? Mainly with denial, occasionally with exasperation. For example, Alan Greenspan once declared the failure of interest rates and inflation to spike “regrettable, because it is fostering a false sense of complacency.” But that was more than four years ago; maybe the sense of complacency wasn’t all that false?

All in all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that people like Mr. Greenspan knew as much about what the market wanted as medieval crusaders knew about God’s plan — that is, nothing.

In fact, if you look closely, the real message from the market seems to be that we should be running bigger deficits and printing more money. And that message has gotten a lot stronger in the past few days.

I’m not mainly talking about plunging stock prices, although that’s surely telling us something (but as the late Paul Samuelson famously pointed out, stocks are not a reliable indicator of economic prospects: “Wall Street indexes predicted nine out of the last five recessions!”) Instead, I’m talking about interest rates, which are flashing warnings, not of fiscal crisis and inflation, but of depression and deflation.

Most obviously, interest rates on long-term U.S. government debt — the rates that the usual suspects keep telling us will shoot up any day now unless we slash spending — have fallen sharply. This tells us that markets aren’t worried about default, but that they are worried about persistent economic weakness, which will keep the Fed from raising the short-term interest rates it controls.

Interest rates on much European debt are even lower, because Europe’s economic outlook is so bad, and we’re not just talking about Germany. France is currently in conflict with the European Commission, which says that the projected French deficit is too big, but investors — who are still buying French bonds despite a 10-year interest rate of only 1.26 percent — are evidently much more worried about European stagnation than French default.

It’s also instructive to look at interest rates on “inflation-protected” or “index” bonds, which are telling us two things. First, markets are practically begging governments to borrow and spend, say on infrastructure; interest rates on index bonds are barely above zero, so that financing for roads, bridges, and sewers would be almost free. Second, the difference between interest rates on index and ordinary bonds tells us how much inflation the market expects, and it turns out that expected inflation has fallen sharply over the past few months, so that it’s now far below the Fed’s target. In effect, the market is saying that the Fed isn’t printing nearly enough money.

One question you might ask is why the market’s pro-spending, print-more-money message has suddenly gotten louder. My guess is that it’s mainly driven by events in Europe, where the slide into deflation and the growing public backlash against austerity have reached a tipping point. And it’s very reasonable to worry that Europe’s problems may spill over to the rest of us.

In any case, the next time you hear some talking head opining on what we must do to satisfy the markets, ask yourself, “How does he know?” For the truth is that when people talk about what markets demand, what they’re really doing is trying to bully us into doing what they themselves want.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 14, 2014

In “The Sorting Election” Bobo gurgles that American society is self-segregating, and it’s showing up everywhere — including in next month’s midterm elections.  In “The Instruction of Pestilence” Mr. Cohen says plague can remain dormant for years but its bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely.  Mr. Nocera says “Amazon Plays Rough.  So What?” and has a question:  While the debate rages on over monopoly status, is anyone really going to stop shopping at the website?  Here’s Bobo:

Everybody knows that Silicon Valley has become an economic powerhouse over the past quarter-century, but Houston’s boom is less appreciated. Joel Kotkin of Chapman University points out that over the past decade, Houston has outperformed every major metropolitan area in income growth, population growth and migration. Since 2000, the city’s employment figures have risen by 32 percent, ranking it No. 1 in percentage job growth. In August, Houston issued more single-family housing permits than all of California.

The Bay Area and Houston share a strategic asset: engineers. The two regions rank first and second in the country in engineers per capita. Beyond that, they are thriving on the basis of very different growth models.

Obviously, the Bay Area is driven by technology. Houston’s growth is driven by energy. More than 5,000 energy-related companies are located there. The Bay Area is a tightly regulated city. Houston has no formal zoning code, though, as the city gets more affluent, more rules are being written. The Bay Area is beautiful in the way urbanists like, while Houston is mostly ugly, in the way fast-food chains like. The Bay Area is densely populated and great for walking, while Houston is sprawling, though much of the development over the past few years has been high-density hipster infill.

The Bay Area is the hands-down winner when it comes to creativity and charm. But it’s a luxury region, unaffordable and wildly unequal. Houston wins when it comes to livability, especially for people who want to have children.

Kotkin, who has become an evangelist for the Houston model, points out that Houston is possibly the most ethnically diverse city in America. It’s more egalitarian than San Francisco. African-Americans and Hispanics there have high home ownership rates. Houstonians also enjoy a pretty high standard of living. If you take annual earnings per job and adjust it for the local cost of living, then Houston ranks top among major cities.

Over the past few years, liberals and conservatives have been arguing over which growth model is best. But, of course, there’s no need to choose. Both models are more or less working.

What we’re seeing, it seems to me, is a profusion of economic growth models in different parts of the country — a net increase in economic pluralism and diversity. Perhaps even more than in the past, cities are specializing, turning into global hubs for a specific economic sector.

This diversity is an enormous economic advantage for the country, and an enormous social and political challenge. As the country diversifies economically, it segments socially and politically. Each economic sector attracts different kinds of people and nurtures different kinds of values. The specialization of output means that every place becomes more like itself.

In addition, as society gets more educated, it segments further. Educated people are more polarized politically than less educated people. Educated people are also more likely to move around and tend to move in with people like themselves. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen increases in residential segregation along political, income and cultural lines.

As the years go by, politics more and more resembles these underlying divisions. I used to think that this was basically a centrist country and that political polarization was an elite phenomenon. But most of the recent evidence suggests that polarization is deeply rooted in the economic conditions and personal values of the country. Washington is not the cause of polarization; America is. The irony is that something good about America (economic pluralism) is contributing to something bad (segmentation and political trench warfare).

Which more or less explains the midterm elections. The 2014 campaign has been the most boring and uncreative campaign I can remember. Democrats cry, “My Republican opponent is an extremist loon!” Republicans cry, “My Democratic opponent once shook hands with President Obama!” There’s not even a Contract With America, nor many policy suggestions of any sort. Most campaigns just remind preconvinced voters how bad the other party is.

One result of the election is already clear. Political representation will more closely resemble the underlying social segmentation. Right now there are a lot of red states with Democratic senators. After this election, there will be fewer — probably between four and nine fewer. The election is about sorting people more tightly into their pre-existing boxes.

People often compare this era to the progressive era — a time of economic transition with wide inequality and political rot. But that was an era of centralizing economic forces. This is an era of economic pluralism and political segmentation.

People in San Francisco and Houston are achieving success while pursuing different economic models. It probably doesn’t make much sense to govern them intrusively from Washington as if they were engaged in the same project.

Of course gerrymandering has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING.  Nothing to see here, move along…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Webster’s Dictionary defines plague as “anything that afflicts or troubles; calamity; scourge.” Further definitions include “any contagious epidemic disease that is deadly; esp., bubonic plague” and, from the Bible, “any of various calamities sent down as divine punishment.” The verb form means “to vex; harass; trouble; torment.”

In Albert Camus’ novel, “The Plague,” written soon after the Nazi occupation of France, the first sign of the epidemic is rats dying in numbers: “They came up from basements and cubby-holes, cellars and drains, in long swaying lines; they staggered in the light, collapsed and died, right next to people. At night, in corridors and side-streets, one could clearly hear the tiny squeaks as they expired. In the morning, on the outskirts of town, you would find them stretched out in the gutter with a little floret of blood on their pointed muzzles, some blown up and rotting, other stiff, with their whiskers still standing up.”

The rats are messengers, but — human nature being what it is — their message is not immediately heeded. Life must go on. There are errands to run, money to be made. The novel is set in Oran, an Algerian coastal town of commerce and lassitude, where the heat rises steadily to the point that the sea changes color, deep blue turning to a “sheen of silver or iron, making it painful to look at.” Even when people start to die — their lymph nodes swollen, blackish patches spreading on their skin, vomiting bile, gasping for breath — the authorities’ response is hesitant. The word “plague” is almost unsayable. In exasperation, the doctor-protagonist tells a hastily convened health commission: “I don’t mind the form of words. Let’s just say that we should not act as though half the town were not threatened with death, because then it would be.”

The sequence of emotions feels familiar. Denial is followed by faint anxiety, which is followed by concern, which is followed by fear, which is followed by panic. The phobia is stoked by the sudden realization that there are uncontrollable dark forces, lurking in the drains and the sewers, just beneath life’s placid surface. The disease is a leveler, suddenly everyone is vulnerable, and the moral strength of each individual is tested. The plague is on everyone’s minds, when it’s not in their bodies. Questions multiply: What is the chain of transmission? How to isolate the victims?

Plague and epidemics are a thing of the past, of course they are. Physical contact has been cut to a minimum in developed societies. Devices and their digital messages direct our lives. It is not necessary to look into someone’s eyes let alone touch their skin in order to become, somehow, intimate. Food is hermetically sealed. Blood, secretions, saliva, pus, bodily fluids — these are things with which hospitals deal, not matters of daily concern.

A virus contracted in West Africa, perhaps by a man hunting fruit bats in a tropical forest to feed his family, and cutting the bat open, cannot affect a nurse in Dallas, Texas, who has been wearing protective clothing as she tended a patient who died. Except that it does. “Pestilence is in fact very common,” Camus observes, “but we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us.”

The scary thing is that the bat that carries the virus is not sick. It is simply capable of transmitting the virus in the right circumstances. In other words, the virus is always lurking even if invisible. It is easily ignored until it is too late.

Pestilence, of course, is a metaphor as well as a physical fact. It is not just blood oozing from gums and eyes, diarrhea and vomiting. A plague had descended on Europe as Camus wrote. The calamity and slaughter were spreading through the North Africa where he had passed his childhood. This virus hopping today from Africa to Europe to the United States has come in a time of beheadings and unease. People put the phenomena together as denial turns to anxiety and panic. They sense the stirring of uncontrollable forces. They want to be wrong but they are not sure they are.

At the end of the novel, the doctor contemplates a relieved throng that has survived: “He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

The most surprising word there is the most important: The epidemic may also serve for the “instruction” of a blithe humanity.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Is Amazon a monopoly?

That certainly is what Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, thinks. In the magazine’s current issue, he has written a lengthy polemic denouncing the company for all manner of sins. The headline reads: “Amazon Must Be Stopped.”

“Shopping on Amazon,” he writes, “has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly.”

Foer’s brief is that Amazon undercuts competitors so ruthlessly and squeezes suppliers so brutally — “in its pursuit of bigness” — that it has become “highly worrisome.” Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, “borrowed his personal style from the parsimonious Sam Walton,” the founder of (shudder) Walmart, and Foer notes that pushing suppliers has always been the key to Walmart’s low prices, just as it is for Amazon’s.

But, he says, when Amazon does it, the effect is somehow “darker.” Why? Because “without the constraints of brick and mortar, it considers nothing too remote from its core business, so it has grown to sell server space to the C.I.A., produce original television shows about bumbling congressmen, and engineer its own line of mobile phones.” What, precisely, is darker about making TV shows about bumbling congressmen is left unsaid.

And then, of course, there is the book business, which Amazon most certainly dominates, with 67 percent of the e-book market and 41 percent of the overall book market, by some estimates. Foer devotes a big chunk of his essay to Amazon’s ongoing efforts to “disintermediate” the book business, most vividly on display in its current battle over e-book pricing with Hachette, in which it is punishing Hachette by putting its books at a disadvantage on its website compared with other publishers’ books. Foer worries about what Amazon’s tactics will ultimately mean for book advances. And he fears that books will become commoditized — “deflating Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan novels to the price of a Diet Coke.”

What he doesn’t say — because he can’t — is that Amazon is in clear violation of the country’s antitrust laws. As Annie Lowrey and Matthew Yglesias both pointed out in blog posts (at New York magazine and Vox respectively), there is no possible way Amazon can legitimately be called a monopoly. Lowrey notes that Amazon’s sales amount to only “about 15 percent of total e-commerce sales.” Walmart’s e-commerce sales are growing at least as fast as Amazon’s. Meanwhile, as Yglesias points out, Amazon has to compete with far larger rivals, including not just Walmart, but Target and Home Depot in the brick-and-mortar world, and Google and Apple in the digital universe.

The truth is that American antitrust law is simply not very concerned with the fate of competitors. What it cares about is whether harm is being done to consumers. Walmart has squashed many more small competitors than Amazon ever will, with nary a peep from the antitrust police. Even in the one business Amazon does dominate — books — it earned its market share fair and square, by, among other things, inventing the first truly commercially successful e-reader. Even now, most people turn to Amazon for e-books not because there are no alternatives but because its service is superior.

“In confronting what to do about Amazon,” Foer writes as his essay nears its conclusion, “first we have to realize our own complicity. We’ve all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place.”

Our complicity? In fact, in its two decades of life, Amazon has redefined customer service in a way that has delighted people and caused them to return to the site again and again. Does Amazon have a dark side? Yes, it does — primarily in the way it has historically treated its warehouse workers. But to say that Amazon has to be stopped because it is giving people what they want is to misunderstand the nature of capitalism.

Let’s be honest here: The intelligentsia is focused on Amazon not because it sells pinto beans or toilets, but because it sells books. That’s their business. Amazon is changing the book industry in ways that threaten to diminish the role of publishers and traditional ways of publishing. Its battle with Hachette is a battle over control. It’s not terribly different from the forces that ultimately disintermediated the music business.

As an author, I’m rooting for Hachette. The old system — in which the writer gets an advance, and the publisher markets the final product — works for me, as it does for most writers of serious nonfiction.

But, am I going to stop using Amazon? No way. I’m betting you won’t either.

Brooks and Krugman

October 10, 2014

Bobo is trying to convince us that “Money Matters Less.”  He has a question:  Remember all the talk about how Citizens United would give Republicans a spending advantage forevermore? He tells us that hasn’t happened.  Prof. Krugman, in “Secret Deficit Lovers,” says debt scolds hate good fiscal news so much that most Americans haven’t heard that the deficit plunge of the past several years continues.  Here’s Bobo:

I happened to be in the U.S. Capitol when the Citizens United decision came down four years ago. Democratic lawmakers greeted the decision with a mutually reinforcing mixture of fury and fear. The decision, everyone agreed, would unleash a tsunami of corporate and plutocratic money into politics, giving Republicans a huge spending advantage. “This is the end of our party,” wailed one Democrat, aware he was going a tad over the top.

Things haven’t worked out as expected. In 2012, Mitt Romney did not have a spending advantage over Barack Obama. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, very few publicly traded corporations made political donations.

During the 2012 campaign cycle, news articles began appearing in local papers reporting that it was sometimes Democratic groups who were making the most of the post-Citizens United landscape. The Center for Public Integrity looked at campaigns in 38 states in 2012. Democratic-leaning groups outspent Republicans by more than $8 million.

This year, the same sorts of articles are appearing. A Politico analysis in September found that the 15 top Democratic-aligned committees outraised the 15 top Republican ones by $164 million. Based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Democrats have more money than Republicans in most of the tightest Senate races: Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia.

Karl Rove has been shaking the Republican donor base, arguing that his groups are being outspent. A September study by his “super PAC,” American Crossroads, found that Democratic candidates have reserved $109 million in television advertising time before Election Day, while Republicans have reserved $85 million.

So was the furor about Citizens United misplaced? Will Democrats end up winning the political spending wars, thanks to their own plutocratic donor base?

Well, the situation is complicated. The first thing we know about the post-Citizens United era is that it has accelerated a pre-existing trend: Each year more money flows into campaigns. Spending this cycle is more than double what it was at this point in 2010 and four times higher than it was in early October 2006.

Second, the decision has not scared away small donors, as many feared. A study by Douglas M. Spencer and Abby K. Wood suggested that smaller donors were just as likely to be active after the decision as before.

Third, many of Democrats’ apparent advantages in spending this year are temporary. A major wave of Republican money is expected over the next few weeks. Democrats do have an advantage in the donations made to super PACs, which have to report their donors. But Republicans have an advantage in donations made to 501(c)(4) groups, which can keep the names of donors secret.

The final and most important effect of Citizens United is that it will reduce the influence of money on electoral outcomes. Yes, that’s right. Reduce.

Remember, money is quite important in local races, with unknown candidates.

But money is not that important in high-attention federal races. Every year we get more evidence suggesting that campaign spending does not lead to victory. In 2012 the Koch brothers spent huge amounts of money to pathetic effect. Rove’s American Crossroads dumped $117 million into the 2012 election. More than 90 percent of it was spent on candidates who ended up losing.

And money is really not important when both candidates are well-financed. After both candidates have hit a certain spending threshold, the additional TV commercials they might buy are just making the rubble bounce. The economist Steve Levitt has found that if you cut a campaign’s spending in half, and held everything else constant, then the candidate would only lose 1 percent of the popular vote. If you doubled a candidate’s spending, the candidate would only gain 1 percentage point. In other words, big swings in spending produce only small changes in the vote totals.

We’re now at a moment when a fire hose of money is trying to fill the same glasses of voters. That means every plausible Senate candidate and almost every plausible House candidate has more than enough money to get his or her message out. What matters more is the quality of that message and the national mood. If Democrats exceed expectations this year it will because of the reasons Ashley Parker and Nicholas Confessore identified in a recent Times article: because their message is better defined.

The upshot is that we should all relax about campaign spending. We should worry more about America’s rich. Some people who are really smart at making money are apparently really stupid at spending it. This year, the big spender is a hedge fund manager named Tom Steyer. He could have spent $42.7 million paying for kids to go to college. Instead he has spent that much money this year further enriching the people who own TV stations. What a waste.

And what a waste of oxygen and pixels Bobo is…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

What if they balanced the budget and nobody knew or cared?

O.K., the federal budget hasn’t actually been balanced. But the Congressional Budget Office has tallied up the totals for fiscal 2014, which ran through the end of September, and reports that the deficit plunge of the past several years continues. You still hear politicians ranting about “trillion dollar deficits,” but last year’s deficit was less than half-a-trillion dollars — or, a more meaningful number, just 2.8 percent of G.D.P. — and it’s still falling.

So where are the ticker-tape parades? For that matter, where are the front-page news reports? After all, talk about the evils of deficits and the grave fiscal danger facing America dominated Washington for years. Shouldn’t we be making a big deal of the fact that the alleged crisis is over?

Well, we aren’t, and once you understand why, you also understand what fiscal hysteria was really about.

First, ordinary Americans aren’t celebrating the deficit’s decline because they don’t know about it.

That’s not mere speculation on my part. Earlier this year, YouGov polled Americans on fiscal issues, asking among other things whether the deficit had increased or declined since President Obama took office. (In case you’re wondering, the pollsters carefully explained the difference between annual deficits and the level of accumulated debt.) More than half of those polled said it had gone up, while only 19 percent correctly said that it had gone down.

Why doesn’t the public know better? Probably because of the way much of the news media report this and other issues, with bad news played up and good news downplayed if it’s reported at all.

This has been glaringly obvious in the case of health reform, where every problem with the Affordable Care Act has been the subject of headlines, while in right-wing media — and to some extent in mainstream news sources — favorable developments go unremarked. As a result, many people — even, in my experience, liberals — have the impression that the rollout of Obamacare has been a disaster, and have no idea that enrollment is above expectations, costs are lower than expected, and the number of Americans without insurance has dropped sharply. Surely something similar has happened on the budget deficit.

But what about people who pay a lot of attention to the budget, the self-proclaimed deficit hawks? (Some of us prefer to call them deficit scolds.) They’ve spent the past few years telling us that budget shortfalls are the most important issue facing the nation, that terrible things will happen unless we act to stem the flow of red ink. Are they expressing satisfaction over the fading of that threat?

Not a chance. Far from celebrating the deficit’s decline, the usual suspects — fiscal-scold think tanks, inside-the-Beltway pundits — seem annoyed by the news. It’s a “false victory,” they declare. “Trillion dollar deficits are coming back,” they warn. And they’re furious with President Obama for saying that it’s time to get past “mindless austerity” and “manufactured crises.” He’s declaring mission accomplished, they say, when he should be making another push for entitlement reform.

All of which demonstrates a truth that has been apparent for a while, if you have been paying close attention: Deficit scolds actually love big budget deficits, and hate it when those deficits get smaller. Why? Because fears of a fiscal crisis — fears that they feed assiduously — are their best hope of getting what they really want: big cuts in social programs. A few years ago they almost managed to bully the nation into cutting Social Security and/or raising the Medicare eligibility age; they even had hopes of turning Medicare into an underfinanced voucher program. Now that window of opportunity is closing fast.

But isn’t the falling deficit just a short-term blip, with the long-run outlook as dire as ever? Actually, no. Falling deficits right now have a lot to do with a strengthening economy plus some of that “mindless austerity” the president condemned. But there has also been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health spending — and if that continues, the long-run fiscal outlook is much better than anyone thought possible not long ago. Yes, current projections still show a rising ratio of debt to G.D.P. starting some years from now, and uncomfortable levels of debt a generation from now. But given all the clear and present dangers we face, it’s hard to see why dealing with that distant and uncertain prospect should be any kind of policy priority.

So let’s say goodbye to fiscal hysteria. I know that the deficit scolds are having a hard time letting go; they’re still trying to bring back the days when Bowles and Simpson bestrode the Beltway like colossi. But those days aren’t coming back, and we should be glad.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

October 3, 2014

Bobo has outdone himself.  In “The Problem With Pragmatism” he gurgles that our dominant political mind-set (pragmatism) tends dangerously toward rationalism uninformed by moral emotion.  In the comments “Stu Freeman” from Brooklyn, NY has this to say: “Gosh, when David Brooks goes for a “think piece” as opposed to an obvious screed on the virtues of conservative politics he comes across as even more inane than usual.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Iran, the Thinkable Ally,” says Obama’s war against ISIS makes war with Iran even more unthinkable, and that a nuclear deal is imperative.  Prof. Krugman considers “Depression Denial Syndrome” and says the fall of Bill Gross at Pimco is an example of how decision-makers refuse to acknowledge that the rules are different in a persistently depressed economy.  Here’s Bobo:

During the 20th century, political thinkers were defined less by their attachment to political parties and more by their attachment to magazines. Arthur Schlesinger was associated with The New Republic. Lionel Trilling was associated with the Partisan Review. Each magazine had its own personality, its own community of writers and readers and defined its own spot on the intellectual landscape.

Today, the Internet has made magazine communities less cohesive. Most of those magazines still exist, but people surf through them fluidly and click on individual articles. Writers are identified more as individuals and less as members of a circle.

Something important has been lost in this transition. For example, The New Republic, which turns 100 this year, made a series of superficially contradictory demands on its readers. To be a well-rounded person, the magazine implied, it is necessary to be both practical and philosophical, both politically engaged and artistically cultivated. The magazine offered, and still offers, short practical articles on politics and policy in the front of the book and long literary essays on philosophy and culture in the back.

In 1940, the magazine published a stunning critique of those who refuse to embrace both kinds of knowledge. The essay, called “The Corruption of Liberalism,” was written by the unjustly forgotten writer Lewis Mumford. It’s been revived by the magazine’s current editor, Franklin Foer, in “Insurrections of the Mind,” a collection of essays from the magazine’s first century.

Mumford’s nominal subject was his fellow liberals’ tendency, in 1940, to hang back in the central conflict of the age, the fight against totalitarianism. “Liberalism has been on the side of passivism in the face of danger,” he wrote. “Liberalism has been on the side of ‘isolation’ when confronted with the imminent threat of a worldwide upsurge in barbarism.” Liberals, he continued, “no longer dare to act.”

But, as Mumford goes along, he penetrates deeper into the pragmatist mind-set itself, the mind-set of people who try to govern without philosophic or literary depth. And, in this way, his essay is perceptive about the mind-set that is dominant in political circles today. Washington is now awash in big data analysts, policy wonks and social scientists. Today’s foreign policy debate is conducted along realist lines, by both liberals and conservatives.

A core problem with pragmatists, Mumford argues, is that they attach themselves so closely to science and social science that they have forgotten the modes of insight offered by theology and literature. This leads to a shallow, amputated worldview.

“This pragmatic liberalism,” Mumford writes, “was vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And, accordingly, it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history; it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious; it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one.”

Because of these blinders, pragmatists can’t understand nonpragmatists: “It is not unfair to say that the pragmatic liberal has taken the world of personality, the world of values, feelings, emotions, wishes, purposes, for granted. He assumed either that this world did not exist or that it was relatively unimportant; at all events if it did exist it could be safely left to itself, without cultivation. For him men were essentially good and only the faulty economic and political institutions — defects purely in the mechanism of society — kept them from becoming better.”

Pragmatists often fail because they try to apply economic remedies to noneconomic actors. Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now — are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives. Economic sanctions won’t work. “One might as well offer the carcass of a dead deer in a butcher store to a hunter who seeks the animal as prey. …”

Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.

Mumford concludes that only people with an aroused moral sense will be properly mobilized to stand up for humanity. “Life is not worth fighting for: bare life is worthless. Justice is worth fighting for, order is worth fighting for, culture … .is worth fighting for: These universal principles and values give purpose and direction to human life.”

Today, lofty political idealism is out of favor. Even a president initially elected as an idealist has been reduced into a more technocratic role. But Mumford makes the case for leaders who understand evil down to its depths, who have literary sensibilities and who react with a heart brimming with moral emotion.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Breakfast last week in New York with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran was a cordial affair, bereft of the fireworks of his predecessor, whose antics made headlines and not much more. Rouhani, flanked by his twinkly-eyed foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was composed, lucid and, on the whole, conciliatory. He said a nuclear accord was doable by the deadline of Nov. 24 “if there is good will and seriousness.” He revealed that he had spoken last year with President Obama about “a number” of possible areas of collaboration in the event of an accord. He did not underplay the difficulties, or the implacability of a deal’s opponents in Iran and the United States, but suggested the “short-lived dustbowl” thrown up by any resolution would dissipate as win-win awareness grew. He even alluded to the aroma of roses. It was a polished performance full of the subtleties intrinsic to the Iranian mind. The question, as always with Iran, is what precisely it meant.

The interim agreement with Iran, reached in November 2013, has had many merits. Iran has respected its commitments, including a reduction of its stockpiles of enriched uranium and a curbing of production. The deal has brought a thaw in relations between the United States and Tehran; once impossible meetings between senior officials are now near routine.

The rapid spread over the past year of the Sunni jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State has underscored the importance of these nascent bilateral relations: ISIS is a barbarous, shared enemy whose rollback becomes immeasurably more challenging in the absence of American-Iranian understanding. Allies need not be friends, as the Soviet role in defeating Hitler demonstrated. President Obama’s war against ISIS makes war with Iran more unthinkable than ever. Absent a “comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful,” in the words of last year’s accord, the drumbeat for such a war would almost certainly resume. From Jerusalem to Washington countless drummers are ready.

It is critical that this doable deal get done, the naysayers be frustrated, and a rancorous American-Iranian bust-up not be added to the ambient mayhem in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic, 35 years after the revolution, is — like it or not — a serious and stable power in an unstable region. Its highly educated population is pro-Western. Its actions and interests are often opposed to the United States and America’s allies, and its human rights record is appalling, but then that is true of several countries with which Washington does business.

An important recent report from The Iran Project — whose distinguished signatories include Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Ryan Crocker, John Limbert (the former U.S. hostage in Tehran), Joseph Nye and William Luers — put the U.S. strategic interest in a deal well: “There is a strong link between settling the nuclear standoff and America’s ability to play a role in a rapidly changing Middle East.” A nuclear agreement, the report said, “will help unlock the door to new options.” From Syria to Afghanistan by way of Iraq, those options are urgently needed.

For them to be opened up, a workable narrative has to be found, one that satisfies Congress that Iran’s road to a bomb has been sealed off through curtailment and rigorous inspection of the nuclear program, and satisfies Iran’s hard-liners that the country’s ability to develop nuclear power for peaceful use has not been permanently infringed or its rights as a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons irrevocably curtailed. That is a tall order. But subtlety and ingenuity are no strangers at this table. Both sides have an enormous amount to lose if talks fail.

Obama has put his personal prestige behind this effort. Collapse would amount to another Middle Eastern failure for him. He knows that the sanctions drive against Iran would likely unravel in the event of failure, as cooperation with Europe, Russia and China frays. He would be pushed once again toward military action against Iran. (Of course, he would also prefer to concentrate visible progress in the talks between Nov. 4 and Nov. 24, so that Republicans cannot brandish “softness” on Iran against the Democrats in the midterm elections.)

The difficulties are considerable. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me, “Those we talk to can’t deliver and those who can deliver can’t talk to us.” Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who does not do New York breakfasts, is a hard-liner. On issues from the number of centrifuges Iran is permitted to the duration of any deal, the two sides differ. Sadjadpour believes “managed irresolution” is the best that can be hoped for, a failure that preserves some gains. I think failure would be unmitigated: Renewed estrangement, war drift. A deal can and must be done for the simple reason it is far better — for Iran, the United States, Europe and Israel — than any of the alternatives.

And now we come to Prof. Krugman:

Last week, Bill Gross, the so-called bond king, abruptly left Pimco, the investment firm he had managed for decades. People who follow the financial industry were shocked but not exactly surprised; tales of internal troubles at Pimco had been all over the papers. But why should you care?

The answer is that Mr. Gross’s fall is a symptom of a malady that continues to afflict major decision-makers, public and private. Call it depression denial syndrome: the refusal to acknowledge that the rules are different in a persistently depressed economy.

Mr. Gross is, by all accounts, a man with a towering ego and very difficult to work with. That description, however, fits a lot of financial players, and even the most lurid personality conflicts wouldn’t have mattered if Pimco had continued to do well. But it didn’t, largely thanks to a spectacularly bad call Mr. Gross made in 2011, which continues to haunt the firm. And here’s the thing: Lots of other influential people made the same bad call — and are still making it, over and over again.

The story here really starts years earlier, when an immense housing bubble popped. Spending on new houses collapsed, and broader consumer spending also took a hit, as families that had borrowed heavily to buy houses saw the value of those homes plunge. Businesses cut back, too. Why add capacity in the face of weak consumer demand?

The result was an economy in which everyone wanted to save more and invest less. Since everyone can’t do that at the same time, something else had to give — and, in fact, two things gave. First, the economy went into a slump, from which it has not yet fully emerged. Second, the government began running a deficit, as the economic downturn caused a sharp fall in revenue and a surge in some kinds of spending, like food stamps and unemployment benefits.

Now, we normally think of deficits as a bad thing — government borrowing competes with private borrowing, driving up interest rates, hurting investment, and possibly setting the stage for higher inflation. But, since 2008, we have, to use the economics jargon, been stuck in a liquidity trap, which is basically a situation in which the economy is awash in desired saving with no place to go. In this situation, government borrowing doesn’t compete with private demand because the private sector doesn’t want to spend. And because they aren’t competing with the private sector, deficits needn’t cause interest rates to rise.

All this may sound strange and counterintuitive, but it’s what basic macroeconomic analysis tells you. And that’s not 20/20 hindsight either. In 2008-9, a number of economists — yes, myself included — tried to explain the special circumstances of a depressed economy, in which deficits wouldn’t cause soaring rates and the Federal Reserve’s policy of “printing money” (not really what it was doing, but never mind) wouldn’t cause inflation. It wasn’t just theory, either; we had the experience of the 1930s and Japan since the 1990s to draw on. But many, perhaps most, influential people in the alleged real world refused to believe us.

Which brings me back to Mr. Gross.

For a time, Pimco — where Paul McCulley, a managing director at the time, was one of the leading voices explaining the logic of the liquidity trap — seemed admirably calm about deficits, and did very well as a result. In late 2009, many Wall Street analysts warned of a looming surge in U.S. borrowing costs; Morgan Stanley predicted that the interest rate on 10-year bonds would soar to 5.5 percent in 2010. But Pimco bet, correctly, that rates would stay low.

Then something changed. Mr. McCulley left Pimco at the end of 2010 (he recently returned as chief economist), and Mr. Gross joined the deficit hysterics, declaring that low interest rates were “robbing” investors and selling off all his holdings of U.S. debt. In particular, he predicted a spike in interest rates when the Fed ended a program of debt purchases in June 2011. He was completely wrong, and neither he nor Pimco ever recovered.

So is this an edifying tale in which bad ideas were proved wrong by experience, people’s eyes were opened, and truth prevailed? Sorry, no. In fact, it’s very hard to find any examples of people who have changed their minds. People who were predicting soaring inflation and interest rates five years ago are still predicting soaring inflation and interest rates today, vigorously rejecting any suggestion that they should reconsider their views in light of experience.

And that’s what makes the Bill Gross story interesting. He’s pretty much the only major deficit hysteric to pay a price for getting it wrong (even though he remains, of course, immensely rich). Pimco has taken a hit, but everywhere else the reign of error continues undisturbed.

Brooks and Krugman

September 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gazed at her, a little incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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