Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Cohen

March 11, 2014

Oh, gawd.  Bobo is concerned that the US isn’t swinging its big dick in the world enough.  In “The Leaderless Doctrine” he gibbers that there has been a shift in Americans’ understanding of the role of the U.S. and the nature of power, with complex and unnerving consequences.  Mr. Cohen, in “Left Hand Among Bones,” says two children of the disappeared know the nature of endless loss.  Here’s Bobo:

We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe. A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems.

At first blush, this looks like isolationism. After the exhaustion from Iraq and Afghanistan, and amid the lingering economic stagnation, Americans are turning inward.

But if you actually look at the data, you see that this is not the case. America is not turning inward economically. More than three-quarters of Americans believe the U.S. should get more economically integrated with the world, according to Pew.

America is not turning inward culturally. Large majorities embrace the globalization of culture and the internationalization of colleges and workplaces. Americans are not even turning inward when it comes to activism. They have enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development.

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation — that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

This sense of limits is shared equally among Democrats and Republicans, polls show. There has been surprisingly little outcry against the proposed defense cuts, which would reduce the size of the U.S. Army to its lowest levels since 1940. That’s because people are no longer sure military might gets you very much.

These shifts are not just a result of post-Iraq disillusionment, or anything the Obama administration has done. The shift in foreign policy values is a byproduct of a deeper and broader cultural shift.

The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units — big armies, corporations and unions. They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.

The Cold War was a competition between clearly defined nation-states.

Commanding American leaders created a liberal international order. They preserved that order with fleets that roamed the seas, armies stationed around the world and diplomatic skill.

Over the ensuing decades, that faith in big units has eroded — in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.

The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism — the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism — the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

One set of numbers in the data leaps out. For decades Americans have been asked if they believe most people can be trusted. Forty percent of baby boomers believe most people can be trusted. But only 19 percent of millennials believe that. This is a thoroughly globalized and linked generation with unprecedentedly low levels of social trust.

We live in a country in which many people act as if history is leaderless. Events emerge spontaneously from the ground up. Such a society is very hard to lead and summon. It can be governed only by someone who arouses intense moral loyalty, and even that may be fleeting.

The phrase “intense moral loyalty” gives me a case of hives.  Smacks of torchlit rallies…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Buenos Aires:

In the end it was his father’s left hand, found a couple of years ago in a pile of charred bones outside La Plata, that enabled Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa to know for a fact the man he never knew was dead. This was physical knowledge, different from the almost-certain supposition with which he had lived ever since he discovered as a boy in the late 1980s that the couple who raised him and his twin brother Matías were not his parents.

Even his father’s remains did not constitute closure for this child of the “disappeared,” born in 1977 under the rule of Argentina’s military junta, seized at birth from parents who vanished into the vortex of the “Dirty War,” raised by a police officer named Samuel Miara and his wife Beatriz who initially insisted he was their son, thrust into foster care after Miara was jailed, then handed over to a biological uncle, told to forget his former life, and finally left to sift through the scattered fragments of his existence.

Still the trials go on.

“I am incredibly mad at the cruelty of not allowing a person to mourn his parents,” Reggiardo Tolosa tells me. “They did all they could to destroy the evidence. The other day I left the witness stand after giving testimony and broke down. I was sobbing. I am still trying to mourn my parents.”

We are seated in a Starbucks in the Argentine capital. It is a holiday, as usual. The streets are quiet — apart from the money-changers’ refrain: “Cambio, cambio, cambio.” Yet another little currency crisis has hit Argentina. Nobody wants pesos.

Reggiardo Tolosa speaks slowly of another time, when our sons of bitches, to paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s apocryphal comment, did their foul business in the name of defeating communism in the Americas, and many thousands disappeared. His manner is gentle, his pain evident, still. This is what our sons of bitches wrought, a legacy without end.

His breakdown occurred last month. He and his brother were called to testify in a trial involving former army officers accused of involvement in killings under the junta at a clandestine facility called La Cacha, adjacent to Los Olmos prison in La Plata, where the twins’ parents were held before being “disappeared.”

One of the indicted, Ricardo Fernández, a former intelligence officer, is Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa’s godfather. His godfather! He was chosen by Miara, who always insisted, however, that Fernández had no role in abducting the twins. Now Reggiardo Tolosa is convinced Fernández was the conduit from the hell of La Cacha to the Miaras.

The twins arrived at the Miaras’ home on May 16, 1977. They have no birth certificate. It is estimated they were born around April 27. “What I must find out now is what exactly happened in those three weeks,” Reggiardo Tollosa says. Almost 37 years after he and his brother were taken, he is closing in on the truth.

I have known this man since he was a boy. His hair, now brown, was blond then. He and his brother were playing soccer in a yard in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción. I had followed a lead that the Miaras had fled to Paraguay with two boys born to a disappeared Argentine couple. Miara, when I confronted him in 1987, denied it. But the piece, published in The Wall Street Journal, helped secure his eventual extradition to Argentina.

Some stories will not leave you. They are your actual responsibility.

Reggiardo Tolosa is with his girlfriend, Jimena Vicario. She was a baby when, on Feb. 5, 1977, she was taken from her mother (who disappeared) during police questioning. She was dumped in a Buenos Aires hospital, raised by a woman who took pity. Her father, Juan Carlos Vicario, a Spanish citizen who fled Franco, was also murdered. The couple was about to leave for Spain when they vanished.

Jimena Vicario never gave blood for DNA testing, never wanted to know what exactly happened to her parents, never saw the point. Reggiardo Tolosa thinks she hates the tango and wants to get out of Argentina because that is what her parents were about to do when they were killed. For himself he cannot leave his football club (San Lorenzo), his city’s particular melancholy.

They first glimpsed each other as children in court. They re-met a year ago through Facebook. They laugh that there is so much they don’t have to explain to each other; that they don’t need to deal with in-laws; that money received in compensation for their loss disappeared in another currency crisis; and that they no longer have partners who, when angry, say: “Spare me your story yet again.”

They can laugh, just. The next trial, Reggiardo Tolosa says, will focus specifically on Fernández and the twins’ abduction. Perhaps then, he muses, “I will finish realizing I am an orphan.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 7, 2014

In “The Archipelago of Pain” Bobo says solitary confinement is arguably less humane than flogging. He tells us our prisons need to reform solitary laws.  I guess he doesn’t own stock in a private prison firm…  In “Ukraine Fights for Its Truth” Mr. Cohen says for nations like Ukraine, Europe is escape from the torment of their history.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Hammock Fallacy,” says the big new poverty report from the House committee led by Representative Paul Ryan is yet another con job.  Well, color me completely unsurprised that the Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver hasn’t changed.  Here’s Bobo:

We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades at a time.

We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the brain where pain really resides, this is a distinction without a difference. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking at the screens side by side … you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”

The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at the level of human experience, social pain is, if anything, more traumatic, more destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation, in other words, is arguably more inhumane than flogging.

Yet inflicting extreme social pain is more or less standard procedure in America’s prisons. Something like 80,000 prisoners are put in solitary confinement every year. Prisoners isolated in supermaximum facilities are often locked away in a 6-by-9-foot or 8-by-10-foot barren room. They may be completely isolated in that room for two days a week. For the remaining five, they may be locked away for 23 hours a day and permitted an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced-in area.

If there is communication with the prison staff, it might take place through an intercom. Communication with the world beyond is minimal. If there are visitors, conversation may be conducted through a video screen. Prisoners may go years without affectionately touching another human being. Their only physical contact will be brushing up against a guard as he puts on shackles for trips to the exercise yard.

In general, mammals do not do well in isolation. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow studied monkeys who had been isolated. The ones who were isolated for longer periods went into emotional shock, rocking back and forth. One in six refused to eat after being reintegrated and died within five days. Most of the rest were permanently withdrawn.

Studies on birds, rats and mice consistently show that isolated animals suffer from impoverished neural growth compared with socially engaged animals, especially in areas where short-term memory and threat perception are processed. Studies on Yugoslav prisoners of war in 1992 found that those who had suffered blunt blows to the head and those who had been socially isolated suffered the greatest damage to brain functioning.

Some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it. But this is not typical. The majority of prisoners in solitary suffer severely — from headaches, an oversensitivity to stimuli, digestion problems, loss of appetite, self-mutilation, chronic dizziness, loss of the ability to concentrate, hallucinations, illusions or paranoid ideas.

The psychiatrist Stuart Grassian conducted in-depth interviews with more than 200 prisoners in solitary and concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. Many people just disintegrate. According to rough estimates, as many as half the suicides in prison take place in solitary, even though isolated prisoners make up only about 5 percent of the population.

Prison officials argue that they need isolation to preserve order. That’s a view to be taken seriously because these are the people who work in the prisons. But the research on the effectiveness of solitary confinement programs is ambiguous at best. There’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that prison violence is not produced mainly by a few bad individuals who can be removed from the mainstream. Rather, violence is caused by conditions and prison culture. If there’s crowding, tension, a culture of violence, and anarchic or arbitrary power, then the context itself is going to create violence no matter how many “bad seeds” are segregated away.

Fortunately, we seem to be at a moment when public opinion is turning. Last month, the executive director of the Colorado prisons, Rick Raemisch, wrote a moving first-person Op-Ed article in The Times about his short and voluntary stay in solitary. Colorado will no longer send prisoners with severe mental illnesses into solitary. New York officials recently agreed to new guidelines limiting the time prisoners can spend in isolation. Before long, one suspects, extreme isolation will be considered morally unacceptable.

The larger point is we need to obliterate the assumption that inflicting any amount of social pain is O.K. because it’s not real pain.

When you put people in prison, you are imposing pain on them. But that doesn’t mean you have to gouge out the nourishment that humans need for health, which is social, emotional and relational.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Let’s sweep away Vladimir Putin’s mind games — the supposedly threatened Russian bases, the supposedly threatened ethnic Russians, the supposed humanitarian crisis, the supposed illegitimacy of the government in Kiev (with its 82 percent parliamentary backing) — and be clear that the fight in Crimea is about a simple issue: the freedom of Ukraine to set its course as a European democracy governed by laws rather than an authoritarian, undemocratic, lawless society of Moscow-backed oligarchs in the “fraternal” grasp of Russia.

That would be the fraternity of Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Kabul (1979) and Grozny (1999).

Ukraine shares with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia the fate — eloquently described by the historian Timothy Snyder in his powerful book “Bloodlands” — of being among the worst killing fields of World War II, bounced back and forth between Stalin and Hitler. Now the spread eastward of NATO and the European Union — the greatest of post-Cold-War achievements — has allowed the Baltic states to begin disentangling truth from lies in the carnage of their histories.

That is what westward-gazing Ukrainians are fighting for at the most basic level: truth over lies. They want a life based on facts rather than fabrications, institutions rather than provocations, laws rather than cash-filled envelopes.

Last month my colleague Alison Smale filed a piece from Lviv in western Ukraine. It began: “Under a leaden sky that wept intermittent rain, this fiercely proud city bade farewell on Saturday to one of its sons, a 28-year-old university lecturer killed by a bullet on Thursday in Kiev in the carnage on and around Independence Square.”

Lviv was called Lwów and was in eastern Poland before the Hitler-Stalin pact and World War II. It was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Nazis. Its prewar population of Jews and Poles was murdered or deported. After the war, the city was incorporated into Ukraine — and of course the Soviet orbit.

The reason people in this part of Europe crave the framework of NATO and the European Union is for security and prosperity, of course. Above all, however, they seek a guarantee that the torment of their history, with its lies, is behind them.

My family came from Zagare in northern Lithuania. The Soviet Red Army occupied the town in 1940, was driven out by the Nazis in June of 1941, and fought its way back in 1944.

Like Lviv, Zagare was thrice occupied. When Soviet forces reached the town in 1944, they found a mass grave in the woods. A Soviet Special Commission examined the remains and determined that there were 2,402 corpses: 530 men, 1,223 women, 625 children and 24 babies. This accounting showed a small discrepancy from the numbers given by SS Standartenführer Karl Jäger, who in a report dated Dec. 1, 1941, from the Lithuanian town of Kaunas exulted that 2,266 Jews (663 men, 1,107 women and 496 children) were executed in Zagare on Oct. 2, 1941.

A Soviet sign was put up in the wood: “Memorial to the victims of Fascism.” It hid the truth, as was the norm in Moscow’s empire.

The Soviets found the human remains but had scant interest in an accurate identification of them as Jews. Stalin’s aim, as Snyder explains, was to forge Homo Sovieticus, not to reinforce Jewish identity. The Holocaust had to be managed within the Soviet political agenda.

A cornerstone of this was that the war had begun in 1941 with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, rather than in 1939 with the Hitler-Stalin pact and the joint Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland.

Hitler had managed to blame the Jews for communism. Stalin, the communist, nursed his own hostility. Jews would become the “rootless cosmopolitans” of his postwar propaganda. Jews, rather than victims of Nazism, became agents of an imperial conspiracy against communism.

Stalin had to conflate Jews’ particular suffering into the immense general (read Slavic and Russian) sacrifice of the “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler. So the Jews in the Zagare ditch or Ponary forest near Vilnius, and in countless other pits across the “Bloodlands,” were identified, if at all, as “Soviet victims of Fascism.”

Today, according to Putin, the “Fascists” are in Kiev. His schooling was, of course, in fabrication.

Only with Lithuanian independence from Moscow in 1990 was a memorial detailing the Nazi crime in Zagare put up in the woods. It reads: “In this place on Oct. 2, 1941, Nazi killers and their local helpers killed about 3,000 Jewish men, women and children from the Siauliai region.” In 2012 a similar plaque was placed in the middle of town.

Ukraine is fighting for its right to remember, accurately and truthfully, that 28-year-old Lviv university lecturer killed in the fight for its freedom. No right should be more important to the United States and Europe. Societies based on lies fail.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.

And the big new poverty report from the House Budget Committee, led by Representative Paul Ryan, offers additional reasons for optimism. Mr. Ryan used to rely on “scholarship” from places like the Heritage Foundation. Remember when Heritage declared that the Ryan budget would reduce unemployment to a ludicrous 2.8 percent, then tried to cover its tracks? This time, however, Mr. Ryan is citing a lot of actual social science research.

Unfortunately, the research he cites doesn’t actually support his assertions. Even more important, his whole premise about why poverty persists is demonstrably wrong.

To understand where the new report is coming from, it helps to recall something Mr. Ryan said two years ago: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” There are actually two assertions here. First, antipoverty programs breed complacency; that is, they discourage work. Second, complacency — the failure of the poor to work as much as they should — is what perpetuates poverty.

The budget committee report is almost entirely concerned with the first assertion. It notes that there has been a large decline in labor force participation, and it claims that antipoverty programs, which reduce the incentive to work, are a major reason for this decline. Then come 200 pages of text and 683 footnotes, designed to create the impression that the scholarly research literature supports the report’s claims.

But it doesn’t. In some cases, Mr. Ryan and colleagues outright misstate what the research says, drawing outraged protests from a number of prominent scholars about the misrepresentation of their work. More often, however, the report engages in argument by innuendo. It makes an assertion about the bad effects of a program, then mentions a number of studies of that program, and thereby leaves the impression that those studies support its assertion, even though they don’t.

What does scholarly research on antipoverty programs actually say? We have quite good evidence on the effects of food stamps and Medicaid, which draw most of Mr. Ryan’s ire — and which his budgets propose slashing drastically. Food stamps, it seems, do lead to a reduction in work and working hours, but the effect is modest. Medicaid has little, if any, effect on work effort.

Over all, here’s the verdict of one comprehensive survey: “While there are significant behavioral side effects of many programs, their aggregate impact is very small.” In short, Mr. Ryan’s poverty report, like his famous budget plan, is a con job.

Now, you can still argue that making antipoverty programs much more generous would indeed reduce the incentive to work. If you look at cross-county comparisons, you find that low-income households in the United States, which does less to help the poor than any other major advanced nation, work much more than their counterparts abroad. So, yes, incentives do have some effect on work effort.

But why, exactly, should that be such a concern? Mr. Ryan would have us believe that the “hammock” created by the social safety net is the reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty. But the evidence says nothing of the kind.

After all, if generous aid to the poor perpetuates poverty, the United States — which treats its poor far more harshly than other rich countries, and induces them to work much longer hours — should lead the West in social mobility, in the fraction of those born poor who work their way up the scale. In fact, it’s just the opposite: America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries.

And there’s no puzzle why: it’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much; it’s that it helps them too little.

Which brings us back to the hypocrisy issue. It is, in a way, nice to see the likes of Mr. Ryan at least talking about the need to help the poor. But somehow their notion of aiding the poor involves slashing benefits while cutting taxes on the rich. Funny how that works.

Brooks and Cohen

March 4, 2014

It’s all Ukraine today.  In “Putin Can’t Stop” Bobo has a question:  Can Putin control the nationalism that his vision of Russia has unleashed?  In “Putin’s Crimean Crime” Mr. Cohen says there is a grotesque amnesia to Russia’s Ukrainian gambit.  Here’s Bobo:

Even cynics like to feel moral. Even hard-eyed men who play power politics need to feel that their efforts are part of a great historic mission. So as he has been throwing his weight around the world, Vladimir Putin has been careful to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin.

Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out recently in The Washington Post, the Kremlin recently assigned three philosophic books to regional governors: Berdyaev’s “The Philosophy of Inequality,” Solovyov’s “Justification of the Good” and Ilyin’s “Our Tasks.”

Putin was personally involved in getting Ilyin’s remains re-buried back in Russian soil. In 2009, Putin went to consecrate the grave himself. The event sent him into a nationalistic fervor. “It’s a crime when someone only begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine,” he said on that day.

To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,” Ilyin wrote.

Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.

These philosophers often argued that the rationalistic, materialistic West was corrupting the organic spiritual purity of Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia,” Ilyin wrote, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”

You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing Berdyaev, he talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world.

Most important, these philosophers had epic visions of Russia’s role in the world. Solovyov argued that because Russia is located between the Catholic West and the non-Christian East, it has a historic mission to lead the way to human unification. Russia would transcend secularism and atheism and create a unified spiritual kingdom. “The Russian messianic conception,” Berdyaev wrote, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.”

Russia is frequently seen as a besieged fortress. The West is thought to be rotten to the core and weak yet so powerful that it can be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Russia has immeasurable spiritual potential yet is forever plagued by a lack of self-respect, lack of self-assertion and unmet potential.

In his 1948 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” Ilyin describes the Russian people as the “core of everything European-Asian and, therefore, of universal equilibrium.” Yet the West, he argues, is trying to “divide the united Russian broom into twigs to break these twigs one by one.” The West is driven by “a plan of hatred and lust for power.”

All of this adds up to a highly charged and assertive messianic ideology. If Putin took it all literally, he’d be a Russian ayatollah. Up until now, he hasn’t taken it literally. His regime has used this nationalism to mobilize public opinion and to explain itself to itself. But it has tamped down every time this nationalistic ideology threatens to upend the status quo.

The danger is that Russia is now involved in a dispute in Ukraine that touches and activates the very core of this touchy messianism. The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop. Up until now, we have not been in a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia. But with passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil, it may temporarily appear that we are.

The implication for Western policymakers is that we may not be dealing with a “normal” regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks. Threatening to take away inclusion in the Group of 8 or freeze some assets may become irrelevant because the Russian regime will have moved up to a different level. The Russian nation may be motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries and has now found an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host.

And now we come to Mr. Cohen:

For Vladimir Putin the break-up of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Everyone has something that makes them tick. Putin’s obsession is the restoration of Russia’s pride through the restoration of its imperium.

The Russian seizure of control of the Crimean Peninsula, a clear violation of the very international law Putin likes to invoke, has turned Ukraine into a European tinderbox. Sarajevo and the Sudetenland: Europe’s ghosts hover. Putin argues he is protecting Russian-speakers from the usurpers of Kiev, a pro-European government seen in Moscow as the undercover agents of a predatory West whose talk of liberty is mere camouflage for the advance of its interests.

This is baloney, a “trumped-up” Russian case, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s phrase.

This is baloney, a “trumped-up” Russian case, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s phrase.

It is worth recalling that the catalyst for this crisis was not proposed Ukrainian membership in the European Union. It was not proposed Ukrainian membership in NATO. It was not some threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. It was, in its infinite banality, a planned trade agreement between Kiev and the European Union.

This was the minnow Putin inflated into a whale through his attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into rejection of the deal, a course the Russian president had followed with equal imperial vehemence elsewhere in Russia’s near-abroad. On this occasion, however, the people rose up, forcing Ukraine’s bungling, sybaritic, trigger-happy president, Viktor Yanukovych, into flight and the arms of his Russian patron.

Putin’s Crimean message to President Obama and the West is clear: Not one inch further. After NATO’s expansion into the Baltic states (and how critical NATO’s protection looks now to Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia), after the European Union’s embrace of the likes of Poland and Romania (freed, like the Baltic states, from the Soviet empire), after the humbling by NATO of Serbia (Russia’s Orthodox ally), after the West’s perceived manipulation of a United Nations mandate to have its way in Libya — after all this the Russian president, as he has already made clear in Syria, is saying: “Game over.”

But this is no game. Putin’s obsession with a 20th-century order, with turning back the clock to before the “catastrophe,” blinds him to the passionate attachment to their nationhood of states liberated from stifling Soviet subjection. There is a grotesque amnesia to Russia’s Ukrainian gambit.

It was in Ukraine, beginning in the 1930s, that Stalin chose to conduct his first experiment in agrarian “utopia,” collectivizing the land, declaring war on the kulaks for grain, and ultimately annihilating the livelihood of the Ukrainian peasant farmer. The result, in 1933, was famine; several million died. The Nazis later did their worst in Ukraine with similar contempt for the very idea of its independence. More millions died.

To imagine Germany today (unthinkable notion) moving into western Poland with a claim of protecting ethnic Germans there conveys some idea of the historical offense Putin has given to many Ukrainians — and of the fear he strikes into other nations with Russian minorities and dire memories of Moscow, like Lithuania.

Obama has said Putin will pay a price. Kerry has spoken of a “huge price.” But the administration’s Syrian equivocations underwrote Putin’s assertiveness and sense of impunity. Options are now limited. This is the Age of Reluctance, a time when American power is dominant but no longer determinant. Americans have turned inward.

The president must lead. Since 1945 America’s security and prosperity have been tied to the steady spread of liberty in a Europe made whole and free. There is a vital U.S. interest in not seeing this process reversed — not in the land of Yalta and the corpse-filled ravine of Babi Yar.

If Ukraine were subjugated to Moscow once more, or dismembered through a Russian annexation of Crimea in flagrant violation of Russia’s own commitments in 1994, Obama would become the president who presided over a watershed diminishment of the trans-Atlantic bond.

Pivot to Asia cannot mean abandonment of Ukraine. Every form of diplomatic, trade and economic pressure should now be mustered by Obama to isolate Putin (China may be ready to help, given its commitment to noninterference); every political means used to buttress the Kiev government; and NATO’s readiness to defend its members should be ostentatiously underscored.

President Obama might say this: “We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

The words, of course, are Putin’s. He used them about Syria — a real catastrophe.

Something about Russia needing to control a warm water port tickles the back of my mind…

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 28, 2014

In “Ease and Ardor” Bobo gurgles that Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson provide two contrasting yet compelling examples of how to lead an inner life.  “Socrates” from Verona, NJ had this to say about Bobo’s book report:  “Sir Brooks has lately avoided the specific mention of any Republican policies, pols and ideological pratfalls….as the GOP is simply too embarrassing to publicly talk about with a straight face.  So we’re left with Brooks’ permanent vacation and veiled diversions through the history books and hall-of-fame thinkers.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Cry For Me, Argentina,” says hope is hard to banish from the human heart, but Argentina does its best to do so.  In “No Big Deal” Prof. Krugman says talks are stalled on an international trade deal, thanks to negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan skepticism at home, but that’s O.K.  Here’s Bobo:

Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson are two of the greatest essayists who ever lived. They tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, but they represent different personality types and recommended two different ways to live.

Montaigne grew up in a deeply polarized society, a France torn by religious wars. He tried to make his way in the brutal world of politics. He was afflicted by the death of children and the death of his best friend. He himself was nearly killed in a riding accident.

This external disorder was matched by internal disorder. Montaigne was fascinated by his inability to control his own thoughts. He tried to study his own mind but observed that it was like a runaway horse that presented him with chimeras and imaginary monsters: “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.”

Montaigne advises us to accept the flux. Be cool with it. Much of the fanaticism he sees around him is caused by people in a panic because they can’t accept the elusiveness inside.

Montaigne set out to do a thorough investigation of himself so he wouldn’t be surprised so often: “Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself.” He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile. If he has a bad memory, he’ll tell you. If he has a small penis, he’ll tell you.

“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. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know.”

This honest self-inventory produced a kind of equipoise. Montaigne didn’t strive to create an all-explaining ideology. He didn’t seek to conquer the world. Instead, he was amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest and tolerant. He was at ease with life, and even with death. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry, he says. Nature will instruct you.

Johnson was charming, but he was not amiable. Where Montaigne sought a life of wisdom and restraint, Johnson sought a life of improvement and ardor.

Johnson also lived with disorder. He probably had Tourette’s syndrome and couldn’t control his body. He feared insanity. He also worried about the terrors thrown up by the imagination — nighttime fears and jealousies.

But whereas Montaigne put the emphasis on self-understanding, Johnson put the emphasis on self-conquest. Johnson didn’t go inward; he went outward. Social, not solitary, he described human nature in general as a way to understand the common predicament. Many of his sayings display a skepticism about human nature: “A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself. … Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

But then Johnson sought out to earnestly reform and correct his sins. His diaries are filled with urgent self-commands to stop being so lazy. He was a moralist, writing essays on the vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt, boredom and sorrow. He pinned down and named everything that terrified him. He wrote biographies of moral exemplars that readers could emulate.

Johnson battled error and vice. Thomas Boswell said he fought his sins as if they were “the wild beasts of the Arena.” He would lash out at things he thought were reprehensible. Even at death, his fighting spirit was evident, “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.”

His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers. He hoped his writing would give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.”

Formerly a dissolute and depressed youth, he molded himself into something large, weighty and impressive. One biographer wrote that “iron had entered his soul.” He created his own character, which was marked by compassion but also a fierce sense of personal responsibility.

Montaigne was more laid back, and our culture is more comfortable with his brand of genial self-acceptance and restraint. We can each pick what sort of person we would prefer to be. But I’d say Johnson achieved a larger greatness. He was harder on himself. He drove himself to improve more strenuously. He held up more demanding standards for the sort of life we should be trying to live, and constantly rebutted smugness and self-approval.

Montaigne was a calming presence in a country filled with strife, but Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve, and among people who spent more time thinking about the commercial climb than ultimate things.

Sooner or later he’s just going to have to admit that he’s been shilling for the mole people…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Ushuaia, Argentina:

A bon mot doing the rounds in post-commodities-boom South America is that Brazil is in the process of becoming Argentina, and Argentina is in the process of becoming Venezuela, and Venezuela is in the process of becoming Zimbabwe. That is a little harsh on Brazil and Venezuela.

Argentina, however, is a perverse case of its own. It is a nation still drugged by that quixotic political concoction called Peronism; engaged in all-out war on reliable economic data; tinkering with its multilevel exchange rate; shut out from global capital markets; trampling on property rights when it wishes; obsessed with a lost little war in the Falklands (Malvinas) more than three decades ago; and persuaded that the cause of all this failure lies with speculative powers seeking to force a proud nation — in the words of its leader — “to eat soup again, but this time with a fork.”

A century ago, Argentina was richer than Sweden, France, Austria and Italy. It was far richer than Japan. It held poor Brazil in contempt. Vast and empty, with the world’s richest top soil in the Pampas, it seemed to the European immigrants who flooded here to have all the potential of the United States (per capita income is now a third or less of the United States level). They did not know that a colonel called Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva (“Evita”) would shape an ethos of singular delusional power.

“Argentina is a unique case of a country that has completed the transition to underdevelopment,” said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College.

In psychological terms — and Buenos Aires is packed with folks on couches pouring out their anguish to psychotherapists — Argentina is the child among nations that never grew up. Responsibility was not its thing. Why should it be? There was so much to be plundered, such riches in grain and livestock, that solid institutions and the rule of law — let alone a functioning tax system — seemed a waste of time.

Immigrants camped here with foreign passports rather than go through the nation-forming absorption that characterize Brazil or the United States. Argentina was far away at the bottom of the world, a beckoning fertile land mass distant enough from power centers to live its own peripheral fantasies or drown its sorrow in what is probably the world’s saddest (and most haunting) dance. Then, to give expression to its uniqueness, Argentina invented its own political philosophy: a strange mishmash of nationalism, romanticism, fascism, socialism, backwardness, progressiveness, militarism, eroticism, fantasy, musical, mournfulness, irresponsibility and repression. The name it gave all this was Peronism. It has proved impossible to shake.

Perón, who discovered the political uplift a military officer could derive from forging links with the have-nots of Latin America and distributing cash (a lesson absorbed by Hugo Chávez), was deposed in the first of four postwar coups. The Argentina I covered in the 1980s was just emerging from the trauma of military rule. If I have a single emblematic image of the continent then it is of the uncontrollable sobbing of Argentine women clutching the photographs of beloved children who had been taken from them for “brief questioning” only to vanish. The region’s military juntas turned “disappear” into a transitive verb. It is what they did to deemed enemies — 30,000 of them in Argentina.

Since 1983, Argentina has ceased its military-civilian whiplash, tried some of the perpetrators of human rights crimes and been governed democratically. But for most of that time it has been run by Peronists, most recently Néstor Kirchner and his widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (shades of Perón’s widow Isabel), who have rediscovered redistribution after a Peronist flurry in the 1990s with neoliberalism. Economic whiplash is alive and well. So are reckless spending in good times and lawless measures in bad. So, too, are mawkish evocations of Perón and Evita and Isabel: On earth as it is in the heavens.

Cry for me, my name is Argentina and I am too rich for my own good.

Twenty-five years ago I left a country of hyperinflation (5,000 percent in 1989), capital flight, currency instability, heavy-handed state interventionism, dwindling reserves, uncompetitive industry, heavy reliance on commodity exports, reawakening Peronist fantasies and bottom-of-the-world complexes. Today inflation is high rather than hyper. Otherwise, not a whole lot has changed.

Coming ashore at Ushuaia on Argentina’s southern tip, the first thing I saw was a sign saying that the “Malvinas” islands were under illegal occupation by the United Kingdom since 1833. The second was a signpost saying Ireland was 13,199 kilometers away (no mention of Britain). The third was a packet of cookies “made in Ushuaia, the end of the world.” The fourth was a pocket calculator used by a shopkeeper to figure out dollar-peso rates.

Hope is hard to banish from the human heart, but it has to be said that Argentina does its best to do so.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Everyone knows that the Obama administration’s domestic economic agenda is stalled in the face of scorched-earth opposition from Republicans. And that’s a bad thing: The U.S. economy would be in much better shape if Obama administration proposals like the American Jobs Act had become law.

It’s less well known that the administration’s international economic agenda is also stalled, for very different reasons. In particular, the centerpiece of that agenda — the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or T.P.P. — doesn’t seem to be making much progress, thanks to a combination of negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan skepticism at home.

And you know what? That’s O.K. It’s far from clear that the T.P.P. is a good idea. It’s even less clear that it’s something on which President Obama should be spending political capital. I am in general a free trader, but I’ll be undismayed and even a bit relieved if the T.P.P. just fades away.

The first thing you need to know about trade deals in general is that they aren’t what they used to be. The glory days of trade negotiations — the days of deals like the Kennedy Round of the 1960s, which sharply reduced tariffs around the world — are long behind us.

Why? Basically, old-fashioned trade deals are a victim of their own success: there just isn’t much more protectionism to eliminate. Average U.S. tariff rates have fallen by two-thirds since 1960. The most recent report on American import restraints by the International Trade Commission puts their total cost at less than 0.01 percent of G.D.P.

Implicit protection of services — rules and regulations that have the effect of, say, blocking foreign competition in insurance — surely impose additional costs. But the fact remains that, these days, “trade agreements” are mainly about other things. What they’re really about, in particular, is property rights — things like the ability to enforce patents on drugs and copyrights on movies. And so it is with T.P.P.

There’s a lot of hype about T.P.P., from both supporters and opponents. Supporters like to talk about the fact that the countries at the negotiating table comprise around 40 percent of the world economy, which they imply means that the agreement would be hugely significant. But trade among these players is already fairly free, so the T.P.P. wouldn’t make that much difference.

Meanwhile, opponents portray the T.P.P. as a huge plot, suggesting that it would destroy national sovereignty and transfer all the power to corporations. This, too, is hugely overblown. Corporate interests would get somewhat more ability to seek legal recourse against government actions, but, no, the Obama administration isn’t secretly bargaining away democracy.

What the T.P.P. would do, however, is increase the ability of certain corporations to assert control over intellectual property. Again, think drug patents and movie rights.

Is this a good thing from a global point of view? Doubtful. The kind of property rights we’re talking about here can alternatively be described as legal monopolies. True, temporary monopolies are, in fact, how we reward new ideas; but arguing that we need even more monopolization is very dubious — and has nothing at all to do with classical arguments for free trade.

Now, the corporations benefiting from enhanced control over intellectual property would often be American. But this doesn’t mean that the T.P.P. is in our national interest. What’s good for Big Pharma is by no means always good for America.

In short, there isn’t a compelling case for this deal, from either a global or a national point of view. Nor does there seem to be anything like a political consensus in favor, abroad or at home.

Abroad, the news from the latest meeting of negotiators sounds like what you usually hear when trade talks are going nowhere: assertions of forward movement but nothing substantive. At home, both Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, have come out against giving the president crucial “fast-track” authority, meaning that any agreement can receive a clean, up-or-down vote.

So what I wonder is why the president is pushing the T.P.P. at all. The economic case is weak, at best, and his own party doesn’t like it. Why waste time and political capital on this project?

My guess is that we’re looking at a combination of Beltway conventional wisdom — Very Serious People always support entitlement cuts and trade deals — and officials caught in a 1990s time warp, still living in the days when New Democrats tried to prove that they weren’t old-style liberals by going all in for globalization. Whatever the motivations, however, the push for T.P.P. seems almost weirdly out of touch with both economic and political reality.

So don’t cry for T.P.P. If the big trade deal comes to nothing, as seems likely, it will be, well, no big deal.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

February 25, 2014

It would appear that Bobo has hacked into MoDo’s files and has stolen a column from her, complete with the breathless exclamation points.  He’s created his very own “Fake Putin Diary!”, and he breathlessly tells us here’s our chance to read the private diary of the one and only Vladimir Putin!  Mr. Cohen, in “Known Unto God,” says in its centennial year, the Great War still divides memory.  Mr. Nocera has a question in ” ‘The Wild West of Privacy’.”  He asks just what should be included in a consumer privacy bill of rights? Then he asked the experts.  Here’s Bobo:

I am surrounded by idiots. I create the greatest Olympics in human history. The Russian team I selected wins the medal count. I do all this while propping up Assad in Syria and sexting half the athletes in the Olympic Village. Meanwhile, that tool Yanukovych can’t even manage to keep himself in power in Kiev.

Why is it that every autocrat but me is always a day late and a dollar short? They try to be a little nice and a little nasty and they end up outraging everybody while intimidating nobody. Yanukovych was ridiculous with his zoo and his rare goats. His son the dentist won 50 percent of all the government contracts issued last January. People like that give kleptocracy a bad name.

That yutz has created two giant vulnerabilities for me, a regional one and a domestic one. My entire worldview is based on the idea that societies exist in one of two states: centralized control or terrorism and chaos. My life project has been to impose top-down order so Russia can return to its former grandeur.

Regionally, that’s meant reconstituting the Russian empire with a Eurasian Union. Domestically, it’s meant restoring the legitimacy of autocratic rule.

The bandits in Ukraine have suddenly called both into question. With no Ukraine in my orbit, I’ve got no empire. I’ve got no Eurasian project. Meanwhile, it wasn’t nice to see an autocrat get toppled just next door. It sets a bad example for the children (my subjects).

Suddenly, I find myself in a moment of extreme vulnerability. Fortunately, I’ve got one of the greatest leaders in human history on my side: myself.

Machiavelli was right. Fortune is a woman; only the audacious win her love. That’s why my technique has always been to create facts on the ground. Act first, while everyone else dithers. Force them to react to my reality. That’s why I alone am Mr. Big on the world stage. Heroes drive history, and I will not be ignored!

The naïve Westerners (forgive the redundancy) think Ukraine is about democratic ideals, or whether the country will turn West or East. Please. There is no room for ideals in my worldview. People are motivated by money and fear.

First, I’m going to evict the Westerners from Ukraine. I liked it better when the West conquered countries with the 82nd Airborne; now they just use the I.M.F. Fortunately, as one expert put it, they always bring a baguette to a knife fight. The West will not actually spend the money necessary to keep Ukraine out of bankruptcy. They won’t want to hand it over to corrupt officials who will immediately ship it to London.

I’ll just outbid them. Ukraine is out of money, and countries with no money have no choices. They are going to have to put themselves up for sale, and I’ve shown I’m willing to pay a higher price.

Moreover, the country has the same politico-economic system as Mother Russia. Something like 80 percent of the economy is controlled by the oligarchs. If the current oligarchs don’t do what I want, I just replace them with some nice Russian ones. Some politicians are good at organizing coalitions. I’m good at organizing corruption.

Then I’ll insinuate myself and manipulate electoral reform law. I can squeeze them with oil and gas supplies. I’m already enlisting Russian troops to preserve the Crimea. If the country threatens to split up, there’s always the Georgia solution. Send in the troops. The West won’t like it, but what will they do? If they try to hurt me, I’ll stop cooperating on Syria, Iran and the places that really matter to them.

Dealing with my domestic vulnerability just takes a little productive paranoia. I’ve already shut down civil society step by step. I’ve even banned independent pollsters and persecuted officials who fought corruption. (Yes, that’s right. I’ve made honesty a crime.) Recent events call for another round of crackdowns. Will my crackdown spark a violent reaction I can’t now anticipate? In less deft hands that might happen, but, remember, I am me.

It’s easy to govern when you’ve got the winds of history at your back. I’ve got the wolves of chaos growling in my face. Capital flight is accelerating. The ruble is devaluing. Social media, the youth culture, the tides of mass protest, democracy and capitalism undermine the authoritarian mind-set.

Yet I impose my will with the beauty of gold and the wisdom of sapphire. I don’t “evolve,” as everybody suggests. Evolution leads to chaos. I learned that from Gorby!

The events of the 1990s gave the world one narrative, the Velvet Revolution narrative. But I’m going to teach another narrative: that what begins with people massing in a city square ends with a strongman triumphing in a palace. In my own way, I will define this age.

That could also be an excerpt from Dick Cheney’s diary…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Any sentient being who walks the byways of northern Europe, so placid now with their glistening poplar trees and villages clustered around church spires, must occasionally feel the intrusion of the painful thought that beneath the soil lie the corpses of millions, young men sacrificed for the gain of a few meters, and often in Kipling’s phrase only known unto God.

World War I erupted at a time when much of humanity was persuaded that rapid technological development, scientific progress and accelerated communications (connectivity in today’s parlance) had consigned warfare to the past. It was sparked by a single gunshot in Sarajevo, made possible by strategic miscalculation, and ended with the collapse of several empires, the world of yesterday demolished in an unimaginable bloodbath whose unsettled scores would soon produce another cataclysm.

In the very banality of the chain of events that led to slaughter, in its apparent unnecessariness, the Great War (in the British phrase) offers an eternal warning to those inclined to take peace for granted. Peace is hard work. Its alternative is never far beneath the surface.

It being the centennial of the outbreak of the war, numerous commemorations are planned. But memorialization diverges. Germans, when they think about World War I, see nothing “great” in it. Rather they see the seeds of Hitler’s rise, and it is to his war above all that they have devoted their anguished reckonings. The French who, like the British, call it “La Grande Guerre,” have a different view; they stopped the Germans racing to Paris, as in 1871. Glory is a word that surfaces in Paris and London, notwithstanding Wilfred Owen’s dismissal of the “old lie”: That in youth’s prime “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

I decided a few weeks ago to bow my head to the dead by visiting the cemetery at St. Symphorien in Belgium, where the first British soldier killed on the Western Front is buried, and also what are thought to be the last Commonwealth soldiers killed. In all 284 German and 230 Commonwealth servicemen find their final resting place here.

The cemetery, watched over by wind turbines, was deserted. I was the only visitor. The German graves are in gray stone, the British in white. I read the names of the conscripts. An “Unteroffizier Rolf Berger” from Hamburg, a “Musketier Otto Finke” from Kiel: German kids cut down. It crossed my mind that perhaps the Finke family, after their loss, would end up fleeing Hitler.

The British and Commonwealth graves are set out in lines: Lt. D.C.C. Sewell, aged 20, with the inscription “Thy Will Be Done.” W.G. Bathgate, Highlanders, 23 August 1914, “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.” And that most devastating of all epitaphs: “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.”

Among the crosses was a single Star of David, on the grave of Private P. Goldberg of the Middlesex Regiment, died Aug 23, 1914. I was reminded of my great-grandfather’s brother, Michael Adler, a distinguished rabbi who compiled the 1916 Prayer Book for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers at the front during World War I and served as chaplain to Jewish soldiers.

I have a precious copy of the prayer book. It begins with a “prefatory note” signed by my forbear: “It is hoped that this book will meet the wants of the very large number of English Jews who are taking part in the present Great European War.” The first prayer for the 16,000 British Jews on active service includes this line: “Fill our hearts with courage and steadfastness that we may perform our duty to our King and Country for the honor of Israel and the Empire.”

The word order suggests Adler’s attempt to balance loyalties: first King, then Israel (not yet reborn as a modern state), then Empire. Jewish allegiance to the crown had been questioned: Thousands of Yiddish-speaking East European Jews were not yet naturalized and so could not serve. In November 1915, The Jewish Chronicle reported examples of recruiting officers saying, “Lord Kitchener does not want any more Jews in the Army.” But Jews clamored to prove their loyalty.

Adler initially encouraged them. By the end of the war, however, having seen the carnage, he had other thoughts. On July 6, 1918, he wrote, “All this colossal upheaval will have been in vain unless civilized mankind resolves once and for all that every effort should be made that war shall cease henceforth.”

His words went unheeded. Europe would plunge again into horror. And Iron Crosses for valor at the Somme did nothing to keep German Jews from the gas.

And now we have Mr. Nocera:

We are fast approaching a privacy crisis in the United States. Google, Facebook and other big Internet companies collect information about us, which they deploy in the service of advertisers. Big data brokers, like Acxiom, have developed sophisticated tools that allow them to know almost as much about us as we know about ourselves; they then sell that data to all kinds of companies that want to learn everything from our habits to our health, from our sexual orientation to our finances. The digital age has made it easy to collect medical data, which is supposed to be protected under federal law. Huge data breaches at big retailers like Target have made it seem unsafe to use credit cards. And I haven’t even mentioned the Edward Snowden revelations about the massive data collection by the National Security Agency.

“The United States,” says Barry Steinhardt, the founder of Friends of Privacy USA, “is basically the Wild West of privacy.”

As The Times noted in an editorial on Monday, it was two years ago that the Obama administration issued a report calling for a consumer privacy bill of rights. Although the report went nowhere, it was full of sound, broad principles: “a sensible framework that would help establish fairness and accountability for the collection and use of personal information,” as a group of privacy advocates put it in a letter they sent to the president on Monday.

The advocates called on President Obama to work with Congress to finally pass privacy legislation. In that spirit, I thought it would be a useful exercise to call some privacy experts and ask them what should be in such a bill. Here’s what they had to say.

REGULATE DATA BROKERS Almost everyone I spoke to saw data brokers as a far bigger threat to privacy than, say, Facebook. These are companies that collect a hundred different data points, both off-line and online, and create scores and profiles that they sell to anyone who wants to buy them. At a minimum, people should know what information of theirs is being compiled. Better yet, people should have a right to control what information of theirs gets sold and what remains private.

OPT-IN INSTEAD OF OPT-OUT The typical terms of agreement that we check when we want to use the services of an Internet company invariably gives the company the right to redeploy our information for their own benefit. Some companies also give consumers the right to opt-out of that information-gathering, but it is usually a process that requires some effort. A far better approach would have customers opting in instead of opting out. This would also likely force companies to explain to their customers why they need the data and what they will use it for, which is another thing that should be included in any privacy bill.

GIVE COMPANIES AN INCENTIVE TO PREVENT DATA BREACHES One reason breaches like the recent Target disaster have taken place is that they bring with them very little consequence. But it would be easy enough to create consequences — a data breach could be treated like an oil spill, with fines attached. The government could also make it easier for people to sue. Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation also says that companies should be doing far more encrypting than they do now. Privacy legislation could give them a push in that direction.

NO MORE SECRETS It’s not just data brokers that need to be more transparent. It is every entity that collects data. People should be able to see the information that is collected on them. For instance, there are companies that compile scores about people — risk scores, or health scores, or fraud scores. Those scores should be known to the people who are being scored because it can affect everything from their ability to get insurance to their chances of landing a job.

“You should have the right to know what information is being collected about you, who has access to it, how it is being used, and to limit that use,” says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “And if companies violate those rights, there should be consequences.”

In 1967, Senator William Proxmire, who would later serve as the head of the Senate Banking Committee, pushed through the Truth in Lending Act in the face of fierce opposition from the credit card industry. It was, however, the best thing that ever happened to the industry because it showed consumers, for the first time, that they had some protection from fraud or shady practices.

In some ways, it is the same now with privacy. As much as the companies like Google and Facebook and Acxiom would oppose privacy legislation, they need it — for their sake as well as ours.

Sometimes, government has to save business from itself.

And today’s Senator Proxmire is…?  We’re doomed.

Brooks and Krugman

February 21, 2014

Bobo has decided that it’s time for “Capitalism for the Masses.”  He gurgles that a daring conservative agenda has emerged that measures the health of the economy by how well it helps all people make an enterprise of their life.  “Thomas Zaslavsky” from Binghamton, NY had this to say in the comments:  “Mr. Brooks, your Mr. Brooks advocates government’s subsidizing low-wage employers by making up the difference between their sub-living pay and a living wage. Kudos to the brilliance of making government subsidize the profits of exploitive businesses.”  Prof. Krugman, in “The Stimulus Tragedy,” says five years after the stimulus took effect it is clear that, though the program did much good, it was also a political disaster.  Here’s Bobo:

When Arthur Brooks was 24, he was playing the French horn in a chamber music concert in Dijon, France. He noticed a beautiful woman smiling at him from the front row, so, after the recital, he made a beeline for her and introduced himself.

Within seven seconds he came to two realizations. First, he was going to marry this woman. Second, she didn’t speak a word of English, and he didn’t speak a word of Spanish or Catalan, which were her languages.

When he got home, he realized that if he was going to have a chance with Ester he was going to have to show some commitment. So he quit his job in America, moved to Barcelona and went to work with the Barcelona orchestra. Over the next few years, he learned Spanish and Catalan and Ester learned English. They have been happily married for 22 years.

“Sometimes you just have to be all in,” says Brooks (who is no relation). “You have to go beyond cold utilitarian analysis.”

Brooks later became a social scientist and is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, probably the most important think tank on the American right. He has emerged as one of the most ardent defenders of the free enterprise system. But the humanist that he is, he has primarily defended capitalism on moral terms. He’s criticized Republicans for defending capitalism on materialistic grounds — because it makes some people rich. Republicans, Brooks says, have an overly small-business focus. They talk as if everybody should become an entrepreneur.

The real moral health of an economic system, he argues, can be measured by how well it helps all people make an enterprise of their life. Whether they work at odd jobs or at a nongovernmental organization or at a big company, do they get to experience the joy of achievement? Do they know that their work amounts to something?

He’s pointed out that the percentage of people in the world living on $1 a day has declined by 80 percent since 1970s, adjusting for inflation. That’s the greatest increase in human possibility in human history. The primary cause is globalized capitalism.

But now capitalism faces its greatest moral crisis since the Great Depression. The nature of that crisis can be captured in two statistics. When Facebook entered a deal to buy WhatsApp this week, it agreed to pay a price equal to $345 million per WhatsApp employee. Meanwhile, the share of the economic pie for the middle 60 percent of earners nationally has fallen from 53 percent to 45 percent since 1970.

This economy produces very valuable companies with very few employees. Meanwhile, the majority of workers are not seeing income gains commensurate with their productivity levels.

This puts a strain on the essential compact that you can earn your success. As Joel Kotkin has argued, the middle class is being proletarianized, and the uneducated class is being left behind.

To his great credit, Brooks is responding aggressively to this moral challenge, in a way that is providing a needed jolt to Republican circles. Over the last two days, for example, he had the Dalai Lama, a self-described Marxist, over at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss the morality of capitalism. Jonathan Haidt, of the Stern School of Business at New York University, challenged the mostly Republican audience to invent a new capitalist narrative, going beyond the simple demonization and celebration narratives.

Brooks recently published a daring piece in Commentary magazine on a conservative social justice agenda. It was called “Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers.”

He pointed out that conservatives love to talk about private charity, but, if you took the entire $40 billion that Americans donate to human service organizations annually, it would be enough money to give each person who receives federal food assistance only $847 per year.

Instead, Republicans need to declare a truce on the social safety net. They need to assure the country that the net will always be there for the truly needy. Then they need to point out that it is the web of middle-class entitlements, even the home mortgage deduction, that really threaten benefits to the poor.

The big new problem, Brooks writes, is that labor markets are sick. Fewer people are working and enjoying the sense of reward that is a key to happiness. Democrats embrace a raise in the minimum wage that could drive another half-million workers out of the labor market.

Much better, he says, would be to expand the earned-income tax credit or maybe use direct payments or loans to help people move to opportunity.

The big story here is that a major pillar of the American right is leading his institution to fully embrace capitalism, but also fully embrace government policies that will help the broadest number of people earn their own success. In this era, the invisible hand may not be enough.

Sometimes you have to go all in.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Five years have passed since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the “stimulus” — into law. With the passage of time, it has become clear that the act did a vast amount of good. It helped end the economy’s plunge; it created or saved millions of jobs; it left behind an important legacy of public and private investment.

It was also a political disaster. And the consequences of that political disaster — the perception that stimulus failed — have haunted economic policy ever since.

Let’s start with the good the stimulus did.

The case for stimulus was that we were suffering from a huge shortfall in overall spending, and that the hit to the economy from the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble was so severe that the Federal Reserve, which normally fights recessions by cutting short-term interest rates, couldn’t overcome this slump on its own. The idea, then, was to provide a temporary boost both by having the government directly spend more and by using tax cuts and public aid to boost family incomes, inducing more private spending.

Opponents of stimulus argued vociferously that deficit spending would send interest rates skyrocketing, “crowding out” private spending. Proponents responded, however, that crowding out — a real issue when the economy is near full employment — wouldn’t happen in a deeply depressed economy, awash in excess capacity and excess savings. And stimulus supporters were right: far from soaring, interest rates fell to historic lows.

What about positive evidence for the benefits of stimulus? That’s trickier, because it’s hard to disentangle the effects of the Recovery Act from all the other things that were going on at the time. Nonetheless, most careful studies have found evidence of strong positive effects on employment and output.

Even more important, I’d argue, is the huge natural experiment Europe has provided on the effects of sharp changes in government spending. You see, some but not all members of the euro area, the group of countries sharing Europe’s common currency, were forced into imposing draconian fiscal austerity, that is, negative stimulus. If stimulus opponents had been right about the way the world works, these austerity programs wouldn’t have had severe adverse economic effects, because cuts in government spending would have been offset by rising private spending. In fact, austerity led to nasty, in some cases catastrophic, declines in output and employment. And private spending in countries imposing harsh austerity ended up falling instead of rising, amplifying the direct effects of government cutbacks.

All the evidence, then, points to substantial positive short-run effects from the Obama stimulus. And there were surely long-term benefits, too: big investments in everything from green energy to electronic medical records.

So why does everyone — or, to be more accurate, everyone except those who have seriously studied the issue — believe that the stimulus was a failure? Because the U.S. economy continued to perform poorly — not disastrously, but poorly — after the stimulus went into effect.

There’s no mystery about why: America was coping with the legacy of a giant housing bubble. Even now, housing has only partly recovered, while consumers are still held back by the huge debts they ran up during the bubble years. And the stimulus was both too small and too short-lived to overcome that dire legacy.

This is not, by the way, a case of making excuses after the fact. Regular readers know that I was more or less tearing my hair out in early 2009, warning that the Recovery Act was inadequate — and that by falling short, the act would end up discrediting the very idea of stimulus. And so it proved.

There’s a long-running debate over whether the Obama administration could have gotten more. The administration compounded the damage with excessively optimistic forecasts, based on the false premise that the economy would quickly bounce back once confidence in the financial system was restored.

But that’s all water under the bridge. The important point is that U.S. fiscal policy went completely in the wrong direction after 2010. With the stimulus perceived as a failure, job creation almost disappeared from inside-the-Beltway discourse, replaced with obsessive concern over budget deficits. Government spending, which had been temporarily boosted both by the Recovery Act and by safety-net programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits, began falling, with public investment hit worst. And this anti-stimulus has destroyed millions of jobs.

In other words, the overall narrative of the stimulus is tragic. A policy initiative that was good but not good enough ended up being seen as a failure, and set the stage for an immensely destructive wrong turn.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

February 18, 2014

Bobo has produced a towering pile of crap in which he tries to convince us he’s really a nice guy at heart.  In “The Prodigal Sons” he gurgles that the prodigal son parable provides an apt lesson as we strive to craft modern social policies.  Of course everything that Bobo shills for is in stark opposition to the parable, but we’re not supposed to notice that.  In the comments “Michael O’Neill” from Bandon, Oregon had this to say:  “Beyond the total knee slapper of David Brooks as a member of the middle class is the idea that Mitt’s 47% are layabouts who are partying on food stamps, Medicaid and minimum wage jobs.”  In “Britannia Rues the Waves” Mr. Cohen says Scotland looks south and wonders. Britain could break up.  Mr. Nocera, in “Joyce Does It Her Way,” says an artist’s commitment to feminism and her music provides lessons for us all.  Mr. Bruni considers “Hillary’s Secrets” and says there are ugly implications to leaving her and other public figures without any safe space.  Here, unfortunately, is Bobo:

We take as our text today the parable of the prodigal sons. As I hope you know, the story is about a father with two sons. The younger son took his share of the inheritance early and blew it on prostitutes and riotous living. When the money was gone, he returned home.

His father ran out and embraced him. The delighted father offered the boy his finest robe and threw a feast in his honor. The older son, the responsible one, was appalled. He stood outside the feast, crying in effect, “Look! All these years I’ve been working hard and obeying you faithfully, and you never gave me special treatment such as this!”

The father responded, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” But he had to celebrate the younger one’s return. The boy was lost and now is found.

Did the father do the right thing? Is the father the right model for authority today?

The father’s critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others’ hard work. If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets slighted.

The father’s example is especially pernicious now, the critics continue. Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly rigid and rule-bound society. In those circumstances, a story of radical forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism.

But we don’t live in that kind of society. We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.

It’s a valid critique, but I’d defend the father’s example, and, informed by a reading of Timothy Keller’s outstanding book “The Prodigal God,” I’d even apply the father’s wisdom to social policy-making today.

We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”

But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.

The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.

The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.

The father’s lesson for us is that if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or a congregation.

The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.

Sanctimonious little turd, isn’t he?  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Pity poor Scotland. Within days it has been warned that if it has the temerity to vote for independence in September it can forget about a currency union with the pound and forget about becoming a member of the European Union, two ideas Scottish nationalist leaders have presented as entirely feasible.

The first warning came from George Osborne, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, who declared that, “If Scotland walks away from the U.K. it walks away from the U.K. pound.” He added that “there’s no legal reason why the rest of the U.K. would need to share its currency with Scotland.”

The second was delivered by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who told the BBC it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible,” for Scotland to join the European Union because it would require the unanimous approval of other member states. That was a remote possibility given the dim view taken by some countries, notably Catalonia-fearing Spain, on secession. Spain, Barroso noted, had not recognized Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia.

“Bluff, bluster and bullying” was the verdict of Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and the campaign for independence, to Osborne’s apparent threat. John Swinney, Scotland’s finance minister, called Barroso’s remarks “pretty preposterous.” Scots, both men suggested, would not be cowed.

The battle for Scotland is heating up 307 years after the union of 1707. A pretty successful union it has been, too, but, unthreatened and restless, Scots troop off to Norway, another small country with oil, and think, hey, why not? Some are more inclined to recall the victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago than Englishmen and Scots together in the trenches of World War I a century ago.

Recent polls suggest a close outcome, with the plurality that favors staying inside the union eroding fast. The refusal of David Cameron, the British prime minister, to debate Salmond has not helped the union’s cause.

The Tories are cordially disliked in Scotland. Cameron, an old Etonian, has been singled out as a “toff” out of touch with ordinary people. Scots distrust him. They are overwhelmingly favorable to the European Union, about which the prime minister has shown a fatal ambiguity, possibly opening the door to Britain’s departure.

Two points need underlining. The first is that the threats from Osborne and Barroso are ill-advised and could well rebound against them. The Scots are proud people. It is wiser to debate them than admonish them, or raise the specter of isolation from afar.

The second is that Britain in Europe, its union intact, offers the best chance for the nation to count and prosper in the 21st century. A Scottish departure, followed by rump Britain limping out of the European Union, would be a disaster. It is a safe bet that the Northern Irish question, quieted but unresolved, would then resurface with a vengeance.

Imagine the Chinese gazing at the North Sea after this fragmentation and trying to make out what the little speck of land bobbing around out there signifies.

That said, Scots must look south these days and wonder. Growing areas of England are under water, a fact Cameron has been among the last to grasp. Politicians appear to spend much of their time squabbling over how to dredge a river. Officials issue frantic edicts on “health and safety.” A barmy prince declares that “there is nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something.” The world’s financial center is turning into the world’s aquatic center, its main attraction a ship of fools.

At the helm sits Cameron drifting across the Somerset Levels. Thames floodwaters are closing in on London; his Environment Agency is a laughing stock run by a man a member of his own Conservative party has called a “little git.”

There are shades of the Hurricane Katrina debacle. Chris Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, has become Britain’s Michael Brown, the American disaster-response director of whom President George W. Bush famously observed, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Smith is doing a heck of a job.

Scots seem to be drawing the conclusion that they would be better off by themselves. (They might, however, want to take a closer look at the balance sheets of Scottish banks before breaking away.)

“We want you to stay,” Cameron pleaded in a recent speech. The Gettysburg Address it was not. He sounded sincere even if the thought must cross his mind that the chances of Labor ever winning an election again would be minimal, absent Scotland. He might then rule in perpetuity.

That is a very sobering thought. The satirist Peter Cook once suggested Britain was about to sink “giggling into the sea.” Never has that vision seemed closer. Giggle away. The bits of Britain could go one by one.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

I’d like to tell you a story about a Brazilian musician you’ve probably never heard of. Her name is Joyce Moreno; she is 66 and has been singing and composing professionally for 47 years, during which time she has made more than 30 recordings. I flipped for her music when I first heard her last spring at Birdland, in Midtown Manhattan, and I’ve been listening to her, more or less obsessively, ever since.

But that’s not the reason I want to tell you about her. A few months after I first heard her play, we struck up an email correspondence. When Joyce came to New York in September for an engagement, my wife and I had dinner with her and her husband, the Brazilian drummer Tutty Moreno. And during my recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, I interviewed her, figuring that I would write about her when I got back. Somewhat to my surprise, what has stuck with me from those encounters has less to do with her music, glorious though I think it is, and more to do with the way she has conducted her career. She has lessons to teach that go well beyond music.

Joyce’s career began in controversy. When she was 19, she wrote a song that began, “I was told that my man doesn’t love me.”

In the Brazil of that era, her blunt, first-person, female-centric lyric was considered by many to be vulgar — not the sort of thing a woman was supposed to sing about.

“It was strange,” she told me — bewildering to be at the center of such a storm at such a young age. But she never backed down from the way she approached her songwriting. In a country that didn’t exactly embrace feminism, she was always a staunch feminist, and that’s reflected in some of her best lyrics.

As is true for every Brazilian of her generation, she also had to deal with the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. In December 1968, the dictatorship issued a decree that, among other things, instituted broad censorship of the arts. Some of the country’s most important musicians, like Gilberto Gil, were imprisoned and then sent into exile.

Other musicians and artists had to submit their work to the censors. Joyce recalls that she was forbidden to use words like “pregnant” in her songs.

“I was censored because I had a feminine point of view,” she says. By 1980, however, the worst of the censorship had ended, and Joyce recorded a song called “Feminina,” which became, in many ways, her anthem.

“Oh, Ma,” it begins. “Please explain to me, teach me

Tell me, what is feminine?

It’s not in the hair, the mojo or the look

It’s being a female everywhere.”

In the early 1980s, she had a handful of small hits, “Feminina” included. But, says Nelson Motta, a Brazilian writer and producer, “her music has never been very commercial from a Brazilian standpoint,” and, over time, she became someone who was more respected than listened to.

Several times during her career, she seemed on the cusp of breaking out. Once, early in her career, she recorded an album produced by Claus Ogerman, who had arranged songs for Antônio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra. For reasons that have never been clear to her, the album was never released. “It was painful,” she told me, “but I lived with it.”

Years later, Verve signed her to a two-record contract. As is so often the case, however, the label and the musician had very different ideas about what the recordings should sound like. “They said they liked what I was doing,” she told me, “but then they wanted me to do something completely different.” Joyce found the experience miserable, and it reinforced her belief that she could be happy only by staying true to herself, no matter what effect that had on her career.

And so it has been. She is more popular in Japan than she is in Brazil. She cuts her own records, even though it means she often has to pay for it out of her pocket. “It is a way of preserving my independence as an artist,” she said.

“Joyce has never worried about being popular,” says Motta. When I saw her give a concert in Rio de Janeiro in December, there were maybe 250 people in the hall — and the admission was free. I felt disappointed for her, but it didn’t bother her at all. Afterward, she autographed copies of her new CD and posed for pictures. When I asked her about it, she said, “I’m fine with where my career is. I’ve had a very lucky life.”

Would that we could all so easily make our peace with what life throws us — the good, the bad and everything in between.

Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:

Her perseverance often awes me. Her arrogance sometimes galls me. And her particular braid of high-mindedness and high-handedness almost always leaves me puzzled and exhausted.

But what I’ve been feeling for and about Hillary Clinton over the last week is sadness. Does she have even a smidgen of privacy left? Can she utter a syllable or think a thought with any assurance that it won’t be exposed, analyzed, ridiculed?

When she was talking decades ago with Diane Blair, whose journals are part of “The Hillary Papers,” she no doubt assumed an audience of one: her dear friend. Her best friend. But this corner of Hillary’s life, like every other, has now been put on public display. Get as close as you like. Gawk. Judge.

I’m not suggesting that The Washington Free Beacon, the news site that presented “The Hillary Papers,” did anything unusual or wrong. By recognizing that an archive of documents at the University of Arkansas hadn’t received much scrutiny and going through it, The Free Beacon provided candid, intimate glimpses of the Clintons that hadn’t existed before. This was indeed a scoop, one that many other media organizations would have been happy to trumpet.

But to absorb it in the context of the endless drip-drip-drip about Hillary over the years was to worry that we’ve lost sight of any boundaries and limits — that maybe even Hillary herself has stopped hoping for anything kinder. When the archive was opened to the public in 2010, she gave a tribute to Blair, who died in 2000.

Details in the documents were fresh. Most of the truths they fleshed out weren’t. We already knew that Hillary had found tortured rationales for Bill’s infidelities. We already knew that her compromised brand of feminism accommodated the vilification of women who dared to threaten the couple’s purchase on power.

What’s at least as interesting is what the documents say about the political arena that the Clintons inhabit: the toll it takes, the cynics it makes. Early in her White House years, Hillary’s guard has already gone up. Blair chats with Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, and writes, in April 1993, that while “Janet wants to connect” with Hillary, she “finds HC a ‘mask.’ ”

This is even before the fever pitch of impeachment and the Starr Report in all its lurid detail and the sustained analysis of every provisional hairstyle and the millions of pages by authors determined to turn her into a symbol of this, that or the other. She has been called a Rorschach, but as I read “The Hillary Papers,” I couldn’t stop thinking of her as a carcass. With a tireless zest, we pick her clean.

The latest book about her, “HRC,” by the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, was published last week. It focuses on recent years, and is flattering: The Hillary here is resourceful and diligent and has enough guile and grace to win over the people whom she sets out to.

She’s also obsessed with loyalty, which governs her decisions, leading to bad ones. That’s perhaps inevitable when you’ve been so thoroughly peered and poked at. You do your damnedest to carve out a safe space.

Blair was surely supposed to be that, and it’s not clear why she was taking notes or what she intended to do with them. It’s also not clear that the Hillary in those notes is the truest one. With our friends, yes, we bare our souls. But we also let off steam, allowing ourselves a theatricality and sloppiness that exaggerate our emotions.

Blair’s journals are the kind of material from which biographies and histories have long been woven. But it doesn’t always surface so soon, and it is now augmented by the eavesdropping and tattling of cabinet secretaries (see “Duty,” by Robert Gates) and political allies and handlers eager to make themselves look better, even at a benefactor’s expense (see “Game Change” and the robust genre to which it belongs).

Frenzied media feed on this, to a degree that arguably goes beyond our obligation to keep politicians honest, and it’s troubling in two regards. How many decent, gifted people who contemplate public office look at what someone like Hillary endures and step away? And the people who aren’t scared off: How cold and hard are they, or how cold and hard do they become?

“HRC” recalls that just after the 2008 presidential election, a photo came to light of one of Barack Obama’s speechwriters, Jon Favreau, pretending to cup the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary. The image is shocking, but then again not. For a good long while, we’ve done with Hillary as we pleased, frequently looking past her humanity, routinely running roughshod over her secrets. She has gained so much — tremendous influence, significant riches — but lost so much, too. Was that the bargain she expected? Has she made peace with it?

Brooks and Krugman

February 14, 2014

In “The Refiner’s Fire” Bobo has decided to tell us that one personal take on what it really feels like to be a politician shows politics as a hard and noble calling.  Since I can still access comments at the Times on one browser (IE, ewww…) “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “David Brooks never disappoints. He continues his role as spokesman for the party with nothing to say with this rhetorical Trojan horse, hiding a defense of Republican dysfunction in the well-meaning incompetence of a liberal Canadian academic. ”  In “Inequality, Dignity and Freedom” Prof. Krugman asks a question:  Who really honors work and liberty? He says it’s probably not the 1 percent or the Republican Party.  Here’s Bobo:

In 2005, Michael Ignatieff left a teaching job at Harvard to enter politics in his native Canada with hopes of becoming prime minister.

He quickly came to understand how politics is different from academia. In academia, you use words to persuade or discover; in politics, you use words to establish a connection. Academia is a cerebral enterprise, but politics is a physical enterprise, a charismatic form of athletics in which you touch people to show you care.

In academia, the goal is to come up with a timeless truth. In politics, timing is everything, knowing when the time is ripe for a certain proposal. In academia, the idea is to take a stand based on what you believe; in politics, the idea is to position yourself along a left-right axis in a way that will differentiate you from your opponents and help you win a majority.

In academia, a certain false modesty is encouraged; in politics, you have to self-dramatize a fable about yourself — concoct a story to show how your life connects to certain policies. In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion. In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.

Naturally, Ignatieff found the transition to politics more difficult than he imagined. He started his career well enough. He was elected to Parliament. Within a year, he was a deputy party leader and, within a few years, he was leader of Canada’s Liberal Party.

But he was in over his head and the victim of inexorable historical trends. He was not an effective opposition leader. In his first national election, he and his party were crushed. Ignatieff even lost his own parliamentary seat. It was a humiliating failure, which ended his political career.

Fortunately, he did not return with empty hands. His memoir, “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” is the best book about what it feels like to be a politician since Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes.”

Ignatieff was first invited to run for office by some backstage power brokers, even though he hadn’t lived in his country for 30 years. He agreed but wasn’t initially sure why he wanted to do it beyond some vague sense that it would honor his parents.

He was betrayed by old friends. He endured unearned and lofty condescension from political columnists. In Parliament, he became a total partisan, putting, as one must, loyalty to the group above loyalty to truth. He had no friends who were not in his own party. He loathed the other side. “We never wasted a single breath trying to convince each other of anything,” he recalls.

He learned that when you are attacking your opponent, you have to hit his strengths because his weaknesses will take care of themselves. Political discourse, he came to see, is not really a debate about issues; it is a verbal contest to deny your opponents of standing, or as we would say, legitimacy. “Of the three elections that I fought, none was a debate on the country’s future. All were vicious battles over standing.”

During the course of his career he endured the character tests that all honest politicians face. “Politics tests your capacity for self-knowledge more than any profession I know,” he writes. He would look at himself in the mirror, wearing the suits that the image crafters had selected, and feel as though he had been taken over by some strange new persona he barely recognized. He went through each day completely dependent on the reaction of other people, minute by minute, second by second, to validate his performance. After poor showings at question time, he’d go to the washroom, no longer sure he was up to the job, confronting the mistakes that suggested he wasn’t. “I had never been so well-dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow.”

But Ignatieff ultimately delivers a strong defense of politics. Politicians should never imagine themselves superior to the process they are engaged in. Politicians bind people together into communities and nations, he argues. To be a politician is to be “worldly and sinful and yet faithful and fearless at the same time. You put your own immodest ambitions in the service of others. You hope that your ambitions will be redeemed by the good you do.”

Politics, as Max Weber famously said, is the necessary work of strong and slow boring through hard boards. People who do it out of a sense of selfishness and vanity, often give up, because the life can be miserable. The people who sustain are usually motivated by a sense of service, and by evidence of the good that laws and programs can do. Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realized what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be.

Keller is finally gone.  Maybe now it’s time for Bobo to find happier employment.  And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Now that the Congressional Budget Office has explicitly denied saying that Obamacare destroys jobs, some (though by no means all) Republicans have stopped lying about that issue and turned to a different argument. O.K., they concede, any reduction in working hours because of health reform will be a voluntary choice by the workers themselves — but it’s still a bad thing because, as Representative Paul Ryan puts it, they’ll lose “the dignity of work.”

So let’s talk about what that means in 21st-century America.

It’s all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest that workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is just silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?

In fact, the people who seem least inclined to respect the efforts of ordinary workers are the winners of the wealth lottery. Over the past few months, we’ve been harangued by a procession of angry billionaires, furious that they’re not receiving the deference, the acknowledgment of their superiority, that they believe is their due. For example, last week the investor Sam Zell went on CNN Money to defend the 1 percent against “envy,” and he asserted that “the 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society.” Dignity for all!

And there’s another group that doesn’t respect workers: Republican politicians. In 2012, Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, infamously marked Labor Day with a Twitter post celebrating … people who start their own businesses. Perhaps Mr. Cantor was chastened by the backlash to that post; at a recent G.O.P. retreat, he reportedly urged his colleagues to show some respect for Americans who don’t own businesses, who work for someone else. The clear implication was that they haven’t shown that kind of respect in the past.

On the whole, working Americans are better at appreciating their own worth than either the wealthy or conservative politicians are at showing them even minimal respect. Still, tens of millions of Americans know from experience that hard work isn’t enough to provide financial security or a decent education for their children, and many either couldn’t get health insurance or were desperately afraid of losing jobs that came with insurance until the Affordable Care Act kicked in last month. In the face of that kind of everyday struggle, talk about the dignity of work rings hollow.

So what would give working Americans more dignity in their lives, despite huge income disparities? How about assuring them that the essentials — health care, opportunity for their children, a minimal income — will be there even if their boss fires them or their jobs are shipped overseas?

Think about it: Has anything done as much to enhance the dignity of American seniors, to rescue them from the penury and dependence that were once so common among the elderly, as Social Security and Medicare? Inside the Beltway, fiscal scolds have turned “entitlements” into a bad word, but it’s precisely the fact that Americans are entitled to collect Social Security and be covered by Medicare, no questions asked, that makes these programs so empowering and liberating.

Conversely, the drive by conservatives to dismantle much of the social safety net, to replace it with minimal programs and private charity, is, in effect, an effort to strip away the dignity of lower-income workers.

And it’s something else: an assault on their freedom.

Modern American conservatives talk a lot about freedom, and deride liberals for advocating a “nanny state.” But when it comes to Americans down on their luck, conservatives become insultingly paternalistic, as comfortable congressmen lecture struggling families on the dignity of work. And they also become advocates of highly intrusive government. For example, House Republicans tried to introduce a provision into the farm bill that would have allowed states to mandate drug testing for food stamp recipients. (A commenter on my blog suggested mandatory drug tests for employees of too-big-to-fail financial institutions, which receive large implicit subsidies. Now that would really cause a panic.)

The truth is that if you really care about the dignity and freedom of American workers, you should favor more, not fewer, entitlements, a stronger, not weaker, social safety net.

And you should, in particular, support and celebrate health reform. Never mind all those claims that Obamacare is slavery; the reality is that the Affordable Care Act will empower millions of Americans, giving them exactly the kind of dignity and freedom politicians only pretend to love.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

February 11, 2014

Bobo is showing off.  Bobo made me look up a word:  precariat.  He pretends he gives a crap in “The American Precariat” and gurgles that declining mobility may be symptomatic of a broader crisis of faith in the American dream.  Nary a word about what might have caused this, of course…  Mr. Cohen, in “The B.D.S. Threat,” says the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement targets the end of Israel as a Jewish state.  Mr. Nocera, in “Dogged By Data Theft,” tells how bankers and retailers have left American consumers less secure.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “Panic in the Locker Room!”:  Let me get this, um, straight: Some N.F.L. players can withstand crushing tackles but not an openly gay teammate?  It’s interesting to note that since yesterday evening most of the comments operation at the Times is down — not a comment anywhere, and no way available to leave one, at least for me when I log onto their site.  The only place I found comments available was Krugman’s blog.  Maybe because he’s not afraid of them…  Here’s Bobo:

When foreign visitors used to describe American culture, they generally settled on different versions of one trait: energy. Whether driven by crass motivations or spiritual ones, Americans, visitors agreed, worked more frantically, moved more and switched jobs more than just about anybody else on earth.

That’s changing. In the past 60 years, for example, Americans have become steadily less mobile. In 1950, 20 percent of Americans moved in a given year. Now, it’s around 12 percent. In the 1950s and 1960s, people lived in the same house for an average of five years; now people live in the same house for an average of 8.6 years. When it comes to geographic mobility, we are now at historic lows, no more mobile than people in Denmark or Finland.

Why is this happening? A few theories offer partial explanations, but only partial ones.

It is true that we are an aging nation and older people tend to move less. But today’s young people are much less mobile than young people from earlier generations. Between the 1980s and the 2000s alone, mobility among young adults dropped by 41 percent.

It’s also true that many people are locked into homes with underwater values. But as Timothy Noah pointed out in Washington Monthly, mobility among renters is down just as sharply as mobility among homeowners.

It’s also true that labor markets are getting more homogeneous. It used to be that the jobs found in Pittsburgh were different than the ones found in Atlanta. But now they are more similar, so there is less reason to move from one city to another. But that also fails to explain the tremendous drops over decades.

No, a big factor here is a loss in self-confidence. It takes faith to move. You are putting yourself through temporary expense and hardship because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward. Many highly educated people, who are still moving in high numbers, have that long-term faith. Less-educated people often do not.

One of the oddities of the mobility that does exist is that people are not moving to low-unemployment/high-income areas. Instead they are moving to lower-income areas with cheap housing. That is to say, they are less likely to endure temporary housing hardship for the sake of future opportunity. They are more likely to move to places that offer immediate comfort even if the long-term income prospects are lower.

This loss of faith is evident in other areas of life. Fertility rates, a good marker of confidence, are down. Even accounting for cyclical changes, people are less likely to voluntarily vacate a job in search of a better one. Only 46 percent of white Americans believe they have a good chance of improving their standard of living, the lowest levels in the history of the General Social Survey.

Peter Beinart wrote a fascinating piece for National Journal, arguing that Americans used to have much more faith in capitalism, a classless society, America’s role in the world and organized religion than people from Europe. But now American attitudes resemble European attitudes, and when you just look at young people, American exceptionalism is basically gone.

Fifty percent of Americans over 65 believe America stands above all others as the greatest nation on earth. Only 27 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe that. As late as 2003, Americans were more likely than Italians, Brits and Germans to say the “free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.” By 2010, they were slightly less likely than those Europeans to embrace capitalism.

Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.

These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to the British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.

The American Precariat seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities. This fatalism is historically uncharacteristic of America.

No one response is going to reverse the trend, but Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute believes government should offer moving vouchers to the long-term unemployed so they can chase opportunity. If we could induce more people to Go West! (or South, East or North) in search of opportunity, maybe the old future-oriented mind-set would return.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Secretary of State John Kerry caused outrage in Israel recently when he declared: “For Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary.”

Members of the Israeli government were indignant. Israel, they declared, will not negotiate under pressure. Advice givers, stay away! But Kerry was only repeating what Israel’s own finance minister, Yair Lapid, had already said: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement is beginning to bite.

I am a strong supporter of a two-state peace. The messianic idea of Greater Israel, occupying all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, must wither. Jews, having suffered for most of their history as a minority, cannot, as a majority now in their state, keep their boots on the heads of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank any longer.

Palestinians must accept the permanence of the state of Israel within the 1967 lines with equitable land swaps. Competitive victimhood should cede to collaborative viability for the nation states of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. Narratives and revealed truth do not a future make. They perpetuate the imprisoning past.

So, in theory, B.D.S. might be a positive factor. When the largest Dutch pension fund and the largest Danish bank withdraw investments from, or cease business with, Israeli banks because of their operations in the settlements, they send a powerful signal to Israel to get out of the West Bank.

Yet these developments make me uneasy for a simple reason: I do not trust the B.D.S. movement. Its stated aim is to end the occupation, secure “full equality” for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and fight for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees. The first objective is essential to Israel’s future. The second is laudable. The third, combined with the second, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is the hidden agenda of B.D.S., its unacceptable subterfuge: beguile, disguise and suffocate.

The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa contained no such ambiguity. As Diana Shaw Clark, an activist on behalf of a two-state solution, wrote to me in an email, “People affiliated with divestment in South Africa had no agenda other than the liberation and enfranchisement of an oppressed majority.”

This is not the case in Israel, where the triple objective of B.D.S. would, in Clark’s words, “doom Israel as a national home for the Jews.” Mellifluous talk of democracy and rights and justice masks the B.D.S. objective that is nothing other than the end of the Jewish state for which the United Nations gave an unambiguous mandate in 1947. The movement’s anti-Zionism can easily be a cover for anti-Semitism.

It would be gratifying if Israelis and Palestinians could learn overnight to live together as equal citizens in some United States of the Holy Land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, a binational and democratic secular state that resolves their differences. But it is an illusion to think this could ever happen, the one-state pipe dream. The fault lines are too deep. A single state cannot mark its Day of Independence and Day of Catastrophe on the same date.

One state, however conceived, equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state, the core of the Zionist idea. Jews must not allow this to happen. Trust your neighbor? Been there, tried that.

The so-called right of return of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven out in the 1948 war (whose descendants now number in the millions) cannot be exercised, any more than the Jews of Baghdad and Cairo have deeds to return home. There can, and should be, agreed compensation for the dispossessed, but there cannot be a reversal of history. The “right” is in fact a claim.

A Jewish national home is needed. History demonstrated that. It must now be reinvented. For that, the corrosive occupation has to end and with it the settlement industry.

B.D.S. is a wake-up call. I oppose it because I do not trust it. That does not mean, as Lapid intimated, that Israel can ignore its message.

Israel can only be a state of laws again when the lawless enterprise beyond the Green Line ends. West of that line, Israel is a democracy affording greater minority rights than other regional states (Omar Barghouti, a B.D.S. leader, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University). But that is not enough. All citizens should enjoy equality in the Jews’ national home, a state where civil marriage becomes possible, state and synagogue are divorced, and Israelis are permitted to identify themselves as Israelis if they so wish, rather than as Jews or Arabs or Druze — that is as undifferentiated citizens.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

“What is stopping us from moving to this kind of technology?” asked a perplexed Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota. It was last Tuesday, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Klobuchar sits, was holding a hearing about the recent breaches of Target and Neiman Marcus in which the data from tens of millions of credit and debit cards were stolen.

The technology Klobuchar had in mind is known as chip-and-PIN. The chip refers to a computer chip embedded in a credit or debit card that encrypts data and authenticates the card. The PIN refers to a personal identification number the customer has to use, which, in effect, authenticates the user.

It is no big secret that, from a security standpoint, a chip-and-PIN system is far superior to the magnetic stripe that is the backbone of the credit and debit card systems in the United States. Criminal gangs in Eastern Europe have learned how to penetrate many computer systems of American retailers and “skim” credit card data at the moment a transaction takes place. That kind of theft would be virtually impossible with a chip-and-PIN system.

Nor is it news that much of the rest of the world long ago adopted chip-and-PIN technology; according to MasterCard, 79 percent of terminals in Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean are “chip-enabled,” a figure that rises to 95 percent in parts of Europe. But, inexplicably, this clearly superior technology has not yet penetrated the United States.

Or maybe it’s not so inexplicable. The main stumbling block, it would appear, is that retailers and bankers have spent way too much time blaming each other for the growing data theft problem — and not nearly enough time worrying about the people whose data have been stolen. Namely, us.

“Why did the U.S. stick with the mag stripe?” said David Robertson, publisher of The Nilson Report. It may not have been best for consumers, but it was “cheap and efficient” for the banks and retailers. What’s more, banks and retailers had a certain amount of fraud built into their business models. Thus, while a hacked card brought big headaches to the customer, it was just another cost of doing business for the other entities involved in the transaction.

Even as Europe and Canada were moving to a chip-and-PIN system, the American banks held back. Fraud at the point of sale dropped dramatically in countries with chip-and-PIN. Still the U.S. held back. Every time there was a push to adopt chip-and-PIN, both retailers and bankers would do the math and come to the same conclusion: It wasn’t worth the trouble.

And when a company did try to adopt it? That’s what Target tried to do around 2003 — only to discover that it was largely a waste of money if nobody else went along. In Europe and elsewhere governments had pushed companies to adopt chip-and-PIN. In the U.S., the banks and retailers needed to be able to work together — spending billions both to manufacture new cards and install new terminals that could read the cards.

There are two things that are likely to change the equation. The first is the Target breach, which, one expert told me, could involve as many as one in every 10 cards in circulation in the United States. Many of the cards are debit cards, which means if the card is used by a crook to make a purchase, it comes directly out of the customer’s bank account. (Target has vowed to indemnify any customer who has losses as a result of the breach.) The Target breach has shown the reputational hit a company can take when its system is breached. It also has had business consequences: the last two weeks of the Christmas season were lousy ones for Target — and the publicity from the breach is considered a prime culprit.

Second, though, Visa and MasterCard have both set forth timetables that attempt to institute the adoption of embedded-chips technology by the fall of 2015. Although the timetables are not mandatory, they would essentially shift the liability for card losses on to whichever side — the bank or the retailer — has the least secure technology. Although there were various calls for delaying the implementation yet again, those calls stopped once the Target breach took place.

Which is not to say that the banks and the retailers are now seeing eye to eye. When I spoke to a bank lobbyist last week, he told me that the real problem was “a weakness in the internal computer system of large companies that sophisticated criminals have learned to exploit.” The retailers, meanwhile, retort that the banks have continually come up with ideas short of chip-and-PIN, none of which ever worked for long before the bad guys figured how to breach them.

The only thing missing from these arguments is the consumer.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

A news flash for every straight man out there: You’ve been naked in front of a gay man.

In fact you’ve been naked, over the course of your life, in front of many gay men, at least if you have more than a few years on you. And here you are — uninjured, uncorrupted, intact. The earth still spins. The sun rises and sets.

Maybe it was in gym class, long ago. Maybe at the health club more recently. Or maybe when you played sports at the high school level, the college level, later on. Whether we gay guys are one in 10 or one in 25, it’s a matter of chance: At some point, one of us was within eyeshot when you stripped down.

And you know what? He probably wasn’t checking you out. He certainly wasn’t beaming special gay-conversion gamma rays at you. That’s why you weren’t aware of his presence and didn’t immediately go out and buy a more expensive moisturizer and a disc of Judy Garland’s greatest hits. His purpose mirrored yours. He was changing clothes and showering. It’s a locker room, for heaven’s sake. Not last call at the Rawhide.

On Sunday evening, in a story in The Times by John Branch and on ESPN, a college football star named Michael Sam came out. Because Sam is almost certain to be drafted, he could soon be the first openly gay active player in the National Football League — in any of the four major professional sports in the United States.

Most reactions from the sports world were hugely positive, even inspirational.

Some were not.

“It’d chemically imbalance an N.F.L. locker room,” an N.F.L. personnel assistant, speaking anonymously, said to Sports Illustrated. I think steroids, Adderall and painkillers have already done a pretty thorough job of that, and on the evidence of his comment, they’ve addled minds in the process.

Sports Illustrated quoted an unnamed assistant coach who also brought up the fabled sanctum of Tinactin and testosterone. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” he said. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it?”

To his question, a few of my own: When did the locker room become such a delicate ecosystem? Is it inhabited by athletes or orchids? And how is it that gladiators who don’t flinch when a 300-pound mountain of flesh in shoulder pads comes roaring toward them start to quiver at the thought of a homosexual under a nearby nozzle? They may be physical giants, but at least a few of them are psychological pipsqueaks.

And they’re surprisingly blunt and Paleolithic. When NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer recently brought up the possibility of an openly gay player with Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, he said: “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me.”

“How am I supposed to respond?” Vilma added.

Well, a squeal would be unmanly, Mace might not be enough and N.F.L. players tend to use their firearms away from the stadium, so I’d advise him to do what countless females of our species have done with leering males through history. Step away. Move on. Dare I say woman up?

Or Vilma could use a line suggested by the sports journalist Cyd Zeigler on the website “I’m so telling your boyfriend you stole a peek.”

The anxiety about the locker room makes no sense in terms of the kind of chaotic setting it often is, with all sorts of people rushing through, including reporters of both sexes. It’s a workplace, really, and more bedlam than boudoir.

The anxiety depends on stereotypes of gay men as creatures of preternatural libido. (Thanks, but I lunge faster for pasta than for porn.)

And it’s illogical. “Every player knows that they are playing or have played with gay guys,” John Amaechi, a former pro basketball player who came out after his retirement, told me. It’s just that those gay guys didn’t or haven’t identified themselves. Why would doing so make them a greater threat? Wouldn’t an openly gay athlete have a special investment in proving that there’s zero to worry about?

Michael Sam proved as much at the University of Missouri, where teammates learned of his sexual orientation before their most recent season. They finished 12-2, and are publicly praising him so far. Nothing about trembling or cowering in the showers.

The person who raises that fear, Amaechi said, “is a bigot finally falling over the cliff and grasping for any straw that might keep their purchase. When every rational argument is gone, you go with that.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 7, 2014

In “Other People’s Views” Bobo asks a question:  When should you care about what your peers and friends think and when should you not?  “Gemli” from Boston sums it up thusly:  “There are ironies large enough to choke on in this reasonable-sounding column. The biggest esophagus-blocker is the idea that someone who shills for Republican plutocrats should want to give us advice on the niceties of tip-toeing through society.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Setting Aside Revealed Truth,” says enemy imperatives can demand that memory be shaped for maximum explosive effect.  In “Health, Work, Lies” Prof. Krugman says from all the brouhaha over this week’s C.B.O. report, it seems as if job losses are the new death panels when it comes to attacking health reform.  Here’s Bobo:

Let’s say you’re turning 40 and you realize you want to leave accounting and become a hip-hop artist. People will say you’re having a pathetic midlife crisis, but should you do it anyway?

Let’s say you’re on the phone in a crowded place and you want to tell your buddy a dirty joke, which may offend the people around you. Should you tell it?

Let’s say you have religious or political beliefs that make you unpopular. Should you hide or change them?

Let’s say you are deeply in love with a person your friends dislike. Should you dump that person?

I ask these questions because I think that we, as a society, are extremely confused about this issue: When should you care about what other people think and when should you not?

Officially, we tell each other we don’t care. We are heirs to a 19th-century rugged individualism that says the individual should stand strong and self-reliant, not conform to the crowd. We are also heirs to a 20th-century ethic of authenticity that holds that each of us is called to be true to our sincere inner self, and that if we bend to please others we are failing in some fundamental way.

But, of course, in reality we do care what other people think. We are wired to connect, to seek the admiration of others. We want to be part of communities, which means obeying community norms.

Moreover, we live at a time of intense social insecurity. The Internet creates instant feedback, letting you know when people approve of you and when they don’t. We are also living during an epidemic of conditional love. Many parents bestow or withdraw affection depending on how well their children are achieving, producing millions of young people without secure emotional foundations, who pine for any kind of approval.

I admit I’m confused myself about when you should pay attention to or ignore outside opinion. But I’ll throw out four different ways of thinking about the question, corresponding to the four questions at the top of this column.

First, the hip-hop artist question. Here it might be best to defer to public opinion. People tend to make poor decisions at moments of life transition, so at these moments, lean in the direction of respecting to the wisdom of the crowd. Have a midlife crisis, but in less stereotypical form.

Then, the question of the dirty joke. This is a question of manners. Here, too, it’s probably a good idea to give priority to other people’s views. The manners and mores of a community are a shared possession. When you violate social norms, you are not only being rude to people around you, but you are making it more likely that others will violate the norms in the future. You are tearing the social fabric.

In most circumstances, therefore, we owe it to our group to usually follow the rules that help people behave considerately. Put social niceties above individual desire. Don’t tell the joke.

Then the question of the unpopular belief. In this case, it is clearly wrong to sacrifice some of your conviction for immediate popularity. Basically you are trading in something deep for something shallow.

Most of our core beliefs originated with some great figure from the distant past. These ideas, creeds or faiths were then nurtured by generations of other people, who are also now mostly dead. They created a transcendent tradition, which we embrace and hope in turn to pass along to generations as yet unborn. No sensible person would ever be happy betraying the approval of the admired dead just to win some passing approval in the here and now.

Finally, the question of the unpopular fiancé. This is tricky because it depends on what kind of feedback other people are offering. If they are talking about your boyfriend’s status (he’s too ugly; he’s got a bad job) then outside opinion doesn’t matter.

But they may be observing something about the internal nature of your relationship that you are too blinded by passion to see. Maybe they can discern that he hurts you in this way or that. In this case, outside advice is not about approval; it’s about wisdom at a time when your emotions are clouding your judgment.

To sum up, I can’t find any universal rules about when to defer to outside approval. It depends on the circumstances. It does seem that people should defer less to public approval as they age. At 15, it’s normal to be socially insecure. By 45, unless you’re in a crisis, you should have distilled enough ancient wisdom to have inner criteria.

Plus, sometimes it’s smart to attract ridicule for its own sake. You’ll learn that it really does you no harm if you don’t let it. Your friends will laugh at you. And accept you in the end.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The journalist is a stranger who moves in the opposite direction from the crowd, toward danger, leaving the settled majority perplexed. Why, they ask, are you going over the lines? Why do you choose such a lonely existence? In search of a fair understanding, you say, and they shake their heads. There is nothing to understand, they insist, just write the truth!

But truths are many and that is the problem. Memory is treacherous, as distinct from history as emotion from form. Every war is fought over memory. Violent nationalism is revived memory manipulated as revealed truth.

Conflict is incubated in the contested “truths” the past bequeaths. Questions swirl: Who came first to the land, who planted the millennial olive trees, who killed whom first, whether the church predates the mosque, and what of the synagogue that may precede them both?

Identities are assembled piece by piece. Each drop of blood shed, each shrapnel scar on a wall, is annotated in the Book of Unforgiving. In the Balkans and the Middle East the events of a thousand years past can seem as vivid as yesterday’s. The enemy imperatives of Serb and Kosovar, of Arab and Jew, can demand that memory, like the fuse for a bomb, be shaped for maximum explosive effect. Truces last no longer than a cheap umbrella in a storm.

I first came face to face with the power of myth to generate war in the Balkans, at Kosovo Polje, or “The Field of Blackbirds,” where the Serbs were routed by the Ottoman Turks in 1389. The battle has since become the lodestone of Serbian nationalism, a defeat transformed into a symbol of Serbian heroism and selfless sacrifice.

Here, a quarter-century ago, as the Cold War order in Europe cracked, the Serbian nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, declared: “For six centuries now, the heroism of Kosovo has inspired our creativity, fed our pride, and not allowed us to forget that once we were an army great, brave and proud, one of the few that in defeat stayed undefeated. Six centuries later, today, we are again in battles and facing battles. They are not armed, although such battles cannot be excluded yet.”

The rest is now history: a decade of war; the dismemberment of Yugoslavia; the ethnic cleansing of wide swathes of Bosnia as its Muslims (often called “Turks” by the marauding Serbs) were processed through Serb concentration camps; more than 100,000 dead; Sarajevo and Srebrenica; the NATO intervention in Kosovo; and the contentious emergence of several newly independent European states, the last of them Kosovo in 2008. For Serbia, the adrenaline of nationalist frenzy turned into the slow drip of loss, none more painful than Kosovo, whose overwhelming majority is Albanian but whose landscape is dotted with sites sacred to Serbs.

So, after all this, I had to rub my eyes at the Munich Security Conference, where the most extraordinary sight was that of Ivica Dacic, the Serbian prime minister, and Hashim Thaci, the prime minister of Kosovo, sitting together on the same stage, all smiles, talking about how they had reconciled and how, in the words of Thaci, “the greatest single difficulty was to liberate ourselves from the past.”

Israelis and Palestinians, take note.

Between the two Balkan leaders sat Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the world’s most underrated diplomat. Her appointment in 2009 and the creation of the European External Action Service were much derided. But her successful mediation of Serb-Kosovar talks that began in 2011 and her contribution to securing an interim nuclear deal with Iran constitute major achievements. In the Balkans the “pull factor” of the European Union — its magnetic attraction to nations craving stability and freedom — has again been demonstrated. Serbia and Kosovo had to sort out their differences to stand a chance of getting in, and so they have. The maligned European Union is still a peacemaking machine.

Normalization was not easy. Dacic was born in Kosovo. His people’s feelings about the cradle of their civilization are passionate. He put the issue bluntly: Serbia believes Kosovo is part of Serbia. Kosovo does not. Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian. The Serbian economy has languished. “Who can be in favor of such policies? It is up to us to decide if we move forward or stick to the past.”

Serbs and Kosovars have decided. They found an agreed degree of autonomy for the tens of thousands of Serbs in northern Kosovo. They opened for trade. They held free elections. They circumvented outstanding differences. They put themselves on the road to the European Union.

Above all they set aside the potent symbolism of The Field of Blackbirds in favor of progress, discarded myth to discover commerce, and reasoned their way out of the prison of passionate certainties and revealed “truth.”

Last but never least here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wednesday, Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said the obvious: losing your job and choosing to work less aren’t the same thing. If you lose your job, you suffer immense personal and financial hardship. If, on the other hand, you choose to work less and spend more time with your family, “we don’t sympathize. We say congratulations.”

And now you know everything you need to know about the latest falsehood in the ever-mendacious campaign against health reform.

Let’s back up. On Tuesday, the budget office released a report on the fiscal and economic outlook that included two appendices devoted to effects of the Affordable Care Act.

The first appendix attracted almost no attention from the news media, yet it was actually a bombshell. Much public discussion of health reform is still colored by Obamacare’s terrible start, and presumes that the program remains a disaster. Some of us have pointed out that things have been going much better lately — but now it’s more or less official. The budget office predicts that first-year sign-ups in the health exchanges will fall only modestly short of expectations, and that nearly as many uninsured Americans will gain insurance as it predicted last spring.

This good news got drowned out, however, by false claims about the meaning of the second health care appendix, on labor supply.

It has always been clear that health reform will induce some Americans to work less. Some people will, for example, retire earlier because they no longer need to keep working to keep their health insurance. Others will reduce their hours to spend more time with their children because insurance is no longer contingent on holding a full-time job. More subtly, the incentive to work will be somewhat reduced by health insurance subsidies that fall as your income rises.

The budget office has now increased its estimate of the size of these effects. It believes that health reform will reduce the number of hours worked in the economy by between 1.5 percent and 2 percent, which it unhelpfully noted “represents a decline in the number of full-time-equivalent workers of about 2.0 million.”

Why was this unhelpful? Because politicians and, I’m sorry to say, all too many news organizations immediately seized on the 2 million number and utterly misrepresented its meaning. For example, Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, quickly posted this on his Twitter account: “Under Obamacare, millions of hardworking Americans will lose their jobs and those who keep them will see their hours and wages reduced.”

Not a word of this claim was true. The budget office report didn’t say that people will lose their jobs. It declared explicitly that the predicted fall in hours worked will come “almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor” (emphasis added). And as we’ve already seen, Mr. Elmendorf did his best the next day to explain that voluntary reductions in work hours are nothing like involuntary job loss. Oh, and because labor supply will be reduced, wages will go up, not down.

We should add that the budget office believes that health reform will actually reduce unemployment over the next few years.

Just to be clear, the predicted long-run fall in working hours isn’t entirely a good thing. Workers who choose to spend more time with their families will gain, but they’ll also impose some burden on the rest of society, for example, by paying less in payroll and income taxes. So there is some cost to Obamacare over and above the insurance subsidies. Any attempt to do the math, however, suggests that we’re talking about fairly minor costs, not the “devastating effects” Mr. Cantor asserted in his next post on Twitter.

So was Mr. Cantor being dishonest? Or was he just ignorant of the policy basics and unwilling to actually read the report before trumpeting his misrepresentation of what it said? It doesn’t matter — because even if it was ignorance, it was willful ignorance. Remember, the campaign against health reform has, at every stage, grabbed hold of any and every argument it could find against insuring the uninsured, with truth and logic never entering into the matter.

Think about it. We had the nonexistent death panels. We had false claims that the Affordable Care Act will cause the deficit to balloon. We had supposed horror stories about ordinary Americans facing huge rate increases, stories that collapsed under scrutiny. And now we have a fairly innocuous technical estimate misrepresented as a tale of massive economic damage.

Meanwhile, the reality is that American health reform — flawed and incomplete though it is — is making steady progress. No, millions of Americans won’t lose their jobs, but tens of millions will gain the security of knowing that they can get and afford the health care they need.


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