Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

June 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

See Hillary run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

June 6, 2014

Bobo has actually produced something called “President Obama Was Right” in which he babbles that national solidarity is essential to the health of the country. And President Obama’s prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl nurtured that sentiment.  Lest you think Bobo’s changed his views one whit, “gemli” from Boston started his extensive comment thusly:  “Mr. Brooks’ compliment to president Obama couldn’t be more backhanded if Bjorn Borg had delivered it. Beneath the thin film of patriotic pride is an appalling litany of hypocrisy and half-truths that defines the jaded conservative view of this country.”  So, typical Bobo stuff.  In “Obama at Omaha” Mr. Cohen says if the president takes one lesson away from the Normandy beaches, it should be that realism isn’t enough.  Prof. Krugman addresses “The Climate Domino” and says the E.P.A.’s proposed rules on carbon should start a chain reaction that leads to steps to limit climate change around the world.  Here’s Bobo:

Americans don’t have a common ancestry. Therefore, we have to work hard to build national solidarity. We go in for more overt displays of patriotism than in most other countries: politicians wearing flag lapel pins, everybody singing the national anthem before games, saying the Pledge of Allegiance at big meetings, revering sacred creedal statements, like the Gettysburg Address.

We need to do this because national solidarity is essential to the health of the country. This feeling of solidarity means that we do pull together and not apart in times of crisis, like after the attacks on 9/11. Despite all our polarization, we do accept the election results, even when the other party wins. People in New York do uncomplainingly send tax dollars to help people in New Mexico. We are able to assimilate waves of immigration.

National solidarity is especially important for the national defense. Men and women serve in the armed forces for a variety of reasons, but one of them is the awareness that it is an extraordinary privilege to be an American, that it is a debt that needs to be repaid with service.

Soldiers in combat not only protect their buddies, they show amazing devotion to anyone in the uniform, without asking about state or ethnicity. This is the cohesion that makes armies effective.

These commitments, so crucial, are based on deep fraternal sentiments that have to be nurtured with action. They are based on the notion that we are members of one national community. We will not abandon each other; we will protect one another; heroic measures will be taken to leave no one behind. Even if it is just a lifeless body that we are retrieving, it is important to repatriate all Americans.

The president and vice president, the only government officials elected directly by the entire nation, have a special responsibility to nurture this national solidarity. So, of course, President Obama had to take all measures necessary to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Of course, he had to do all he could do to not forsake an American citizen.

It doesn’t matter if Bergdahl had deserted his post or not. It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship, and loyalty to the national community we all share.

Soldiers don’t risk their lives only for those Americans who deserve it; they do it for the nation as a whole.

It is not dispositive either that the deal to release Bergdahl may put others at risk. The five prisoners released from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in a swap for Bergdahl seem like terrible men who could do harm. But their release may have been imminent anyway. And the loss of national fraternity that would result if we start abandoning Americans in the field would be a greater and more long lasting harm.

Israel once traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to get back one of their own. Another time they traded 1,150 prisoners to get back three of their own. They did it because of a deep awareness that national cohesion is essential to national survival. They did it because Israeli parents share a common emotional bond; the imprisonment of one of their children touches them all. In polarized countries, especially, you have to take care of your own. If you don’t, the corrosive effects will be cumulative.

It doesn’t matter either that the United States government ended up dealing with terrorists. In the first place, the Taliban is not a terrorist organization the way Al Qaeda is. America has always tried to reach a negotiated arrangement with the Taliban, and this agreement may be a piece of that. In the second place, this is the dirty world we live in. Sometimes national leaders are called upon to take the sins of the situation upon themselves for the good of the country, to deal with the hateful and compromise with the loathsome. That’s their form of sacrifice and service.

So President Obama made the right call. If he is to be faulted, it would be first for turning the release into an Oprah-esque photo-op, a political stunt filled with inaccurate rhetoric and unworthy grandstanding. It would next be for his administration’s astonishing tone-deafness about how this swap would be received.

Most of all, the Obama administration can be faulted for not at least trying to use the language of communal solidarity to explain this decision. Apparently, we have become such a hyperindividualized culture that it is impossible to even develop an extended argument on how individual cases fit into the larger fabric of the common good.

Still, the president’s instincts were right. His sense of responsibility for a fellow countryman was correct. It’s not about one person; it’s about the principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all, which is the basis of citizenship.

Gee, I wonder if Bobo has taken a look at what his collection of Republican lunatics think is the basis of citizenship.  After all, he’s carried enough water for them…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

What kind of figure will Obama cut at Omaha?

On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings Friday, the American president will join the French president, François Hollande, at the American Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the beach, code-named Omaha, where German machine guns ripped into Allied forces coming ashore in the name of freedom. Of the estimated 4,500 dead that day, more than half were United States personnel. Casualties at cliff-ringed Omaha were the highest of the five beaches.

I wish I could say he will cut a convincing figure. Any American leader must embody the nation’s commitment to the spread of liberty, the defense of allies and the sanctity of the American “red lines” that are the guarantors of global security. I wish Obama was persuasive in this role in part because his story is a very American one. The unlikely rise to the pinnacle of an African-American, so named, stirred hopes across a world that had grown disillusioned with the United States and its universal promise.

But Obama at bloody Omaha, in the sixth year of his presidency, falls short at a time when his aides have been defining the cornerstone of his foreign policy as: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Americans do not respond well to doctrine defined in negative terms. As citizens of a nation that represents an idea, they are hard-wired to the optimism of that idea. Since when did the can-do nation become the can-avoid nation?

He falls short at a time when Syria bleeds more than three years into the uprising, its dead and displaced pile up, and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, reinforced by Obama’s last-minute retreat from the red line he had set on use of chemical weapons, holds a farcical election to rubber-stamp his tyranny.

So conspicuous is the American failure in Syria that one of the nation’s bravest diplomats and finest Arabists, Robert Ford, has resigned from the government. He told Christiane Amanpour of CNN this week that he was “no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy.” The United States, he said, had been “behind the curve,” failing to provide early on the military and logistical assistance, and the cash, that would have enabled the opposition to “gain more ground a couple of years ago more quickly.”

This, from a diplomat schooled in restraint, amounted to a fierce condemnation. It is warranted.

Obama falls short at a time when Vladimir Putin, emboldened by that Syrian retreat and the perception of American weakness, has annexed Crimea — the first such land grab in Europe by a major power since 1945. (Putin will attend the Normandy commemoration.) Obama falls short as Putin’s Russian surrogates in eastern Ukraine wreak havoc. On Europe, until very recently, this president has been content with the de rigueur minimum, convinced the old Continent was old news.

He falls short, also, when the Egyptian dreams of liberty and pluralism that arose in Tahrir Square have given way to the landslide victory of a former general in an “election” only a little less grotesque than Assad’s in Syria.

On all these issues — Syria, Ukraine, Egypt — President Obama was unconvincing in his recent foreign policy speech at West Point. He said his decision to avoid military involvement in Syria “does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator.” Well, the Syrian people are still waiting.

He said America, standing with its allies, had given “a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future” — except, of course, those in Crimea and the overrun eastern area. He said the United States will “persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded” — as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi applies his iron fist.

A strange duality is at work today in the American psyche. Americans want the troops to come home. They want the wars to be over. They want investment to prioritize domestic jobs, education and health care. But when this president delivers all that, they balk. They feel he is selling the nation short. They want him to lead, not merely comply with or interpret their sentiments.

This is what Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has called Obama’s foreign policy paradox. The president who is delivering the foreign policy Americans supposedly want is unpopular for it. A recent CBS News poll showed that only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on foreign policy, while 49 percent disapprove, consistent with findings last year by the Pew Research Center.

Obama would argue he is a realist adapting to a changed world in the wake of two taxing wars. He has a point. But realism did not win the day at Omaha. No realist would have attempted such impossible landings. If he takes one lesson away from the beaches for the remainder of his presidency, it should be that.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Maybe it’s me, but the predictable right-wing cries of outrage over the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules on carbon seem oddly muted and unfocused. I mean, these are the people who managed to create national outrage over nonexistent death panels. Now the Obama administration is doing something that really will impose at least some pain on some people. Where are the eye-catching fake horror stories?

For what it’s worth, however, the attacks on the new rules mainly involve the three C’s: conspiracy, cost and China. That is, right-wingers claim that there isn’t any global warming, that it’s all a hoax promulgated by thousands of scientists around the world; that taking action to limit greenhouse gas emissions would devastate the economy; and that, anyway, U.S. policy can’t accomplish anything because China will just go on spewing stuff into the atmosphere.

I don’t want to say much about the conspiracy theorizing, except to point out that any attempt to make sense of current American politics must take into account this particular indicator of the Republican Party’s descent into madness. There is, however, a lot to say about both the cost and China issues.

On cost: It’s reasonable to argue that new rules aimed at limiting emissions would have some negative effect on G.D.P. and family incomes. Even that isn’t necessarily true, especially in a depressed economy, where regulations that require new investment could end up creating jobs. Still, the odds are that the E.P.A.’s action, if it goes into effect, will hurt at least a little.

Claims that the effects will be devastating are, however, not just wrong but inconsistent with what conservatives claim to believe. Ask right-wingers how the U.S. economy will cope with limited supplies of raw materials, land, and other resources, and they respond with great optimism: the magic of the marketplace will lead us to solutions. But they abruptly lose their faith in market magic when someone proposes limits on pollution — limits that would largely be imposed in market-friendly ways like cap-and-trade systems. Suddenly, they insist that businesses will be unable to adjust, that there are no alternatives to doing everything energy-related exactly the way we do it now.

That’s not realistic, and it’s not what careful analysis says. It’s not even what studies paid for by opponents of climate action say. As I explained last week, the United States Chamber of Commerce recently commissioned a report that was intended to show the terrible costs of the forthcoming E.P.A. policy — a report that made the least favorable assumptions possible in an attempt to make the costs look bigger. Even so, however, the numbers came out embarrassingly small. No, cracking down on coal won’t cripple the U.S. economy.

But what about the international aspect? At this point, the United States accounts for only 17 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while China accounts for 27 percent — and China’s share is rising fast. So it’s true that America, acting alone, can’t save the planet. We need international cooperation.

That, however, is precisely why we need the new policy. America can’t expect other countries to take strong action against emissions while refusing to do anything itself, so the new rules are needed to get the game going. And it’s fairly certain that action in the U.S. would lead to corresponding action in Europe and Japan.

That leaves China, and there have been many cynical declarations over the past few days to the effect that China will just go ahead and burn any coal that we don’t. And we certainly don’t want to count on Chinese altruism.

But we don’t have to. China is enormously dependent on access to advanced-country markets — a lot of the coal it burns can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to its export business — and it knows that it would put this access at risk if it refused to play any role in protecting the planet.

More specifically, if and when wealthy countries take serious action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, they’re very likely to start imposing “carbon tariffs” on goods imported from countries that aren’t taking similar action. Such tariffs should be legal under existing trade rules — the World Trade Organization would probably declare that carbon limits are effectively a tax on consumers, which can be levied on imports as well as domestic production. Furthermore, trade rules give special consideration to environmental protection. So China would find itself with strong incentives to start limiting emissions.

The new carbon policy, then, is supposed to be the beginning, not the end, a domino that, once pushed over, should start a chain reaction that leads, finally, to global steps to limit climate change. Do we know that it will work? Of course not. But it’s vital that we try.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

June 3, 2014

Bobo has read about child psychology…  In “The Art of Focus” he babbles that the secret to winning the internal battle against distraction is not to say “no” to trivial things but to say “yes” to powerful longings.  In the comments “Jack Chicago” from Chicago had this to say:  ” ‘First, Phillips says, in order to pursue their intellectual adventures, children need a secure social base:’ Yes, Mr Brooks said it here! In a meandering column, the apologist for the party that does more to ensure that more of our children won’t have a secure social base, waxes lyrical.  Let’s hear it for the tone deaf! Stop food stamps, don’t waste money on poverty. After all children are the great learners! What rank hypocrisy!”  Mr. Cohen considers “Herzog at 50″ and tells us how a great novel read at the right moment can be a transformative force.  Mr. Nocera considers “Guns and Mental Illness” and says yes, the mental health system has problems. But the bigger issue is guns.  In “The Theater Beyond the Clintons” Mr. Bruni says Andrew Cuomo confronts a perennial Democratic challenge: placating the left while holding the center.  Here’s Bobo:

Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war. I toggle over to my emails when I should be working. I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube. (“Look, there’s a bunch of guys who can play ‘Billie Jean’ on beer bottles!”)

And, like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week!

And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect. Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on. According to a survey reported in an Op-Ed article on Sunday in The Times by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, 66 percent of workers aren’t able to focus on one thing at a time. Seventy percent of employees don’t have regular time for creative or strategic thinking while at work.

Since the prohibition sermons don’t work, I wonder if we might be able to copy some of the techniques used by the creatures who are phenomenally good at learning things: children.

I recently stumbled across an interview in The Paris Review with Adam Phillips, who was a child psychologist for many years. First, Phillips says, in order to pursue their intellectual adventures, children need a secure social base:

“There’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can ‘forget yourself’ and absorb yourself, in a book, say.”

Second, before they can throw themselves into their obsessions. Children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening. “One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have,” Phillips observes. “How much appetite they have — but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children … will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. …

“One of the things it means is there’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limited, narrowed way. … .An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways. … Everybody is dealing with how much of their own alivenesss they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

Third, children are not burdened by excessive self-consciousness: “As young children, we listen to adults talking before we understand what they’re saying. And that’s, after all, where we start — we start in a position of not getting it.” Children are used to living an emotional richness that can’t be captured in words. They don’t worry about trying to organize their lives into neat little narratives. Their experience of life is more direct because they spend less time on interfering thoughts about themselves.

The lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

The way to discover a terrifying longing is to liberate yourself from the self-censoring labels you began to tell yourself over the course of your mis-education. These formulas are stultifying, Phillips argues: “You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite.”

Thus: Focus on the external objects of fascination, not on who you think you are. Find people with overlapping obsessions. Don’t structure your encounters with them the way people do today, through brainstorming sessions (those don’t work) or through conferences with projection screens.

Instead look at the way children learn in groups. They make discoveries alone, but bring their treasures to the group. Then the group crowds around and hashes it out. In conversation, conflict, confusion and uncertainty can be metabolized and digested through somebody else. If the group sets a specific problem for itself, and then sets a tight deadline to come up with answers, the free digression of conversation will provide occasions in which people are surprised by their own minds.

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

There are books one has read, or believes one has, but they are read too soon or too late and so carry no weight. No emotional frame in which to fit them exists. Some novels, like Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” seem ripe at any age. Others, like Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet,” lose their precocious luster. Still others lie dormant until chance revives them at an opportune moment.

During a recent conversation about life after a long marriage, in what at a stretch may still be called middle age, a friend said of my unanchored state, “Yeah, Herzog.” I was sure I had read the novel, I had my Saul Bellow season long ago, but his comment lodged in my mind. A few days later, on a whim, I bought “Herzog” on the 50th anniversary of its publication.

The opening line is well known: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” From there Bellow weaves the extraordinary tale of his hero Herzog’s madness, which is not quite that, capturing, in a prodigious flow of verbal energy, the longings, the jealousy, the passions, the fury, the ideas, the joys, the nostalgia and the loneliness of a 47-year-old man whose second marriage has just ended and finds himself adrift between New York, Chicago and a house in the Berkshires.

The plot is anything but linear. It follows the time leaps and zigzags of Herzog’s mind. It does not flow; it eddies irresistibly. The novel is written from the inside out in a frenzy of imaginative sympathy, switching from third-person to first-person narration, and from past to present (Herzog has reached that life fulcrum where the past becomes overwhelming).

Herzog is an academic who has earned renown as a historian of romantic ideas. He is attractive but shambolic, impulse-driven. His mind never rests: “The pulses in his skull were quick and regular, like the tappets of an engine beating in their film of dark oil.” His second wife, Madeleine, has dumped him for that “effing peg-leg” Valentine Gersbach, erstwhile neighbor and friend. Madeleine is icy, emasculating and brilliant. She is vengeful and extravagant. Bellow’s evocation of the marriage’s unraveling is ferocious and funny, not least as Herzog recalls a conversation when Madeleine was pregnant:

“Five hundred bucks on a maternity outfit. Who’s going to be born — Louis Quatorze?”

“Yes, I know, your darling mother wore flour sacks.”

She did, indeed. Herzog knows where he came from, his family having arrived in the United States from Canada “filthy with the soot,” still in touch with the “ancient Herzogs with their psalms and their shawls and beards.” That world is gone, but replaced by what? In the void, Herzog has moments of quixotic self-belief: “The revolutions of the twentieth century, the liberation of the masses by production, created private life but gave nothing to fill it with. This was where such as he came in. The progress of civilization — indeed, the survival of civilization — depended on the successes of Moses E. Herzog.”

Then the emptiness returns. He plots the murder, briefly, of Madeleine and Valentine. He finds sexual consolation with Ramona, his present flame, but flees her periodically. He muses, “The Jews were strange to the world for a great length of time, and now the world is being strange to them in return.” He fires off missives of pyrotechnic brilliance and spleen — to Spinoza, Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson and Tolstoy, among others; Tolstoy, whose idea of freedom is personal: “That man is free whose condition is simple, truthful — real. To be free is to be released from historical limitation.”

But his times press on Herzog — “In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities.”

Yes, Bellow wrote that more than 50 years ago. Like much in “Herzog” it takes the breath away.

This is life: a serendipitous meeting, a conversation, a novel that consumes the mind, sparks ideas and brings joy, the irrepressible renewal of hope. If I had already read the novel I had read it at the wrong time. The right time was now, this minute.

Herzog has no great epiphany. His “balance comes from instability.” But he can laugh, always, dance (to Polish music), create. The words that cascade from him are a life force, his unquenchable humanity. At the last he prepares a candlelit country dinner for Ramona. He is emptied out: “He had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.”

Happy 50th, Herzog!

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

It is difficult to read stories about Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old man who went on a murderous spree in Isla Vista, Calif., last month, without feeling some empathy for his parents.

We know that his mother, alarmed by some of his misogynistic YouTube videos, made a call that resulted in the police visiting Rodger. The headline from that meeting was that Rodger, seemingly calm and collected, easily deflected the police’s attention. But there was surely a subtext: How worried — how desperate, really — must a mother be to believe the police should be called on her own son?

We also learned that on the day of his murderous rampage, his mother, having read the first few lines of his “manifesto,” had phoned his father, from whom she was divorced. In separate cars, they raced from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara hoping to stop what they feared was about to happen.

And then, on Monday, in a remarkably detailed article in The New York Times, we learned the rest of it. How Rodger was clearly a troubled soul before he even turned 8 years old. How his parents’ concern about his mental health was like a “shadow that hung over this Los Angeles family nearly every day of Elliot’s life.”

Constantly bullied and unable to fit in, he went through three high schools. In college, he tried to throw a girl off a ledge at a party — and was beaten up. (“I’m going to kill them,” he said to a neighbor afterward.) He finally retreated to some Internet sites that “drew sexually frustrated young men,” according to The Times.

Throughout, said one person who knew Rodger, “his mom did everything she could to help Elliot.” But what his parents never did was the one thing that might have prevented him from buying a gun: have him committed to a psychiatric facility. California’s tough gun laws notwithstanding, a background check would have caught him only if he had had in-patient mental health treatment, made a serious threat to an identifiable victim in the presence of a therapist, or had a criminal record. He had none of the above.

Should his parents have taken more steps to have him treated? Could they have? It is awfully hard to say, even in retrospect. On the one hand, there were plainly people who knew him who feared that he might someday harm others. On the other hand, those people weren’t psychiatrists. He was a loner, a misfit, whose parents were more fearful of how the world would treat their son than how their son would treat the world. And his mother, after all, did reach out for help, and the police responded and decided they had no cause to arrest him or even search his room, where his guns were hidden.

Once again, a mass killing has triggered calls for doing something to keep guns away from the mentally ill. And, once again, the realities of the situation convey how difficult a task that is. There are, after all, plenty of young, male, alienated loners — the now-standard description of mass shooters — but very few of them become killers.

And you can’t go around committing them all because a tiny handful might turn out to be killers. Indeed, the law is very clear on this point. In 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that nondangerous mentally ill people can’t be confined against their will if they can function without confinement. “In California, the bar is very high for people like Elliot,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, who founded the Treatment Advocacy Center. In a sense, California’s commitment to freedom for the mentally ill conflicts with its background-check law.

Torrey believes that the country should involuntarily commit more mentally ill people, not only because they can sometimes commit acts of violence but because there are far more people who can’t function in the world than the mental health community likes to acknowledge.

In this, however, he is an outlier. The mainstream sentiment among mental health professionals is that there is no going back to the bad-old days when people who were capable of living on their own were locked up for years in mental hospitals. The truth is, the kind of symptoms Elliot Rodger showed were unlikely to get him confined in any case. And without a history of confinement, he had every legal right to buy a gun.

You read the stories about Elliot Rodger and it is easy to think: If this guy, with all his obvious problems, can slip through the cracks, then what hope is there of ever stopping mass shootings?

But, of course, there is another way of thinking about this. Instead of focusing on making it harder for the mentally ill to get guns, maybe we should be making it harder to get guns, period. Something to consider before the next mass shooting.

Not gonna happen.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

One of the many problems with our all-Hillary-all-the-time news fixation is the way it obscures other juicy Democratic dramas, shoving their stars into the wings.

Andrew Cuomo, come on out to center stage. You deserve it, you sly, ruthless, freshly humbled man. She may have Bill, Benghazi, a new book and an imminent grandchild, but you deserve a moment of our time and a measure of our fascination.

Since becoming governor of New York three and a half years ago, Cuomo has been performing a balancing act with implications for Democratic politics well beyond the state. It could be hugely relevant if Clinton takes a pass on a presidential bid and lets a host of overshadowed overachievers dream their Oval dreams and scheme their Oval schemes.

And it speaks to a perennial challenge in both parties: How does a pragmatic politician steer the kind of centrist course that often works best in the long run without provoking a revolt from the more partisan warriors in his or her camp?

Over the weekend, Cuomo confronted such a revolt from the Working Families Party, which was threatening to complicate his re-election by running a candidate to his left. He was forced to grovel before its members and to accept help in placating them from Bill de Blasio, a man he prefers to pummel and keep at a distance.

“It’s disastrous for him,” one prominent Democratic strategist told me, saying that it undermined Cuomo’s calculations and strategy to this point.

Back in 2010, the Working Families Party had to beg Cuomo to fly its banner, so the group made concessions rather than demands, signing on to his platform.

This time around, the roles were seemingly reversed, in part because the left wing of the Democratic Party has been emboldened and empowered. It takes credit for de Blasio’s election last year. It gives Elizabeth Warren much of her traction. And it could make significant demands during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, at least if Clinton has a real opponent or doesn’t run.

Cuomo’s complicated lot may be a preview of the politics around the bend.

“He likes to live in the middle,” said another Democratic insider, one who has known him for decades. “That’s where the country is, and to the extent that you can find an authentic political pulse in him, that’s where he is.”

Cuomo’s middle is distinctive and shrewd, a mix of progressive stances on many social issues and a more moderate approach on economic ones.

Shortly after taking office, he campaigned for gay marriage. He later championed tough gun-control laws. He has not lifted the state’s moratorium on fracking.

But he has bucked unions. He has opposed letting local governments, like New York City’s, raise the minimum wage on their own. He cut corporate taxes and famously rejected de Blasio’s plan to pay for expanded prekindergarten with a tax increase on affluent New York City residents.

He has cozied up to Wall Street titans, hungry for their donations now and in the future. Many of them support charter schools, and that factored into his swashbuckling defense of New York City’s charters, which also pitted him against de Blasio.

Perhaps most interesting, Cuomo has been content with divided government in New York, making no noteworthy effort to help his party seize stewardship of a Senate controlled by Republicans and a small band of dissident Democrats. He has even been known to work against party members. The prospect of a left too potent — and of anyone but him calling the shots — clearly chills him. He wants to pick and choose his liberal flourishes, not have them chosen for him.

This makes sense in terms of a presidential campaign, which he definitely fantasizes about, according to people who know him. In a primary, he’d run as the centrist Democrat, claiming Bill Clinton’s mantle. In the general election, he’d present himself as someone more practical than ideological.

But first there’s re-election in November, and he craves the kind of lopsided victory that Chris Christie, eyeing his own national candidacy, went after and got in New Jersey. It would give him the necessary affirmation and the sweet assurance that he can match or one-up his father, who was re-elected governor of New York in 1986 with 65 percent of the vote.

And it was jeopardized by the ire of the Working Families Party.

He has now made the group some promises, including firm support for Democratic candidates going forward. Will he manage to break those promises and cling to the middle? If he keeps his word, might he wind up with a left-leaning Legislature that doesn’t care about his balancing act and hijacks his legacy?

“I believe the world starts to turn now,” de Blasio said after Cuomo pledged to please the Working Families Party. At the very least it gets even juicier.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

May 30, 2014

In “The Autocracy Challenge” Bobo gurgles that President Obama laid out his approach to dealing with aggressive autocratic rulers this week, but his vision is ill-suited for the challenge.  In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say: “Once more we have a Times writer, who has never worn a uniform, never been to war, telling us more war is the solution. His party is full of the same, Viet Nam draft dodgers, National Guard avoiders, preaching perpetual war. With other peoples children. Cowards, to a man, talking tough.”  Mr. Cohen considers “Capitalism Eating Its Own Children” and tells us about a central banker who laments the market fundamentalism that breaks community and stirs mistrust.  In “Cutting Back on Carbon” Prof. Krugman says saving the planet would be a lot cheaper than you’d think.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s hard to remember, but back in the early 1990s there was a debate about how nations should emerge from Communism — the Russian way or the Chinese way. The Russians did political and economic reform together. The Chinese just did economic reform.

Reality doesn’t allow clean experiments, but the Chinese model has won in the court of public opinion. China’s success has given autocracy a legitimacy it lacked. In each of the past eight years, according to Freedom House, the number of countries that moved in an autocratic direction has outnumbered those that moved in a democratic one.

When you look at autocracies, you notice that many have undergone a similar life cycle. Autocrats may start out thinking they will be benevolent dictators. They may start out flirting with the West and talking about liberalizing reforms. But their regimes are almost always corrupt and inefficient. To stay on top, autocrats have to whip up nationalistic furies. They have to be aggressive in their regions to keep the country united on a permanent war footing. Unstable within, autocracies have to be radioactive abroad. Autocrats may start out claiming to be their country’s Deng Xiaoping, but they often end up more like Robert Mugabe.

Dealing with thuggish radioactive autocracies will probably be the great foreign policy challenge of the next decade. Aggressive autocratic rulers will challenge national borders and inflame regional rivalries. They will exacerbate ethnic tensions and gnaw at the world order. They have already made the world a more ornery place.

How will the United States respond? President Obama laid out his approach in a speech at West Point this week. He argued persuasively that the U.S. will have to do a lot more to mobilize democracies to take effective collective action against autocratic aggression. Moreover, his administration does champion democracy. On the same day Obama spoke, his ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, gave a great commencement speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government explaining why democracy promotion has to be at the core of American foreign policy.

But the president’s attitude seems to me in some ways ill-suited for the autocratic challenge. First, he might have the balance wrong between overreach and underreach. Perhaps drawing on the Iraq example, President Obama believes America’s problems have not been caused by too much restraint, but by overreach and hubris.

In the larger frame of history, this is a half-truth. In the 1920s and ’30s, for example, Americans were in a retrenching mood, like today. The result was a leaderless world, the gradual decay of the world order and eventually World War II.

As Robert Kagan shows in a brilliant essay in The New Republic, for the past 70 years, American policy makers have understood that underreach can lead to catastrophe, too. Presidents assertively tended the international garden so that small problems didn’t turn into big ones, even when core national interests were not at stake. In the 1990s, for example, President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton took military action roughly every 17 months to restrain dictators, spread democracy and preserve international norms.

This sort of forward-leaning interventionist garden-tending will be even more necessary in an age of assertive autocracies. If the U.S. restricts intervention to “core interests,” as Obama suggests, if it neglects constant garden-tending, the thugs will grab and grab and eventually there will be horrendous conflagrations. America’s assertive responses will not need to be military; they rarely will be. But they’ll need to be simple, strong acts of deterrence to preserve order. As Leon Wieseltier notes, if President Obama spoke in Kiev on his coming European trip, that alone would be an assertive gesture, like J.F.K. going to Berlin.

Second, President Obama underestimates how much the logic of force will remain central in the years ahead. It would be nice if autocrats thought in terms of international norms or according to the rational calculus of cost benefit analysis. But autocrats got where they are because they are primitives who perceive the world through the ancient calculus of power and force. What we perceive as prudence, they perceive as weakness. Absent clear and forceful counterpressure, they will cross red lines that the current or future president will have to enforce.

For most of the past 70 years, the U.S. had a two-level foreign policy. On top, American diplomats built multilateral coalitions to extend democracy. But at the bottom level, American presidents understood their responsibility as the world’s enforcer, occasionally operating according to the logic of menace and force.

If President Obama departs from that tradition and takes away that bottom level — for fear of overreach, or in a quest for normalcy, or out of an excessive belief in the limits of his own power — then he will undermine the top level that he admires. The autocrats will drag the world into an ungodly mess.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Guildhall at the heart of the City can be a lulling sort of place after a long day. The statuary and vaulted timber ceiling of the medieval great hall lead the eye to wander and the mind to muse on Britain’s strangest quirk — its centuries of continuity. Grace is said, claret is served, glasses clink and dreaminess sets in. A keynote speech from a central banker is all that is required to complete the soporific effect.

Or so one would think, until Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, lays into unfettered capitalism. “Just as any revolution eats its children,” he says, “unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself.”

All ideologies, he continues, are prone to extremes. Belief in the power of the market entered “the realm of faith” before the 2008 meltdown. Market economies became market societies. They were characterized by “light-touch regulation” and “the belief that bubbles cannot be identified.”

Carney pulls no punches. Big banks were too big to fail, operating in a “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bubble.” Benchmarks were rigged for personal gain. Equity markets blatantly favored “the technologically empowered over the retail investor.” Mistrust grew — and persists.

“Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital,” Carney argues, having defined social capital as “the links, shared values and beliefs in a society which encourage individuals not only to take responsibility for themselves and their families but also to trust each other and work collaboratively to support each other.”

A stirring through the hall, a focusing of gazes — Carney has the attention of the chief executives, bankers and investors gathered here for a conference on “Inclusive Capitalism.” His bluntness reflects the fact that, six years after the crisis, the core problem has not gone away: The deep unease and anger in developed countries about the ways globalization and technology magnify returns for the super-rich, operating in a world of low taxation and lax regulation where short-term gain becomes a guiding principle, even as societies become more unequal, offering diminished opportunities to the young, less community and a growing sense of unfairness.

Anyone seeking the source of the anger behind populist movements in Europe and the United States (and the Piketty fever) need look no further than this. Anti-immigration, anti-Europe movements won in European elections because people feel cheated, worried about their children. As Bill Clinton noted a couple of hours before Carney’s speech, the first reaction of human beings who feel “insecure and under stress” is the urge to “hang with our own kind.” And the world’s greatest challenge is defining “the terms of our interdependence.”

There is still a tendency to think politicians must do this work of definition. But in Nobody’s World, driven by social media and global corporations, corporate leaders have more power to change things than elected officials. If short-termism prevails and the importance of social capital and community is dismissed, then anger will rise. Companies are not well served by boards that are too often, in the words of one participant, “male, stale and pale.”

Carney lays out the extent of the problem: “40 percent of recent graduates in U.S. are underemployed and youth unemployment is around 50 percent in the worst affected countries in the euro area.”

His prescription: End through strict regulation and resilience tests the scandal of too-big-to-fail, where “bankers made enormous sums” and “taxpayers picked up the tab for their failures.” Recreate fair and effective markets with real transparency and make every effort — through codes of conduct and even regulatory obligations — to instill a new integrity among traders (even if social capital cannot be contractual). Curtail compensation offering large bonuses for short-term returns; end the overvaluing of the present and the discounting of the future; ensure that “where problems of performance or risk management are pervasive,” bonuses are adjusted “for whole groups of employees.”

Above all, understand that, “The answers start from recognizing that financial capitalism is not an end in itself, but a means to promote investment, innovation, growth and prosperity. Banking is fundamentally about intermediation — connecting borrowers and savers in the real economy. In the run-up to the crisis, banking became about banks not businesses; transactions not relations; counterparties not clients.”

In other words, human beings matter. An age that has seen emergence from poverty on a massive scale in the developing world has been accompanied by the spread of a new poverty (of life and of expectations) in much of the developed world. Global convergence has occurred alongside internal divergence. Interdependence is a reality, but the way it works is skewed. Clinton noted that ants, bees, termites and humans have all survived through an unusual shared characteristic: They are cooperative forms of life. But it is precisely the loss at all levels of community, of social capital, that most threatens the world’s stability and future prosperity.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Next week the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new rules designed to limit global warming. Although we don’t know the details yet, anti-environmental groups are already predicting vast costs and economic doom. Don’t believe them. Everything we know suggests that we can achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at little cost to the economy.

Just ask the United States Chamber of Commerce.

O.K., that’s not the message the Chamber of Commerce was trying to deliver in the report it put out Wednesday. It clearly meant to convey the impression that the E.P.A.’s new rules would wreak havoc. But if you focus on the report’s content rather than its rhetoric, you discover that despite the chamber’s best efforts to spin things — as I’ll explain later, the report almost surely overstates the real cost of climate protection — the numbers are remarkably small.

Specifically, the report considers a carbon-reduction program that’s probably considerably more ambitious than we’re actually going to see, and it concludes that between now and 2030 the program would cost $50.2 billion in constant dollars per year. That’s supposed to sound like a big deal. Instead, if you know anything about the U.S. economy, it sounds like Dr. Evil intoning “one million dollars.” These days, it’s just not a lot of money.

Remember, we have a $17 trillion economy right now, and it’s going to grow over time. So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!

Alternatively, consider the chamber’s estimate of costs per household: $200 per year. Since the average American household has an income of more than $70,000 a year, and that’s going to rise over time, we’re again looking at costs that amount to no more than a small fraction of 1 percent.

One more useful comparison: The Pentagon has warned that global warming and its consequences pose a significant threat to national security. (Republicans in the House responded with a legislative amendment that would forbid the military from even thinking about the issue.) Currently, we’re spending $600 billion a year on defense. Is it really extravagant to spend another 8 percent of that budget to reduce a serious threat?

And all of this is based on anti-environmentalists’ own numbers. The real costs would almost surely be smaller, for three reasons.

First, the Chamber of Commerce study assumes that economic growth, and the associated growth in emissions, will be at its historic norm of 2.5 percent a year. But we should expect slower growth in the future as baby boomers retire, making emissions targets easier to hit.

Second, in the chamber’s analysis, the bulk of the reduction in emissions comes from replacing coal with natural gas. This neglects the dramatic technological progress taking place in renewables, especially solar power, which should make cutting back on carbon even easier.

Third, the U.S. economy is still depressed — and in a depressed economy many of the supposed costs of compliance with energy regulations aren’t costs at all. In particular, building new, low-emission power plants would employ both workers and capital that would otherwise be sitting idle, and would, if anything, give the U.S. economy a boost.

You might ask why the Chamber of Commerce is so fiercely opposed to action against global warming, if the cost of action is so small. The answer, of course, is that the chamber is serving special interests, notably the coal industry — what’s good for America isn’t good for the Koch brothers, and vice versa — and also catering to the ever more powerful anti-science sentiments of the Republican Party.

Finally, let me take on the anti-environmentalists’ last line of defense — the claim that whatever we do won’t matter, because other countries, China in particular, will just keep on burning ever more coal. This gets things exactly wrong. Yes, we need an international agreement to reduce emissions, including sanctions on countries that don’t sign on. But U.S. unwillingness to act has been the biggest obstacle to such an agreement. If we start taking serious steps against global warming, the stage will be set for Europe and Japan to follow suit, and for concerted pressure on the rest of the world as well.

Now, we haven’t yet seen the details of the new climate action proposal, and a full analysis — both economic and environmental — will have to wait. We can be reasonably sure, however, that the economic costs of the proposal will be small, because that’s what the research — even research paid for by anti-environmentalists, who clearly wanted to find the opposite — tells us. Saving the planet would be remarkably cheap.

But it might cost one or two of the MOTU a buck so nothing will be done.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

May 27, 2014

In “Really Good Books, Part II” Bobo has a few more book recommendations: Athenian books to invigorate the audacious spirit, and religious and literary books to probe the conscience and heart.  In “The Banality of Anger” Mr. Cohen says France turns right, and Marine Le Pen is now a plausible presidential candidate.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “What Did the Framers Really Mean?”  He says it’s no secret: The Second Amendment was about the common defense.  Mr. Bruni considers “Diet Lures and Diet Lies” and says dubious elixirs, niche regimens and flawed prophets like Dr. Oz divert us from the unsexy truth.  Here’s Bobo:

On Friday, I offered some of my favorite books, as possibilities for summer reading. The books of Part Two come in two baskets, which we’ll call Athens and Jerusalem. The Athens books fire external ambition; the Jerusalem books focus on the inner spirit.

We’ll start the Athens basket with “The Peloponnesian War,” by Thucydides. In Homer, we see characters who are driven by a competitive desire to be excellent at something, to display their prowess and win eternal fame. This ambition drives Homeric heroes to excellence, but it also makes them narcissistic, touchy and prone to cycles of anger and revenge.

Through the figure of Pericles, Thucydides shows us how to live a life of civilized ambition, in which individual achievement is fused with patriotic service. He also reminds us that in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high. That is, when politicians mess up, the size of the damage they cause is larger than the size of the benefit they create when they do well.

Some of my favorite biographies are about people who followed the Periclean mold and dedicated themselves to public service: Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton; Edmund Morris’s series on Theodore Roosevelt; Winston Churchill’s endearing “My Early Life.”

These books arouse energy and aspiration. They have the risk-embracing spirit found in W.H. Auden’s famous poem, “Leap Before You Look,” which opens:

“The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.”

And ends this way:

“A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.”

The books in the Jerusalem basket interrogate worldly ambition and encourage righteousness. Of all the authors I’ve read, the one with the most capacious mind is Augustine — for his understanding of human psychology, his sonorous emotions and his intellectual rigor.

“The Confessions” is a religious book, but it can also be read as a memoir of an ambitious young man who came to realize how perverse life can be when it is dedicated to fulfilling the self’s own desires. “I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me,” Augustine wrote. “I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love, and from the very depth of my need hated myself.” Gradually, he orders his love, putting the higher loves above lower ones, and surrendering to God’s ultimate love. He also reconciles with his mother, Monica, the ultimate helicopter mom.

Toward the end of Monica’s life, mother and son sit sweetly in a garden, their conversation rising to higher things. There is a long beautiful sentence, which is hard to parse, but which conveys the spirit of elevation. It repeats the word “hushed.” The tumult of the flesh is hushed. The waters and the air are hushed, and “by not thinking on self surmount self.” Even Augustine’s voracious ambition is hushed in this surrender.

For Jewish takes on inner elevation, I’d recommend “The Lonely Man of Faith” by Joseph Soloveitchik and “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. For Christians, you can’t go wrong with Dorothy Day’s “The Long Loneliness,” or Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy,” which you should not read on airplanes, because you will cry.

Let’s end the inner-life basket with two books on love. Scott Spencer’s “Endless Love” is about youthful passion. It opens this way: “When I was 17 and in full obedience to my heart’s most urgent commands, I stepped far from the pathway of normal life and in a moment’s time ruined everything I loved. …”

For mature love, we have to turn to George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” It took me six runs to get into this book, because I was unready for it, but, in middle age, it is hard not to be awed by her characterizations. Some samples:

“She was always trying to be what her husband wished, and never able to repose on his delight in what she was.”

“We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.”

“His soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.”

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Nowhere is the crisis of modernity felt more acutely than in France where for a quarter-century now globalization has brought moroseness and mistrust on an epic scale. Uneasy with capitalism, uncomfortable with flexibility, unpersuaded by the so-called Anglo-Saxon model, France has retreated into its rancor. Immigrants and openness have constituted threat more than possibility.

Even its glorious cuisine seems somehow static, too heavy for its times, unable to adapt, short on Spanish inventiveness, locked in the past. Its wines, the best in the world by some distance, have proved short on narrative, that core ingredient of modern marketing. Its world-class private companies get swept beneath the relentless wave of functionaries’ complaints. Its president, once the near regal embodiment of French glory, is now an everyday sort of figure, battling the banal.

Rien ne va plus, say the French, or nothing works anymore. But the English rendering is anemic — stripped of a fathomless Gallic grumpiness that is the expression of a strange sense of defeat. Of course it is not true. A lot works very well in France. But the nation is dyspeptic. The glass is always half-empty.

Such bile must find political expression. It has in the rightist, anti-immigrant National Front of Marine Le Pen, victorious in European Parliament elections, her gaze now set on a greater prize: the Élysée Palace.

Make no mistake, she could become president. The National Front has surged before, notably in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the incumbent’s father, reached the runoff stage of the presidential election. But in the dozen years since then the European and French crises have deepened. France has near zero growth and growing unemployment. With an estimated 25 percent of the European Parliament vote, the National Front crushed both the governing Socialists (14 percent) and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (20.8 percent).

“An earthquake,” was the verdict of the Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls. He is not wrong. A two-party system is now a three-party system. Marine Le Pen, subtler and cleverer and more ambitious than her father, is electable. She is plausible.

Elsewhere on the Continent the anger behind the National Front’s surge was also evident (no election is better suited for letting off steam than the European because the real power of the European Parliament is limited). In Britain, Austria and Denmark, more than 15 percent of the vote went to similar anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-establishment, anti-boredom political movements. But it is in France, which constitutes with Germany the core of the European Union, that a European, economic and psychological crisis has assumed its most acute form.

According to the French daily Le Monde, the National Front took 43 percent of workers’ votes and 37 percent of the vote of the unemployed. Popular sentiment in France has turned against a Europe associated with austerity, stagnation, unemployment and high immigration. Le Pen’s promise of a more nationalist and anti-immigrant France, rejecting European integration and America, has appeal to the disenchanted. A promised Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, with Putin and his “family values” as Europe’s salvation, masks a void of economic ideas.

The crisis in France goes far deeper than its immediate economic challenges. For a nation defeated in World War II, but allowed through de Gaulle to claim a sort of victory in the shirttails of the Allies, the European Union was the way out of a strange humiliation. (It was also salvation for Germany, but that is a different story). Europe was a bold idea, a counterbalance to the United States, a vehicle for a new form of national ambition that was significantly French in genesis. A medium-sized power, much diminished, France could yet dream through Europe. It could opine. It could even change the world.

Then along came that great surprise, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. France preferred two Germanys; suddenly it faced one. It wanted to deepen Europe; suddenly it had to widen it. It wanted to be sure of a united Germany’s fealty to Europe and a single currency seemed the surest guarantee; suddenly it was bound to the euro just as momentum toward European political integration evaporated. It wanted to be a counterweight to Washington; suddenly that ambition became risible. It wanted at least to offer a countermodel to hypercapitalism; not so suddenly its economic system, for all its virtues, just looked tired, like those French villages drained of youth and vitality.

History can play cruel tricks. This past quarter-century it has played several on France. Of course, Marine Le Pen cannot turn back the clock. But that will not stop angry people from dreaming. Perhaps France will win the World Cup and all will be well for a moment. But that too, alas, is no doubt a dream.

Up next we have Mr. Nocera:

Three days after the publication of Michael Waldman’s new book, “The Second Amendment: A Biography,” Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a killing spree, stabbing three people and then shooting another eight, killing four of them, including himself. This was only the latest mass shooting in recent memory, going back to Columbine.

In his rigorous, scholarly, but accessible book, Waldman notes such horrific events but doesn’t dwell on them. He is after something else. He wants to understand how it came to be that the Second Amendment, long assumed to mean one thing, has come to mean something else entirely. To put it another way: Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?

The Second Amendment begins, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and that’s where Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, begins, too. He has gone back into the framers’ original arguments and made two essential discoveries, one surprising and the other not surprising at all.

The surprising discovery is that of all the amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights, the Second was probably the least debated. What we know is that the founders were deeply opposed to a standing army, which they viewed as the first step toward tyranny. Instead, their assumption was that the male citizenry would all belong to local militias. As Waldman writes, “They were not allowed to have a musket; they were required to. More than a right, being armed was a duty.”

Thus the unsurprising discovery: Virtually every reference to “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” — the second part of the Second Amendment — was in reference to military defense. Waldman notes the House debate over the Second Amendment in the summer of 1789: “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In time, of course, the militia idea died out, replaced by a professionalized armed service. Most gun regulation took place at the state and city level. The judiciary mostly stayed out of the way. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the nation’s first national gun law, the National Firearms Act, which put onerous limits on sawed-off shotguns and machine guns — precisely because the guns had no “reasonable relation” to “a well-regulated militia.”

But then, in 1977, there was a coup at the National Rifle Association, which was taken over by Second Amendment fundamentalists. Over the course of the next 30 years, they set out to do nothing less than change the meaning of the Second Amendment, so that it’s final phrase — “shall not be infringed” — referred to an individual right to keep and bear arms, rather than a collective right for the common defense.

Waldman is scornful of much of this effort. Time and again, he finds the proponents of this new view taking the founders’ words completely out of context, sometimes laughably so. They embrace Thomas Jefferson because he once wrote to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms.” In fact, says Waldman, Jefferson was referring to some old letter he needed “so he could issue a rebuttal in case he got attacked for a decision he made as secretary of state.”

Still, as Waldman notes, the effort was wildly successful. In 1972, the Republican platform favored gun control. By 1980, the Republican platform opposed gun registration. That year, the N.R.A. gave its first-ever presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan.

The critical modern event, however, was the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, which tossed aside two centuries of settled law, and ruled that a gun-control law in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. The author of the majority opinion was Antonin Scalia, who fancies himself the leading “originalist” on the court — meaning he believes, as Waldman puts it, “that the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution is to ask what the framers and their generation intended in 1789.”

Waldman is persuasive that a truly originalist decision would have tied the right to keep and bear arms to a well-regulated militia. But the right to own guns had by then become conservative dogma, and it was inevitable that the five conservative members of the Supreme Court would vote that way.

“When the militias evaporated,” concludes Waldman, “so did the original meaning of the Second Amendment.” But, he adds, “What we did not have was a regime of judicially enforced individual rights, able to trump the public good.”

Sadly, that is what we have now, as we saw over the weekend. Elliot Rodger’s individual right to bear arms trumped the public good. Eight people were shot as a result.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

My home is like any other, chockablock with stuff that I wouldn’t want the world to see: trashy books, cheesy clothes, a cache of scented candles so enormous you might think I’m prepping for some epically smelly apocalypse.

But the most embarrassing thing by far is in a kitchen cupboard, near the Tabasco. It’s a green and white bottle of pills — supplements, to use the proper marketing lingo — that are supposed to make me effortlessly slim.

I know better. We all do.

Garcinia Cambogia is what the label says, and the pills contain the powdered extract of an exotic fruit for which quasi-mystical claims are made. It blocks fat absorption, or at least it might. It suppresses appetite, or so a few people have reported. It regulates emotional eating, in unproven theory.

I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet perhaps 18 months ago, and the mention was coupled with an endorsement of sorts by Dr. Mehmet Oz. And I thought: Who knows? What could it hurt? Minutes later I was typing in my credit-card number, hitting “send” and joining — or, rather, rejoining — the millions of Americans duped annually into this manner of ridiculousness.

We talk a whole lot these days about the perfidies of the fast-food industry, the snack-food industry, the soft-drink industry. There are books aplenty, documentaries galore. And that’s terrific. That’s progress.

But we should take care that our intensifying alarm over all of the aggressively marketed junk that makes us fatter doesn’t crowd out a measure of sustained pique at all of the aggressively marketed pills, products and plans that fail to make us any thinner, despite their lavish promises and the money we plunk down. We should save some room for them.

They show no signs of going away anytime soon. Worse yet, they belong to, and are complemented by, a brimming culture of micro theories and boutique science that seeks explanations for excess pounds in equations well beyond the sturdy maxim of calories in, calories out.

Yes, that maxim oversimplifies. Yes, we learn more all the time about the asterisks to it and about which kinds of calories set you up to be hungrier (and to continue eating) or not.

But consult the most respected physicians in the field of weight loss and they’ll tell you that the maxim remains as relevant as ever. And the vogue for painstakingly tailored eating regimens and dieting techniques is to some extent a distraction from that, a dangerous one, because it promotes the idea that basic nature and fundamental biology can somehow be gamed, cheated, transcended.

“In terms of diet, the general laws of thermodynamics hold,” Rudolph Leibel, an obesity expert at the Columbia University Medical Center, told me. “The issue of — ‘If I eat a diet of all watermelons as opposed to a diet of hamburgers with the same number of calories, will I be able to lose more weight on the watermelons?’ — that’s a specious argument. We’re dealing with chemistry and physics, not imagination.”

But how imaginative we get! How creatively we edit the smorgasbord of possibility, intent on a formula superior to all others. This person forswears gluten. That person exiles starch. There are plutocrats who are eating like cavemen. There are disciples of the lifestyle guru Timothy Ferriss who are weighing their poop.

Enhanced education and growing sophistication haven’t done away with fads. There’s still too much favor to be curried and money to be made by trumpeting them.

Cue Oz. A distinguished cardiothoracic surgeon, he has traded time in the hospital for time on TV, where he revisits no topic more incessantly than (supposedly) ingenious ways to slim down. With a shameless vocabulary of “magic,” “miracle” and “revolutionary,” he has showcased or outright validated HCG hormone shots, green coffee bean supplements, raspberry ketone supplements and more. He told viewers: “I’m going to show you how you can get fat to eat itself right out of your body.”

The sum of these exhortations “just violates science,” said Leibel. “It’d be like if we went to NASA and they were using astrological charts to try to figure out how to get a rocket to Europa. It’s at that level.”

On Oz’s website, under the “Weight Loss Directory,” there are subcategories including “Rapid Belly Melt” and “Mega Metabolism Boosters.” Garcinia Cambogia is celebrated ad nauseam.

And a person can start to wonder. A person can cave. I did, even though the “starch blocker” tablets that I took in college did nothing and decades of trendy diets have confirmed one and only one magic bullet: a mix of restrained eating and regular exercise.

The Garcinia Cambogia is still in the cupboard because it’s half full. I wised up after a futile week of two pills daily. If I wise up all the way, I’ll throw the bottle out.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

May 23, 2014

Bobo has decided to tell us all what to read.  In “Really Good Books, Part 1″ (oh, God, there’s going to be a sequel…) he gurgles that some of his favorite books are about the deep limitations we face in life, from circumstances that defy comprehension to passions we cannot control.  In “Poor, Angry Magnetic Europe” Mr. Cohen tells us that Putin is no European savior. He is a reminder of what Europe must stand for.  Prof. Krugman, in “Crisis of the Eurocrats,” says the European project is in deep trouble. The Continent still has peace, but it’s falling short on prosperity and, in a subtler way, democracy.  Here’s Bobo:

People are always asking me what my favorite books are. I’ve held off listing them because it seems self-indulgent. But, with summer almost here, I thought I might spend a couple columns recommending eight books that have been pivotal in my life.

“A Collection of Essays,” by George Orwell. If you want to learn how to write, the best way to start is by imitating C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. These two Englishmen, born five years apart, never used a pompous word if a short and plain one would do. Orwell was a master of the welcoming first sentence. He wrote an essay called “England Your England” while sheltering from German bombs during World War II. Here is his opening: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

Here’s the first sentence of his essay on Gandhi: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.”

Here’s how he opened an essay on his schoolboy days, “Soon after I arrived at Crossgates (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed.”

There’s a disarming rhythm to each of those sentences; reality is odd, and it takes a few shimmies to get it right. Orwell was famous for sticking close to reality, for facing unpleasant facts, for describing ideas not ideologically but as they actually played out in concrete circumstances. Imperialism wasn’t an idea; it was a lone official haplessly shooting an elephant.

His other lesson for writers, even opinion writers, is that it’s a mistake to think you are an activist, championing some movement. That’s the path to mental stagnation. The job is just to try to understand what’s going on.

“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy. This is a novel about characters who are not quite in control of themselves. Kitty goes to the ball in a perfect dress. Even the strip of velvet around her neck fits just so. She is swept up in a sort of ecstasy of movement until a glance at the man she thinks is her beau crushes her in an instant.

Levin falls in love in a way he didn’t plan. He experiences unexpected transcendence cutting grass, of all things. He cannot account for his own happiness, which is in excess of what he deserves, and still has to hide the noose at dark moments for fear he might use it.

Anna is a magnetic person propelled by a love that is ardent and unexpected but also headlong and unpredictable. She’s ultimately unable to surmount the consequences of her actions or even live with the moral injuries she causes. Was Anna right to follow her heart? Should she have settled for a mediocre life in line with convention? This is a foxlike love story, with many angles, which does not lead to easy answers.

“Rationalism in Politics” by Michael Oakeshott. This essay dismantles a common form of contemporary hubris — the belief that it is possible to solve political problems as if they were engineering problems, with rational planning. Oakeshott distinguishes between technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of information that can be put in a recipe in a cookbook. Practical knowledge is the rest of what the master chef actually knows: the habits, skills, intuitions and traditions of the craft. Practical knowledge exists only in use; it can be imparted but not taught. Technocrats and ideologues possess abstract technical knowledge and think that is all there is. Their prefab plans come apart because they simplify reality, and don’t understand how society works and the rest of what we know.

“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren. This is nominally a novel about Huey Long. But it is also a novel about irony, the way good can come from bad, and bad can come from good, the way people march into public life imagining they are white lambs only to be turned into guilty goats. The main characters are tainted and mottled, part admirable, part noxious. The book asks if in politics you have to sell your soul in order to have the power to serve the poor.

It’s written in an elegiac tone that I’m a sucker for. “The Great Gatsby,” “Brideshead Revisited” and Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” are also written in this tone. The narrator of “All the King’s Men” has to lose his innocence to understand the multiplicity and sadness of the truth.

Most of today’s books are about limitation — about being propelled by passions we can’t control into a complex world we can’t understand. For Tuesday, I’ll find some books that are more self-assured.

I agree 100% with “gemli” from Boston’s comment:  “Orwell and Tolstoy are fine, but when I want to read something that carries me away, that punctures pomposity and reveals deep truths, I read Charles Pierce in Esquire, when he writes about Brooks and Douthat. Search for them. Read them. Hold on to your chair while doing so.”  Next up we have Mr. Cohen, who is writing from Berlin:

Europe at the centenary of the war that devoured it is voting in elections for the European Parliament that will no doubt reflect the anger, disillusionment and boredom of people inclined to cast their ballots for an array of protest parties, many from the xenophobic right, some from the pander-to-Putin left.

Political sentiment across the Continent has converged at a grumpy and small-minded nadir. There is anger about high unemployment. There is pessimism over the future. There is irritation at immigration. There is alienation from the European Union. What, the chorus goes, has Brussels ever done for me? The answer, of course, is that it has brought peace, removed borders and spread once unimaginable prosperity. But this achievement is no longer enough or no longer deemed relevant.

In some ways Europe’s mood resembles America’s. Focus has narrowed and solidarity atrophied. Europe, like America, does not want to die for anyone else. It has turned inward, wanting its own problems solved, and damn the Libyans and Syrians and Ukrainians and whoever else may be making demands through their plight.

Anyone who believes the spread of freedom, democracy and the rule of law matters is a “warmonger.” The sharing economy is in vogue because it affords a better deal on a car ride or a room. Sharing politics is not because it may involve sacrifice for faraway people with strange names.

So the National Front in France, and the U.K. Independence Party in Britain, and Jobbik in Hungary and Die Linke (the Left) in Germany — parties from right and left that have expressed varying degrees of admiration for President Vladimir Putin and his homophobic irredentism (Russian-speaking gays need not apply for admission to the imperium) — are all likely to benefit from a diffuse anger, in which anti-Americanism mingles with general spleen.

Never have the idea and the ideal of the 28-member European Union been so weakened, at least within its borders, to the point that several fringe parties take Putin’s Eurasian Union with its promise of good times in Belarus seriously. Just outside the Union it is a different story. Europe is magnetic still. The dissonance between the Union as perceived by many of its more than 500 million citizens, and the Union as it is idealized and ached for by millions on its fringes or in faraway lands, is complete.

The European Parliament election coincides with a critical election Sunday in Ukraine, where Putin has created havoc by annexing Crimea, dispatching thugs to stir unrest in the eastern part of the country, and inventing a “fascist” threat in Kiev to conceal his own growing affinities with such politics (his beloved, much lamented Soviet Union of course allied with Nazi Germany in 1939 before Hitler tore up the pact in 1941; attraction to fascism is nothing new in Moscow).

On Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, where Ukrainians died in numbers to escape the rule of an incompetent kleptomaniac backed by Putin, the European Union flag flies in several places. It is equally visible on surrounding streets. It is draped down the facade of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. It stands for something important in Kiev, something that seems almost unimaginable to Europeans in the confusion of their bile: the glowing possibility of freedom and dignity and pluralism, the possibility of a normal life.

“Europe is a promise of liberty,” said Nataliya Popovych, an activist in the Maidan movement. “As for Putin’s Eurasian Union, we have been in that cage before. Why would we go back? Through Maidan Ukrainians killed Homo Sovieticus in themselves. In Russia and some parts of the east of Ukraine, Homo Sovieticus is still alive.”

It is not dead in Western Europe, either. As my colleague Andrew Higgins noted, Aymeric Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, trooped off to Moscow last year to declare that, “Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism.” We live in a time when sentences need to be turned on their heads. The “new totalitarianism” is of course emanating from Moscow.

But Europe is suddenly full of what Germans now call the Putinversteher — literally someone who understands Putin, more loosely a Putin apologist. Europeans of different stripes see him standing up to America, incarnating “family values,” countering a loathed European Union, and just being tough. Germans in surprising numbers are discovering their inner sympathy for Russia, a complex emotion in which anti-Americanism, romanticism, guilt and gratitude for Moscow’s acceptance of unification all play a part. The old temptation in Germany to look eastward is not entirely overcome after all.

Europeans would do well to lift their gaze from the small world of their current anger toward those blue and gold flags fluttering on the Maidan, the better to recall what freedom means and with what sacrifice it has been attained.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

A century ago, Europe tore itself apart in what was, for a time, known as the Great War — four years of death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Later, of course, the conflict was renamed World War I — because a quarter-century later Europe did it all over again.

But that was a long time ago. It’s hard to imagine war in today’s Europe, which has coalesced around democratic values and even taken its first steps toward political union. Indeed, as I write this, elections are being held all across Europe, not to choose national governments, but to select members of the European Parliament. To be sure, the Parliament has very limited powers, but its mere existence is a triumph for the European idea.

But here’s the thing: An alarmingly high fraction of the vote is expected to go to right-wing extremists hostile to the very values that made the election possible. Put it this way: Some of the biggest winners in Europe’s election will probably be people taking Vladimir Putin’s side in the Ukraine crisis.

The truth is that the European project — peace guaranteed by democracy and prosperity — is in deep trouble; the Continent still has peace, but it’s falling short on prosperity and, in a subtler way, democracy. And, if Europe stumbles, it will be a very bad thing not just for Europe itself but for the world as a whole.

Why is Europe in trouble?

The immediate problem is poor economic performance. The euro, Europe’s common currency, was supposed to be the culminating step in the Continent’s economic integration. Instead, it turned into a trap. First, it created a dangerous complacency, as investors funneled huge amounts of cash into southern Europe, heedless of risk. Then, when the boom turned to bust, debtor countries found themselves shackled, unable to regain lost competitiveness without years of Depression-level unemployment.

The inherent problems of the euro have been aggravated by bad policy. European leaders insisted and continue to insist, in the teeth of the evidence, that the crisis is all about fiscal irresponsibility, and have imposed savage austerity that makes a terrible situation worse.

The good news, sort of, is that despite all these missteps the euro is still holding together, surprising many analysts — myself included — who thought it might well fall apart. Why this resilience? Part of the answer is that the European Central Bank has calmed markets by promising to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, up to and including buying government bonds to keep interest rates from rising too far. Beyond that, however, the European elite remains deeply committed to the project, and, so far, no government has been willing to break ranks.

But the cost of this elite cohesion is a growing distance between governments and the governed. By closing ranks, the elite has in effect ensured that there are no moderate voices dissenting from policy orthodoxy. And this lack of moderate dissent has empowered groups like the National Front in France, whose top candidate for the European Parliament denounces a “technocratic elite serving the American and European financial oligarchy.”

The bitter irony here is that Europe’s elite isn’t actually technocratic. The creation of the euro was about politics and ideology, not a response to careful economic analysis (which suggested from the beginning that Europe wasn’t ready for a single currency). The same can be said of the turn to austerity: All the economic research supposedly justifying that turn has been discredited, but the policies haven’t changed.

And the European elite’s habit of disguising ideology as expertise, of pretending that what it wants to do is what must be done, has created a deficit of legitimacy. The elite’s influence rests on the presumption of superior expertise; when those claims of expertise are proved hollow, it has nothing to fall back on.

So far, as I said, the elite has been able to hold things together. But we don’t know how long this can last, and there are some very scary people waiting in the wings.

If we’re lucky — and if officials at the European Central Bank, who are closer to being genuine technocrats than the rest of the elite, act boldly enough against the growing threat of deflation — we may see some real economic recovery over the next few years. This could, in turn, offer a breathing space, a chance to get the European project as a whole back on track.

But economic recovery by itself won’t be enough; Europe’s elite needs to recall what the project is really about. It’s terrifying to see so many Europeans rejecting democratic values, but at least part of the blame rests with officials who seem more interested in price stability and fiscal probity than in democracy. Modern Europe is built on a noble idea, but that idea needs more defenders.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

May 20, 2014

In “The Big Debate” Bobo gurgles that only by returning to its roots can American democracy prevail against the efficiency of new, booming autocracies.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Our democracy has become defective because it is under attack by a form of malignant conservatism. Oligarchs and fundamentalists have worked to corrode democracy from within, and then use the dysfunction they’ve created to demonstrate its failure. … The democratic process has been hijacked by a small number of the filthy rich, aided and abetted by shills and lickspittles who are paid to tell us that it’s the people who are the problem.”  Mr. Cohen is in Kiev.  In “Gettysburg on the Maidan” he says Ukraine’s leader shares his thoughts on Putin’s land grab and Kiev’s battle for Western values.  In “Bankrupt Housing Policy” Mr. Nocera says a memoir from Timothy Geithner offers the chance to look back on the financial crisis and ask: Why didn’t the government do more to help homeowners?  I’d ask a different question — Why aren’t a gaggle of banksters rotting in jail?  Mr. Bruni ponders “Hillary’s Obstacle Course” and says between Bill’s soliloquies and Barack’s slump, she’s got problems.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency. Without a rival system to test them, democratic governments have decayed across the globe. In the U.S., Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment.

According to measures by Freedom House, freedom has been in retreat around the world for the past eight years. New democracies like South Africa are decaying; the number of nations that the Bertelsmann Foundation now classifies as “defective democracies” (rigged elections and so on) has risen to 52. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in their book, “The Fourth Revolution,” “so far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the Western model.”

The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning. Voters tend to want more government services than they are willing to pay for. The system of checks and balances can slide into paralysis, as more interest groups acquire veto power over legislation.

Across the Western world, people are disgusted with their governments. There is a widening gap between the pace of social and economic change, and the pace of government change. In Britain, for example, productivity in the private service sector increased by 14 percent between 1999 and 2013, while productivity in the government sector fell by 1 percent between 1999 and 2010.

These trends have sparked a sprawling debate in the small policy journals: Is democracy in long-run decline?

A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State. In their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do an outstanding job of describing Asia’s modernizing autocracies. In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.

In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life. The safety net is smaller and less forgiving. In Singapore, 90 percent of what you get out of the key pension is what you put in. Work is rewarded. People are expected to look after their own.

These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don’t face NIMBY-style impediments.

Most important, they are more innovative than Western democracies right now. If you wanted to find a model for your national schools, would you go to South Korea or America? If you wanted a model for your pension system, would you go to Singapore or the U.S.? “These are not hard questions to answer,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “and they do not reflect well on the West.”

So how should Western democracies respond to this competition? What’s needed is not so much a vision of the proper role for the state as a strategy to make democracy dynamic again.

The answer is to use Lee Kuan Yew means to achieve Jeffersonian ends — to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level. At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.

If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.

Democracy is always messy, but, historically, it’s thrived because it has been more flexible than its rivals. In 1787, democracy’s champions innovated faster. Is that still true?

After that I’m going to add a long comment from “Jack in Chicago” who had this to say:  “At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic.” This is a statement not connected to any experience I have had with respect to current American politics. It is simply ridiculous. Mr. Brooks patches together generalizations, false equivalences, and catchy phrases. What this column doesn’t contain is any deep thought or insight. “Speed at the top”, “speed at the bottom” what does it all mean? Not much, I think. After reading these columns for too long now, I finally realize that whatever Mr. Brooks is for, I’m against, so maybe reading this stuff has devolved into pointlessness.”  Amen, Jack.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Ukrainians are reluctant to dismantle the symbols of their revolution on streets that have become the hallowed ground of democracy and a nation-constituting struggle. On Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and in the surrounding area, makeshift barricades of tires and timber, impromptu shrines to the more than 100 dead, and Ukrainian flags flanked by that of the European Union constitute a stage set of defiance against Russian aggression.

This unusual urban landscape, at once stirring and vulnerable, surrounds the office of Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister and a man now forged, like many young Ukrainians, in the bloodshed of defiance.

“Putin is caught in the cell of his own propaganda,” Yatsenyuk said of the Russian president. “We can offer him an off-ramp. It is called ‘Get out of Crimea.’ I spoke to his envoy and I told him that even the Roman emperors disappeared, and one day we will have Crimea back.”

His words may appear quixotic, given Russian might and Ukrainian weakness, but Yatsenyuk’s determination reflects a clear choice that has emerged from the success of the Maidan uprising and the ousting of the former president and corrupt Putin toady, Viktor F. Yanukovych: in favor of European pluralism and against a Eurasian imperium.

Ukraine is today the pivot of a struggle between individual freedom and imprisoning empire. There is no halfway house in this confrontation and no escaping the imperative of moral clarity in picking sides. Vladimir V. Putin’s unleashed nationalism and Crimean land grab represent a return to Europe’s darkest days. Americans and Europeans need to stand together to resist this threat.

“I don’t know what’s in Putin’s head or what his final destination is,” Yatsenyuk said. “Luhansk? Lviv? Lisbon? Ask our Polish friends. They are afraid of Russian troops. A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has decided to grab the land of an independent country.”

The prime minister was speaking to a small group of American, Canadian and European visitors, including the Polish author and former dissident, Adam Michnik; the former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner; the literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier; and the Yale historian, Timothy Snyder.

Snyder has recently written in The New Republic: “We easily forget how fascism works: as a bright and shining alternative to the mundane duties of everyday life, as a celebration of the obviously and totally irrational against good sense and experience.”

The fact that Putin has chosen the label “fascists” for the likes of Yatsenyuk in Kiev (even as the Kremlin maintains excellent relations with extreme-right parties in Western Europe) only underscores the Orwellian mind games of his resurgent nationalism. It is typical of fascism to twist history into a narrative of national humiliation justifying the apotheosis of an avenging leader bent on righting these supposed wrongs — be they in the Sudetenland or Ukraine.

During an hourlong conversation, Yatsenyuk said Russia would do its best to “disrupt and undermine” Ukraine’s May 25 election, suggesting there were now up to 20,000 armed people in the eastern part of the country orchestrated by several hundred well-trained Russian agents. Nevertheless, he said, a credible election across most of Ukrainian territory is possible. “We need a legitimate president,” he said.

He rejected the federalization of Ukraine — “Buy every governor; that is the Russian planning behind so-called federalization” — but spoke strongly in favor of the devolution of power and the rights of Russian speakers. “My wife speaks Russian and she does not need any protection from President Putin,” he declared.

Putin must recognize that Ukraine is a “European state” that will go ahead with its contested association agreement with the European Union and recognize the results of the election, Yatsenyuk said. He said Ukraine is ready to pay its debts to Gazprom, the Russian energy company, on condition that Russia adopts “a market-based not a politically-based approach” — cutting off trade when it suits Putin to punish Kiev.

Asked about American policy toward Ukraine, the prime minister sighed deeply. He said he recognizes that every nation has its limits and constraints. But he continued: “The United States is the leader of the free world. You have to lead. If someone crosses a red line, he is to be prosecuted for this in all ways.” As for American military support, he said, “I never ask in case I don’t get it,” adding that he would of course be “happy to have Patriot missiles on Ukrainian soil.”

There is no question that Putin has exploited a perception of American weakness that began in Syria with President Obama’s retreat there from his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons — a retreat that at once underwrote President Bashar al-Assad, strengthened Putin and undermined American credibility. Ukrainians have now died fighting for American and European values of liberty and pluralism. After its Gettysburg on the Maidan, a free and independent Ukraine is a critical U.S. interest and test.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The publication of Timothy Geithner’s memoir, “Stress Test,” has caused all the old arguments that were fought during the financial crisis to come rushing to the surface again.

Did the government make a mistake in allowing Lehman Brothers to file for bankruptcy? Was it right to bail out the too-big-to-fail banks despite all the harm they had done to the economy? As Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, put it in her review of “Stress Test”: “Tim’s book has reinvigorated a much-needed debate about whether our financial system should be based on a paradigm of bailouts or on one of accountability.”

And one other thing: It has re-raised the question of why the government wasn’t willing to do more for struggling homeowners, who bore the burden of the Great Recession. In his book, Geithner, the former Treasury secretary, devotes a handful of pages to the Obama administration’s mortgage relief efforts, though the writing comes across as halfhearted, not unlike Geithner’s efforts while he was running the Treasury Department.

But, in the course of perusing another new book about the financial crisis, “Other People’s Houses,” by Jennifer Taub, an associate professor at Vermont Law School, I was reminded of an effort that took place in the spring of 2009 that could have made an enormous difference to homeowners, one that would have required no taxpayer money and might well have become law with a little energetic lobbying from the likes of, well, Tim Geithner. That was an attempt, led by Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator, to change the bankruptcy code so that homeowners who were underwater could modify their mortgages during the bankruptcy process. The moment has been largely forgotten; Taub has done us a favor by putting it back on the table.

As she notes, thanks to a 1993 Supreme Court decision, homeowners saddled with mortgage debt on their primary residences have not been able to take refuge in the bankruptcy courts. The unanimous ruling by the court found that when Congress rewrote the bankruptcy code in 1978, it specifically gave “favorable treatment” to mortgage lenders “to encourage the flow of capital into the home-lending market,” as Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a concurring opinion. Durbin was trying to get rid of that favorable treatment.

Why? Because, as Bair told me in an email, “It would have been a powerful bargaining chip for borrowers.” Without the ability to file for bankruptcy, underwater homeowners unable to pay their mortgages were helpless to prevent foreclosures. With it, however, servicers and banks were far more likely to negotiate the debt load. And if they weren’t, a bankruptcy judge would rule on the appropriate debt to be repaid. For all the talk about the need for principal reduction, this change would have been the easiest way to get it.

Indeed, although the financial services industry had pushed hard for their bankruptcy carve-out, they would have been helped, too. Knowing that a borrower can avail himself of bankruptcy court would undoubtedly have a sobering effect on lenders, making them more cautious about underwriting standards.

As the financial crisis heated up during his first presidential run, then-candidate Obama said that he favored changing the bankruptcy laws “to make it easier for families to stay in their homes.” But he became convinced that the Democrats should not push for it as part of the controversial bailout legislation, so he backed off, promising to push it once he was in the White House.

Once he was president, however, Obama was rarely heard from on the subject. In late April 2009, with a bankruptcy bill having already passed the House, Durbin offered his amendment on the Senate side. The financial services industry pulled out all the stops, arguing that a right of bankruptcy for a homeowner would increase the cost of home loans, undermine the sanctity of contracts and promote (of course!) moral hazard.

Adam J. Levitin, a professor at Georgetown Law School, believes that nothing untoward would have happened if Durbin’s amendment had passed. He and another researcher looked at interest rate and loan size data from 1978 to 1993 when some jurisdictions did allow homeowner bankruptcies. “The effect on interest rates was small,” he told me. “The sky didn’t fall.”

He added, “This should have been a no-brainer.”

As it turns out, there is one other person who was opposed to the bankruptcy option. That was Tim Geithner. He writes in his book that he didn’t think it was “a particularly wise or effective strategy.” Although Geithner says the votes weren’t there for Durbin’s amendment, it did get 45 votes. How many more might it have gotten if the Treasury Department and the White House had come out strongly in support?

Which leads to one other unanswered question about the financial crisis. Why is it that the fear of moral hazard only applies to homeowners, and not to the banks?

The MOTU own the government and it didn’t suit them.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Reince Priebus made a joke on Sunday.

I don’t know that he meant to — comedy isn’t his forte — but the only way to hear one of his comments on “Meet the Press” was as a put-on. He said that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t run for the presidency if “she has another month like she just had,” with questions about Monica, about Benghazi, about Boko Haram, about her brain.

I almost fell down. For one thing, she’s had countless months like that. For another, they’re the only kind on the horizon: Hillary as the fodder for the morning talk shows (on Sunday’s panels, she came up 98 times, according to a Washington Post tally) and Hillary as a piñata for late-night comedians; strenuously marketed Hillary scandals with a modicum of merit and strenuously marketed Hillary scandals with none.

If Republicans believed in global warming, they’d surely divine her hand in it. Speaking of body parts, I suspect we’ll move from Hillary’s brain to her heart, probably her liver, possibly her pancreas and maybe even her pinkie toe. What Hillary goes through in the public arena isn’t an examination. It’s a vivisection.

That she endures it is admirable. That she’s so willing to is scary. With all politicians, you worry about the intensity of the hunger that enables them to suffer the snows of Iowa and the slings and arrows of outrageous pundits. With Hillary and Bill, you worry that it’s rapaciousness beyond bounds.

You also grow weary. The Clintons are exhausting. And that’s just one of many drawbacks worth discussing as Hillary plays Hamlet, mulling what to do.

She’s without doubt the contender to bet on. But she’s a contender with baggage and obstacles that get woefully short shrift in all the nonstop chatter about her inevitability.

For starters, Americans have been in a pessimistic mood for an unusually sustained period, their faith in the political system at rock bottom. How does someone who’s been front and center in that system for more than two decades — who’s a symbol of intense partisan warfare — become the voice of change? There’s no “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” for Hillary. Tomorrow was yesterday.

Remarks she made in Washington on Friday illustrated that point. At a conference titled “Big Ideas for a New America,” she mused about what “the 1990s taught us,” looking into the future by traveling into the past, which isn’t the terrain on which presidential elections are typically won.

Bill traveled there just two and a half weeks earlier, in a speech of his own at Georgetown University. “Speech” is too paltry a word; this was one of those ego extravaganzas, like his aria at the Democratic National Convention, that went on and on and reaffirmed his talent for making everything, including the current income-inequality debate, about him. In this case he was singing the praises of his own presidency’s economic record.

He was also serving notice that despite his screw-ups during Hillary’s 2008 campaign, it may be impossible to muzzle him in 2016. Just last week, on yet another stage, he again joined the fray, proclaiming Hillary blameless for Benghazi and vouching that her concussion was merely that. There’s a thin line between chivalry and butting in. Can he stay on the right side of it? If not, he could hurt her candidacy, overshadowing her and undercutting her feminist story line.

She has additional challenges. If Obama’s approval rating doesn’t rise, his would-be successors will be best served by breaking with him. For Hillary that’s hard. Given her history on health insurance, she can’t run against the Affordable Care Act. Given her role in his administration, she can’t run against his foreign policy.

How does she simultaneously defend and defy him? It’s a balancing act that Al Gore never perfected in regard to her husband.

The last month has indeed been instructive, demonstrating how practiced Republicans are at attacking her — and how exuberant they are about it. I think they want her to run. She’s the devil they know. She’s the dragon worth slaying.

She’s considered inevitable in part because she’s political royalty, awash in money and celebrity endorsements, but is royalty what an economically frustrated, embittered electorate wants? With fame of her duration and magnitude, how does she find a common touch?

And how does she show us anything that she hasn’t shown us before, introducing or even reintroducing herself?

Maybe any sense of staleness will be expunged by the prospect of a first female president, but she lacks an opportunity that many successful presidential candidates enjoyed: that period of the rollout when a more detailed biography emerges, a personality is defined and voters get a chance to swoon.

We can’t fall in love that way with Hillary, not at this point. We’re too far past the roses and Champagne.

Well, Frank, if you’re so very, very tired of reading and hearing about the Clintons why not just STFU and write about something else instead of channeling MoDo.

Brooks and Krugman

May 16, 2014

Bobo thinks he has found the “Stairway to Wisdom.”  He babbles that to investigate social problems, nothing can replace the knowledge gained through relationships.  His topic is, God help us, teenage pregnancy.  In the comments “Howard” from Los Angeles had this to say:  “Ah, teenage pregnancy. It’s all about girls and their choices. Boys have nothing to do with it, or so you imply:  ‘Maybe a young woman just wanted to feel like an adult; maybe she had some desire for arduous love, maybe she was just absent-minded, or loved danger, or couldn’t resist her boyfriend, or saw no possible upside for her future anyway.’  If the academic friends you mention include some biologists, maybe they can help you understand the role of male sexuality in producing offspring.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — if men got pregnant abortion would be a sacrament.  Bobo also uses the phrase “those of us in the more affluent classes.”  How special…  In “Points of No Return” Prof. Krugman says false doctrines on climate science have become badges of identity for Republicans, and that’s more frightening than some of the environmental change underway.  Here’s Bobo:

Let’s say you wanted to understand a social problem in depth. Let’s say you wanted to move from a dry, statistical understanding of a problem to a rich, humane one. How would you do it? What steps would you take on your climb toward understanding?

Well, obviously, first you’d start with the data. Let’s say, for example, you were studying teenage pregnancy. You’d want to understand the basic facts and trends. You’d discover from a recent Brookings Institution report that annual teenage childbearing rates have declined by an astonishing 52 percent since 1991.

Next you’d want to get some grasp of the general causes for this phenomenon. At this stage, you would consult the academic research.

This research casts doubt on some possible explanations for the amazing decline. Teenage pregnancy rates are not falling because abortion is on the rise. As far as we can tell, abortion rates are falling, too. Better sexual education must have had some role, but that doesn’t explain the trend either. Teen pregnancy is declining just as much in states like Texas without comprehensive sex ed as it is in states like New Jersey with it.

On the other hand, improved contraception is working. Pregnancy rates fall as people move away from condoms toward IUDs. Sexual attitudes are changing, too. Teenagers are having their first sexual experiences later than they used to and they are less sexually active than previous generations.

This academic research offers a look at general tendencies within groups. The research helps you to make informed generalizations about how categories of people are behaving. If you use it correctly, you can even make snappy generalizations about classes of people that are fun and useful up to a point.

But this work is insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding. Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.

We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism. My academic colleagues sometimes disparage journalism, but, when done right, it offers a higher form of knowing than social science research.

By conducting sensitive interviews and by telling a specific story, the best journalism respects the infinite dignity of the individual, and the unique blend of thoughts and feelings that go into that real, breathing life.

A pregnancy, for example, isn’t just a piece of data in a set. It came about after a unique blend of longings and experiences. Maybe a young woman just wanted to feel like an adult; maybe she had some desire for arduous love, maybe she was just absent-minded, or loved danger, or couldn’t resist her boyfriend, or saw no possible upside for her future anyway. In each case the ingredients will be different. Only careful case-by-case storytelling can uncover and respect the delirious iconoclasm of how life is actually lived.

But even this isn’t the highest rung on the ladder of understanding. Statisticians, academics and journalists all adopt a dispassionate pose. Academics rely on formal methodology and jargon. Journalists observe from behind the wall of their notebooks.

The highest rung on the stairway to understanding is intimacy. Our master-teacher here is Augustine. As he aged, Augustine came to reject those who thought they could understand others from some detached objective stance.

He came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels.

There is a tendency now, especially for those of us in the more affluent classes, to want to use education to make life more predictable, to seek control as the essential good, to emphasize data that masks the remorseless unpredictability of individual lives. But people engaged in direct contact with problems like teenage pregnancy are cured of those linear illusions. Those of us who work with data and for newspapers probably should be continually reminding ourselves to bow down before the knowledge of participation, to defer to the highest form of understanding, which is held by those who walk alongside others every day, who know the first names, who know the smells and fears.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Recently two research teams, working independently and using different methods, reached an alarming conclusion: The West Antarctic ice sheet is doomed. The sheet’s slide into the ocean, and the resulting sharp rise in sea levels, will probably happen slowly. But it’s irreversible. Even if we took drastic action to limit global warming right now, this particular process of environmental change has reached a point of no return.

Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — much of whose state is now fated to sink beneath the waves — weighed in on climate change. Some readers may recall that in 2012 Mr. Rubio, asked how old he believed the earth to be, replied “I’m not a scientist, man.” This time, however, he confidently declared the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change false, although in a later interview he was unable to cite any sources for his skepticism.

So why would the senator make such a statement? The answer is that like that ice sheet, his party’s intellectual evolution (or maybe more accurately, its devolution) has reached a point of no return, in which allegiance to false doctrines has become a crucial badge of identity.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of doctrines — how support for a false dogma can become politically mandatory, and how overwhelming contrary evidence only makes such dogmas stronger and more extreme. For the most part, I’ve been focusing on economic issues, but the same story applies with even greater force to climate.

To see how it works, consider a topic I know well: the recent history of inflation scares.

More than five years have passed since many conservatives started warning that the Federal Reserve, by taking action to contain the financial crisis and boost the economy, was setting the stage for runaway inflation. And, to be fair, that wasn’t a crazy position to take in 2009; I could have told you it was wrong (and, in fact, I did), but you could see where it was coming from.

Over time, however, as the promised inflation kept failing to arrive, there should have come a point when the inflationistas conceded their error and moved on.

In fact, however, few did. Instead, they mostly doubled down on their predictions of doom, and some moved on to conspiracy theorizing, claiming that high inflation was already happening, but was being concealed by government officials.

Why the bad behavior? Nobody likes admitting to mistakes, and all of us — even those of us who try not to — sometimes engage in motivated reasoning, selectively citing facts to support our preconceptions.

But hard as it is to admit one’s own errors, it’s much harder to admit that your entire political movement got it badly wrong. Inflation phobia has always been closely bound up with right-wing politics; to admit that this phobia was misguided would have meant conceding that one whole side of the political divide was fundamentally off base about how the economy works. So most of the inflationistas have responded to the failure of their prediction by becoming more, not less, extreme in their dogma, which will make it even harder for them ever to admit that they, and the political movement they serve, have been wrong all along.

The same kind of thing is clearly happening on the issue of global warming. There are, obviously, some fundamental factors underlying G.O.P. climate skepticism: The influence of powerful vested interests (including, though by no means limited to, the Koch brothers), plus the party’s hostility to any argument for government intervention. But there is clearly also some kind of cumulative process at work. As the evidence for a changing climate keeps accumulating, the Republican Party’s commitment to denial just gets stronger.

Think of it this way: Once upon a time it was possible to take climate change seriously while remaining a Republican in good standing. Today, listening to climate scientists gets you excommunicated — hence Mr. Rubio’s statement, which was effectively a partisan pledge of allegiance.

And truly crazy positions are becoming the norm. A decade ago, only the G.O.P.’s extremist fringe asserted that global warming was a hoax concocted by a vast global conspiracy of scientists (although even then that fringe included some powerful politicians). Today, such conspiracy theorizing is mainstream within the party, and rapidly becoming mandatory; witch hunts against scientists reporting evidence of warming have become standard operating procedure, and skepticism about climate science is turning into hostility toward science in general.

It’s hard to see what could reverse this growing hostility to inconvenient science. As I said, the process of intellectual devolution seems to have reached a point of no return. And that scares me more than the news about that ice sheet.

I continue to thank God that I don’t have children who will have to live through what’s coming, and also that I’ll be dead before the worst of it.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

May 13, 2014

In “The Problem With Confidence” Bobo gurgles that the best advice for self-confidence is not “believe in yourself” but rather “look at what you’ve done in the world.”  The world would be a much, much better place if the current batch of Republicans, bloated with unwarranted self-confidence, would follow that advice.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “After several paragraphs of vague psycho-twaddle, the conclusion seems to be that we should focus on what needs to be done, although who decides what needs doing is not mentioned. One assumes that People Smarter Than Us will be assigning those tasks, and our job is to be the best darn drones we can be.”  So, it’s pretty standard Bobo crap.  Mr. Cohen considers “Status in the New Asia” and says globalization does not equal homogenization. The same thing that people want is something different.  In “Science Vs. Taxes” Mr. Nocera says to the Brits, Pfizer’s $101 billion bid for AstraZeneca is about sciences, not taxes.  Mr. Bruni says “Read Kids, Read.”  He says it’s not a chore. It’s a path to fulfillment that fewer are traveling.  Here’s Bobo:

The current issue of The Atlantic carries a fascinating summary of “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The essay runs through the evidence suggesting that women tend to have too little self-confidence. When asked how well they did on tests, women tend to estimate that they got fewer answers correct than they actually did. In one British study, a business school professor asked students how much they would deserve to earn five years after graduation. The women’s estimates were 20 percent lower than the men’s.

It’s interesting to read the evidence as a guy, especially if you’re a self-aggrandizing pundit who covers politics and public life. I almost never see problems caused by underconfidence, but I see (and create) problems related to overconfidence every day.

Much of the recent psychological research also suggests that overconfidence is our main cognitive problem, not the reverse. Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” describes an exhaustive collection of experiments demonstrating how often people come to conclusions confidently and wrongly. When asked to estimate if more murders happen in Detroit or in Michigan, most people give higher estimates for Detroit even though every murder in Detroit also happens in Michigan.

Dan Ariely’s work shows how consistently we overpraise our virtues and rationalize our faults so we can think too highly of ourselves. Most of us call ourselves honest. But, in fact, most people regularly cheat in small ways, when the situation is right.

So my first reaction when reading of female underconfidence is not simply that this is a problem. It’s to ask, how can we inject more of this self-doubt and self-policing into the wider culture. How can each of us get a better mixture of “female” self-doubt and “male” self-assertion?

But my second reaction is to notice that people are phenomenally terrible at estimating their own self-worth. Some Americans seem to value themselves ridiculously too little while others value themselves ridiculously too highly.

The self-help books try to boost the “confidence” part of self-confidence, but the real problem is the “self” part. The self, as writers have noticed for centuries, is an unstable, fickle, vain and variable thing. Hundreds of years ago, David Hume noticed that when he tried to enter into what he called his most intimate self, he always stumbled on some particular perception or another. He never could catch himself without a perception of something else, and he never could see himself, only the perception.

When you try to come up with a feeling for self-confidence, you are trying to peer into a myriad of ever-changing mental systems, most of them below the level of awareness. Instead of coming up with a real thing, which can reliably be called self-confidence, you’re just conjuring an abstraction. In the very act of trying to think about self-confidence, your vanity is creating this ego that is unstable and ethereal, and is thus painfully fragile, defensive, boasting and sensitive to sleights.

If you want to talk about something real, it’s probably a mistake to use a suspect concept like self-confidence, which is self-oriented. It’s probably a better idea to think about competence, which is task-oriented. If you ask, “Am I competent?” at least you are measuring yourself according to the standards of a specific domain.

The person with the self-confidence mind-set starts thinking about his own intrinsic state. The person who sees herself as the instrument for performing a task thinks about some external thing that needs doing. The person with the confidence mind-set is like the painfully self-conscious person at a dinner party who asks, “How am I coming across?” The person with an instrumentalist mind-set is serving a craft and asks “What does this specific job require?” The person with a confidence mind-set is told “Believe in yourself.” This arouses all sorts of historical prejudices and social stereotypes. The person with an instrumentalist mind-set is told “Look accurately at what you have done.”

One of the hard things in life is learning to ask questions that you can actually answer. For example, if you are thinking about taking a job, it’s probably foolish to ask, “What future opportunities will this lead to?” You can’t know. It’s probably better to ask, “Will going to this workplace be rewarding day to day?” which is more concrete. If you are getting married, it’s probably foolish to ask an unknowable question like, “Will this person make me happy for 50 years?” It’s probably smarter to ask, “Is this person admirable enough that I want to live my life as an offering to them?” You can at least glimpse another’s habits here and now.

Similarly, if you start thinking about your self-confidence, you will just be inventing a self-referential story. It’s probably easier to go through life focusing on what specifically needs doing, rooted in a set of external obligations and criteria and thus quieting the self.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, writing from Ho Chi Minh City:

The quest for status is a tremendous driver of society, at whatever level of development. It is a fundamental human desire. The new middle classes of Asia, and the new rich, are looking to assert their status. This plays out in interesting ways.

Of Vietnam’s 90 million people, about 20 million are on Facebook; around half that number live below the poverty line. A society so defined inhabits many universes at once. A teenager on a scooter among the whining legions of scooters, his bike burdened with a cage full of live chickens, passes a glitzy new “Thai Tapas Bar.” Global and local, high concept and the scramble for survival, intersect. Everyone lives somewhere. A growing number of people live everywhere. Vietnam, a war-ravaged peasant society within living memory, has bounded toward a churning urban modernity that has echoes across the world.

The global rich inhabit one country, the global middle class another, the global poor a third. There is much more in common among the global rich across national borders than between rich and poor within those borders. Perhaps it was ever so. But the world lived in ignorance, most exploitable of conditions. Awareness has changed things. It is a force multiplier and a motivator. It is near irreversible once acquired. It drives the ache for status, as evident now in Ho Chi Minh City as Hollywood.

The notion that globalization equals homogenization has become a commonplace. You travel 10,000 miles and find yourself gazing at a Domino’s Pizza or a Dunkin’ Donuts. Upscale neighborhoods are full of the same kinds of ads for personal fitness trainers. Malls are filled with the same “power brands.” Children show the same tendencies toward pudginess or even obesity as their diets are changed by global fast food. The Vietnamese rich want the same Prada bags as the rich throughout the world, the new middle class craves the same symbols of their rise, and the poor are just poor like the poor everywhere.

But these are bromides. Homogenization is in fact far from the whole story. Perhaps it would be truer these days to say that the same thing that people throughout the world want is something different.

If they have the means they want the glass hand-blown, the liquor slow-aged and the fabric hand-sewn. They want something with a distinctive story. They want to know how the pigs behind that succulent ham got their acorns. They want to know how the barrel behind the bourbon was made. They long to demonstrate their knowledge, now so easily acquired, and reveal their particular taste.

“Mass” is becoming a problematic word in the global marketplace. Bespoke and crafted and boutique are good words.

Better the couple of guys in Denver who start a microbrewery or the former hedge-fund honcho making a superior gin near Edinburgh than the slick marketers of power-branding. Integrity and authenticity are new watchwords. Globalization, it transpires, is also about growing fragmentation. It involves consumer rebellions against being herded by conglomerates toward the same brands in the same malls.

“The same thing young people everywhere want now is originality, something with depth and a story,” said Justin Frizelle, the Singapore-based director of Brand Connect, a company that builds liquor brands in Asia. “It is amazing the fragmentation through the liquor industry in choice and brands, a rebellion against consolidation. Microbreweries have led to microdistilleries. What happened with craft beers is happening with handmade vodkas and slow-aged rums. You have guys in Brooklyn making ryes. It turns out people want something different.”

These developments are of course problematic for big industrial groups, whose partial answer has been to set up divisions focused on acquiring or developing the handcrafted, small breweries and distilleries able to counter the “mass” image. But consumers of ever greater sophistication may challenge the integrity and authenticity of such products.

A successful Vietnamese businessman confided to me that when he receives a gift of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label (surely one of the world’s great blended whiskies) he sends it back because it is insultingly ordinary. What he is looking for is a Gold Label, or a Blue Label, or a Platinum Label (whiskies have come to resemble credit cards and frequent-flyer memberships in their status-conferring labels), or some very distinctive, long-aged single malt.

This in the end is where the Ho Chi Minh trail led: to the familiar and universal quest for status and respect.

As Constantine Phipps writes in “What You Want: The Pursuit of Happiness,” his wonderful new novel in rhyming verse:

Status gives pleasure, wholly genuine,
but also wields a dreaded discipline,
policing our activity far more
than do the sacred scriptures, or the law.
Its stern enforcers are esteem and blame.
There is no way out of the status game …

Now we get to Mr. Nocera:

In the United States, most of the controversy over Pfizer’s $101 billion bid for AstraZeneca has been about the potential tax consequences. Last year, Pfizer paid an effective tax rate of about 27 percent. But if it were to succeed in taking over its British rival — and so far, at least, AstraZeneca has shown zero interest in the idea — it would be able to conduct a maneuver called “inversion,” becoming a British company and paying the British corporate tax rate of 20 percent. It would also be able to access cash that resides overseas, which would be taxed at the American rate of 35 percent if it were repatriated into this country.

As I discovered during a recent trip to London, however, taxes are low on the list of issues for the Brits. Instead, Britain is primarily worried about whether Pfizer, with its reputation for ruthless cost-cutting, will cut the heart out of AstraZeneca’s multibillion-dollar annual research-and-development budget and, in so doing, diminish Britain’s standing as a scientific powerhouse.

The alarms have been sounded in editorial pages, by politicians, and by leading British scientists. When the top executives of the two companies appear before Parliament over the next two days, tough questions about science, not taxes, are the ones they are most likely to be asked.

In truth, scientific innovation probably won’t be affected whether or not Pfizer takes over AstraZeneca. The story of Big Pharma since the golden age of the 1990s — the so-called blockbuster era, in which one billion-dollar drug after another came to market — has been a struggle for relevance. “They’ve picked all the low hanging fruit,” said Barry Werth, the author of “The Antidote,” a book about what he calls “new pharma,” the small biotech companies that have sprung up in places like Cambridge, Mass., and Cambridge, England.

As the blockbusters lost their patent protection — allowing the cheaper generics to kick in — the big pharmaceutical companies have had enormous difficulties replacing their pipeline of drugs through R.& D. alone. Instead, they have taken to either buying each other, or partnering with the more innovative biotech companies, offering the one thing they still have: major marketing muscle.

Take Pfizer, which over the last 14 years has acquired Warner-Lambert, Pharmacia and Wyeth. Before Pfizer took over Wyeth in 2009, according to John LaMattina, who writes about Big Pharma for, the two companies spent around $13 billion in combined research and development. Last year, Pfizer spent $6.55 billion. “Effectively, Pfizer eliminated 50 percent of what the individual organizations had spent five years earlier,” LaMattina wrote recently.

Has this cutback slowed down innovation? It has not. But innovation is being driven by a different kind of company. The sequencing of the human genome has opened up entirely new areas of research and entirely new kinds of medicine. For instance, scientists can use biomarkers to target disease population subsets. “Even in oncology, we are getting at such a better understanding, it is almost like a lock in a key,” said Mark Schoenebaum, the head of health care research for International Strategy and Investment. The hottest area in cancer drugs right now is something called immuno-oncology. AstraZeneca has a foothold in that area, as do Bristol-Myers Squibb and others. How did they get there? In part, by buying smaller companies.

Big Pharma is hardly going to disappear. But it is unlikely to be the cradle of innovation again. AstraZeneca has a better pipeline than Pfizer, but British science will do just fine no matter how this battle plays out.

American science will, too.


A note to readers:

My column of April 29, entitled “Buffett Bites Back,” was based on a faulty premise. Having written a previous column criticizing Warren Buffett for abstaining from voting against Coca-Cola’s equity compensation plan even though he said it was excessive, I picked up on an interview that was posted on April 28 by Fortune magazine. In the introduction to the interview, the Fortune writer, Stephen Gandel, mentioned the “wave of criticism” that had been unleashed by Buffett’s decision. He specifically mentioned my column.

That’s why I assumed that the interview had taken place days after my first column was published, and why I chose the headline “Buffett Bites Back” for my next column. But he wasn’t biting back. In fact, Gandel conducted his interview on April 23, the day of the Coca-Cola annual meeting — and before I had even written my previous column. In that same introduction, Gandel also wrote that Buffett had defended himself to Fortune “shortly after the Coke vote.” Inexplicably, I didn’t pick up on that.

Although The Times published a strong correction, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor, wrote that she didn’t think it went far enough because my column was “so intrinsically flawed.” Upon reflection, I agree with her. I sincerely regret the error.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

As an uncle I’m inconsistent about too many things.

Birthdays, for example. My nephew Mark had one on Sunday, and I didn’t remember — and send a text — until 10 p.m., by which point he was asleep.

School productions, too. I saw my niece Bella in “Seussical: The Musical” but missed “The Wiz.” She played Toto, a feat of trans-species transmogrification that not even Meryl, with all of her accents, has pulled off.

But about books, I’m steady. Relentless. I’m incessantly asking my nephews and nieces what they’re reading and why they’re not reading more. I’m reliably hurling novels at them, and also at friends’ kids. I may well be responsible for 10 percent of all sales of “The Fault in Our Stars,” a teenage love story to be released as a movie next month. Never have I spent money with fewer regrets, because I believe in reading — not just in its power to transport but in its power to transform.

So I was crestfallen on Monday, when a new report by Common Sense Media came out. It showed that 30 years ago, only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said that they “hardly ever” or never read for pleasure. Today, 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say that. Fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds now read for pleasure “almost every day.” Back in 1984, 31 percent did. What a marked and depressing change.

I know, I know: This sounds like a fogy’s crotchety lament. Or, worse, like self-interest. Professional writers arguing for vigorous reading are dinosaurs begging for a last breath. We’re panhandlers with a better vocabulary.

But I’m coming at this differently, as someone persuaded that reading does things — to the brain, heart and spirit — that movies, television, video games and the rest of it cannot.

There’s research on this, and it’s cited in a recent article in The Guardian by Dan Hurley, who wrote that after “three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world,” he’d concluded that “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”

In terms of smarts and success, is reading causative or merely correlated? Which comes first, “The Hardy Boys” or the hardy mind? That’s difficult to unravel, but several studies have suggested that people who read fiction, reveling in its analysis of character and motivation, are more adept at reading people, too: at sizing up the social whirl around them. They’re more empathetic. God knows we need that.

Late last year, neuroscientists at Emory University reported enhanced neural activity in people who’d been given a regular course of daily reading, which seemed to jog the brain: to raise its game, if you will.

Some experts have doubts about that experiment’s methodology, but I’m struck by how its findings track something that my friends and I often discuss. If we spend our last hours or minutes of the night reading rather than watching television, we wake the next morning with thoughts less jumbled, moods less jangled. Reading has bequeathed what meditation promises. It has smoothed and focused us.

Maybe that’s about the quiet of reading, the pace of it. At Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, whose students significantly outperform most peers statewide, the youngest kids all learn and play chess, in part because it hones “the ability to focus and concentrate,” said Sean O’Hanlon, who supervises the program. Doesn’t reading do the same?

Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, framed it as a potentially crucial corrective to the rapid metabolism and sensory overload of digital technology. He told me that it can demonstrate to kids that there’s payoff in “doing something taxing, in delayed gratification.” A new book of his, “Raising Kids Who Read,” will be published later this year.

Before talking with him, I arranged a conference call with David Levithan and Amanda Maciel. Both have written fiction in the young adult genre, whose current robustness is cause to rejoice, and they rightly noted that the intensity of the connection that a person feels to a favorite novel, with which he or she spends eight or 10 or 20 hours, is unlike any response to a movie.

That observation brought to mind a moment in “The Fault in Our Stars” when one of the protagonists says that sometimes, “You read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”

Books are personal, passionate. They stir emotions and spark thoughts in a manner all their own, and I’m convinced that the shattered world has less hope for repair if reading becomes an ever smaller part of it.

My mother read to me every day, and instilled a love of books and reading in me when I was a child.  It’s the greatest gift you can give a child.

Brooks and Krugman

May 9, 2014

Apparently Bobo is now an expert on Africa.  Who knew?  In “The Real Africa” he burbles that the reaction to the Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria is positive, yet indicative of a widespread misunderstanding of Africa.  A cogent question is asked by “stu freeman” from Brooklyn, NY:  “C’mon, Mr. Brooks; have you even visited any of these countries (I almost never see a dateline accompanying any of your pieces, as opposed to those of, say, Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof)? My own experiences in Ethiopia and Cameroon provided me with a far different impression than the one you’re promoting here.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Now That’s Rich,” says big surprise! Hedge fund managers make a lot of money. But there are some lessons there.  Here’s Bobo:

In 2005, Binyavanga Wainaina published a brilliantly sarcastic essay in Granta called “How to Write About Africa,” advising people on how to sound spiritual and compassionate while writing a book about the continent.

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” Wainaina advised. “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”

Wainaina had other tips: The people in said book should be depicted as hungry, suffering, simple or dead. The children should have distended bellies and flies on their faces. The animals, on the other hand, should be depicted as wise and filled with family values. Elephants are caring and good feminists. So are gorillas. Be sure to show how profoundly you are moved by the continent and its woes, and how much it has penetrated your soul. End with a quote from Nelson Mandela involving rainbows. Because you care.

There’s been something similarly distorted to some of the social media reactions to the Boko Haram atrocities over the past week. It’s great that the kidnappings and the massacres are finally arousing the world’s indignation. But sometimes the implication of the conversation has been this: Africa is this dark and lawless place where monstrous things are bound to happen. Those poor people need our help.

But this is more or less the opposite of the truth. Boko Haram is not the main story in Africa or even in Nigeria. It is a small rear-guard reaction to the main story. The main story in Africa is an impressive surge of growth, urbanization and modernization, which has sparked panic in a few people who don’t like these things.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are growing at a phenomenal clip. Nigeria’s economy grew by 6.7 percent in 2012. Mozambique’s grew by 7.4 percent, Ghana’s by 7.9 percent. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is predicted to reach 5.2 percent this year. Investment funds are starting up by the dozen, finding local entrepreneurs.

In 2011, roughly 60 million African households earned at least $3,000 a year. By next year, more than 100 million households will make that much. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000. Since 1996, the poverty rate has fallen by 1 percent per year. Life expectancies are shooting up.

Only about a third of this new wealth is because of commodities. Nations like Ethiopia and Rwanda, which have no oil wealth, are growing phenomenally. The bulk is because of economic reforms, increased productivity, increased urbanization and the fact that in many countries political systems are becoming marginally less dysfunctional.

Africa should not be seen as merely the basket case continent where students, mission trips and celebrities can go to do good work. It has become the test case of 21st-century modernity. It is the place where the pace of modernization is fast, and where the forces that resist modernization are mounting a daring reaction.

We are seeing three distinct clashes. They’re happening all over the world, but they exist in bold contrast in Africa.

The first is the clash over pluralism. Africa has seen an explosion of cellphone usage. It’s seen a rapid expansion of urbanization. In 1980, only 28 percent of Africans lived in cities, but today 40 percent do. This has led to a greater mixing of tribal groupings, religions and a loosening of lifestyle options. The draconian anti-gay laws in Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi and many other countries are one reaction against this cosmopolitan trend.

The second is a clash over human development. Over the past decade, secondary school enrollment in Africa has increased by 50 percent. This contributes to an increasing value on intellectual openness, as people seek liberty to furnish their own minds. The Boko Haram terrorists are massacring and kidnapping people — mostly girls — at schools to try to force people to submit to a fantasy version of the past.

The third is the clash over governance. Roughly 80 percent of Africa’s workers labor in the informal sector. That’s because the formal governmental and regulatory structures are biased toward the connected and the rich, not based on impersonal rule of law. Many Africans are trying to replace old practices with competent governance. They are creating new ways to navigate between the formal and informal sectors.

Too many of our images of Africa are derived from nature documentaries, fund-raising appeals and mission trips. In reality, Africa faces in acute forms the same problems that afflict pretty much every region these days. Most important: Individual and social creativity is zooming ahead. Governing institutions are failing to perform the basic, elementary tasks.

“Steve Hunter” from Seattle summed it up this way:  “In reading Mr, Brooks columns over the last six to nine months many of which have been devoted to class warfare, inequality, economics for the elite and so forth it is readily apparent that he is clueless as to how 90% of Americans live. Why should we assume he has the faintest idea how Africans live.”  Indeed.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Institutional Investor’s latest “rich list” in its Alpha magazine, its survey of the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers, is out — and it turns out that these guys make a lot of money. Surprise!

Yet before we dismiss the report as nothing new, let’s think about what it means that these 25 men (yes, they’re all men) made a combined $21 billion in 2013. In particular, let’s think about how their good fortune refutes several popular myths about income inequality in America.

First, modern inequality isn’t about graduates. It’s about oligarchs. Apologists for soaring inequality almost always try to disguise the gigantic incomes of the truly rich by hiding them in a crowd of the merely affluent. Instead of talking about the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent, they talk about the rising incomes of college graduates, or maybe the top 5 percent. The goal of this misdirection is to soften the picture, to make it seem as if we’re talking about ordinary white-collar professionals who get ahead through education and hard work.

But many Americans are well-educated and work hard. For example, schoolteachers. Yet they don’t get the big bucks. Last year, those 25 hedge fund managers made more than twice as much as all the kindergarten teachers in America combined. And, no, it wasn’t always thus: The vast gulf that now exists between the upper-middle-class and the truly rich didn’t emerge until the Reagan years.

Second, ignore the rhetoric about “job creators” and all that. Conservatives want you to believe that the big rewards in modern America go to innovators and entrepreneurs, people who build businesses and push technology forward. But that’s not what those hedge fund managers do for a living; they’re in the business of financial speculation, which John Maynard Keynes characterized as “anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.” Or since they make much of their income from fees, they’re actually in the business of convincing other people that they can anticipate average opinion about average opinion.

Once upon a time, you might have been able to argue with a straight face that all this wheeling and dealing was productive, that the financial elite was actually providing services to society commensurate with its rewards. But, at this point, the evidence suggests that hedge funds are a bad deal for everyone except their managers; they don’t deliver high enough returns to justify those huge fees, and they’re a major source of economic instability.

More broadly, we’re still living in the shadow of a crisis brought on by a runaway financial industry. Total catastrophe was avoided by bailing out banks at taxpayer expense, but we’re still nowhere close to making up for job losses in the millions and economic losses in the trillions. Given that history, do you really want to claim that America’s top earners — who are mainly either financial managers or executives at big corporations — are economic heroes?

Finally, a close look at the rich list supports the thesis made famous by Thomas Piketty in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” — namely, that we’re on our way toward a society dominated by wealth, much of it inherited, rather than work.

At first sight, this may not be obvious. The members of the rich list are, after all, self-made men. But, by and large, they did their self-making a long time ago. As Bloomberg View’s Matt Levine points out, these days a lot of top money managers’ income comes not from investing other people’s money but from returns on their own accumulated wealth — that is, the reason they make so much is the fact that they’re already very rich.

And this is, if you think about, an inevitable development. Over time, extreme inequality in income leads to extreme inequality of wealth; indeed, the wealth share of America’s top 0.1 percent is back at Gilded Age levels. This, in turn, means that high incomes increasingly come from investment income, not salaries. And it’s only a matter of time before inheritance becomes the biggest source of great wealth.

But why does all of this matter? Basically, it’s about taxes.

America has a long tradition of imposing high taxes on big incomes and large fortunes, designed to limit the concentration of economic power as well as raising revenue. These days, however, suggestions that we revive that tradition face angry claims that taxing the rich is destructive and immoral — destructive because it discourages job creators from doing their thing, immoral because people have a right to keep what they earn.

But such claims rest crucially on myths about who the rich really are and how they make their money. Next time you hear someone declaiming about how cruel it is to persecute the rich, think about the hedge fund guys, and ask yourself if it would really be a terrible thing if they paid more in taxes.


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