Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

June 27, 2014

In “The Spiritual Recession” Bobo gurgles that we will dishonor American heritage if we remain indifferent to the triumphs and failures of the global democratic project.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston ends a longer comment with this:  “If there is a spiritual recession, it was brought about by the same forces of cynical fundamentalist greed that created the economic recession. Were it not for the people who occupied Wall Street, we might have forgotten what democracy looked like.”  In “The Incompetence Dogma” Prof. Krugman says but Obamacare wasn’t supposed to work! What were all those cries of impending disaster about?  Here’s Bobo:

For the past few centuries, the Western world has witnessed a contest of historic visions. On the one side was the dream of the beautiful collective. Human progress was a one-way march toward socialism. People would liberate themselves from religion, hierarchy and oppression. They would build a new kind of society where equality would be the rule, where rational planning would replace cruel competition.

On the other side was the dream of universal democracy. Human progress was seen as a one-way march toward democratic capitalism. Societies would be held together by shared biblical morality. They would be invigorated by economic competition. They would be guided by a democratic state, where power was in the hands of the masses and dispersed through checks and balances.

These two historic visions had amazing appeal. Millions of people dedicated their lives to socialism or communism. The democratic gospel was just an idea, but it shaped American history. The founders believed that they were writing a Constitution for a nation that would herald a new order of the ages. Walt Whitman wrote an essay called “Democratic Vistas” defining the nation’s spiritual mission, while Lincoln celebrated the last, best hope of earth.

In the 1930s, the radical Leon Samson explained that Americans never went in big for socialism because they already had a creed, which made them happy, gave them work and made history meaningful. “Every concept in socialism has its substitutive counter-concept in Americanism,” Samson wrote, “and that is why the socialist argument falls so fruitlessly on the American ear. … The American does not want to listen to socialism because he thinks he already has it.”

The Cold War settled this contest of historic visions. Democracy won. You would think the gospel of democracy would be triumphant. But, as Mark Lilla writes in an essay called “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age” in The New Republic, the post-Cold War era hasn’t meant the triumph of one ideology; it destroyed the tendency to rely upon big historic visions of any sort. Lilla argues that we have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices.

He’s a bit right about that. When the U.S. was a weak nation, Americans dedicated themselves to proving to the world that democracy could last. When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naïve. National interest matters most.

Lilla’s piece both describes and unfortunately exemplifies the current mood. He argues that the notion of history as a march toward universal democracy is a pipe dream. Arab nations are not going to be democratic anytime soon. The world is an aviary of different systems — autocracy, mercantile despotism — and always will be. Instead of worrying about spreading democracy, we’d be better off trying to make theocracies less beastly.

Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, the left has grown strangely callous and withdrawing in the face of genocide around the world. The right adopts a zero-sum mentality about immigration and a pinched attitude about foreign affairs.

Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with. Young people get fired up by the thought of solar panels in Africa but seem much less engaged in the task of spreading political dignity and humane self-government.

Meanwhile, the country grows strangely indifferent to democratic heroes. Decades ago, everyone knew about Sakharov. But how many raised a fuss over the systematic persecution of democratic activists and Christians across the Middle East?

The democratic gospel was both lofty and realistic. It had a high historic mission, but it was based on the idea that biblical morality is necessary precisely because people are selfish and shortsighted, capitalism is necessary because economies are too complicated to understand and plan; democracy is necessary because concentrated power is always dangerous, no matter how seductive it seems in the short term.

Sure there have been setbacks. But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for? A great inheritance is being squandered; a 200-year-old language is being left by the side of the road.

Yeah, Bobo — let’s go cram “democracy” down another country’s throat.  It’s worked so very, very, very well in the past…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Have you been following the news about Obamacare? The Affordable Care Act has receded from the front page, but information about how it’s going keeps coming in — and almost all the news is good. Indeed, health reform has been on a roll ever since March, when it became clear that enrollment would surpass expectations despite the teething problems of the federal website.

What’s interesting about this success story is that it has been accompanied at every step by cries of impending disaster. At this point, by my reckoning, the enemies of health reform are 0 for 6. That is, they made at least six distinct predictions about how Obamacare would fail — every one of which turned out to be wrong.

“To err is human,” wrote Seneca. “To persist is diabolical.” Everyone makes incorrect predictions. But to be that consistently, grossly wrong takes special effort. So what’s this all about?

Many readers won’t be surprised by the answer: It’s about politics and ideology, not analysis. But while this observation isn’t particularly startling, it’s worth pointing out just how completely ideology has trumped evidence in the health policy debate.

And I’m not just talking about the politicians; I’m talking about the wonks. It’s remarkable how many supposed experts on health care made claims about Obamacare that were clearly unsupportable. For example, remember “rate shock”? Last fall, when we got our first information about insurance premiums, conservative health care analysts raced to claim that consumers were facing a huge increase in their expenses. It was obvious, even at the time, that these claims were misleading; we now know that the great majority of Americans buying insurance through the new exchanges are getting coverage quite cheaply.

Or remember claims that young people wouldn’t sign up, so that Obamacare would experience a “death spiral” of surging costs and shrinking enrollment? It’s not happening: a new survey by Gallup finds both that a lot of people have gained insurance through the program and that the age mix of the new enrollees looks pretty good.

What was especially odd about the incessant predictions of health-reform disaster was that we already knew, or should have known, that a program along the lines of the Affordable Care Act was likely to work. Obamacare was closely modeled on Romneycare, which has been working in Massachusetts since 2006, and it bears a strong family resemblance to successful systems abroad, for example in Switzerland. Why should the system have been unworkable for America?

But a firm conviction that the government can’t do anything useful — a dogmatic belief in public-sector incompetence — is now a central part of American conservatism, and the incompetence dogma has evidently made rational analysis of policy issues impossible.

It wasn’t always thus. If you go back two decades, to the last great fight over health reform, conservatives seem to have been relatively clearheaded about the policy prospects, albeit deeply cynical. For example, William Kristol’s famous 1993 memo urging Republicans to kill the Clinton health plan warned explicitly that Clintoncare, if implemented, might well be perceived as successful, which would, in turn, “strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.” So it was crucial to make sure that reform never happened. In effect, Mr. Kristol was telling insiders that tales of government incompetence are something you peddle to voters to get them to support tax cuts and deregulation, not something you necessarily believe yourself.

But that was before conservatives had fully retreated into their own intellectual universe. Fox News didn’t exist yet; policy analysts at right-wing think tanks had often begun their careers in relatively nonpolitical jobs. It was still possible to entertain the notion that reality wasn’t what you wanted it to be.

It’s different now. It’s hard to think of anyone on the American right who even considered the possibility that Obamacare might work, or at any rate who was willing to admit that possibility in public. Instead, even the supposed experts kept peddling improbable tales of looming disaster long after their chance of actually stopping health reform was past, and they peddled these tales not just to the rubes but to each other.

And let’s be clear: While it has been funny watching the right-wing cling to its delusions about health reform, it’s also scary. After all, these people retain considerable ability to engage in policy mischief, and one of these days they may regain the White House. And you really, really don’t want people who reject facts they don’t like in that position. I mean, they might do unthinkable things, like starting a war for no good reason. Oh, wait.

Brooks and Nocera

June 24, 2014

Bobo has decided to try giving us marriage advice.  In “Rhapsody in Realism” he gurgles that long love is built on understanding the nuances of human nature, including human frailty.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston sums it up for us:  “It seems Mr. Brooks is channeling Abigail Van Buren, and doing a fine job. What could be more appropriate than learning about love and relationships from a conservative opinion writer? It makes me wish Charles Krauthammer would dispense dating advice, but let’s not get greedy. Brooks actually strays a bit into Erma Bombeck territory with the wry recipe for surviving marital exasperation, but I don’t think Dear Abby will mind.”  Mr. Nocera, in “New Leader, New Attack on Exports,” says the campaign against the Export-Import Bank gains steam now that the House has elected a new majority leader.  Here’s Bobo:

A few years ago, I came across an article on a blog that appealed tremendously. It was on a subject that obviously I have a lot to learn about. But it was actually the tone and underlying worldview that was so instructive, not just the substance.

The article was called “15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years” by Lydia Netzer. The first piece of advice was “Go to bed mad.” Normally couples are told to resolve each dispute before they call it a night. But Netzer writes that sometimes you need to just go to bed. It won’t do any good to stay up late when you’re tired and petulant: “In the morning, eat some pancakes. Everything will seem better, I swear.”

Another piece of advice is to brag about your spouse in public and let them overhear you bragging.

Later, she tells wives that they should make a husband pact with their friends. “The husband pact says this: I promise to listen to you complain about your husband even in the most dire terms, without it affecting my good opinion of him. I will agree with your harshest criticism, accept your gloomiest predictions. I will nod and furrow my brow and sigh when you describe him as a hideous ogre. Then when your fight is over and love shines again like a beautiful sunbeam in your life, I promise to forget everything you said and regard him as the most charming of princes once more.”

Most advice, whether on love or business or politics, is based on the premise that we can just will ourselves into being rational and good and that the correct path to happiness is a straight line. These writers, in the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” school, are essentially telling you to turn yourself into a superstar by discipline and then everything will be swell.

But Netzer’s piece is nicely based on the premise that we are crooked timber. We are, to varying degrees, foolish, weak, and often just plain inexplicable — and always will be. As Kant put it: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

People with a crooked timber mentality tend to see life as full of ironies. Intellectual life is ironic because really smart people often do the dumbest things precisely because they are carried away by their own brilliance. Politics is ironic because powerful people make themselves vulnerable because they think they can achieve more than they can. Marriage is ironic because you are trying to build a pure relationship out of people who are ramshackle and messy. There’s an awesome incongruity between the purity you glimpse in the love and the fact that he leaves used tissues around the house and it drives you crazy.

People with a crooked timber mentality try to find comedy in the mixture of high and low. There’s something fervent in Netzer’s belief in marital loyalty: “You and your spouse are a team of two. It is you against the world. No one else is allowed on the team, and no one else will ever understand the team’s rules.” Yet the piece is written with a wry appreciation of human foibles. If you have to complain about your husband’s latest outrage to somebody’s mother, she writes, complain to his mother, not to yours. “His mother will forgive him. Yours never will.”

People with a crooked timber mentality try to adopt an attitude of bemused affection. A person with this attitude finds the annoying endearing and the silly adorable. Such a person tries to remember that we each seem more virtuous from our own vantage point than from anybody else’s.

People with a crooked timber mentality are anti-perfectionist. When two people are working together there are bound to be different views, and sometimes you can’t find a solution so you have to settle for an arrangement. You have to design structures that have a lot of give, for when people screw up. You have to satisfice, which is Herbert Simon’s term for any option that is not optimal but happens to work well enough.

Great and small enterprises often have two births: first in purity, then in maturity. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to the cold-eyed balances of the Constitution. Love starts in passion and ends in car pools.

The beauty of the first birth comes from the lofty hopes, but the beauty of the second birth comes when people begin to love frailty. (Have you noticed that people from ugly places love their cities more tenaciously than people from beautiful cities?)

The mature people one meets often have this crooked timber view, having learned from experience the intransigence of imperfection and how to make a friend of every stupid stumble. As Thornton Wilder once put it, “In love’s service only wounded soldiers can serve.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the real world, markets aren’t perfect.

If they were, you wouldn’t need Fannie Mae to play such a vital role in housing finance. You wouldn’t need government to fund research. And you certainly wouldn’t rely on an export credit agency to help promote American exports and create American jobs. Surely, the private sector can handle that.

And, indeed, in some 98 percent of American export transactions, the private sector does just fine. But then there’s the other 2 percent. There’s the small business that wants to expand abroad but can’t find a bank willing to take a risk on a newbie exporter. There’s the midsize manufacturer for whom financing insurance by the government is a necessity — in large part because its competitors in other countries are able to offer prospective buyers government financing insurance. And there are big companies like Boeing that operate in a global industry where the assistance of an export credit agency is baked into the business model.

Our country’s export credit agency is called the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Last year, it helped 3,413 small companies start or expand their export business. It also helped Boeing land aircraft sales against Airbus. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Ex-Im Bank stepped in because banks had become skittish. It exists precisely because markets aren’t perfect.

Or as Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the prominent conservative economist — and president of the American Action Forum — put it to me on Monday: “I share the belief that I would like to live in a world without the Ex-Im Bank. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in.”

When I first wrote about the Ex-Im Bank two weeks ago, I did so because the bank’s late September reauthorization, which never used to be in question, was under serious assault by such ultraconservative groups as the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action. They made the fundamentally ideological argument that the bank was putting taxpayers’ money at risk handling tasks the private sector was better equipped to handle. It is not true, but it made for a glorious Tea Party sound bite.

My assumption, however, was that cooler heads would eventually prevail, and the Export-Import Bank would be reauthorized. That’s what happened in 2012, which was the first time the bank came under ideological attack.

On Sunday, however, that calculus changed. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who was elected to replace Eric Cantor as the House majority leader, said on “Fox News Sunday” that “I think Ex-Im Bank is … something the government does not have to be involved in.” He added that he wouldn’t support reauthorization.

Two years ago, McCarthy did support reauthorization, and it is pretty obvious what transpired. In order to gain the votes of the Tea Party conservatives in Congress, McCarthy chose to sell American exports down the river.

Business is now up in arms. On Monday, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers held a conference call to decry the threat to the Export-Import Bank and promised a “full-court press” to get Congress to take up the reauthorization. (Late Monday, The Wall Street Journal added fuel to the fire, reporting that four Ex-Im Bank employees had been removed or suspended amid investigations.)

Meanwhile, Holtz-Eakin’s group, American Action Forum, has done some solid research knocking down many of the ideological arguments. For instance, the Ex-Im Bank’s opponents claim that the assistance given to Boeing is nothing more than “crony capitalism.” But Andy Winkler of American Action Forum notes that “Ex-Im’s activities reflect the structure of U.S. trade itself, supporting a large number of small and medium-sized exporters, but with the largest dollar volumes concentrated among large firms.”

Then there are small and medium-size exporters themselves. One former small businessman is Chris Collins, a freshman Republican whose district includes Buffalo. Before being elected to Congress, he owned a company called Audubon Machinery Corporation, which got a combination of guarantees and insurance from the Export-Import Bank worth $8.33 million between 2007 and 2014.

Needless to say, this made him the target of Heritage Action. But when I spoke to him on Monday afternoon, he was completely unapologetic. Indeed, he was in the process of sending a letter, signed by 41 Republican congressmen, asking McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner to allow a reauthorization vote.

What he learned over the years, he told me, “is the importance of the Ex-Im Bank for companies with $10 million to $20 million in sales, like ours.” For instance, banks worry about accounts receivables from companies in developing nations. “A company can pay a fee to the Ex-Im Bank and get accounts receivable insurance. Without the Ex-Im, some of our business would be all but impossible.”

“I was really caught off guard when Heritage went after me,” he said as our conversation was winding down. Then he added, “They must not understand what is required to be an exporter.”

Brooks and Krugman

June 20, 2014

Bobo sees analogies…  He’s penned “In the Land of Mass Graves” in which he tells us Rwanda’s remarkable recovery from the 1994 genocide provides clues to a path forward in Iraq.  In the comments “Phil Quin” from Wellington had this to say:  “Judging by the quality, originality and depth of his insights about Rwanda, Mr. Brooks’ column is the product of no more than an hours’ wading through Google News results.”  So, pretty typical for Bobo.  Prof. Krugman, in “Veterans and Zombies,” says the health care scandal at Veterans Affairs is real, but it’s being hyped out of proportion in an attempt to block reform of the larger national system.  Here’s Bobo:

Just over two decades ago, Rwanda was swept up in a murderous wave of ethnic violence that was as bad or worse as anything happening today in Iraq and Syria. The conflict was between a historically dominant ethnic minority and a historically oppressed majority, as in Iraq. Yet, today, Rwanda is a relatively successful country.

Economic growth has been hovering at about 8 percent a year for the past few years. Since 1994, per capita income has almost tripled. Mortality for children under 5 is down by two-thirds. Malaria-related deaths are down 85 percent. Most amazingly, people who 20 years ago were literally murdering each other’s family members are now living together in the same villages.

So the question of the day is: Does Rwanda’s rebound offer any lessons about how other nations might recover from this sort of murderous sectarian violence, even nations racked by the different sort of Sunni-Shiite violence we’re seeing in the Middle East?

Well, one possible lesson from Rwanda is that sectarian bloodletting is not a mass hysteria. It’s not an organic mania that sweeps over society like a plague. Instead, murderous sectarian violence is a top-down phenomenon produced within a specific political context.

People don’t usually go off decapitating each other or committing mass murder just because they hate people in another group. These things happen because soul-dead political leaders are in a struggle for power and use ethnic violence as a tool in that struggle.

If you can sideline those leaders or get the politics functioning, you can reduce the violence dramatically. These situations are gruesome, but they are not hopeless.

A few important things happened in Rwanda:

First, the government established a monopoly of force. In Rwanda, this happened because Paul Kagame won a decisive military victory over his Hutu rivals. He set up a strongman regime that was somewhat enlightened at first but which has grown increasingly repressive over time. He abuses human rights and rules by fear. Those of us who champion democracy might hope that freedom, pluralism and democracy can replace chaos. But the best hope may be along Korean lines, an authoritarian government that softens over time.

Second, the regime, while autocratic, earned some legitimacy. Kagame brought some Hutus into the government, though experts seem to disagree on how much power Hutus actually possess. He also publicly embraced the Singaporean style of autocracy, which has produced tangible economic progress.

This governing style can be extremely paternalistic. It is no longer officially permitted to identify people by their tribal markers (everybody knows anyway). Plastic bags are illegal. The civil service is closely monitored for corruption. In sum, Rwanda is a lousy place to be a journalist because of limits on expression, but the quality of life for the average citizen is improving rapidly.

Third, power has been decentralized. If Iraq survives, it will probably be as a loose federation, with the national government controlling the foreign policy and the army, but the ethnic regions dominating the parts of government that touch people day to day. Rwanda hasn’t gone that far, but it has made some moves in a federalist direction. Local leaders often follow a tradition of imihigo — in which they publicly vow to meet certain concrete performance goals within, say, three years: building a certain number of schools or staffing a certain number of health centers. If they don’t meet the goals, they are humiliated and presumably replaced. The process emphasizes local accountability.

Fourth, new constituencies were enfranchised. After the genocide, Rwanda’s population was up to 70 percent female. The men were either dead or in exile. Women have been given much more prominent roles in the judiciary and the Parliament. Automatically this creates a constituency for the new political order.

Fifth, the atrocities were acknowledged. No post-trauma society has done this perfectly. Rwanda prosecuted the worst killers slowly (almost every pre-civil-war judge was dead). The local trial process was widely criticized. The judicial process has lately been used to target political opponents. But it does seem necessary, if a nation is to move on, to set up a legal process to name what just happened and to mete out justice to the monstrous.

The Iraqi state is much weaker than the Rwandan one, but, even so, this quick survey underlines the wisdom of the approach the Obama administration is gesturing toward in Iraq: Use limited military force to weaken those who are trying to bring in violence from outside; focus most on the political; round up a regional coalition that will pressure Iraqi elites in this post-election moment to form an inclusive new government.

Iraq is looking into an abyss, but the good news is that if you get the political elites behaving decently, you can avoid the worst. Grimly, there’s cause for hope.

Also in the comments “gemli” from Boston has concerns:  “Why do I get the feeling that Mr. Brooks is giving us a heads-up about some New World Order that his conservative friends are cooking up? This is the second column in a few weeks (“The Autocracy Challenge” is the other) in which he finds something positive to say about autocratic governments. It also highlights some of his favorite themes, namely obedience to Just Authority, paternalism, and decentralized government. He even sees times when an authoritarian government like Korea’s might be just the ticket.”  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

You’ve surely heard about the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A number of veterans found themselves waiting a long time for care, some of them died before they were seen, and some of the agency’s employees falsified records to cover up the extent of the problem. It’s a real scandal; some heads have already rolled, but there’s surely more to clean up.

But the goings-on at Veterans Affairs shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of a much bigger scandal: the almost surreal inefficiency and injustice of the American health care system as a whole. And it’s important to understand that the Veterans Affairs scandal, while real, is being hyped out of proportion by people whose real goal is to block reform of the larger system.

The essential, undeniable fact about American health care is how incredibly expensive it is — twice as costly per capita as the French system, two-and-a-half times as expensive as the British system. You might expect all that money to buy results, but the United States actually ranks low on basic measures of performance; we have low life expectancy and high infant mortality, and despite all that spending many people can’t get health care when they need it. What’s more, Americans seem to realize that they’re getting a bad deal: Surveys show a much smaller percentage of the population satisfied with the health system in America than in other countries.

And, in America, medical costs often cause financial distress to an extent that doesn’t happen in any other advanced nation.

How and why does health care in the United States manage to perform so badly? There have been many studies of the issue, identifying factors that range from high administrative costs, to high drug prices, to excessive testing. The details are fairly complicated, but if you had to identify a common theme behind America’s poor performance, it would be that we suffer from an excess of money-driven medicine. Vast amounts of costly paperwork are generated by for-profit insurers always looking for ways to deny payment; high spending on procedures of dubious medical efficacy is driven by the efforts of for-profit hospitals and providers to generate more revenue; high drug costs are driven by pharmaceutical companies who spend more on advertising and marketing than they do on research.

Other advanced countries don’t suffer from comparable problems because private gain is less of an issue. Outside the U.S., the government generally provides health insurance directly, or ensures that it’s available from tightly regulated nonprofit insurers; often, many hospitals are publicly owned, and many doctors are public employees.

As you might guess, conservatives don’t like the observation that American health care performs worse than other countries’ systems because it relies too much on the private sector and the profit motive. So whenever someone points out the obvious, there is a chorus of denial, of attempts to claim that America does, too, offer better care. It turns out, however, that such claims invariably end up relying on zombie arguments — that is, arguments that have been proved wrong, should be dead, but keep shambling along because they serve a political purpose.

Which brings us to veterans’ care. The system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs is not like the rest of American health care. It is, if you like, an island of socialized medicine, a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service, in a privatized sea. And until the scandal broke, all indications were that it worked very well, providing high-quality care at low cost.

No wonder, then, that right-wingers have seized on the scandal, viewing it as — to quote Dr. Ben Carson, a rising conservative star — “a gift from God.”

So here’s what you need to know: It’s still true that Veterans Affairs provides excellent care, at low cost. Those waiting lists arise partly because so many veterans want care, but Congress has provided neither clear guidelines on who is entitled to coverage, nor sufficient resources to cover all applicants. And, yes, some officials appear to have responded to incentives to reduce waiting times by falsifying data.

Yet, on average, veterans don’t appear to wait longer for care than other Americans. And does anyone doubt that many Americans have died while waiting for approval from private insurers?

A scandal is a scandal, and wrongdoing must be punished. But beware of people trying to use the veterans’ care scandal to derail health reform.

And here’s the thing: Health reform is working. Too many Americans still lack good insurance, and hence lack access to health care and protection from high medical costs — but not as many as last year, and next year should be better still. Health costs are still far too high, but their growth has slowed dramatically. We’re moving in the right direction, and we shouldn’t let the zombies get in our way.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 17, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Bobo has a question in “The Structures of Growth:”  What do you need to do to get better at something after you have gone through the early stages of making a lot of progress really quickly?  Mr. Cohen howls that we should “Take Mosul Back.”  He says the blame game misses the point, and that Iraq and Syria were rotten to the core before America’s mistakes.  In the comments (which were closed early) “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “There is one constant about all of Roger Cohen’s articles proposing military action.  He never mentions that he has never worn a uniform, never been in a war, announces he’s enlisting or that his children are enlisting for this new, desparately needed, war.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “A New College Model:”  Has Arizona State found a new way to educate students? Starbucks employees may soon find out.  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us are trying to get better at something. And when we think about our future progress, we tend to imagine we will improve linearly. We’ll work hard at mastering some skill; we’ll steadily get better and better.

But, as the Canadian writer Scott H. Young points out in a recent blog post, progress in most domains is not linear. In some spheres, like learning a language or taking up running, improvement is logarithmic. You make a lot of progress when you first begin the activity, but, as you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve.

Logarithmic activities require a certain sort of mind-set, Young writes. During the early high-growth phase, when everything is coming easily, you have to make sure you maintain your disciplined habits, or else you will fall backward. Then later, during the slow-growth phase, you have to break some of your habits. To move from good to great, you have to break out of certain routines that have become calcified and are now holding you back.

For example, when Tiger Woods was first competing at golf, he had to stick to his arduous practice routine even though success seemed to come ridiculously easy. But then, when he hit a plateau, he had to reinvent his swing to reach that final tippy-top level.

In other domains, growth is exponential. In these activities, you have to work for weeks or even years at mastering the fundamentals, and you barely see any return. But then, after you have put in your 10,000 hours of effort, suddenly you develop a natural ease and your progress multiplies quickly.

Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts. Ice hockey is an exponential activity (it takes years just to skate well enough).

Many people quit exponential activities in the early phases. You’ve got to be bullheaded to work hard while getting no glory. But then when you are in the later fast-progress stage, you’ve got to be open-minded to turn your hard-earned skill into poetry. Vincent van Gogh had to spend years learning the basics of drawing, but then, when he’d achieved mastery, he had to let loose and create art.

I could think of some other growth structures. In some domains progress comes like a stairway. There’s a period of stagnation, followed by a step upward, followed by a period of stagnation, followed by another step. In other domains, progress comes like waves repetitively lapping the shore. You go over some material and the wave leaves a residue of knowledge; then you go over the same material again and the next wave leaves a bit more residue.

Yet other domains follow a valley-shaped curve. You have to go down initially before you can go up. The experience of immigrating to a new country can be like this; you have to start at the bottom as you learn a new society before you can make your way upward. Moral progress is like this, too. You have to go down and explore your own failures before you can conquer them. You have to taste humiliation before you can aspire toward excellence.

Thinking about growth structures reminds you that really successful people often have the ability to completely flip their mental dispositions. In many fields, it pays to be rigid and disciplined at first, but then flexible and playful as you get better. If you go into politics, you have to make the transition from campaigning, which is an instantly gratifying activity, to governing, which is an exponential activity, requiring experience, patience and hard-earned wisdom.

This way of thinking also makes it clear that skill acquisition is a deeply moral activity. You don’t only need knowledge about what to do; you have to train yourself to defeat your natural desires. In the fast-growth phase of a logarithmic activity, you have to fight the urge to self-celebrate and relax. In the later phase, when everyone is singing your praises, you have to fight self-satisfaction.

It does seem clear that our society celebrates fast-payoff instrumental activities, like sports and rock stardom, while undervaluing exponential activities, like being a statesman or craftsman. Kids increasingly flock to logarithmic sports, like soccer, over exponential sports, like baseball.

Finally, this focus on growth structures takes your eyes off yourself. The crucial thing is not what traits you intrinsically possess. The crucial questions are: What is the structure of your domain? Where are you now on the progress curve? How are you interacting with the structures of the field?

The crucial answers to those questions are not found in the mirror. They are found by seeing yourself from a distance as part of a landscape. That’s a more pleasing and healthier perspective in any case.

Next up is Mr. Cohen.  If he’s so desperate to take Mosul back maybe he can enlist in the Army or get the Prime Minister (Mr. Cohen lives in London) to launch an offensive…

Less than 60 miles from Mosul, where the Sunni Islamic fanatics who have overrun the city are slaughtering their enemies as if the Middle Ages never ended, a rather different scene in Iraq was recently described in a report from the Russian investment firm Renaissance Capital:

“We saw Ferraris and Bentleys being driven by students at the American University of Iraq in Suleimaniyah, and at the only five-star hotel in Erbil, the car park was filled with new BMW’s and Range Rovers. The few international restaurants in Erbil cost approximately $90 per person for a meal with a beer. The city’s shopping centers carry international brands, all of which we noticed are priced at least 40 percent higher than the international standard; and shop managers claimed inventory flies off the shelves.”

In nascent Kurdistan, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose relations with the central government in Baghdad are a stop-go affair, things are different. Even the worst mess has its winners. The Kurds, almost a century after missing out on statehood at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, are the beneficiaries of Iraq’s mayhem. Even their relations with their Turkish nemesis have been commerce-smoothed into something approaching warmth.

Nobody should bet against an independent Kurdish state within the next decade. Syria and Iraq are in a state of implosion; Middle Eastern borders are up for grabs. Qaeda affiliates have already done their grabbing. They control wide swathes of Syria and Iraq 13 years (and trillions of dollars) after the United States went to war in Afghanistan to dismantle the jihadi state within a state of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

This is not a terrific denouement to America’s post-9/11 wars. The blame game is in full swing. Aficionados of the counterfactual are having a field day. Iraq in its agony is the perfect locus for handicappers of the hypothetical. It’s an old game. If Napoleon had had B-52s at Waterloo, things might have worked out differently.

The left blames the disaster on President Bush and the American invasion of 2003 that shattered the Iraqi state and removed its murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein. If this had not happened, there would be no fanatics from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the doorsteps of Baghdad. Wrong, says the right. President Obama is to blame for abandoning Iraq in 2011 without leaving a residual counter-terrorism force. His feckless failure to back the Syrian opposition early in the uprising was a principal cause of Syria’s collapse into a lawless haven for Islamic fanatics. If Obama had been more resolute in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would not be on the rampage.

A plague on both their houses! It’s unseemly to fight Washington’s talk-show wars over the myriad dead of the Levant.

The facts are plain enough. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East, and infuriating America’s nominal ally, Saudi Arabia. As a result, a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict has been escalating over the past decade.

There was no Al Qaeda in Saddam’s Iraq. The United States birthed it through the invasion. It then beat Al Qaeda down, before allowing its affiliates to regroup by leaving and doing nothing about Syria’s disintegration. American and Iranian interests in Iraq are now aligned in preserving the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, encouraging his (unlikely) outreach to the winning Kurds and the whiplashed Sunnis, and beating back the barbarians of ISIS. However, the political forces arrayed against cooperation with Iran in the Congress are powerful — and U.S. and Iranian interests part ways in Syria and over Israel. A logical approach in the Middle East is seldom a feasible approach.

Got it?

If not, do not worry. The blame game misses the point. Iraq and Syria, well before America’s hapless intervention and hapless paralysis, were rotten to the core, as ripe for dismemberment as the Ottoman Empire a century ago, sickened by the personality cults of brutal rulers, cracking at the internal lines of fracture colonial overseers chose to disregard. They were in a state of postponed decomposition. Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, minorities both, believed (and believe) they had some irreversible right to rule. They do not.

President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS. If the jihadis cement their hold, the blowback will be felt in Europe and the United States. Such action will not resolve Iraq’s problems, or the region’s. But the alternative is far worse. It would be a betrayal of the thousands of American lives lost since 2001 and of the millions in the Middle East who view the Middle Ages as over.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Monday, Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, unveiled his company’s newest — and possibly most important — perquisite for its employees: a free college education. He announced this new program on a stage in The Times Center in Midtown Manhattan, alongside his partner in the new venture, Michael Crow of Arizona State University.

Starbucks has long been a trailblazer in offering company benefits; part-time employees get stock options and health insurance. Schultz has also been one of the few chief executives willing to speak out — and do something — about the need to get people back to work again. A few years ago, I wrote a column about a Starbucks program that turned donations from customers into small business loans.

What I hadn’t realized is the extent to which Arizona State is a trailblazer as well. Under Crow’s leadership, it is attempting nothing less than the reinvention of the university. If Crow’s model succeeds, it offers some real hope that higher education can become, as it once was, a place that views its mission as educating everybody, not just the world’s elite.

“In the bottom quartile of family incomes, only 9 percent of kids attain a college education,” Crow said about five minutes after I met him on Monday afternoon. “And, in the top quartile, 80 percent get a college education, regardless of academic ability.” That statistic is what he is trying to change.

Although Crow grew up in a working-class family, he spent a good chunk of his career at one of the nation’s most elite schools: Columbia University. He was the executive vice provost there before becoming president of Arizona State 12 years ago. He told me what appealed to him about Arizona State was precisely that it offered the chance to create a completely different model.

“Traveling around the country, I could see that the U.S. was having a hard time modernizing, in a sense,” he said. “There was industrial decline, and underperforming K-12. There was a need for industrial redesign.” He found himself influenced by a handful of books, including “A University for the 21st Century” by James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan. In the book, Duderstadt argued that if universities were to remain relevant, they need to be reinvented.

Or, as Crow puts it, “How would you build a public university of greater public service that would be more adaptable to the rapidly changing society? Could you do it at scale? In a way that allowed everybody to have a chance?”

His first — and, in some ways, most radical — decision was that Arizona State was going to embrace what he calls “inclusion” instead of “exclusion.” The elite universities, egged on by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, proudly talk about what a small percentage of students they accept. Indeed, it is how the culture has come to define quality in a university.

Crow went in the opposite direction: Anybody with a B average in the high school courses Arizona State deemed necessary to prepare for a college education could get in. He was also insistent that the school remain affordable. For in-state students pursuing an undergraduate degree, the “list price” at Arizona State is about $5,000 per semester, although once grants and financial aid is factored in, the average cost is $3,800 per student.

As the student body began to change — today, 50 percent of the school’s 73,000 students are coming from the lower half of the income strata — the learning had to change as well. And so it did. Arizona State developed digital tools that aided individualized learning. Of the school’s 16,000 courses, 10,000 are “tech-mediated” in some way, said Crow.

Inevitably, this led to Arizona State instituting a catalog of online courses — and online degrees — which is what Starbucks is offering its employees. The great advantage of an online course is that the student can listen to the lectures or do the work on his or her own time. It is a way of reaching students who might otherwise not be able to go to school.

Crow insists that online courses at Arizona State have the same rigor as classroom courses. “They are taught by the same faculty that teaches in our classrooms,” says Christopher Callahan, the dean of the university’s journalism school.

Crow told me that just as Schultz had been looking for a university to partner with, he had been looking for a corporation. He thinks that Arizona State has the capability to ultimately teach 100,000 students online, and that the Starbucks partnership could add as many as 15,000 new students. When I asked him where the 100,000 number came from, he said, “That is an assessment of what share of the country’s need that we can handle.”

Grandiose? Perhaps. But higher education could certainly use a little more such thinking.

Brooks and Krugman

June 13, 2014

Bobo has outdone himself.  In “The Big Burn” he raves that after neglect from the United States, the Sunni-Shiite conflict explodes in Iraq.  “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, NY had this to say in the comments:  “David, I have my issues with the President, but I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him on his decision to leave Iraq.  That said, should you or any of your brothers in the neocon movement feel so motivated, please know that we will respect your decision to enlist in the Iraqi military.”  Or even our military for that matter — they’re members of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders now.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Fix Isn’t In,” says the surprise primary defeat of Eric Cantor is the unraveling of an ideological movement.  Here’s Bobo:

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government. Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building. As Dexter Filkins, who covered the war for The Times, wrote in a blog post this week for The New Yorker, “By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job.”

The Iraqi Army was performing more professionally. American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation.

We’ll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence.

The administration didn’t begin negotiations on the treaty until a few months before American troops would have to start their withdrawal. The administration increased the demands. As Filkins writes, “The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of lack of engagement by the White House.”

American troops left in 2011. President Obama said the Iraq war was over. Administration officials foresaw nothing worse than a low-boil insurgency in the region.

Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.

This slide toward civil war was predicted, not only by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and writers like Max Boot, but also within the military. The resurgent sectarian violence gave fuel to fears that the entire region might be engaged in one big war, a sprawling Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cross borders and engulf tens of millions.

This slide toward chaos was exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, which worsened at about the same time. Two nations, both sitting astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line, were growing consumed by sectarian violence, while the rest of the region looked on, hatreds rising.

The same voices that warned about the hasty Iraq withdrawal urged President Obama to strengthen the moderates in Syria. They were joined in this fight by a contingent in the State Department.

But little was done. The moderate opposition floundered. The death toll surged. The radical terror force ISIS, for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, enjoyed a safe haven from which to operate, organize and recruit.

President Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world.

And now the fears of one really big war seem to be coming true. The ISIS serves as a de facto government in growing areas of Syria and Iraq. Extremist armies are routing the official Iraqi Army, even though they are outmanned by as many as 15 to 1. Iraq is in danger of becoming a non-nation.

Andrew White is a Christian aid worker in Iraq, working on reconciliation. On his blog, he reports that the nation “is now in its worst crisis since the 2003 war.” ISIS, a group that does not even see Al Qaeda as extreme enough, has moved into Mosul, he says, adding, “It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets.”

Meanwhile, autocrats around the region are preparing to manipulate a wider conflagration. The Pakistani Taliban is lighting up their corner of the world. Yemen and Libya are anarchic. Radical jihadis have the momentum as thousands of potential recruits must recognize.

We now have two administrations in a row that committed their worst foreign policy blunders in Iraq. By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build on the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse. The dangers of American underreach have been lavishly and horrifically displayed.

It is not too late to help Syrian moderates. In Iraq, the answer is not to send troops back in. It is to provide Maliki help in exchange for concrete measures to reduce sectarian tensions. The Iraqi government could empower regional governments, acknowledging the nation’s diversity. Maliki could re-professionalize the Army. The Constitution could impose term limits on prime ministers.

But these provisions would require a more forward-leaning American posture around the world, an awareness that sometimes a U.S.-created vacuum can be ruinous. The president says his doctrine is don’t do stupid stuff. Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.

Loathsome creature…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

How big a deal is the surprise primary defeat of Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader? Very. Movement conservatism, which dominated American politics from the election of Ronald Reagan to the election of Barack Obama — and which many pundits thought could make a comeback this year — is unraveling before our eyes.

I don’t mean that conservatism in general is dying. But what I and others mean by “movement conservatism,” a term I think I learned from the historian Rick Perlstein, is something more specific: an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.

By rejecting Mr. Cantor, the Republican base showed that it has gotten wise to the electoral bait and switch, and, by his fall, Mr. Cantor showed that the support network can no longer guarantee job security. For around three decades, the conservative fix was in; but no more.

To see what I mean by bait and switch, think about what happened in 2004. George W. Bush won re-election by posing as a champion of national security and traditional values — as I like to say, he ran as America’s defender against gay married terrorists — then turned immediately to his real priority: privatizing Social Security. It was the perfect illustration of the strategy famously described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” in which Republicans would mobilize voters with social issues, but invariably turn postelection to serving the interests of corporations and the 1 percent.

In return for this service, businesses and the wealthy provided both lavish financial support for right-minded (in both senses) politicians and a safety net — “wing-nut welfare” — for loyalists. In particular, there were always comfortable berths waiting for those who left office, voluntarily or otherwise. There were lobbying jobs; there were commentator spots at Fox News and elsewhere (two former Bush speechwriters are now Washington Post columnists); there were “research” positions (after losing his Senate seat, Rick Santorum became director of the “America’s Enemies” program at a think tank supported by the Koch brothers, among others).

The combination of a successful electoral strategy and the safety net made being a conservative loyalist a seemingly low-risk professional path. The cause was radical, but the people it recruited tended increasingly to be apparatchiks, motivated more by careerism than by conviction.

That’s certainly the impression Mr. Cantor conveyed. I’ve never heard him described as inspiring. His political rhetoric was nasty but low-energy, and often amazingly tone-deaf. You may recall, for example, that in 2012 he chose to celebrate Labor Day with a Twitter post honoring business owners. But he was evidently very good at playing the inside game.

It turns out, however, that this is no longer enough. We don’t know exactly why he lost his primary, but it seems clear that Republican base voters didn’t trust him to serve their priorities as opposed to those of corporate interests (and they were probably right). And the specific issue that loomed largest, immigration, also happens to be one on which the divergence between the base and the party elite is wide. It’s not just that the elite believes that it must find a way to reach Hispanics, whom the base loathes. There’s also an inherent conflict between the base’s nativism and the corporate desire for abundant, cheap labor.

And while Mr. Cantor won’t go hungry — he’ll surely find a comfortable niche on K Street — the humiliation of his fall is a warning that becoming a conservative apparatchik isn’t the safe career choice it once seemed.

So whither movement conservatism? Before the Virginia upset, there was a widespread media narrative to the effect that the Republican establishment was regaining control from the Tea Party, which was really a claim that good old-fashioned movement conservatism was on its way back. In reality, however, establishment figures who won primaries did so only by reinventing themselves as extremists. And Mr. Cantor’s defeat shows that lip service to extremism isn’t enough; the base needs to believe that you really mean it.

In the long run — which probably begins in 2016 — this will be bad news for the G.O.P., because the party is moving right on social issues at a time when the country at large is moving left. (Think about how quickly the ground has shifted on gay marriage.) Meanwhile, however, what we’re looking at is a party that will be even more extreme, even less interested in participating in normal governance, than it has been since 2008. An ugly political scene is about to get even uglier.

The wingnut welfare system isn’t going to go away any time soon…

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.


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