Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

November 14, 2014

In “The Agency Moment” Bobo gurgles that a bold letter from George Eliot in July 1852 exemplifies the moment she took the wheel in her life, and that everyone comes to that point eventually.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “Even the dead can’t rest when David Brooks needs to argue against maintaining the social safety net. George Eliot and Herbert Spencer, not to mention a few fictitious “guys,” are invoked to flesh out his parable that says we must depend on inner strength rather than a livable minimum wage.”  In “China, Coal, Climate” Prof. Krugman says the agreement between China and the United States on carbon emissions is a pretty big deal.  Here’s Bobo:

George Eliot was an emotionally needy young woman. Throughout her 20s, she fell for a series of inappropriate and unavailable men, craving their affection. At one point, she got herself involved in a bizarre tangle with an editor and two other women. It was like a tragic farce as the women competed for his sympathy, complete with shifting alliances, slammed doors and storms of tears.

In 1852, at age 32, she fell in love with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, the only one of the men who was close to her intellectual equal. Spencer liked her company but could not overcome his own narcissism and her lack of beauty. In July that year, she wrote him a bold letter.

“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she declared.

She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”

Finally, she added a climactic flourish: “I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this — but I am not ashamed of it, for I am conscious in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men or vulgar-minded women might think of me.”

Some biographers have said that letter represented a pivotal moment in Eliot’s life, with its mixture of vulnerability and strong assertion. After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.

I’ve been thinking about moments of agency of this sort because often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.

Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.

So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction.

I know an army officer who had a terrible commanding officer who only offered him negative feedback. He worked under this guy for 18 months, and whatever he did the feedback was the same. He had to come up with his own criteria to determine if he was doing well or poorly. He had to make decisions regardless of external affirmation or criticism. He discovered agency because external support was gone.

I once knew a guy who was batted about by people who should have supported him. For a time he took it, reacting painfully to each abuse. But finally he just got fed up. In a moment of indignation he lashed out. Every human soul is entitled to dignity and respect. He tasted agency in a flash of anger and an instant of revolt.

I once read about a guy whose childhood was a steady calamity. He was afraid, unable to control his mind and self. But he became a writer and discovered he was magnificent at it. Through the act of writing, he could investigate his fears and demystify them. He discovered agency by finding something he was good at and organizing his life around that gift.

Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never. I guess that’s when adulthood starts.

He’s such a tiresome blowhard.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s easy to be cynical about summit meetings. Often they’re just photo ops, and the photos from the latest Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, which had world leaders looking remarkably like the cast of “Star Trek,” were especially cringe-worthy. At best — almost always — they’re just occasions to formally announce agreements already worked out by lower-level officials.

Once in a while, however, something really important emerges. And this is one of those times: The agreement between China and the United States on carbon emissions is, in fact, a big deal.

To understand why, you first have to understand the defense in depth that fossil-fuel interests and their loyal servants — nowadays including the entire Republican Party — have erected against any action to save the planet.

The first line of defense is denial: there is no climate change; it’s a hoax concocted by a cabal including thousands of scientists around the world. Bizarre as it is, this view has powerful adherents, including Senator James Inhofe, who will soon lead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Indeed, some elected officials have done all they can to pursue witch hunts against climate scientists.

Still, as a political matter, attacking scientists has limited effectiveness. It plays well with the Tea Party, but to the broader public — even to non-Tea Party Republicans — it sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, because it is.

The second line of defense involves economic scare tactics: any attempt to limit emissions will destroy jobs and end growth. This argument sits oddly with the right’s usual faith in markets; we’re supposed to believe that business can transcend any problem, adapt and innovate around any limits, but would shrivel up and die if policy put a price on carbon. Still, what’s bad for the Koch brothers must be bad for America, right?

Like claims of a vast conspiracy of scientists, however, the economic disaster argument has limited traction beyond the right-wing base. Republican leaders may talk of a “war on coal” as if this were self-evidently an attack on American values, but the reality is that the coal industry employs very few people. The real war on coal, or at least on coal miners, was waged by strip-mining and natural gas, and ended a long time ago. And environmental protection is quite popular with the nation at large.

Which brings us to the last line of defense, claims that America can’t do anything about global warming, because other countries, China in particular, will just keep on spewing out greenhouse gases. This is a standard argument at think tanks like the Cato Institute and among conservative pundits. And, to be fair, anyone proposing climate action does have to explain how we can deal with the free-rider problem of countries that refuse to contain emissions.

Now, there is a good answer already available: “carbon tariffs” levied against the exports of countries that refuse to join in the effort to limit emissions. Such tariffs probably wouldn’t even require any change in existing trade law, and they would provide a powerful incentive for holdouts to get with the program. Still, until now, the suggestion that China could be induced to participate in climate protection was informed speculation at best.

But now we have it straight from the source: China has declared its intention to limit carbon emissions.

I know, I know. The language is a little vague, and the target levels of emissions are much higher than environmental experts want. Indeed, even if the deal were to work exactly as stated, the planet would experience a highly damaging rise in temperatures.

But consider the situation. America is not exactly the most reliable negotiating partner on these issues, with climate denialists controlling Congress and the only prospect of action in the near future, and maybe for many years, coming from executive orders. (Not to mention the possibility that the next president could well be an anti-environmentalist who could reverse anything President Obama does.) Meanwhile, China’s leadership has to deal with its own nationalists, who hate any suggestion that the newly risen superpower might be letting the West dictate its policies. So what we’re getting here is more a statement of principle than the shape of policy to come.

But the principle that has just been established is a very important one. Until now, those of us who argued that China could be induced to join an international climate agreement were speculating. Now we have the Chinese saying that they are, indeed, willing to deal — and the opponents of action have to claim that they don’t mean what they say.

Needless to say, I don’t expect the usual suspects to concede that a major part of the anti-environmentalist argument has just collapsed. But it has. This was a good week for the planet.

Just Brooks

November 11, 2014

Mr. Nocera is off today.  In “The Legacy of Fear” Bobo babbles that the post-communist states have not flourished as expected, and that it is much harder to change a culture and a mind than an economic system.  Here he is:

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done since. There was a general expectation back then that most of these countries would step out from tyranny and rejoin the European club of prosperous nations. Most of us did not appreciate the corrosive power of distrust, and how long it would take to heal the mental scars caused by it.

Branko Milanovic, an economist at the City University of New York, measured the wreckage in a recent essay on his blog, Global Inequality. He looked at the growth rates of post-communist countries and broke them down into four groups.

In the bottom group are basket-case nations that haven’t even recovered the level of real income they had in 1990, as measured by real G.D.P. per capita. These failures include Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others — about 20 percent of the post-communist world. “Basically,” Milanovic writes, these “are countries with at least three to four wasted generations. At current rates of growth, it might take them some 50 or 60 years — longer than they were under communism! — to go back to the income levels they had at the fall of communism.”

The next group includes those nations that are merely moderate failures, with per capita economic growth rates under 1.7 percent a year. These are nations like Russia and Hungary that continue to fall steadily behind the West — about 40 percent of the post-communist world by population.

The third group includes those with growth rates between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. These countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovenia, are holding steady with the capitalist world.

Finally there are the successes, the nations that are catching up. This group includes Poland, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But Milanovic points out that many of these nations are growing simply because they have oil, or something valuable to dig out of the ground. There are only five countries that have emerged as successful capitalist economies: Albania, Poland, Belarus, Armenia and Estonia.

To put it another way, only 10 percent of the people living in post-communist nations are living in a place that successfully made the transition to capitalism. Ninety percent are living under failed transitions of one sort or another. This fact is already yielding screwed up politics in places like Hungary and Russia and will shape the 21st century.

Why did some countries succeed while others failed?

First, leaders in some countries simply made better political decisions. Most of these countries enacted economic reforms, like deregulating prices and privatizing nationalized companies. Some nations like Estonia and Poland enacted reforms radically and quickly, while others tried to do them gradually or barely at all — with expensive security blankets for protected interests. The quick and radical group saw a slightly bigger output drop over the near term but much more prosperity over the long run.

Then there is the level of institutions. Many Western advisers focused on the headline reforms — writing new constitutions and creating stock markets. But Larry Lawson, an economist who worked with the Poles and Ukrainians, points out that these nations lacked the basic building blocks we take for granted. Before you have a stock market, for example, you have to have publicly available data about companies, credit records and accounting systems.

Finally, and most important, there is the level of values. A nation’s economy is nestled in its moral ecology. Economic performance is tied to history, culture and psychology.

Poland, for example, had been invaded throughout its history, yielding a pragmatic, survivor ethos. The Poles had a keen desire to initiate reforms on their own. Poles also had a clear sense of justice and injustice, since they had seen the Russians do things the wrong way on their own territory. They placed a high value on education and social mobility.

Other countries lacked this cultural brew. Worse, life was marked by fear, by arbitrary power, by suspicion that people are watching you, by distrust. People raised in this atmosphere of distrust have trouble forming companies and associations. They are more likely to be driven by a grab-what-you-can logic — a culture of corruption and appropriation. They are more likely to hunker down and become risk averse.

Many of the ailing countries are marked by distant power relationships. Those with power — even in an office or neighborhood — are aloof and domineering. Those without power hanker for security at all costs. They’re nostalgic for the imagined stability of communism. When everything seems arbitrary and crooked, people tolerate strongman rule.

The lesson of the past 25 years is that democratic prosperity is built on layers of small achievements 10,000 fathoms deep. Communism ripped at all that bottom-up society-making and damaged the psyches of its victims. Healing from those wounds is gradual. Progress is not guaranteed.

Brooks and Krugman

November 7, 2014

Bobo must have gone to Colorado, or he’s smoking something illegally.  In “The Governing Party” he actually tries to convince us that Republicans detoxify the brand with deep roots in the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.  In the comments “Mary Scott” from NY has this to say:  “Republicans won big Tuesday because they brought government to a complete standstill by their constant obstruction, blamed the gridlock they caused on President Obama and Democrats, vowed to fix the problem that they created and a majority of voters bought that big lie.  … The only thing they’re good at is winning elections. I’ll give them that but it’s laughable to suggest that they have even the slightest ability or inclination to govern.”  To counterbalance Bobo’s fantasy world we have Prof. Krugman, who considers “The Triumph of the Wrong.”  He says it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday.  Here’s Bobo:

Every party in opposition goes a little crazy. For Republicans in the early Obama era, insanity took the form of the Sarah Palin spasm. Veteran politicos took the former Alaska governor seriously as a national figure. Republican primary voters nominated the likes of Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. Glenn Beck seemed important enough to hold a big rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

Fortunately, serious parties eventually pull back from the fever swamps. That’s what’s happening to the Republican Party. It has re-established itself as the nation’s dominant governing party. Republicans now control 69 of 99 state legislative bodies. Republicans hold 31 governorships to Democrats’ 18.

When the next Congress convenes in January, Republicans will have their largest majority in the House of Representatives since 1931; they will have a majority in the Senate, dominate gubernatorial power in the Midwest, and have more legislative power nationwide than anytime over the past century.

Republicans didn’t establish this dominant position because they are unrepresentative outsiders. They did it because they have deep roots in four of the dominant institutions of American society: the business community, the military, the church and civic organizations.

Look at the Republicans who were elected to office on Tuesday:

The next governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, is the founder of The Hogan Companies, a real estate development firm. He co-chaired a bipartisan commission to reform county government in his state and then founded Change Maryland, an activist group.

David Perdue, who was elected senator in Georgia, was senior vice president for Asian operations for the Sara Lee Corporation. He moved to Haggar Clothing before becoming C.E.O., successively, of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General.

Thom Tillis, elected senator in North Carolina, led a research team at Wang Laboratories before going to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then IBM.

The next governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, was chairman of the private equity firm GTCR, after having graduated from Dartmouth and Harvard. In 2008, Rauner was named the Philanthropist of Year by the Chicago Association of Fundraising Professionals. Rauner has given more than $20 million toward improving Chicago public schools. He’s also given time and money to a range of causes, including the Y.M.C.A., the A.C.L.U., Morehouse College, the Red Cross and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The new senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford, got a divinity degree and ran Falls Creek, the nation’s largest Christian camp.

Tom Cotton, elected senator in Arkansas, graduated from Harvard before working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, serving in the Army and going off to McKinsey.

Let’s pause over some of the institutions mentioned in these mini-bios: IBM, Reebok, the Red Cross, McKinsey and the Army. These are not fringe organizations. These are the pillars of American society.

Republicans won this election in part because they re-established their party’s traditional personality. The beau ideal of American Republicanism is the prudent business leader who is active in the community, active at church and fervently devoted to national defense.

During the primary season, groups like the Chamber of Commerce chased away or defeated renegade conservatives and opened the way for the triumph of this sort of institutional conservative. These candidates won in the general election because working-class voters will trust Republican corporate types so long as they are deeply embedded in their communities, so long as they have demonstrated loyalty to the whole society and not just the upper crust.

This year, Republicans won among white-working-class voters by 30 percentage points. They tied Democrats among Asian-Americans. They severely cut their losses among Hispanics.

The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club. But, at least judging by the postelection comments coming from all corners, it does believe in politics, in legislating, in compromise.

During the Palin spasm, Republicans seemed to detest the craft of governing. Hothouse flowers like Senator Ted Cruz preferred telegenic confrontation to compromise and legislation.

But current party leaders are talking about incremental progress, finding areas where they can get bipartisan support: on trade, corporate taxes, the XL oil pipeline, the medical devices tax, patent reform, maybe even tax reform generally.

Republicans are also talking about restoring the traditional practices of the House and Senate. Let individual members introduce bills. Let those bills work through the committee structure and get votes. Pass budgets on time and according to the rules.

If the party is to fully detoxify its image, something will have to pass next year. Midwestern Republican governors will have to develop a compelling governing model. And the volcanic effusions of the Palin era will have to look like 1970s neckties — inexplicable oddities from another age.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet midterms to men of understanding. Or as I put it on the eve of another Republican Party sweep, politics determines who has the power, not who has the truth. Still, it’s not often that a party that is so wrong about so much does as well as Republicans did on Tuesday.

I’ll talk in a bit about some of the reasons that may have happened. But it’s important, first, to point out that the midterm results are no reason to think better of the Republican position on major issues. I suspect that some pundits will shade their analysis to reflect the new balance of power — for example, by once again pretending that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposals are good-faith attempts to put America’s fiscal house in order, rather than exercises in deception and double-talk. But Republican policy proposals deserve more critical scrutiny, not less, now that the party has more ability to impose its agenda.

So now is a good time to remember just how wrong the new rulers of Congress have been about, well, everything.

First, there’s economic policy. According to conservative dogma, which denounces any regulation of the sacred pursuit of profit, the financial crisis of 2008 — brought on by runaway financial institutions — shouldn’t have been possible. But Republicans chose not to rethink their views even slightly. They invented an imaginary history in which the government was somehow responsible for the irresponsibility of private lenders, while fighting any and all policies that might limit the damage. In 2009, when an ailing economy desperately needed aid, John Boehner, soon to become the speaker of the House, declared: “It’s time for government to tighten their belts.”

So here we are, with years of experience to examine, and the lessons of that experience couldn’t be clearer. Predictions that deficit spending would lead to soaring interest rates, that easy money would lead to runaway inflation and debase the dollar, have been wrong again and again. Governments that did what Mr. Boehner urged, slashing spending in the face of depressed economies, have presided over Depression-level economic slumps. And the attempts of Republican governors to prove that cutting taxes on the wealthy is a magic growth elixir have failed with flying colors.

In short, the story of conservative economics these past six years and more has been one of intellectual debacle — made worse by the striking inability of many on the right to admit error under any circumstances.

Then there’s health reform, where Republicans were very clear about what was supposed to happen: minimal enrollments, more people losing insurance than gaining it, soaring costs. Reality, so far, has begged to differ, delivering above-predicted sign-ups, a sharp drop in the number of Americans without health insurance, premiums well below expectations, and a sharp slowdown in overall health spending.

And we shouldn’t forget the most important wrongness of all, on climate change. As late as 2008, some Republicans were willing to admit that the problem is real, and even advocate serious policies to limit emissions — Senator John McCain proposed a cap-and-trade system similar to Democratic proposals. But these days the party is dominated by climate denialists, and to some extent by conspiracy theorists who insist that the whole issue is a hoax concocted by a cabal of left-wing scientists. Now these people will be in a position to block action for years to come, quite possibly pushing us past the point of no return.

But if Republicans have been so completely wrong about everything, why did voters give them such a big victory?

Part of the answer is that leading Republicans managed to mask their true positions. Perhaps most notably, Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, managed to convey the completely false impression that Kentucky could retain its impressive gains in health coverage even if Obamacare were repealed.

But the biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day 1 of the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing — boost infrastructure spending — in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.

This was, it turned out, bad for America but good for Republicans. Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity — and they punished his party.

Will things change now that the G.O.P. can’t so easily evade responsibility? I guess we’ll find out.

Brooks and Nocera

November 4, 2014

In “Death By Data” Bobo gurgles that politicians are micro-targeting their messages at their own peril.  In “Guns and Public Health” Mr. Nocera tells us that a gun dealer says the country needs a new approach to guns and gun violence, one where doctors play the same central role they did in the smoking debate.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decade or so, political campaigns have become more scientific. Campaign consultants use sophisticated data to micro-target specific demographic slices. Consultants select their ad buys more precisely because they know which political niche is watching which TV show. Campaigns trial test messages that push psychological buttons.

Discussion around politics has also become more data driven. Opinion writers look at demographic trends and argue over whether there is an emerging Democratic majority. Pundits like me study the polling crosstabs, trying to figure out which way Asian-Americans are trending here and high-school-educated white women are trending there.

Unfortunately, the whole thing has been a fiasco. As politics has gotten more scientific, the campaigns have gotten worse, especially for the candidates who overrely on these techniques.

That’s because the data-driven style of politics is built on a questionable philosophy and a set of dubious assumptions. Data-driven politics is built on a philosophy you might call Impersonalism. This is the belief that what matters in politics is the reaction of populations and not the idiosyncratic judgment, moral character or creativity of individuals.

Data-driven politics assumes that demography is destiny, that the electorate is not best seen as a group of free-thinking citizens but as a collection of demographic slices. This method assumes that mobilization is more important than persuasion; that it is more important to target your likely supporters than to try to reframe debates or persuade the whole country.

This method puts the spotlight on the reactions of voting blocs and takes the spotlight off the individual qualities of candidates. It puts the spotlight on messaging and takes the spotlight off product: actual policies. It puts the spotlight on slight differences across the socio-economic spectrum and takes the spotlight off the power of events to reframe the whole mood and landscape. This analytic method encourages candidates across the country to embrace the same tested, cookie-cutter messages.

Candidates who have overrelied on these techniques have been hurt by them. One victim was Mitt Romney, who ran for president not as himself, but as a thin slice of himself. Another victim was President Obama. His 2012 campaign was legendary from an analytic point of view, and, of course, it was victorious. But it lacked a policy agenda and produced no mandate. Without a compelling agenda, the administration has projected an image of reactive drift and lost public confidence.

This year, the most notorious victim of demographic politics is Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. He’s tried to win the female votes as if all women cared about were “women’s” issues. The Denver Post’s editorial board wrote that he’s run an “obnoxious one-issue campaign,” which is in a dead heat.

The other victims include the Democratic senators in red states. Winning in a state that the other party dominates is a personal enterprise. It requires an ineffable individual connection with voters. It requires an idiosyncratic approach to issues. By eclipsing individual quirks with generic messages, the data-driven style deprives outnumbered candidates of precisely what they need to survive. The Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes could have made a real run at Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky if she’d been a little more creative.

Of course, data sets are important. Obviously demography matters a lot. But, at heart, politics is a personal enterprise. Voters are looking for quality of leadership, character, vision and solidarity that defies quantification. Candidates like Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Jerry Brown can arouse great loyalty in ways that are impossible to predict.

In the midst of this scuffling economy, voters are thinking as Americans and not as members of a niche. They’re asking: What can be done to kick-start America? They’re not asking: How can I guarantee affordable contraception? People who are building campaigns on micro-targeting are simply operating on the wrong level of consciousness.

The more you look at political history, the more you see that political imagination is the rarest and most valuable of qualities. Voters don’t always know what they want, but they look to leaders to jump ahead of the current moment and provide visions they haven’t thought of.

Some politicians, like F.D.R. or Ronald Reagan, can reframe debates and envision coalitions that don’t exist. Their visions emerge out of unique life experiences, which are unusual but have broad appeal. They build trust not through a few targeted messages but by fully embodying a moment and a people. They often don’t pander to existing identities but arouse different identities.

Today we have a lot of technical innovation, but not a lot of political creativity. The ecosystem no longer produces as much entrepreneurship — mutations that fuel evolution.

Data-driven candidates sacrifice their own souls. Instead of being inner-directed leaders driven by their own beliefs, they become outer-directed pleasers driven by incomplete numbers.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Mike Weisser is my favorite gun dealer. The longtime proprietor of the Ware Gun Shop in Ware, Mass., Weisser, 70, estimates he has sold more than 40,000 guns in his career as a wholesaler and retailer. He also has a nice little business teaching a gun-safety course that Massachusetts requires of all new gun owners.

“I love guns,” he told me unabashedly when we spoke the other day. With a chuckle, he added, “I just bought one yesterday.”

There’s something else about Weisser: He strongly believes that the country needs a new approach to guns and gun violence — an approach that is more data-driven, less hyperbolic, and that emphasizes the public health aspect of gun violence. Using the pen name Mike the Gun Guy, Weisser writes a blog at The Huffington Post that encapsulates his approach. He is one of the few who has focused on suicides, which make up nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths. He has called out gun control advocates from time to time; he mainly thinks they are too often passive when confronted with the tactics of the National Rifle Association.

But he has also been relentless in taking on the N.R.A. He does not believe that the Second Amendment means that people ought to be able to take a gun anywhere they want. He includes in his emails a quote from the novelist Walter Mosley: “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.” A website called AmmoLand has described him as “basically a double agent agent [sic] working to undermine our Second [Amendment] rights with his articles.”

Of all the things Weisser advocates, the issue he is most passionate about is the need for doctors to become part of the debate over gun safety. More than that, he believes that doctors need to be talking about guns in terms of their effect on public health, both to their own patients and to the public at large. In his view, “doctors allowed themselves to get pushed out of the gun debate” during the time of the assault-weapons ban and other gun restrictions that were passed during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “When the debate was about smoking, it was always a health issue, and doctors played a central role,” he says. “But the debate over guns became about their social utility rather than the public health aspects. And that is exactly how the N.R.A. wants the issue framed.”

Thus, though he has no medical credentials himself (his wife is a pediatrician, he noted), Weisser helped organize an important conference that is scheduled to take place next month in Massachusetts. Its title is “Caring for the Patient at Risk for Gun Violence: Medical, Legal, Ethical Issues,” and it will be the first Continuing Medical Education-accredited conference held on gun violence. One of the conference’s goals, says Weisser, is to help emergency-room physicians identify at-risk patients — those who are in the E.R. because they’ve been attacked by someone else or have threatened to kill themselves — and use evidence-based strategies to intervene before it’s too late.

Shannon Frattaroli, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told me that one important question is whether physicians can intervene before the criminal justice system does. “Do we have to wait for a crime to know if someone is at risk?” she asked. The clinical setting, she added, was a good place to address that question because doctors regularly had intimate conversations with their patients.

David Hemenway, the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told me that physicians, for the most part, really don’t have a way to talk to their patients about guns. “That’s one of the reasons we need this conference,” he said. “Physicians give a lot of anticipatory guidance — should an elderly person give up driving? Those are tough conversations.” Hemenway said that the injury center is very focused on suicide: “One of the things we really know about guns is that when a gun is in the house, it increases the risk for suicide.” Talking to someone who might be at risk for suicide about guns should be a no-brainer.

But then he added with a sigh: “When people say guns, it is a cultural war.” He noted that Vivek Murthy, the doctor nominated by President Obama to be the surgeon general a year ago, hasn’t been able to get a vote in the Senate because he has said publicly that gun violence is a public health issue. “It’s all so politicized,” he said

Indeed, it is. In Florida, there is a 3-year-old law on the books that makes it difficult for doctors to even have a conversation with patients about guns. Since then, similar laws have been proposed in some 10 other states, though only Missouri has managed to get its version passed. But it’s another reason that doctors tend to be cautious when the subject is guns.

I asked Weisser how his business has been. He told me that he stopped selling guns at retail earlier this year. He was too busy with the conference. It could be the beginning of something big.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

October 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Krugman

October 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Gunga Din:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Krugman

October 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Is Amazon a monopoly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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