Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Cohen and Nocera

July 22, 2014

Bobo and Bruni are off today.  In “The Suns of August” Mr. Cohen says bodies rot, looters roam, and the Russian-enabled downing of Flight 17 marks the nadir of the West.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Did Dodd-Frank Work?”  He says we really have no way of knowing whether “too big to fail” is still with us until we have another crisis.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A century on from World War I, nobody wants the guns of August.

Yet it must be asked if waiting years for the evasive conclusions of an official investigation into the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is better than acting now on what we already know: That the Boeing 777 with 298 people on board was shot down by a missile from a Russian-made SA-11 antiaircraft system fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Russian mercenaries and Russian agents. A half-drunk Ukrainian peasant with a 1950s-era rifle doesn’t shoot down a plane at 33,000 feet.

An “enormous amount of evidence,” in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, points to Russian provision of SA-11 systems and training. The Ukrainian government has damning audio and images that capture the crime. In June, a Ukrainian cargo plane landing in the area was hit with shoulder-fired missiles, killing 49 people. This month, another cargo plane flying at 22,000 feet was hit by a missile. Rocket science is not required.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has been playing with fire. His irredentism has made him a hero in Russia. It has endangered the world. Crimea was the swaggering precedent to this crime. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 amounts to an act of war. It was impromptu perhaps, but still. Dutch corpses have rained down on the sunflowers and cornfields of eastern Ukraine, to be defiled even in death, 193 innocent Dutch souls dishonored by the thugs of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“This is murder, mass murder. Let’s call it what it is,” said Julian Lindley-French, a defense analyst who lives in the small Dutch village of Alphen. “Shock is turning to anger here,” he told me, “and that anger will resonate in the coming weeks. This is the beginning of a period of complex torture for the Netherlands.”

The Dutch response has been of tip-toeing deference to Moscow. As for the European Union, it has been near-nonexistent. When crisis comes, Europe vanishes — the ghost that slithers away. The West has become an empty notion. The Dutch trade a lot with Russia. Europe floats along in a bubble of quasi pacifism. Better to be bullied than belligerent. Nobody wants the guns of August.

“Swift recovery of the victims’ remains is now an absolute necessity and our highest priority,” Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said in a statement. “I am shocked by the images of completely disrespectful behavior at this tragic place.” He spoke to Putin to express his outrage.

That was pretty much it. Bodies rot in the sun for four days. They are stashed in plastic bags in refrigerated railroad cars at a fly-infested station before finally moving. The black box is a fungible bargaining chip. Louts go looting. It’s a free-for-all! Official investigation teams are barred at the perimeter. Putin spins implausible yarns robed in ghastly official formulas. His plausible deniability is utterly implausible.

A Dutch writer, Sidney Vollmer, addressed a bitter letter to Rutte thanking him for preserving the moral high ground of the Dutch, for “not rushing in for a bunch of rotting corpses” as “their wallets and iPhones make it all the way” to Moscow. The corpses, anyway, “will vanish into the fog of war” and, as everyone knows, “we need Gazprom.”

Dutch passivity has a name: the Srebrenica syndrome. It is becoming the Europe syndrome.

This mass murder is an outrage that should not stand. Falling military budgets have reduced the Dutch special forces to a paltry remnant. Russia would veto any United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing force for a limited mission to recover the bodies and the evidence. But Ukraine, on whose territory the debris and dead lie, would support it. The American, British, Dutch and Australian governments should set an ultimatum backed by the credible threat of force demanding unfettered access to the site. Putin’s Russia must not be permitted to host the 2018 World Cup. A Western priority must be to transform the Ukrainian army into a credible force.

It won’t happen. Europe is weak. Obama’s America is about retrenchment, not resolve. Putin must be appeased. Nobody is about to call his bluff. The Putin-pacifiers have many arguments. Send forces into Ukraine and you prove the Russian argument that the West has designs on it. Besides, who wants World War III?

The self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic stares down Mark Rutte. The deathly poppy fields of 1914 give way to the deathly sunflower fields of 2014. Dutch flowers wing around the globe, still, a thriving trade.

A reader, Katherine Holden, sent me a poem called “The Flowering of Death.” She writes: “Velvet leaves and sturdy stems transient graves for children mothers lovers doctors teachers fathers students artists siblings seekers fallen from the darkening sky. Flesh-fed rain.”

Everyone wants the suns of August. Summer vacations rule. Nobody wants the guns — and damn the bigger guns appeasement may bring.

This article was updated to reflect news developments.

Yeah.  Let’s rattle the sabers and swing our dicks.  That will be helpful…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Ralph Nader has written a new book, entitled “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.” If you spend any time looking into the current state of affairs with the Dodd-Frank Act — Monday was the fourth anniversary of the law enacted to ensure that the country never suffers through another financial crisis like the one in 2008 — you’d have to say that he has a point.

There are many aspects of the law on which Democrats and Republicans disagree. But there is one area in which the two sides are largely in agreement: “Too Big to Fail” is still with us.

“In no way, shape or form does the Dodd-Frank Act end too big to fail,” said Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

“The chances of another financial crisis will remain unacceptably high as long as there are financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail,’ ” wrote Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, in an opinion article she co-wrote with, among others, Republican Senator John McCain.

Dodd-Frank, of course, was supposed to end “Too Big to Fail,” the catchphrase for a financial institution whose collapse had the potential to bring down the entire financial system. That prospect is why, less than a month after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the government handed billions of dollars to the big banks to help stabilize them.

In some ways, eliminating the possibility of future bank bailouts was the whole point of Dodd-Frank. Partly this was for populist reasons: Americans were outraged that the banks were bailed out, while the country got the worst of the Great Recession.

But it was also just good public policy. Karen Petrou, the managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, told me that if the too-big-to-fail provisions in the law worked, “the rest of the law wouldn’t matter that much because the market would discipline the institutions.” But, she added, “I don’t think the Federal Reserve or the F.D.I.C.” — the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — “is prepared to handle a systemic crisis for one of the big banks.”

To be sure, the Treasury Department insists that the days of “Too Big to Fail” are over. In a recent speech, Mary John Miller, the Treasury’s undersecretary for domestic finance, said, “No financial institution, regardless of its size, will be bailed out by taxpayers again.” She added, “Shareholders of failed companies will be wiped out; creditors will absorb losses; culpable management will not be retained and may have their compensation clawed back.” But the markets don’t believe it, and neither do most people who pay attention to Dodd-Frank.

There are two essential problems. The first is that it is hard to imagine that the government wouldn’t blink, as it did in 2008. “Does anyone really believe that if any of the big banks were about to go down, that the government would allow that to happen?” asked Dean Baker, a co-founder of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. “No.”

The second problem is that it is difficult to envision how the law itself would “resolve” these institutions. In one part of Dodd-Frank, the banks are required to write “living wills,” laying out how they could wind down without causing a financial catastrophe. Although they are now on their third round of living wills, the documents are thousands of pages, and the government hasn’t yet told them whether the second round of living wills, filed a year or so ago, passed muster.

The law also says that if the regulators find the living wills too unwieldy and difficult to execute, it can force banks and financial institutions to shed assets and simplify their structures to make them easier to wind down. Warren and other lawmakers have pointed to this provision as something that could — if regulators pushed for it — force the banks to look more like they did pre-deregulation: with a division between commercial banks and investment banks.

Meanwhile, there is another part of Dodd-Frank that calls for banks to wind down through a process called orderly liquidation. In this scenario, the government puts the functioning parts of the bank into a new “bridge financial company,” and forces the private sector — shareholders, certain creditors, even assessments on other financial institutions if it comes to that — to take losses. Although the Treasury Department insists that the law forbids public money from being used, there are a lot of economists who have a hard time believing that taxpayer money would not somehow be used if things got really bad.

One person who does believe is Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the F.D.I.C. “I do think they could handle a big bank failure,” she told me. “It would be messy and difficult, but they could do it.”

Which is the ultimate problem: We have no way of knowing whether “too big to fail” still exists until we have another crisis. Let’s just hope we don’t have to find out anytime soon.

Cohen and Krugman

July 18, 2014

Mr. Cohen says “Germany Is Weltmeister” and that Germany is different. It does not believe in quick fixes. Its World Cup team and its society reflect that.  In “Addicted to Inflation” Prof. Krugman says the right is obsessed with the claim that runaway inflation is either happening or about to happen.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A new nation won the World Cup. It was the first victory for a unified Germany, or a reunified Germany if you prefer. That country was more than a generation in the making. Germans do not believe in quick fixes.

Formal reunification occurred on Oct. 3, 1990, a few months after the previous 1-0 German victory over Argentina in a World Cup final, an ugly affair in Rome. But it has taken a quarter-century, and untold billions, to knit the post-Cold War nation together. When I lived in Berlin between 1998 and 2001, it was not just the countless cranes hovering over the city that told of a work in progress. It was the different mind-sets of Ossi and Wessi, Easterners and Westerners eyeing each other with resentment.

No matter, Germany had decided. It would pay the price to achieve reunification. It would work on the problem. It would move in the appointed direction, come what may.

This fine World Cup winning team was also the fruit of long-term planning. Over the past dozen years, the Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB), or German Football Association, has invested a fortune in new facilities, identifying youthful talent, nurturing that talent and ushering it to the national level. Two young players who emerged from that system, André Schürrle of Chelsea and Mario Götze of Bayern Munich, combined to conjure the beautiful goal that clinched victory.

It had been preceded by the 7-1 demolition of the hosts, Brazil, in the semi-final. Seldom has a soccer match so resembled an execution. It was not only Germans who felt the need to look away. Domination is not the modern German way. Brazilian agony was too explicit not to cringe.

BBC commentators could not resist the clichés. Germany was “clinical.” It was “efficient.” People tweeted, “Don’t mention the score.” With Germany there is always something unmentionable that rhymes with war. It is not easy to be German. But in that difficulty, as this team suggested, there lie strengths. Everything about this team, from its talent to its ethics, was admirable. The right team does not always win. In this case it did.

Germany, I said, does not believe in quick fixes. It is worth repeating because it is an idea that sets the country apart in an age where a quick killing, tomorrow’s share price, instant gratification and short-termism are the norm. Germans on the whole think what the rest of the world builds is flimsy. Anyone who has felt the weight of a German window, or the satisfying hermetic clunk of one closing, knows they have a point. The German time frame is longer.

Why Germany differs in this may be debated. Having plumbed the depths of destruction and evil, having understood the depravity into which a “civilized” country may descend, Germany had to rebuild from the “Stunde Null,” or “Zero Hour,” of 1945. It had to hoist itself up step by step; and it had to build into its reconstituted self the guarantees that ensured no relapse was possible. This took planning. It took persistence. It involved prudence. Even before all this the first German unity of 1871 came only after centuries of strife at the European crossroads. Geborgenheit is an untranslatable German word but no less important for that. It means roughly warmth, home, trust and security, everything that is so precious in part because it may go up in smoke.

Perhaps German success is the result of the immensity of past German failure. I think that has something to do with it, even a lot. Whatever its roots, German success is important and instructive.

If you talk to business leaders of the German Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies at the heart of the country’s economy, you are transported to another world. You sit in stark boardrooms, so devoid of indulgence they resemble classrooms, with unassuming people leading billion-dollar companies, and they speak of loyalty, 10-year plans, prudence and quality. If one word induces a look of horror, it is debt. The notion of making money with money, of financial engineering rather than engineering itself, is alien.

Joachim Löw, the German coach, spoke before the final of the careful building of his youthful side: “We can play on top of the world for a good few years yet, with some young players coming in to reinforce the team.” Inevitably, the idea of Germany “on top of the world” for a long time conjured up images the phrase would not evoke for another country. Even a victory dance by members of the German team turned into a national debate because it was seen by some as unseemly mocking of the gaucho Argentine. The president of the DFB apologized.

Germany is now soccer’s “Weltmeister,” a composite word composed of “world” and “master.” It deserves the honor. Its society has much to teach others. But restraint will be its watchword.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The first step toward recovery is admitting that you have a problem. That goes for political movements as well as individuals. So I have some advice for so-called reform conservatives trying to rebuild the intellectual vitality of the right: You need to start by facing up to the fact that your movement is in the grip of some uncontrollable urges. In particular, it’s addicted to inflation — not the thing itself, but the claim that runaway inflation is either happening or about to happen.

To see what I’m talking about, consider a scene that played out the other day on CNBC.

Rick Santelli, one of the network’s stars, is best known for a rant against debt relief that arguably gave birth to the Tea Party. On this occasion, however, he was ranting about another of his favorite subjects, the allegedly inflationary policies of the Federal Reserve. And his colleague Steve Liesman had had enough. “It’s impossible for you to have been more wrong,” Mr. Liesman declared, and he went on to detail the wrong predictions: “The higher interest rates never came, the inability of the U.S. to sell bonds never happened, the dollar never crashed, Rick. There isn’t a single one that’s worked for you.”

You could say the same thing about many people. I’ve had conversations with investors bemused by the failure of the dollar to crash and inflation to soar, because “all the experts” said that was going to happen. And that is indeed what you might have imagined if your notion of expertise was what you saw on CNBC, on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, or in Forbes.

And this has been going on for a long time — at least since early 2009. Yet despite being consistently wrong for more than five years, these “experts” never consider the possibility that there might be something amiss with their economic framework, let alone that Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen or, for that matter, yours truly might have been right to dismiss their warnings.

At best, the inflation-is-coming crowd admits that it hasn’t happened yet, but attributes the delay to unforeseeable circumstances. Thus, in recent Congressional testimony, Lawrence Kudlow, also of CNBC, warned about “excess money and a devalued dollar.” However, “Miraculously, both actual and expected inflation indicators have stayed low.” It’s not something wrong with my model. It’s a miracle!

At worst, inflationistas resort to conspiracy theories: Inflation is already high, but the government is covering it up. The sources purporting to document this cover-up were thoroughly debunked years ago; among other things, private indicators of inflation like the Billion Prices Index (derived from Internet prices) basically confirm the official numbers. Furthermore, inflation conspiracy theorists have faced well-deserved ridicule even from fellow conservatives. Yet the conspiracy theory keeps resurfacing. It has, predictably, been rolled out to defend Mr. Santelli.

All of this is very frustrating to those reform conservatives. If you ask what new ideas they have to offer, they often mention “market monetarism,” which translates under current circumstances to the notion that the Fed should be doing more, not less.

One member of the group, Josh Barro — who is now at The Times — has gone so far as to call market monetarism “the shining success of the conservative reform movement.” But this idea has achieved no traction at all with the rest of American conservatism, which is still obsessed with the phantom menace of runaway inflation.

And the roots of inflation addiction run deep. Reformers like to minimize the influence of libertarian fantasies — fantasies that invariably involve the notion that inflationary disaster looms unless we return to gold — on today’s conservative leaders. But to do that, you have to dismiss what these leaders have actually said. If, for example, people accuse Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, of believing that he’s living in an Ayn Rand novel, that’s because in 2009 he said that we are “living in an Ayn Rand novel.

More generally, modern American conservatism is deeply opposed to any form of government activism, and while monetary policy is sometimes treated as a technocratic affair, the truth is that printing dollars to fight a slump, or even to stabilize some broader definition of the money supply, is indeed an activist policy.

The point, then, is that inflation addiction is telling us something about the intellectual state of one side of our great national divide. The right’s obsessive focus on a problem we don’t have, its refusal to reconsider its premises despite overwhelming practical failure, tells you that we aren’t actually having any kind of rational debate. And that, in turn, bodes ill not just for would-be reformers, but for the nation.

Cohen and Nocera

July 15, 2014

Bobo and Mr. Bruni are off today.  In “Israel’s Bloody Status Quo” Mr. Cohen says the Jews and Arabs of the Holy Land are led by men too small to effect change.  In “Helping Big Companies Compete” Mr. Nocera explains why killing the Export-Import Bank would be damaging to the economy.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Sheldon Adelson’s right-wing Israel Hayom, the biggest-selling newspaper in Israel, has called for Gaza to be “returned to the Stone Age.” During the last Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza, in 2012, a government minister called for Gaza to be consigned “to the Middle Ages.” Before that, there was the Gaza War of 2008-2009, in which 1,166 Palestinians died and 13 Israelis, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The story goes on and on. There is no denouement. Gaza, a small place jammed with 1.8 million people, does not recess to the Stone, Iron, Middle or other Ages. It does not get flattened, as Ariel Sharon’s son once proposed. The death toll is overwhelmingly skewed against Palestinians. Hamas, with its militia and arsenal of rockets, continues to run Gaza. The dead die for nothing.

Israel could send Gaza back to whichever age it wishes. Its military advantage, its general dominance, over the Palestinians has never been greater since 1948. But it chooses otherwise. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk of a ground invasion is empty. The last thing Israel wants, short of a cataclysm, is to go into Gaza and get stuck.

What Israel wants is the status quo (minus Hamas rockets). Israel is the Middle East’s status quo power par excellence. It seeks a calm Gaza under Hamas control, a divided Palestinian movement with Fatah running the West Bank, a vacuous “peace process” to run down the clock, and continued prosperity. Divide and rule. Hamas is useful to Israel as long as it is quiescent.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is also a status quo man. Late in his life, he is not prepared to make the painful decisions necessary to attain a two-state peace, decisions that would include relinquishing, against compensation, the so-called “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees. He prefers the comforts of his position and the ambiguity of concessions not formalized.

The Palestinian unity government recently established with Hamas is no more than a marriage of convenience, sought by a weakened, unpopular Hamas to escape isolation and unmet salary obligations in Gaza, and by Abbas as a distraction from his failures. There is no unity of Palestinian national purpose. There is no Palestinian democratic accountability; election talk evaporates. As for Israel, the fig-leaf Palestinian reconciliation was a godsend for its status-quo objective. Netanyahu was in sound-bite heaven, his favorite environment, on the risible notion of peace with Hamas.

None of this is edifying. Much is abhorrent: indiscriminate Hamas rockets on Israel, Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians in “collateral damage.” Yet I find myself short on moral outrage. It is all so familiar, a recurrent curse. It is a sham fight, and so doubly inexcusable. The Jews and Arabs of the Holy Land are led by men too small to effect change. Shed a tear, shed a thousand, it makes no difference.

Of course the status quo is illusory. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in Munich (to a chorus of Israeli fury), “It cannot be maintained.” True, this violence will subside. Gaza will revert to its routine misery. Peacemakers may bestir themselves. Netanyahu will find another sound bite. Things may look the same; and the next 150 dead will be part of that sameness.

But at a deeper level, things will change. Life is flux, even in the Middle East. Nothing feeds on a vacuum like radicalization. Hamas is back from the brink.

Images of blown-up Palestinian children, and that skewed death toll, will hurt Israel. Its drift toward a culture of hatred toward Arabs will continue. The murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir in revenge for the murders of three Israeli teenagers, and the brutal police beating of his cousin, were signs. Netanyahu called the Israeli teenagers’ killers “human animals.” The liberal daily Haaretz rightly observed: “Abu Khdeir’s murderers are not ‘Jewish extremists.’ They are the descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance.”

That culture is reciprocated by Palestinians toward Jews. Last month Mohammed Dajani, a professor at Al Quds University, quit after being hounded with death threats for taking a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz. He thought young Palestinians should learn about the Holocaust, a heinous affront to the ruling order in the West Bank and Gaza. Enough said. Palestinians get weaker — a 66-year trend now — because they fail to look reality in the face.

Jews should study the Nakba. Arabs should study the Holocaust. That might be a first step toward two-state coexistence. And everyone should read the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s lines about redemption only coming for all the peoples of the Holy Land when a Jerusalem guide tells his tour group:

“You see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Last week, Standard & Poor’s issued a short report about Boeing. “Boeing Co. Faces Long-Term Credit Risks If The U.S. Export-Import Bank Isn’t Reauthorized,” read the alarming heading.

In dollar volume, Boeing is America’s single largest exporter. It is one of our country’s strongest manufacturers. It employs more than 150,000 people, and last year it sent checks worth $48 billion to some 15,600 subcontractors. In competing with the likes of Europe’s Airbus and Canada’s Bombardier, it takes advantage of loan guarantees and financings offered by the Export-Import Bank — just as those competitors rely on their own export credit agencies for loan guarantees and financings. Without the help it gets from the Ex-Im Bank, Boeing would undoubtedly lose business to those competitors.

And, as S.& P. was suggesting, it could also see its credit rating lowered if it had to finance and guarantee loans to its airline customers “in order to remain competitive.” Clearly, S.& P. did not view this a positive development. Nonetheless, on Monday, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page — which is among the conservative voices leading the charge against the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank — hailed that same S.& P. report because it also said that, in the short term, Boeing would be able to find financing. Thus has the Ex-Im Bank become the current Rorschach test of American politics.

I am returning to this subject because I continue to find it mind-boggling that anyone in Washington would want to pursue a path that is so clearly destructive to the economy. But that is exactly what is happening. Conservative organizations like Heritage Action for America and Americans for Prosperity (financed by the Koch brothers) have made killing the Ex-Im Bank their cause. And it has been taken up by Tea Party Republicans in the House, as well as Jeb Hensarling, the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Although it is likely that the Senate will pass a reauthorization bill this month, if the House doesn’t follow suit by the end of September, the Ex-Im Bank will not be reauthorized. Companies that rely on the Ex-Im Bank’s array of financing products to complete deals will, unquestionably, be hurt. Many of them will be small and medium-size companies that are able to export only because of the assistance they get from the Ex-Im Bank. I have written about them in previous columns.

But some will be big guns like Boeing, Caterpillar and General Electric. It’s worth dwelling on these large companies for two reasons. First, customers of these big companies get the bulk of the Ex-Im Bank’s assistance. Though this seems completely logical — the biggest companies do the biggest deals, after all — this has also made them a target of the right, which views the relationship between the bank and American multinationals as the paradigmatic example of “crony capitalism.”

Second, most of the arguments made against the Ex-Im Bank revolve around its help to the big companies, not the small ones. For instance, it is argued that big companies have their own means of helping customers finance deals. That’s true, but it’s the customers, not the companies, that are pushing for export credit guarantees. A Boeing source told me that it is hearing from customers and potential customers about the fate of the Ex-Im Bank. “It’s a big deal,” my source said, especially in places like Africa, where conventional financing for aircraft is hard to come by.

“Nobody is saying these companies are going to die if they can’t use the Ex-Im Bank,” said Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a member of the Ex-Im Bank’s advisory board. “The issue is their ability to meet their competition.” Hufbauer ticked off some of the competitors: Siemens of Germany is a huge company that competes with G.E.; Komatsu of Japan competes with Caterpillar; and, of course, Airbus competes with Boeing. Each of them gets assistance from their own export credit agency, none of which will go away if the U.S. decides not to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.

One thing the House Republicans have sought is a commitment from the Treasury Department to lobby for the elimination of export credit agencies around the world. But this is an ideological pipe dream. Other countries have no interest in walking away from export assistance; indeed, countries like China and Japan are far more wedded to this kind of assistance than the U.S. is.

In its editorial on Monday, The Journal mocked the phrase “unilateral disarmament” in regards to the Export-Import Bank. But that is what it would be. There are times when we have to accept the world as it is, rather than how we wish it would be. And like other countries, we ought to be helping our companies get business, and thus increase employment and economic growth — not forcing them to compete with one hand tied behind their backs.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 11, 2014

Bobo has a question in “Baseball or Soccer?”  He asks if your life more like a baseball game or a soccer match, and says you might be surprised.  “Jack Chicago” from Chicago wasn’t surprised.  In his comment he said “I find myself ill-prepared for another trite ‘life as a sport analogy’. The entire column is simplistic and lacking in any depth.”  In “Fat Britain” Mr. Cohen says once we’ve found our lunch our instinct is to avoid becoming someone else’s.  Prof. Krugman asks “Who Wants a Depression?”  He considers “sadomonetarism,” the interests of the 0.01 percent and the politicization of economics.  Here’s Bobo:

Is life more like baseball, or is it more like soccer?

Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game.

Soccer is not like that. In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. If you get the ball and your teammates have run the right formations, and structured the space around you, you’ll have three or four options on where to distribute it. If the defenders have structured their formations to control the space, then you will have no options. Even the act of touching the ball is not primarily defined by the man who is touching it; it is defined by the context created by all the other players.

As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” Brazil wasn’t clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.

This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold. As Nicholas Christakis and others have shown, if your friends are obese, you’re likely to be obese. If your neighbors play fair, you are likely to play fair. We all live within distinct moral ecologies. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without being much aware of it.

Then there is the structure of your network. There is by now a vast body of research on how differently people behave depending on the structure of the social networks. People with vast numbers of acquaintances have more job opportunities than people with fewer but deeper friendships. Most organizations have structural holes, gaps between two departments or disciplines. If you happen to be in an undeveloped structural hole where you can link two departments, your career is likely to take off.

Innovation is hugely shaped by the structure of an industry at any moment. Individuals in Silicon Valley are creative now because of the fluid structure of failure and recovery. Broadway was incredibly creative in the 1940s and 1950s because it was a fluid industry in which casual acquaintances ended up collaborating.

Since then, studies show, theater social networks have rigidified, and, even if you collaborate with an ideal partner, you are not as likely to be as creative as you would have been when the global environment was more fertile.

Finally, there is the power of the extended mind. There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited.

Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.

Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany.

Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Britain is fat, unacceptably fat — fatter than ever before. There is no escaping this development. Turn on the radio and chances are some new report on obesity will be the subject of debate, with handwringing over the “Americanization” of Britain, and hectoring BBC-style questioning as to what can be done.

A recent report in the Lancet medical journal found that 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women in the United Kingdom are either overweight or obese. This put Britain at the top of the supersized league table among big European countries (the likes of Malta and Iceland outdid it). More than a quarter of children are overweight or obese.

The causes are scarcely different from elsewhere in a fattening world: cheap availability of calorie-dense food (burgers, fries, chips, sodas); “food deserts” in poor areas where healthy fare is hard to find and expensive; sedentary lives spent seated in front of the computer or sprawled on the couch with “Game of Thrones” blaring; too much sugar, fat and fructose; broken or weakened families where children forage in the fridge for prepared meals and snack all day rather than gathering for a family meal; speeded-up societies that breed bored, stressed, impulsive and compulsive behavior, including binge eating and constant eating.

As Tony Goldstone, a consultant endocrinologist at London’s Hammersmith Hospital put it to me: “In the developed world we don’t eat because we are hungry.” We eat because everywhere we look there’s a superabundance of food and we’re hardwired through evolution to keep our body weight up.

The effects, as elsewhere, include a sharp increase in diabetes. Since 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes in Britain has more than doubled to about three million. It is estimated that by 2025 there will be some five million diabetics. Direct and indirect health costs related to spreading obesity range into the billions of dollars.

The new social divide sees the skinny affluent at their Knightsbridge gym raving about their personal trainer and favorite farmers’ market, and the pot-bellied poor guzzling kebabs and fries. The counterintuitive association of poverty and obesity is an indicator of how much the world has changed. Survival is still an instinct but it is no longer an issue. More people today are overweight than malnourished.

Goldstone said he comes away from obesity conferences feeling gloomy. Telling fat people to get thin through dieting is, he suggests, like “telling an asthmatic to breathe more.” Cognitive control cedes to the force of instinct. “Who says that the will can overcome biology when biology trained us to get food when scarce?” Goldstone said. “We evolved to prefer foods high in fat and sugar because they contain the calories we need to reproduce.”

Our urges are out of sync with our environment. The environment has changed. Urges have not. Our instinct is to eat and rest. We have no instinct to stop eating and be active. We eat to survive and then want to rest because we may need energy to flee some wild beast. Once we’ve found our lunch, our instinct is to avoid being someone else’s.

It may not seem like lying on a couch is part of our survival gene but it is. David Haslam, the chairman of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, told me: “It is in our interest to eat and be lazy. Put people in an environment like the current one that promotes eating and laziness and they will oblige.” It’s their genetic inclination.

So I’m gloomy too. I eat more in the hours before I have to write a column. My instinct is then to rest. I cannot because I have to write. My impulse is then to eat again as a way, for a moment, not to write. This only augments the desire to rest. If deadlines did not exist I’d be enormous. Everyone these days plays such mental games, their instincts and environment at war with each other.

This does not mean there is nothing to be done about fat Britain or fat America. Exercise can be encouraged in big and small ways (promoting use of bikes, making sure hotels no longer hide the stairs). Make restaurant chains post calorie information. Improve labeling (Goldstone, a diabetic, told me he often can’t work out from current labels how many carbohydrates a product contains). Oblige supermarkets to move sweets from the checkouts, as Tesco has agreed to do. Get healthy food into schools and poor areas. Haslam told me about an experiment at a Morrisons supermarket where cardboard avatars of a diabetes consultant, a midwife or a doctor pointed to healthy foods. The results were positive. And, for those who can afford it, there’s bariatric surgery.

Nonetheless, the world will get fatter for the foreseeable future because humans in their ingenuity have created a near-perfect environment for the propagation of fatness.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

One unhappy lesson we’ve learned in recent years is that economics is a far more political subject than we liked to imagine. Well, duh, you may say. But, before the financial crisis, many economists — even, to some extent, yours truly — believed that there was a fairly broad professional consensus on some important issues.

This was especially true of monetary policy. It’s not that many years since the administration of George W. Bush declared that one lesson from the 2001 recession and the recovery that followed was that “aggressive monetary policy can make a recession shorter and milder.” Surely, then, we’d have a bipartisan consensus in favor of even more aggressive monetary policy to fight the far worse slump of 2007 to 2009. Right?

Well, no. I’ve written a number of times about the phenomenon of “sadomonetarism,” the constant demand that the Federal Reserve and other central banks stop trying to boost employment and raise interest rates instead, regardless of circumstances. I’ve suggested that the persistence of this phenomenon has a lot to do with ideology, which, in turn, has a lot to do with class interests. And I still think that’s true.

But I now think that class interests also operate through a cruder, more direct channel. Quite simply, easy-money policies, while they may help the economy as a whole, are directly detrimental to people who get a lot of their income from bonds and other interest-paying assets — and this mainly means the very wealthy, in particular the top 0.01 percent.

The story so far: For more than five years, the Fed has faced harsh criticism from a coalition of economists, pundits, politicians and financial-industry moguls warning that it is “debasing the dollar” and setting the stage for runaway inflation. You might have thought that the continuing failure of the predicted inflation to materialize would cause at least a few second thoughts, but you’d be wrong. Some of the critics have come up with new rationales for unchanging policy demands — it’s about inflation! no, it’s about financial stability! — but most have simply continued to repeat the same warnings.

Who are these always-wrong, never-in-doubt critics? With no exceptions I can think of, they come from the right side of the political spectrum. But why should right-wing sentiments go hand in hand with inflation paranoia? One answer is that using monetary policy to fight slumps is a form of government activism. And conservatives don’t want to legitimize the notion that government action can ever have positive effects, because once you start down that path you might end up endorsing things like government-guaranteed health insurance.

But there’s also a much more direct reason for those defending the interests of the wealthy to complain about easy money: The wealthy derive an important part of their income from interest on bonds, and low-rate policies have greatly reduced this income.

Complaints about low interest rates are usually framed in terms of the harm being done to retired Americans living on the interest from their CDs. But the interest receipts of older Americans go mainly to a small and relatively affluent minority. In 2012, the average older American with interest income received more than $3,000, but half the group received $255 or less. The really big losers from low interest rates are the truly wealthy — not even the 1 percent, but the 0.1 percent or even the 0.01 percent. Back in 2007, before the slump, the average member of the 0.01 percent received $3 million (in 2012 dollars) in interest. By 2011, that had fallen to $1.3 million — a loss equivalent to almost 9 percent of the group’s 2007 income.

That’s a lot, and it surely explains a lot of the hysteria over Fed policy. The rich are even more likely than most people to believe that what’s good for them is good for America — and their wealth and the influence it buys ensure that there are always plenty of supposed experts eager to find justifications for this attitude. Hence sadomonetarism.

Which brings me back to the politicization of economics.

Before the financial crisis, many central bankers and economists were, it’s now clear, living in a fantasy world, imagining themselves to be technocrats insulated from the political fray. After all, their job was to steer the economy between the shoals of inflation and depression, and who could object to that?

It turns out, however, that using monetary policy to fight depression, while in the interest of the vast majority of Americans, isn’t in the interest of a small, wealthy minority. And, as a result, monetary policy is as bound up in class and ideological conflict as tax policy.

The truth is that in a society as unequal and polarized as ours has become, almost everything is political. Get used to it.

Dowd and Cohen

July 9, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  MoDo has a question in “Silicon Valley Sharknado:”  How close are Google & Co. to inventing computers that overtake the human brain?  Well, MoDo, I guess it depends on the brain.  Are you worried?  In “France Decapitated” Mr. Cohen says the French dislike modernity. They mistrust it. That is the nub of the problem.  Here’s MoDo:

Mostly, this July, I’m worrying about the jumping sharks jumping the shark.

But Syfy’s “Sharknado 2” trailer, this one about a shark storm hitting Manhattan, just went up and features chain saws buzzing, the Statue of Liberty’s severed head whizzing, Tara Reid kvetching, and Robert Klein barking “This is the Big Apple! Something bites us; we bite back!”

So things look pretty promising.

That leaves me free to worry about rampaging robots.

And I’m not the only one.

In a recent interview with CNBC, Elon Musk, the C.E.O. of Tesla Motors and Space X, which hopes to rocket us to other planets, said he invests in artificial intelligence companies not to make money but to “keep an eye” on them in case of “scary outcomes,” like a “Terminator” scenario of psychopathic robots that could chase us off the Earth and up to Mars.

(Interpolation: How has Elon Musk not invented his own fragrance?)

In “Terminator,” Musk said, the humans who created the replicants did not expect the machines to turn evil. “It is sort of like that Monty Python thing: ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,’ ” the 43-year-old inventor and mogul said, warning: “But you’ve got to be careful.”

Silicon Valley brains have been predicting that robots will usher in a radically superior world.

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s 66-year-old director of engineering, is running a Manhattan project to push A.I. to match human intelligence by 2029 and achieve his vision of “the singularity” — the moment when computers overtake human brains — by 2045. The robots will even be able to flirt, he says, and, unlike Siri and Scarlett Johansson in “Her,” they can easily have a curvy virtual form and be “lovable.”

Computers will be able to read every word on the web and every book ever written and offer up matching patterns.

I.B.M.’s Watson has read 200 million Wikipedia pages, Kurzweil told The Observer of London, but “it doesn’t understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred.” So Kurzweil and Google will try to encode that information to “really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying.”

Since I come from a family of Irish maids, I’m not looking forward to servitude under my iPhone.

And Kurzweil should be more worried that he’ll suffer the fate of genetic designer J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner,” who is killed by his replicants after telling them, “There’s a part of me in you.”

Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems co-founder, has predicted that algorithms and machines will replace 80 percent of doctors in years to come, making medicine more data driven and less like “witchcraft.”

In a rare joint interview last week with Khosla at his Silicon Valley summit, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page talked about their A.I. hopes.

“You should presume that someday,” Brin said, “we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can.”

They have always been interested in robots — they named their operating system Android — and are running “the brain project,” described by Brin as “really machine-learning focused.” In January, they acquired the British A.I. developer DeepMind, founded by Demis Hassabis, a game designer, neuroscientist and former child chess prodigy.

They know people could be thrown out of work. As Page said, “90 percent of people used to be farmers,” so “it’s not surprising.”

Page predicted a “time of abundance,” when human needs could be more easily met and people would “have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests.”

Of course, when we get more free time, we’ll simply spend it staring at our iPads, so all roads lead back to Big Brother.

Jaron Lanier, the computer genius and author of “Who Owns the Future?,” dryly notes that our looming overlords may not be robots but the Google founders.

“The only person with a secure job will be Larry Page,” he laughingly told me. “He owns the damn Cloud computer.”

He said that, despite a fantasy that dates from the mid-20th century, nobody has yet figured out how to make a robot that can think for itself.

“In a way, it’s not being honest,” he said. “We’re still pretending that we’re inventing a brain when all we’ve come up with is a giant mash-up of real brains. We don’t yet understand how brains work, so we can’t build one.”

When machines translate from one language to another, they are leeching from live translators, taking matching phrases from aggregated data. If tech companies could gather similar data on doctors, that information could theoretically be matched up to make a simulated doctor.

“People are unwittingly feeding information into the Cloud for automated services, which they’re not being paid for,” Lanier said. “I don’t like pretending that humans are becoming buggy whips. You have this fantasy that it’s machines doing it without people helping. We are throwing people out of work based on a fantasy.”

In a digital update of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Silicon Valley is siphoning and pilfering human intelligence to feed Mr. Roboto to replace us. That’s the scary bravado of real sharks.

Yep, the Silly Season is here…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The Tour de France bicycle race kicked off in England this year, in Yorkshire to be precise, and ended its third stage on the Mall outside Buckingham Palace. Next pigs will fly.

In fact they’ve already flown, given that this quintessentially French event has started in Britain once before, but still it must be asked if anything is sacred anymore. Perhaps the horse racing at Ascot will soon move to Toulouse.

I was in Paris last week. It was beautiful. Tourists lolled on the bridges enjoying picnics of cheese, baguettes and bad red wine. They were happy. The weather was perfect. The French were grumpy, of course. I did not notice any grumbling about the weird displacement of the Tour across the Channel, but encountered complaints over just about everything else.

A former conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had been hauled into police custody for 15 hours for questioning over alleged corruption. The current Socialist president, François Hollande, had plumbed new depths of unpopularity. The presidency of the Fifth Republic, once the apex of ceremonial glory and near-monarchical power, had all the luster of a damp rag.

That the French are unhappy has become a commonplace. A nation that loves ideas is living in an ideological void. If that void is filled by anyone it is the rightist leader Marine Le Pen with her cleverly dosed venom about Europe, immigrants, crime, globalization and the other supposed culprits behind French national decline.

Unemployment in France is at about double the German level. Growth is at zero. Investment is at new lows. If the European economy is stirring, the French has shown an exceptional capacity to resist signs of life.

Manuel Valls, the centrist prime minister hated by many in his own Socialist Party, is trying to cut public-sector spending, loosen labor-market laws, slash payroll taxes, and generally spur job creation and growth by liberalizing a state-heavy economy. Many have tried before him. Many have failed. Such reform in France is a Sisyphean task.

France is a modern country as well as a beautiful one. Its attributes, from its health system to its rail system (when not on strike), are well known. But the French dislike modernity. They mistrust modernity. That is the nub of the problem. They dislike and mistrust it for two reasons. Modernity has redefined space and relegated the state. This is intolerable.

The redefinition of space has involved the technology-driven elimination of distance. As Michel Serres, a prominent French philosopher, put it in a lecture last year at the Sorbonne on the digital world, “Boeing shortens distances; new technologies annul them.”

This is troubling in France because nowhere else is the particularity of place and the singularity of a person’s attachment to it more important. That bond is expressed in the word “terroir,” at once the land, its special characteristics, the nature of its soil, its climate, and the unique human relationship to it. A great Burgundy and an indifferent one may come from properties a hundred yards apart. The soil is not the same, nor the slope of the land. Distance matters. Yet modernity has contempt for it. It even places the Tour de France in England. As Serres put it, “We live in a new space.”

Humanity has also changed its relationship to the state. The French place deep faith in the state. It is the righter of wrongs, the mediator of human affairs, the source of social justice, the object of duty, and the repository of power. The very word deregulation is odious to the French.

But technology has shifted power from the state to stateless individuals living in a borderless cyberworld. An e-mail address is now more important and more relevant to the conduct of existence than a physical address. A revolution in communication is underway, not seen since the invention of the printing press, but it is not a French revolution. It is in fact an anti-French revolution. It challenges fundamental French values, the French sense of self, and the French attachment to the state.

Valls, the prime minister, appears to be confronting French labor unions in his efforts at reform. What he is really facing is a fundamental objection to modernity.

Serres, in his lecture, tells the story of Saint Denis, the Christian martyr decapitated around 250 A.D. Denis is said to have picked up his head and walked several kilometers preaching a sermon. Serres objected as a child, when his mother told him the story, that Denis could not possibly have found his head without his eyes. She rebuked him for failing to understand miracles.

Today, Serres says, everyone’s head is on the table in the form of their computers. “You have been decapitated!” he tells his French audience.

That is often how the French feel. I fear there is not much to be done about it, short of miracles.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 4, 2014

Bobo’s given us “Social Science Palooza IV” in which he says most social science confirms the blindingly obvious. He offers eight examples where it doesn’t.  Apparently he’s found a site that serves up social science factoids every day…  Mr. Cohen considers a “Lawless Holy Land” and says absent a two-state peace agreement, revenge killings will win out over law. This is the future for Israel and Palestine.  Prof. Krugman, in “Build We Won’t,” explains why America gave up on the future and caved on investing in building and maintaining our highways.  Here’s Bobo:

A day without social science is like a day without sunshine. Fortunately, every morning Kevin Lewis of National Affairs magazine gathers recent social science findings and emails them out to the masses. You can go to the National Affairs website to see and sign up for his work, but, in the meantime, here are some recent interesting findings:

Working moms sometimes raise smarter students. Caitlin McPherran Lombardi and Rebekah Levine Coley studied the children of mothers who work and those of mothers who don’t. They found the children of working mothers were just as ready for school as other children. Furthermore, among families where the father’s income was lower, the children of working mothers demonstrated higher cognitive skills and fewer conduct problems than the children of nonworking mothers. As with all this work, no one study is dispositive, but here is some more support for the idea that mothers who work are not hurting their kids.

The office is often a more relaxing place than the home. Sarah Damaske, Joshua Smyth and Matthew Zawadzki found that people are more likely to have lower values of the stress hormone cortisol when they are at work than when at home. Maybe that’s because parenting small kids is so demanding. But, on the contrary: Having children around was correlated with less relative stress at home.

Hearts and minds may be a myth. Armies fighting counterinsurgency campaigns spend a lot of effort trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local populations. But Raphael Cohen looked at polling data from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and found that public opinion is a poor predictor of strategic victory. Public opinion is not that malleable, and its swings are more an effect than a cause. That is, counterinsurgency armies get more popular as they win victories; they don’t get popular and then use that popularity to win.

Attractive children attract less empathy than unattractive children. Robert Fisher and Yu Ma studied how much help children received from unrelated adults when they were experiencing difficulties. People perceive that attractive children are more socially competent and, therefore, are less likely to help them, as long as the need is not severe. So, if you are creating an ad to get people to donate to your hospital or charity, you might avoid child models who are winners in the looks department.

Too much talent can be as bad as too little talent. Most people assume there is a linear relationship between talent and team performance. But Roderick Swaab and others studied team performance in basketball and found that more talent is better up to a point — after which more talent just means worse teamwork and ultimately worse performance. In baseball, more talent did lead to better team performance straight up the line, but in activities like basketball, which require more intra-team coordination, too much talent can tear apart teamwork.

Title IX has produced some unintended consequences. Phoebe Clarke and Ian Ayres studied the effect of sports on social outcomes. They found that a 10 percentage point increase in state level female sports participation generated a 5 or 6 percentage point rise in the rate of female secularism, a 5 point rise in the proportion of women who are mothers and a 6 point rise in the percentage who are single mothers. It could be that sports participation is correlated with greater independence from traditional institutions, with good and bad effects.

Moral stories don’t necessarily make more moral children. Kang Lee, Victoria Talwar and others studied the effectiveness of classic moral stories in promoting honesty among 3- to 7-year-olds. They found stories like “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. However, the story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth-telling. Stories that emphasized the bad effects of lying had no effect, but stories that emphasized the good effects of telling the truth did have an effect.

Good fences make good neighbors. When ethnic groups clash, we usually try to encourage peace by integrating them. Let them get to know one another or perform a joint activity. This may be the wrong approach. Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon and others studied ethnically diverse areas and came to a different conclusion. Peace is not the result of integrated coexistence. It is the result of well-defined geographic and political boundaries. For example, Switzerland is an ethnically diverse place, but mountains and lakes clearly define each group’s spot. Even in the former Yugoslavia, amid widespread ethnic violence, peace prevailed where there were clear boundaries.

Most social science research confirms the blindingly obvious. But sometimes it reveals things nobody had thought of, or suggests that the things we thought were true are actually false.

That’s a message for you, federal appropriators.

I guess we’ve all noticed that as the Republicans get crazier and crazier and crazier Bobo writes less and less and less about politics…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

“Israel is a state of law and everyone is obligated to act in accordance with the law,” the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said after the abduction and murder of a Palestinian teenager shot in an apparent revenge attack for the killing last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.

He called the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem “abominable.” President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has denounced the murder of the three Israelis, one of them also an American citizen, in the strongest terms.

What to make of this latest flare-up in the blood feud of Arab and Jew in the Holy Land, beyond revulsion at the senseless loss of four teenagers’ lives? What to make of the hand-wringing of the very leaders who have just chosen to toss nine months of American attempts at diplomatic mediation into the garbage and now reap the fruits of their fecklessness?

Sometimes words, any words, appear unseemly because the perpetuators of the conflict relish the attention they receive — all the verbal contortions of would-be peacemakers who insist, in their quaint doggedness, that reason can win out over revenge and biblical revelation.

Still, it must be said that Israel, a state of laws within the pre-1967 lines, is not a state of law beyond them in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli dominion over millions of Palestinians, now almost a half-century old, involves routine coercion, humiliation and abuse to which most Israelis have grown increasingly oblivious.

What goes on beyond a long-forgotten Green Line tends only to impinge on Israeli consciousness when violence flares. Otherwise it is over the wall or barrier (choose the word that suits your politics) in places best not dwelled upon.

But those places come back to haunt Israelis, as the vile killings of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar demonstrate. Netanyahu, without producing evidence, has blamed Hamas for the murders. The sweeping Israeli response in the West Bank has already seen at least six Palestinians killed, about 400 Palestinians arrested, and much of the territory placed in lockdown. Reprisals have extended to Gaza. Palestinian militants there have fired rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel in response.

This is not what happens in a state of laws. Beyond the Green Line lies a lawless Israeli enterprise profoundly corrosive, over time, to the noble Zionist dream of a democracy governed by laws.

All four killings took place in territory occupied or annexed by Israel since 1967. Here the law has taken second place to the Messianic claims of religious nationalists who believe Jews have a God-given right to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Their view has held sway, even if it is not the view of a majority of Israelis.

No democracy can be immune to running an undemocratic system of oppression in territory under its control. To have citizens on one side of an invisible line and subjects without rights on the other side of that line does not work. A democracy needs borders; Israel’s slither into military rule for Palestinians in occupied areas where there is no consent of the governed.

As for the Palestinian Authority, so-called, it is weak, and the Palestinian national movement still riven with division beneath a “unity government” that cannot even pay salaries in Gaza.

This situation may be sustainable because power lies overwhelmingly with Israel. But it is sustainable only at the cost of the violence now flaring. This is the future. Absent a two-state peace agreement, revenge will win out over law. Violence is not an aberration. It is the logical consequence of an aberrational order susceptible to lynch mobs, whether Arabs or Jews.

Most Israelis and Palestinians want peace. They do not want their children dying this way. But their leaders are small figures seeking only short-term tactical gain.

A French friend forwarded to me the recent newsletter of a French violinist, Mathilde Vittu, who has been teaching music in the West Bank. She writes of watching Palestinian children emerging from her lessons, violins on their backs, being surrounded by Israeli soldiers trying to provoke them. She goes to Gaza and observes the “double imprisonment” constituted by Israel and “the rules of Hamas.”

In a makeshift conservatory, partially destroyed, hit by power cuts in the midst of Bach piano solos, she speaks of her “indescribable emotion” at a magical final concert where she is thanked “for liberating us for an evening through music.”

One very talented violinist, aged 14, tells her he plans to stop playing after his exam to become a “martyr” after the death of his best friend in the West Bank. She is deeply troubled; then locals tell her lots of kids in Gaza have that ambition at 14, only to think better of it.

Yifrach, Khdeir, Fraenkel, Shaar: Will their deaths serve any purpose? I doubt it.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

You often find people talking about our economic difficulties as if they were complicated and mysterious, with no obvious solution. As the economist Dean Baker recently pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth. The basic story of what went wrong is, in fact, almost absurdly simple: We had an immense housing bubble, and, when the bubble burst, it left a huge hole in spending. Everything else is footnotes.

And the appropriate policy response was simple, too: Fill that hole in demand. In particular, the aftermath of the bursting bubble was (and still is) a very good time to invest in infrastructure. In prosperous times, public spending on roads, bridges and so on competes with the private sector for resources. Since 2008, however, our economy has been awash in unemployed workers (especially construction workers) and capital with no place to go (which is why government borrowing costs are at historic lows). Putting those idle resources to work building useful stuff should have been a no-brainer.

But what actually happened was exactly the opposite: an unprecedented plunge in infrastructure spending. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, public expenditures on construction have fallen more than 20 percent since early 2008. In policy terms, this represents an almost surreally awful wrong turn; we’ve managed to weaken the economy in the short run even as we undermine its prospects for the long run. Well played!

And it’s about to get even worse. The federal highway trust fund, which pays for a large part of American road construction and maintenance, is almost exhausted. Unless Congress agrees to top up the fund somehow, road work all across the country will have to be scaled back just a few weeks from now. If this were to happen, it would quickly cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs, which might derail the employment recovery that finally seems to be gaining steam. And it would also reduce long-run economic potential.

How did things go so wrong? As with so many of our problems, the answer is the combined effect of rigid ideology and scorched-earth political tactics. The highway fund crisis is just one example of a much broader problem.

So, about the highway fund: Road spending is traditionally paid for via dedicated taxes on fuel. The federal trust fund, in particular, gets its money from the federal gasoline tax. In recent years, however, revenue from the gas tax has consistently fallen short of needs. That’s mainly because the tax rate, at 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t changed since 1993, even as the overall level of prices has risen more than 60 percent.

It’s hard to think of any good reason why taxes on gasoline should be so low, and it’s easy to think of reasons, ranging from climate concerns to reducing dependence on the Middle East, why gas should cost more. So there’s a very strong case for raising the gas tax, even aside from the need to pay for road work. But even if we aren’t ready to do that right now — if, say, we want to avoid raising taxes until the economy is stronger — we don’t have to stop building and repairing roads. Congress can and has topped up the highway trust fund from general revenue. In fact, it has thrown $54 billion into the hat since 2008. Why not do it again?

But no. We can’t simply write a check to the highway fund, we’re told, because that would increase the deficit. And deficits are evil, at least when there’s a Democrat in the White House, even if the government can borrow at incredibly low interest rates. And we can’t raise gas taxes because that would be a tax increase, and tax increases are even more evil than deficits. So our roads must be allowed to fall into disrepair.

If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But similar logic lies behind the overall plunge in public investment. Most such investment is carried out by state and local governments, which generally must run balanced budgets and saw revenue decline after the housing bust. But the federal government could have supported public investment through deficit-financed grants, and states themselves could have raised more revenue (which some but not all did). The collapse of public investment was, therefore, a political choice.

What’s useful about the looming highway crisis is that it illustrates just how self-destructive that political choice has become. It’s one thing to block green investment, or high-speed rail, or even school construction. I’m for such things, but many on the right aren’t. But everyone from progressive think tanks to the United States Chamber of Commerce thinks we need good roads. Yet the combination of anti-tax ideology and deficit hysteria (itself mostly whipped up in an attempt to bully President Obama into spending cuts) means that we’re letting our highways, and our future, erode away.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

July 1, 2014

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “The Evolution of Trust.”  He gurgles that the evolution to more frugal, deinstitutionalized living that has created the sharing economy may also lead to less involvement of government in everyday life.  Following his POS I’ll quote “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn’s entire comment, which begins with “David, you can’t be serious.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Socialist World Cup,” says in Brazil, the culture of the group vanquishes the money culture of the superstar.  In “From 9/11 to BP to G.M.” Mr. Nocera says Kenneth Feinberg is proving that you can compensate victims without litigation.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “A Grope and a Shrug:”  With American Apparel’s sexually audacious founder and other prominent men, do we excuse the inexcusable?  Here’s Bobo:

I’m one of those people who thought Airbnb would never work. I thought people would never rent out space in their homes to near strangers. But I was clearly wrong. Eleven million travelers have stayed in Airbnb destinations, according to data shared by the company. Roughly 550,000 homes are now being shared by hosts. Airbnb is more popular in Europe than it is even in the United States. Paris is the largest destination city.

And Airbnb is only a piece of the peer-to-peer economy. People are renting out their cars to people they don’t know, dropping off their pets with people they don’t know, renting power tools to people they don’t know.

In retrospect, I underestimated the power of a few trends that make the peer-to-peer economy possible. First, I underestimated the effects of middle-class stagnation. With wages flat and families squeezed, many people have to return to the boardinghouse model of yesteryear. They have to rent out rooms to cover their mortgage or rent.

Second, I underestimated the power that liberal arts majors would have on the economy. Millions of people have finished college with a hunger for travel and local contact, but without much money. They would rather stay in spare rooms in residential neighborhoods than in homogenized hotels in commercial areas, especially if they get to have breakfast with the hosts in the morning.

And the big thing I underestimated was the transformation of social trust. In primitive economies, people traded mostly with members of their village and community. Trust was face to face. Then, in the mass economy we’ve been used to, people bought from large and stable corporate brands, whose behavior was made more reliable by government regulation.

But now there is a new trust calculus, powered by both social and economic forces. Socially, we have large numbers of people living loose unstructured lives, mostly in the 10 years after leaving college and in the 10 years after retirement.

These people often live alone or with short-time roommates, outside big institutional structures, like universities, corporations or the settled living of family life. They become very fast and fluid in how they make social connections. They become accustomed to instant intimacy, or at least fast pseudo-intimacy. People are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid relationships.

Economically, there are many more people working as freelancers. These people are more individualistic in how they earn money. They often don’t go to an office. They have traded dependence on big organizational systems for dependence on people they can talk to and negotiate arrangements with directly. They become accustomed to flexible ad-hoc arrangements.

The result is a personalistic culture in which people have actively lost trust in big institutions. Strangers don’t seem especially risky by comparison. This is fertile ground for peer-to-peer commerce.

Companies like Airbnb establish trust through ratings mechanisms. Their clients are already adept at evaluating each other on the basis of each other’s Facebook pages. People in the Airbnb economy don’t have the option of trusting each other on the basis of institutional affiliations, so they do it on the basis of online signaling and peer evaluations. Online ratings follow you everywhere, so people have an incentive to act in ways that will buff their online reputation.

As companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Sidecar get more mature, they also spend more money policing their own marketplace. They hire teams to hunt out fraud. They screen suppliers. They look for bad apples who might ruin the experience.

The one thing the peer-to-peer economy has not relied on much so far is government regulation. The people who use these companies may be mostly political progressives, but they are operating in a lightly regulated economic space. They vote left, but click right.

As this sector matures, government is getting more involved. City officials have clashed with Airbnb and Uber on a range of issues. But most city governments don’t seem inclined to demand tight regulations and oversight. Centralized agencies don’t know what to make of decentralized trust networks. Moreover, in most cities people seem to understand this is a less formal economy and caveat emptor rules to a greater degree.

Meanwhile, companies like Airbnb and even Uber seem inclined to compromise and play nice with city governments. They’re trying to establish reputations as good citizens, to play nice with bureaucrats and co-op boards; they can’t do that with in-your-face, disruptive tactics.

We’re probably entering a world in which some sectors, like energy, retain top-down regulatory regimes. Other sectors, like bake sales, are unregulated. But more sectors, like peer-to-peer, exist in a gray zone in between.

As mechanisms to establish private trust become more efficient, government plays a smaller role.

And now here’s the comment from “Matthew Carnicelli” from Brooklyn, which deserves to be read in its entirety:  “David, you can’t be serious.  Why do you suppose it is that this peer-to-peer networking phenomenon has grown – and that more Americans are today working as freelancers? Are you seriously alleging that it is voluntary? Isn’t it more likely that most Americans (and Europeans, for that matter), in the aftermath of the World Financial Crisis and the meager recovery that the austerity hawks refused to fund, are so financially strapped that they have had to make other arrangements, do whatever it took to keep a roof over their heads?  David, speaking of ratings mechanisms, if the Times allowed your readership to rate your columns, do you imagine you would get more 1-star or 5-star ratings? My money would be on a predominance of 1-star ratings. You’d be like the restaurant on Yelp that no consumer would ever willingly visit.”  Ain’t that the truth…  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Paris:

Money talks in global soccer, as it does everywhere else, perhaps more so. The sport is big business. The likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are international brands, as recognizable as any Hollywood star. Compare a club’s wage bill to its success rate: the correlation is overwhelming. When billionaires acquire clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City or Chelsea, their fortunes change. When a very rich country like Qatar wants to host the World Cup, it gets its way even if entirely unsuited to the undertaking.

All this often undermines the beauty of the game. Sulky and overpaid stars, dubious deals and rapacious players’ agents are now part of the scenery. Football has been no exception to the inexorable process that sees the authentic and the genuine undermined by big money and manufactured images.

Until along came Diego Simeone and his “socialist football.” Think of him as the Thomas Piketty of the soccer world. It is impossible to understand what has been happening at the remarkable World Cup in Brazil without considering his impact.

Simeone, an Argentine, is the manager of the Spanish club Atlético Madrid that, against all the odds and all I have described above, won La Liga (the Spanish league title) this year, triumphing over Barcelona (home to Messi and Neymar) and Real Madrid (home to Ronaldo). Here, the normally reliable wage-bill indicator of success broke down. Atlético’s players earned a fraction of the salaries of their illustrious rivals.

What Atlético had was unity, cohesion, determination, energy and self-belief. The culture of the group vanquished the culture of the superstar. Simeone spoke with pride of his working-class side in a Spain of massive youth unemployment. “We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight,” he said. “People identify with us. We’re a source of hope.”

Every trend produces its countertrend. Soccer is no exception. This World Cup has not been about the stars, for all the brilliance of Neymar and Messi. It has been about unsung teams in the Atlético mold playing an intense, cohesive, never-say-die game. Their constant pressing has sent the likes of England, Italy, Spain and Ronaldo’s Portugal home, while giving Brazil and the Netherlands a real scare. I am thinking of Costa Rica (now in the last eight), Chile (very unlucky to lose to Brazil in a penalty shootout), Mexico (cheated of a deserved victory in the last minutes by the Dutch) and, in its own way, Jurgen Klinsmann’s gritty United States.

Here in France, whose team only just qualified for the World Cup, there has been much talk of how victories have stemmed from the absence of its stars. Franck Ribéry, a brilliant winger, was injured, and Samir Nasri, a wonderfully creative playmaker and goal scorer, was omitted because he was deemed a troublemaker. (France had a disastrous last World Cup campaign in South Africa that collapsed with players in open revolt.)

The result of their absence has been a more “socialist” French side with many good players but no stars, and a tough work ethic in the image of midfielder Blaise Matuidi. Intense tempo and cohesion have produced improved results. (I write as France prepares to play Nigeria in the Round of 16, a game that will test its true caliber).

France has already scored eight goals in three matches in the image of a World Cup that, before the quarterfinal stage is reached, has seen as many goals (145 as I write) scored as in the entire South African World Cup. This reflects a changed game. In every area there has been a reaction: refereeing (less restrictive, more inclined to let matches flow); style (more attack-minded, less cautious); and teamwork (the ascendancy of the high-tempo, all-for-one Simeone model).

I doubt that Ann Coulter, the conservative American commentator, had heard of Simeone’s “socialist football” when she recently lamented the “moral decay” she sees in Americans’ growing interest in soccer. Still, it was intriguing that she saw a liberal agenda being pushed by a sport in which “individual achievement is not a big factor” and “there are no heroes.” Like an idiot-savant who stumbles on a grain of truth through total ignorance, she was onto something. This is the anti-individual World Cup.

(Coulter fails to see that soccer is growing in popularity in the United States because the national team keeps getting better, Hispanics now make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and America is getting globalized just like everywhere else. America’s core strength is constant reinvention, in part through immigration; soccer’s surge is no sign of weakness.)

Of course, multimillion-dollar bids from billionaire-owned clubs for the best of Simeone’s socialist stars are about to unstitch the Atlético team; Simeone himself may be lured elsewhere by some fat contract. Money will go on talking. But before it does, enjoy this revolutionary World Cup and the hope it embodies.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

The title of Kenneth Feinberg’s 2012 book is: “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.” It is part memoir and part meditation on some of the well-known compensation systems he has administered during the course of his career, from the Agent Orange settlement to the 9/11 fund to the Gulf coast compensation fund that Feinberg managed for BP. “Where is it written,” he muses at one point, “that the tort system, and the tort system alone, must be the guiding force in determining who gets what?” It’s a good question.

On Monday morning, however, Feinberg unveiled his latest effort, a new fund, proposed and paid for by General Motors, to compensate victims of its ignition-switch failures with the Chevy Cobalt, the Saturn Ion and several other G.M. cars. It is very much tied to the tort system, as Feinberg was quick to concede when I spoke to him Monday afternoon. The family of a married father of two who had a $50,000-a-year job — and who died in an ignition-switch accident — would potentially get several million dollars more than, say, the family of an unmarried, out-of-work 29-year-old. An investment banker who was seriously injured would get more than a laborer who was seriously injured because the investment banker’s potential earnings were higher than the laborer’s. That may not necessarily be fair, but it is the calculation that courts use to compensate people in the tort system.

There is a reason that the G.M. compensation fund is set up to replicate the tort system, of course. Like the 9/11 fund and the BP fund before it, the General Motors fund has as one of its primary goals to keep victims from filing lawsuits. Indeed, the quid pro quo is quite explicit: After Feinberg and his staff have made an offer in an ignition-switch case, the victim has to be willing to sign a document saying he or she won’t sue to get the money. There is no cap on the total amount of money G.M. has agreed to spend on victims’ payments.

“It is designed to help claimants,” Feinberg said flatly. “It is not designed to punish G.M.”

Although the fund will pay some money for pain and suffering, punitive damages are not part of the equation. Claimants — and their lawyers — seeking “punis” will have to forego Feinberg’s offer of compensation and take their chances in court.

The fund has other features that have become associated with a Feinberg-run fund. On the one hand, it is probably overly generous to certain classes of claimants. “Contributory negligence” — that is drivers who were drinking, say, when they got into an ignition switch accident — will not be a factor in Feinberg’s calculations. People with minor scrapes that required a trip to the emergency room will get some money.

On the other hand, Feinberg isn’t just giving out cash willy-nilly. He is going to require documentation that the ignition switch was the “proximate cause” of the accident. I remember once asking Feinberg why he insisted on such rigor when he was handing out BP’s money. He told me that “if the process has no integrity, then people will begin to question the legitimacy of this alternative to the court system.”

The other thing about these funds is that they work. Some 97 percent of the families of 9/11 victims opted into that fund, according to Feinberg; the number for BP fund was 92 percent — this despite the best effort of some plaintiffs’ lawyers to undermine it.

In his book, Feinberg says that he thinks funds like the one established by BP should be rare because they set up “special rules for a select few.” He adds that “the American legal system, with its emphasis on judges, juries and lawyers all participating in adversarial give-and-take, works well in the great majority of cases.”

But I think the country would be better served if they became more frequent. Compensating people while keeping them out of the tort system is a worthy goal. For one thing, such funds can serve as a kind of public atonement for a company, as is the case with General Motors. For another, courts can be a crapshoot. Finally, these funds can pay people quickly, without years of litigation and the anxiety it brings.

“Money is a pretty poor substitute for loss,” said Feinberg toward the end of his prepared remarks on Monday morning. He noted that the millions of dollars he is about to parcel out to ignition-switch victims and their families won’t bring back loved ones, or give a permanently injured person back his or her health.

In “Who Gets What,” he also points out that other cultures have different ways of offering compensation, and it often doesn’t involve money. “It is,” he concluded, “the limit of what we can do.”

It is also the American way.

And last up this morning is Mr. Bruni:

It was fully a decade ago that Dov Charney, the founder and (at that point) chief executive of American Apparel, decided that the right way to behave in front of a female journalist doing a profile of him was to masturbate. Not once, mind you. “Eight or so times,” according to the story, in Jane magazine, which is no longer around.

A year or so later a string of sexual harassment lawsuits against him began, and in a deposition released in 2006, he defended a sexist slur as “an endearing term,” saying, “There are some of us that love sluts.” Onward he marched as the company’s C.E.O.

He survived revelations that he liked to strut around the office in his underwear, an image that “Saturday Night Live” spoofed in a 2008 skit. He survived public references to women as “chicks” with big or small breasts.

He even survived a determination by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 that American Apparel had discriminated against women “by subjecting them to sexual harassment.”

It wasn’t until two weeks ago that the company’s board of directors finally gave him the boot. To review his record is to be floored and outraged that it took so long.

But that’s different from being surprised.

Charney’s story provides a familiar example of how, at least with men, we fail to distinguish sexual peccadilloes from sexual predation, lechery from hostility, chalking up the latter as the former and seeing all of it in one big, forgiving blur of testosterone.

His ouster at American Apparel happened, interestingly, around the same time that the photographer Terry Richardson came under fresh scrutiny for accusations of sexual abuse and intimidation that go back many years and were brushed aside as his edgy legend in the fashion world flourished.

The two cases are reminders and alarms. Across a spectrum of occupations, there has often been an acceptance of the most driven and dynamic men as the messiest ones, possessing unwieldy appetites, pockets of madness, streaks of cruelty or all of the above. Boys will be boys and great men will be monsters, including to women. Too readily, we shrug.

Or we figure that a certain macho bravado is the key to their accomplishments and that certain lusts come with it — and won’t always be prudently channeled.

That was many Americans’ spoken or unspoken attitude toward Bill Clinton, whose sexual behavior persistently threatened to be, or was, disruptive. His interest in seduction, prized in the political arena, couldn’t be switched off when he retreated behind closed doors. It was part of the charismatic bargain.

Under the constant gaze of a twitchy media, politicians have at least tried to be more careful since. And following the Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood hearings in the 1990s, there are clearer formal rules about how men should and shouldn’t engage women in the workplace.

But it’s astonishing how blind they can still be. I know male journalists who covered the humiliation and downfall of politicians like Packwood and nonetheless proceeded to crack lewd jokes or make crude remarks to female colleagues. When some other guy does that, he’s a creep. When you do it, it’s fun, flirty and maybe even appreciated. The male ego is a wondrous instrument of self-delusion.

Charney’s in particular. A video of him prancing around naked that appeared on the Internet two months ago suggests just how besotted with every last inch of himself he is.

For as long as he was making oodles of money, business associates were besotted with him, too, no matter his misdeeds, which they saw — sickeningly — as part of some erotically charged mystique.

“That Jane article put him on the map,” Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association, told Laura Holson of The Times back in 2011. “What is American Apparel without sex?”

A year earlier, a profile of Charney in a Canadian newspaper noted that he had been “so colorful and infuriating that those qualities alone seem to have elevated the company’s profile.” Future masters of the universe, take note. You can masturbate your way to the top. Onanism is a career strategy.

Sure, certain professions are more tolerant of acting out. But I fear that not just in fashion, art and entertainment but in Silicon Valley and other precincts, there’s a conflation of artistry and eccentricity — and of eccentricity and abuse — that sometimes excuses inexcusable conduct.

Does the premium that we place on boldness and boundary-flouting provocateurs create a tension between our entrepreneurial and moral cultures? It needn’t and shouldn’t, not if we’re honest and vigilant about lines that are nonnegotiable.

Charney crossed them, and when American Apparel looked golden, his associates looked the other way. Only when its luster dimmed and his genius was called into question did they see him for what he’d always been.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got it?

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

June 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

See Hillary run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

June 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of figure will Obama cut at Omaha?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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