Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

October 23, 2014

In “Active Fatalism” Mr. Cohen says we We have heroism all wrong. He thinks we should consider Sisyphus happy: He has a task and it is his own.  In “How to Defeat Ebola” Mr. Kristof says to protect America from Ebola, we should ignore the hysteria and focus on stopping the outbreak at its source.  Ms. Collins, in “What Women Want,” says from personhood to motherhood, women’s issues dominate 2014 campaigns.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A core problem with the modern world is that we have heroism all wrong. It is not just the conflation of heroes with celebrities as role models, giving rise to the endless magazine lists of ways to be more like Beyoncé. The more serious issue is how, in the rush to elevate the authors of exceptional acts, we forget the ordinary man and woman doing their often menial jobs day after day. I am less interested in the firefighter-hero and the soldier-hero (not to mention the hedge-fund honchos and other quick-killing merchants thrust into the contemporary pantheon) than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic.

A few weeks back I was listening to remarks by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The minister was the target of an assassination attempt in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. He brought up Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods and even death itself was punished with his condemnation to the task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again and oblige him to renew the effort through all eternity. No task, it would appear, better captures the meaningless futility of existence. But Schäuble suggested that Sisyphus is a happy man for “he has a task and it is his own.”

The phrase was arresting because the culture of today holds repetitive actions — like working on a production line in a factory — in such contempt. Hundreds of millions may do it, and take care of their families with what they earn, but they are mere specks of dust compared to the Silicon Valley inventor of the killer app or the lean global financiers adept in making money with money. Routine equals drudgery; the worker is a demeaned figure; youths are exhorted to live their dreams rather than make a living wage. Dreams are all very well but are not known to pay the mortgage.

Schäuble was echoing the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, who in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus” noted that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” In besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 the freest people in the encircled city were those who, every day, dressed impeccably, went to work and did their jobs, thereby demonstrating “inat,” or scorn, for the barbaric gunners in the hills. It was absurd to work, just as the existence of a European city cut off and surrounded by a dirt trench was absurd, but in the everyday duty fulfilled lay liberation of sorts. Similarly, the labor of Sisyphus may be the embodiment of the absurd, which is the human condition, but he is freed by his lucid knowledge and acceptance of his task. He keeps pushing even if the pushing appears to lead nowhere. Camus’ conclusion is that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” one of the most powerful moments comes in an exchange between the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist named Raymond Rambert. Rieux has been battling the pestilence day after day, more often defeated than not. Rambert has been dreaming of, and plotting, escape from the city to be reunited with his loved one. Rieux suddenly speaks his mind:

“I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“What is decency?” Rambert asked, suddenly serious.

“In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”

The next day, Rambert calls the doctor and says he wants to work with him in the emergency teams battling the plague. Later in the novel, Rieux says, “I feel more solidarity with the defeated than with saints. I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”

These are almost forgotten ideas in an age much taken, on the one hand, with a kind of sentimental or gimmicky “heroism,” and, on the other, with the revealed truth of religion that is held to resolve the absurdity of life, subsuming the individual into some greater pattern of meaning that brings salvation. I prefer the approach to life summed up by Camus as active fatalism. The true hero is the unsung one who does his or her daily shift, puts food on the table for the children, gives them an education and a roof over their heads. I am with Rieux when he says, “Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go that far. What interests me is man’s health, his health first of all.”

I have my heroes. We all do. They are the nameless ones.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

An alarming new symptom of Ebola in America: It seems to make brains mushy and hearts hard.

In New Jersey, two students from Rwanda, which has had no Ebola cases and is 2,800 miles from the affected countries in West Africa, are being kept home. Navarro College in Texas rejected applicants from Nigeria, initially stating that it would not accept students from countries with Ebola cases — a bit problematic because that would mean no longer accepting Americans.

The former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, suggested (perhaps satirically) one way to control the disease: All people who tested positive for the Ebola virus could be “humanely put down.”

Many Republicans and some Democrats have been calling for a ban on flights from the Ebola-affected West African countries. A Reuters poll indicated that almost three-quarters of Americans favored such a ban on flights.

It’s a superficially attractive idea, but also a reflection of our mixed-up notions of how to protect ourselves. The truth is that Ebola is both less serious and far more serious than we think.

It’s less serious here because, in the end, the United States and other countries with advanced health systems can suppress Ebola outbreaks. Granted, the Dallas hospital bungled its response. Still, if Nigeria and Senegal can manage Ebola successfully, so can the United States. We won’t have an epidemic here.

Yet Ebola is more serious because there is a significant risk that it will become endemic in West Africa and spin off to other countries in the region or to India, Bangladesh or China. Ebola in India would be a catastrophe.

Oxfam rightly warns that more resources are needed to prevent Ebola from becoming the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation.” And if the virus lingers or spreads among poor countries, it will periodically travel to America. In a globalized world, Ebola anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.

There are also security risks. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist group, tried to collect Ebola samples in Congo in 1992 for bioterror weapons but failed. Today, it would be easy to collect the virus, and a few suicide operatives could deliberately contract Ebola and then travel to the United States to spread the virus. (However, if the aim is mass murder, it would be simpler and probably more effective just to set off bombs.)

In any case, the point is that global health is not just a warm and fuzzy kind of aid. It’s also self-interest. It’s also national security. The best way to protect ourselves is to eradicate Ebola at its source.

A flight ban would hamper that effort by making it more difficult to get health workers and supplies to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Dr. Peter Piot, who helped identify Ebola in 1976, tells me that flight bans would be counterproductive because they would “make aid really more difficult and expensive.”

Likewise, Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, tells me bluntly: “A ban would be worse than ineffective, and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours — and worsen the epidemic.”

Even airport screenings may be a feel-good distraction. An editorial in BMJ, a medical journal, noted that Canada used questionnaires and thermal scanners to screen hundreds of thousands of people for SARS, spent $15 million, and didn’t find a single case. The editorial suggests that airport screening “will have no meaningful effect” and that resources would be better used fighting Ebola in West Africa.

For all the fuss about our own borders, not nearly enough is being done where it counts most: in West Africa. Bravo to President Obama for pledging up to 4,000 troops to fight the disease there, but the United States and other countries must do far more — and quickly! — if Ebola is to be defeated.

The number of Ebola cases is still doubling every two to four weeks, and these countries can’t defeat the outbreak on their own. Liberia is said to have only 50 practicing doctors, according to Reuters, and there appear to be more Liberian doctors practicing in the United States than in Liberia. That brain drain means that Liberia, in effect, is providing medical foreign aid to the United States.

These are lovely countries with friendly people and some heroic health workers, but roads, electricity and other infrastructure are desperately weak. All of Liberia can produce less than one-third as much electricity as the Dallas Cowboys football stadium consumes at peak times.

That’s why the American military’s help in West Africa is crucial, and why it’s a disgrace that less than half of a Sept. 16 United Nations target for Ebola response funds has been raised.

Our values and interests coincide here. So let’s calm down and get to work protecting America from Ebola by stopping this disaster at its source.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Women are big this election season. No group is more courted. It’s great! The issues are important. Plus, we all enjoy the occasional pander.

Candidates are re-interpreting their old arguments in a new, woman-centric way. In Michigan, the Democratic Senate candidate defines his opponent’s opposition to Obamacare as a plan to “cut women’s access to … mammograms.” In Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell has female surrogates claiming that his opponent, Alison Grimes, is trying to convince women that they “can’t graduate from college without raising your taxes.” This appears to be an oblique reference to Grimes’s call for reduced rates on student loans.

The College Republican National Committee has been investing heavily in online ads aimed at fans of the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress,” in which the dresses are named after gubernatorial candidates. If you are in, say, Florida, you’ll see a happy young woman trying on wedding gowns, twirling around and announcing that “The Rick Scott is perfect,” while her irritating mother demands that she take the Charlie Crist dress, even though it’s unflattering and costs more money. As a writer in Jezebel noted, it seems to have been made by people who felt the best way to communicate with female voters is “to explain things in terms of bridal wear.”

In Colorado, some commentators have given Democrat Mark Udall the nickname “Mark Uterus” because Udall has run so hard on women’s reproductive rights. It is definitely true that Udall has devoted a prodigious amount of ad-time to the fact that his opponent, Representative Cory Gardner, is a longtime supporter of the personhood movement, which declares all fertilized eggs are human beings. Voters find this idea so unnerving that a personhood amendment to the Constitution was soundly defeated in Mississippi. As well as Colorado, twice. Where it is on the ballot in November, yet again.

Gardner said he had changed his mind about the state constitutional amendment after it was overwhelmingly rejected in 2010 and he suddenly realized that it would have an effect on contraceptives. He is still a co-sponsor of a federal personhood bill, which he claims is merely “a statement that I support life.” Personally, I can see why Udall might feel that this matter deserves more inquiry.

To rise to the level of hard-core pandering, a candidate has to float free of issues and waft into the ether of personal feelings. Consider Michigan, where Terri Lynn Land, the Republican candidate for Senate, has been running as a person who’s been victimized for being a mother.

The issue here is that Land has developed a tendency to deflect questions by mentioning that she’s a parent. Local columnists have begun to make jokes about it, and there were suggestions that the mom-mentions might make a good drinking game. A spokesperson for Land’s opponent, Gary Peters, said that being a mom was a good thing, but a strange point to bring up when the issue at hand was, say, ISIS.

“Well, I’m a mom, and I tell you, moms look at things from their perspective,” said Land in a comment that her staff mass-mailed under the headline “ ‘Well, I’m a Mom,’ Terri Lynn Land Fires Back.” Soon, prominent female Republicans were dropping hints that Michelle Obama might want to intervene on behalf of motherhood.

What do you think? How much mom-mentioning is too much? Here in New York, we have a candidate for Congress who’s running under the slogan “Doctor. Mother. Neighbor.” Does that sound a little … vague?

One thing we know: male candidates who get in trouble over issues of sexism are not allowed to get out of it by marshaling all the women in their family to pose for a campaign ad. Really, that’s just one step short of dragging your wife into the press conference where you announce you’re resigning due to those sexting charges.

We are thinking here about Representative Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican who sent out invitations to a male-only campaign event that suggested his guests “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.”

Southerland is running against Democrat Gwen Graham, and doing such a swell job of it that in a year that House Republicans are expecting a big sweep, he’s in trouble. Possibly more endangered than the guy in Staten Island who was indicted for perjury and tax fraud shortly after threatening to throw a TV reporter over a Capitol balcony.

When The Tampa Bay Times asked him about the male-only event, Southerland laughed and said: “I live with five women. That’s all I’m saying. I live with five women. Listen: Has Gwen Graham ever been to a lingerie shower? Ask her. And how many men were there?”

Now he’s up with a new ad in which he stands surrounded by his sister, mother, daughters and his wife, who announces: “Steve’s heart is in the right place.”

But his brain (which I wonder if he has) is right up his ass.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Gunga Din:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Is Amazon a monopoly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen and Nocera

October 11, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “God Bless America” Mr. Cohen says a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, alliances still count.  Mr. Nocera, in “Putin Shows His Hand,” says the Western sanctions imposed on Russia may be generating some unintended consequences.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Berlin:

I went for a walk in Berlin. Fall leaves yellowing in allotments with their little wooden birdhouses. Streets with more space than people, belying that facile epithet, “capital of Europe.” I had just left a friend in Grunewald who told me his house was built in 1930 by a Jewish family who fled to Brazil in 1936. Once he showed the granddaughter of the first owner around, and then did the same for descendants of the British officer who lived in the requisitioned house after 1945. Life, as archaeologists know, recounts its story in layers, and nowhere more so than in this city. A German woman told me of stripping away the wallpaper in her new apartment and finding exultant newspaper headlines celebrating the Führer’s birthday in 1937. A better epithet might be “Berlin, capital of memory.”

How then to remember the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — the end of Germany’s division, and Europe’s, and the world’s. A quarter-century has gone by. The bloody 20th century has receded into the mist. The wall’s fall was not the end of history but the dawn of a different history. It did not usher in an era where enlightened self-interest would govern the conduct of affairs between nations united in liberal democracy. Forms of nationalism, far from dying, revived. Fanaticism found fertile ground in desert sand. Russia arose growling. Yet of course this was, in the words of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, the “most lucky moment in our history,” a near unimaginable re-encounter of Germany with itself. For millions of Central and Eastern Europeans it was also when liberation came from the Soviet clamp.

Germany now hums along like this city’s trams. Unification took a generation, was arduous, but happened. In an age of minute-to-minute political adjustment, this country is a reminder that it helps to set long-term objectives and stick to them. Federalism aided the process. So did the Constitution’s promise of roughly equable “Lebensverhältnisse,” or living conditions, for all Germans. The rich have gotten richer here, as everywhere, but with less obscenity. Social democracy is not an empty idea in a nation whose experience of depravity has taught an indelible lesson of the dangers of social fracture.

Outside Germany, the European story is unhappier. A quarter-century on, the questions posed by German unification and a Europe made whole have not been answered. Greece is broke, France sullen, the European Union stalled. Germany dominates Europe, a role it does not relish, even if it is not immune to the occasional frisson. With that dominance old intellectual temptations have revived: the notion of being a determining power equidistant from Russia and the United States. German adherence to the union and NATO is still sacrosanct. But Russia’s little war in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea have revealed Vladimir Putin’s sympathizers to the left and the right, buoyed by fashionable anti-American sentiment. As Ukrainians have, in the words of Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister, “died to be part of Europe,” Europe has appeared unworthy of the sacrifice, in thrall to Russian energy. What most Ukrainians want now is no different from what East Germans and Poles wanted in 1989.

Memories coming and going in no particular direction, like fall leaves skittering along the Hohenzollerndamm. I came in 1998 to a Berlin not yet reborn as the German capital, divided still in mind-set. The next year, on the 10th anniversary, I spoke to Harald Jaeger, the border guard who opened the gate and so ended Europe’s division on Nov. 9, 1989. I asked him how he felt: “Sweat was pouring down my neck and my legs were trembling. I knew what I had done. I knew immediately. That’s it, I thought, East Germany is finished.”

It would not have been finished without the resolve of America and its allies. Unflinching American support for German unification, and the diplomatic brilliance of James Baker, then the secretary of state, turned a breach in the wall into a new order that freed half of Europe and was accepted by Moscow. Such forceful, clearheaded diplomacy is much needed today from Ukraine to Iraq. A new generation is learning that to float along and hope for the best is not enough. Hope is not a policy. The world is dangerous. Alliances count, both their commitments and their red lines.

In a tribute to Baker, who received this year’s Kissinger Prize at the American Academy in Berlin, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister in 1989, told how as crowds surged through the wall, he placed a call from the ministry in Bonn to Baker. The telephone operator reached the secretary of state. Before Genscher could say anything, she blurted out, “Mr. Secretary, God bless America!”

Only the most insouciant Berliner could ever forget those words.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

A few days ago, The Financial Times published an interview with a Russian businessman named Sergei Pugachev. Once an ally of President Vladimir Putin, Pugachev owned shipbuilding and construction interests, as well as a bank. Indeed, he was once known as “the Kremlin’s banker.” But his bank collapsed a few years ago, and, in 2012, the government seized his two shipyards. Jointly valued at $3.5 billion by the accounting firm of BDO, they were sold to a competitor, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, for $422.5 million, according to the paper.

The chairman of United Shipbuilding at the time was Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest associates and the head of Rosneft, the state oil company. Russian businessmen, Pugachev complained to The Financial Times, had become nothing more than “serfs” in Russia. “Today in Russia, there is no private property,” he added. “There are only serfs who belong to Putin.”

And so it goes in Putin’s Russia.

I had been making inquiries, hoping to find out whether the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe in the wake of Russia’s takeover of Crimea were working. The answer, I believe, is yes, but not necessarily in the way you’d think.

The first point to make is that the Russian economy has been in a downturn ever since Putin returned to power in May 2012. In recent months, that slide accelerated. Economic growth has flat-lined. The ruble is in free fall. Inflation is rising. More than $100 billion of capital is expected to flee the country this year. Most ominous of all, the price of oil — Russia’s primary asset, upon which the government depends to finance itself — has been dropping.

Although the mounting problems have been coincident with the sanctions, it is impossible to say for sure whether there is a direct correlation. (One thing that is making a difference, I should note, is the boom in American oil and gas, which has produced a glut of fossil fuel and has helped depress prices.) The direct effect will more likely be felt in the near future, when, for instance, Russian companies have to refinance their debt despite being locked out of Western capital markets.

What the sanctions have done, though, is bring out the worst tendencies of Putin and his close associates, putting them on display for all to see. The rule of law has long been a fiction in Russia, but, for years, Western businessmen — and Russian businessmen as well — made excuses. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who spent 10 years in a Soviet penal colony, had foolishly decided to take Putin on politically, they would say.

But since the sanctions have been put in place, McDonald’s restaurants, which had never had any problems before in Russia, are suddenly being closely inspected and a handful shut down. Other Western companies are having similar troubles.

Or take the case of Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a Russian billionaire who ran Sistema, a big conglomerate. One of Sistema’s assets was Bashneft, Russia’s sixth-largest oil company by output. Last month, Yevtushenkov was placed under house arrest, accused of money laundering. After a court hearing, his shares in Bashneft were seized by the government.

Yevtushenkov was not politically active like Khodorkovsky. He was no threat to Putin. But it is widely believed that Bashneft’s assets will eventually find their way to Sechin and become part of Rosneft. Rosneft had asked the government for a $40 billion bailout to help it withstand Western sanctions; handing it cheap assets is certainly one way to help.

“Rule No. 1 for Putin is that his people will be protected, and he is signaling that,” said Karen Dawisha, a Russia expert at Miami University of Ohio and the author of a new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy.” “They have started to dip into the pension funds. There are double-digit cuts in the health budget. His people will always be served before the people.”

In imposing the sanctions, the Obama administration and its counterparts in Europe have targeted precisely the men and the companies that are closest to Putin. By reacting the way he has, Putin is scaring away not just foreign investors but Russian businessmen as well. Not that he seems to care.

Just a few days ago, the Russian Parliament began the process of passing a law that would allow the government to seize assets owned by foreign companies — and use them to reimburse oligarchs and others who have been financially hurt by the sanctions. They are calling it the “Rotenberg villa law,” named for Arkady Rotenberg, an oligarch who had four luxury villas in Italy frozen because of the sanctions. This is such a foolishly counterproductive measure that even some inside the government protested it. Nonetheless, it will almost surely pass.

Thus, in the face of sanctions, does Russia cut off its nose to spite its face.

Cohen and Nocera

October 7, 2014

Bobo is off today, so God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world.  In “The Community of Expulsion” Mr. Cohen says slaughter in the Middle East cannot be an alibi for Israel to avoid self-scrutiny.  Mr. Nocera, in ” ‘Moment of Truth’ on Emissions,” says President Obama’s self-imposed deadline for dealing with fracking’s Achilles’ heel is here.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Attending services at a Reform synagogue during the High Holy Days in London I heard sermons of great worthiness from British rabbis. One was about Alzheimer’s and dementia among the elderly and the need to honor the “fragment of the divine in everyone.” Another was about changes to the prayer book, including the dropping of the term “Lord,” with its male overtones.

I listened with interest but without feeling challenged. The one subject not addressed was the one most on the minds of congregants: Israel and its recent war in Gaza, with the deaths of more than 70 Israelis and more than 2,100 Palestinians, including about 500 children. Surely I was not alone in hearing words like “fragment” and finding my mind turn to the moral dilemmas of the modern Israeli condition with its power and precariousness, its prosperity and violence, its uncertainty and contaminating dominion. The divine was in those dead Palestinian children, too. They just happened to have lived their brief lives in the hell of encircled Gaza with its tunnels and terrorists and Hamas operatives bent on the destruction of Israel.

Every human instinct recoils from the killing of children. It recoils even as Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets is clear; and the excruciating difficulty of waging war against an enemy deployed among civilians is acknowledged; and the readiness of Israel’s foes to kill any Jew is confronted. However framed, the death of a single child to an Israeli bullet seems to betoken some failure in the longed-for Jewish state, to say nothing of several hundred. The slaughter elsewhere in the Middle East cannot be an alibi for Jews to avoid this self-scrutiny.

Throughout the Diaspora, the millennia of being strangers in strange lands, Jews’ restless search in the scriptures for the ethics contained in sacred words formed a transmission belt of Judaism. For as long as the shared humanity of the other is perceived and felt, such questioning is unavoidable. The terrible thing about the Holy Land today is the denial of this humanity to the stranger. When that goes, so does essential self-interrogation. As mingling has died, separation has bred denial and contempt.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the anodyne sermons in London. I had read my colleague Laurie Goodstein’s recent account of the incendiary sensitivity of Israel as subject matter, of the reticence of rabbis, of some feeling “muzzled,” and of the difficulties faced by one New York rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, when she read the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children, alike, killed in Gaza. She was accused of spreading Hamas propaganda. No, she was trying, in a small brave way, to keep hearts and minds open.

That is the only way out of the impasse; neither people is going away. It is 67 years since the United Nations called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish, one Arab, in Mandate Palestine; 47 years since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began; 42 days since the Gaza war ended. Palestinians have made a profession of failure. But to deny Israel’s share is to opt for delusion.

Of course, sermons are only part of the story. The High Holy Days are days to look inward, to be still. I found my eyes straying to a passage from Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday” reprinted in the prayer book. It read:

“Only now, since they were swept up like dirt in the streets and heaped together, the bankers from their Berlin palaces and sextons from the synagogues of Orthodox congregations, the philosophy professors from Paris, and Romanian cabbies, the undertaker’s helpers and Nobel prize winners, the concert singers, and hired mourners, the authors and distillers, the haves and the have-nots, the great and the small, the devout and the liberals, the usurers and the sages, the Zionists and the assimilated, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the just and the unjust besides which the confused horde who thought that they had long since eluded the curse, the baptized and the semi-Jews — only now, for the first time in hundreds of years, the Jews were forced into a community of interest to which they had long ceased to be sensitive, the ever-recurring — since Egypt — community of expulsion. But why this fate for them and always for them alone? What was the reason, the sense, the aim of this senseless persecution? They were driven out of lands but without a land to go to.”

Two phrases leapt out: “community of expulsion,” and “driven out of lands but without a land to go to.” The second embodied the necessity of the Jewish state of Israel. But it was inconceivable, at least to me, without awareness of the first. Palestinians have joined the ever-recurring “community of expulsion.” The words of Leviticus are worth repeating for any Jew in or concerned by Israel today: Treat the stranger as yourself, for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

In March, the Obama administration issued a white paper as part of its Climate Action Plan entitled “Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.” A big part of the strategy was built around cutting down on the methane emissions that result from oil and gas production, particularly the hydraulic fracturing method of extracting natural gas from the ground — a.k.a., fracking. In the white paper, the administration said that the Environmental Protection Agency would decide by the fall how best to go about it.

Fall is now here. More to the point, the word is that the E.P.A. and the White House are in the process of deciding what tack to take in reducing methane emissions (though any announcement will probably have to wait until after the November elections). If the administration takes the right course, methane emissions could likely be reduced by 40 percent or 50 percent over the next five years — enough to make natural gas a genuinely cleaner alternative to coal and a critical component in reducing greenhouse gasses. But if it doesn’t — if the government decides to back away from regulation, or allow industry to reduce emissions voluntarily — then the promise of natural gas as a cleaner fuel could well go unrealized.

“It’s the moment of truth,” says Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund and a strong proponent of regulating emissions.

Methane emissions, as I’ve written before, are fracking’s Achilles’ heel. Methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas, and, when it is burned, it is considerably less dirty than coal. The problem is that methane too often leaks at various points in the production and distribution process. And when methane gets into the atmosphere, it is 84 to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span. (After two decades, its potency is greatly reduced.) Not surprisingly, anti-fracking environmentalists have put methane leakage near the top of the list of their reasons that fracking should be banned altogether.

That, to be blunt, is never going to happen. The natural gas boom that has resulted from fracking has become hugely important to the American economy, providing jobs and a plentiful supply of a low-cost fuel. President Obama himself is on record as being pro-natural gas.

It also turns out that lowering methane emissions does not require enormously expensive new technology. It can be done with technology that already exists and at fairly minimal cost. I’ve seen estimates that it would add a penny to the current price of natural gas. What’s more, a 50 percent reduction in methane emissions is the equivalent to closing 90 coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

In February, Colorado became the first state in the nation to impose regulations on the natural gas industry aimed at reducing methane emissions. The regulations included using valves that don’t allow methane to leak, regular checks and repairs of leaks and a variety of other rules. Four of the largest natural gas developers in the state supported the regulations — in part because they saw the public relations value in it, but also because the regulations Colorado imposed made sense. “What we were looking for were rules that wouldn’t just add paperwork or documentation but would make a quantifiable difference,” said Doug Hock, a spokesman for the Encana Corporation, one of the companies that supported the regulations. He noted that the company was already using, in Wyoming, a special infrared camera that detects methane leaks — which is now required by Colorado — and “we could see the benefit of the rules.” He added, “It really puts a very disciplined process around regular maintenance.”

The problem, however, is that while fracking is currently regulated by the states, not every state is rushing to follow Colorado’s lead. What’s more, there are an enormous number of companies in the fracking business — literally thousands. Fracking practically screams out for federal regulation.

Which brings me back to the White House. President Obama has said that he wants to put in place policies that will lower greenhouse gasses by 17 percent by the year 2020. To that end, in 2012, he set fuel mileage standards that will increase fuel economy to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. More recently, the E.P.A. announced rules that would reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent by the year 2030. The environmentalists I spoke with say that these moves, while significant, won’t get the president — or the nation — to that 17 percent goal. But adding methane emission regulation could well get us over the goal line.

Is industry pushing back? Of course. But oil and gas companies should be welcoming sensible regulation. There is so much mistrust of fracking in the country that rules that made the process demonstrably safer could well have the effect of ameliorating some of that mistrust.

Smart regulation to reduce methane emissions could help industry — and help the planet as well.

Cohen and Nocera

September 30, 2014

Mr. Cohen loves him some war.  In “Here There is No Why” he shrieks that the Islamic State represents the counterhuman and that the human has no alternative but to fight back.  In the comments “Mark Thomasen” from Clawson, WI has this to say:  “This begins by comparing the deaths of three men to the Holocaust, with several excerpts from an account of a death camp. It ends with Hitler. Along the way it says both this enemy like Hitler is ‘non-human,’ and ‘really counter-human.’ … This is purest propaganda for war.”  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “The Hole in Holder’s Legacy” and says the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. failed to prosecute cases related to the financial crisis.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In a famous passage from “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi relates an incident upon arrival in the Nazi death camp that captures the intersection of the human with the inhuman. He and other Italian prisoners have been held in a shed as they await their fate. Levi looks around in search of some means to quench his thirst:

“I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”

There is no why here. The phrase has been reverberating in me since I watched a henchman of the organization that calls itself Islamic State behead two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a British aid worker, David Haines. The men had been broken by their imprisonment. They had been hollowed out, a terrible thing to behold. How many times they must have asked themselves the why of their captivity, humiliation and torture right up to the moment when a small knife was applied, with a sawing motion, to their throats. Each of the three men died alone, unlike the Yazidis murdered in droves, the Shiite soldiers massacred, the women and children slaughtered during the advance of black-clad ISIS forces across northern Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has created a cult of violence that makes the elimination of all nonbelievers the cornerstone of a movement whose avowed objective is a restored Islamic caliphate but whose raison d’être is the slaughter itself.

It is human to seek for reasons. Perhaps the rise of ISIS may be seen as the culmination of decades of Arab resentment at perceived Western domination, drawing support from the same anger as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda before it; or as an expression of the abject failure of Arab societies; or as an armed Sunni response to the Shia-bolstering American invasion of Iraq; or as brutal payback for Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo (where, it must be said, there was scant “why” for prisoners detained for years and guilty of no crime); or as a well-funded offshoot of Saudi Wahhabism interpreted in its most literal form; or as a heady alternative for disaffected young Muslims to the moral void of Western civilization; or as evidence of the crisis of Islam and the inevitable Thirty Years War of its Sunni and Shia branches; or simply as a call to arms to drive out the United States the way the infidel Crusaders were ousted from the Levant.

Yet, in the end, there is no why to the barbarism of ISIS. There is no why in Raqqa. Evil may adduce reasons; they fall short. The Nazi death machine was unique. Facile invocation of it is too frequent, belittling the phenomenon and its victims. But I was given pause by Martin Amis’ afterword to his powerful new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” where he probes the “why” of Hitler and quotes both the icicle passage and another from Levi:

“Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.” Levi, referring to Hitler, Himmler and the rest, goes on: “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.”

Presented with the counter-human, the human must fight back. In the joint “Statement on Atrocities” of October 1943, issued by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, there was no mention of the Jews, although millions had been gassed or shot by then. A defense mechanism to the incomprehensible is to pretend it does not exist. “Leave it to the Arabs, it’s their mess, they can clean it up,” is an inadequate (if understandable) response to ISIS. It would have been the wrong one. President Obama’s coalition in the war to eradicate ISIS may be flimsy but passivity was not an option.

Hitler, of course, destroyed Germany. His fury was directed outward but its ultimate impact was inward. Al-Baghdadi with his 1,000-year caliphate targets the West, but it is a rotten Arab order that is at risk and must find a response to ISIS and the frustrations of its citizens. This is an Arab Zero Hour. One other thing: In this fight, I would say, all means are good. The Soviet Union, an ideological rival, was a key ally of the United States in defeating Nazism. It is obvious which nation today can play that role against ISIS. Its name is Iran.

“All means are good.”  So he’s telling us that the end justifies the means…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

A few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. gave a speech at the New York University School of Law on the subject of white-collar prosecutions. In it, he offered a full-throated defense of his department’s efforts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. With his resignation announcement coming eight days later, one can’t help but view his speech as a kind of valedictory.

The Justice Department, he said, had stood vigilant against financial fraud “wherever it is uncovered” — and prosecuted “criminal conduct to the fullest extent of the law.” He took credit for negotiating huge fines against financial firms, and for forcing several big banks — Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas — to accept guilty pleas.

As for the prosecution of individuals involved in the financial crisis, he claimed that the Justice Department had “taken aggressive action, nearly doubling the number of mortgage fraud indictments and criminal convictions between 2009 and 2010, then increasing them even further the following year.”

Actually, Holder’s Justice Department has been notoriously laggard in prosecuting crimes that stemmed from the financial crisis, and much of what it has done amounts to an exercise in public relations.

Take, for instance, those guilty pleas extracted from Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas. Last March, Holder said that he feared that prosecuting large financial institutions could hurt the economy. This became known as his “too big to jail” remark — which he quickly disavowed. No wonder he was eager to have some firms plead guilty! Yet, as Peter Henning notes in a New York Times DealBook article, the Justice Department made sure those guilty pleas didn’t inflict too much pain. In the case of BNP Paribas, prosecutors secured agreements from state banking regulators that they wouldn’t pull the bank’s license to do business.

Or take the claim that the Justice Department has been rigorously rooting out mortgage fraud. In fact, after a grand announcement that the department was putting together a mortgage fraud task force, U.S. attorneys around the country began aiming their fire at easy prey: small-time mortgage brokers, or homeowners who had lied on “liar loans.” None of the top executives from any of the major firms were indicted. Indeed, according to an article in The New York Times Magazine in May, only one executive of any kind — a mid-level executive with Credit Suisse — has gone to prison as a result of his actions during the financial crisis. The notion that he’s the only one who committed a crime in the mortgage-crazed run-up to the financial crisis is, quite simply, implausible.

As for those big fines against Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, not only did they come very late, but their terms were such that it was impossible to know for sure the extent of their wrongdoing. And, of course, despite fines that went into the billions, no actual human was prosecuted for any wrongdoing.

So the question worth asking, as Holder plans to step down, is not what his department did but why it did so little. Why was it so reluctant to pursue the financial crimes connected to the 2008 crisis? One answer is that these are hard cases to prosecute — harder than negotiating a financial settlement with a big bank. Early on, the Justice Department tried two Bear Stearns portfolio managers whose hedge fund — stuffed with mortgage-backed securities — collapsed. The two men were found innocent. That verdict seems to have sent a chill through prosecutors, making them reluctant to go after others.

Jesse Eisinger, the author of that Times Magazine article, wrote that, over the years, the Justice Department saw “an erosion of the department’s actual trial skills,” as well as a drop in resources. In the Southern District of New York, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara focused — with great success — on insider-trading cases, where he had wiretaps that made prosecutions relatively easy, instead of difficult-to-try financial crisis cases.

Adam Levitin, a professor at Georgetown Law School, had his own list of reasons, which he emailed me. They included fear that the Obama administration would be accused of an anti-business witch hunt if it went after Wall Street; “deep personal, cultural, financial and political ties” between the administration and Wall Street; and a lack of understanding of the products and markets involved. “What it all boils down to,” Levitin concluded, “is that we didn’t have prosecutions because no one ever really wanted to prosecute.”

Holder’s legacy is a mixed bag. As The Times’s Matt Apuzzo wrote last week, he “succeeded in reducing lengthy prison sentences, opened civil rights investigations against police departments in record numbers and challenged identification requirements for voters.” On the negative side, he subpoenaed journalists and went after their sources.

No matter how he tries to spin it, Holder’s inability — or unwillingness — to prosecute financial crimes is on the negative side of the ledger.

Of course he wasn’t going to prosecute the banksters.  And he’s heading right back to the same white shoe law firm he came from.  A firm that represents those very banksters, as well as good citizens like the NFL…

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 23, 2014

Bobo is annoyed.  Bobo is pissed.  In “Snap Out of It” he barks that it’s been a bad summer, but it’s important to keep things in perspective.  In the comments “Michael” from LA had this to say:  “Mr. Brooks, please send a copy of your recommendations to your fellow Republicans in government and in the media. Then, for your own good, stand aside so you won’t be singed by the blowback.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Truths of a French Village,” says talks with a real estate agent illustrate why globalization does not alter the reality of cultural differences.  Mr. Nocera looks “Behind the Chevron Case” and says this lawyer may have movie-star good looks, but he has a lot to answer for, too.  Ah — attack the attorney who went after Chevron, but say nothing about what Chevron was responsible for.  Typical.  Here’s Bobo:

I’ve been living in and visiting New York for almost a half-century now. One thought occurs as I walk around these days: The city has never been better.

There has never been a time when there were so many interesting places to visit, shop and eat, when the rivers and the parks were so beautiful, when there were so many vibrant neighborhoods across all boroughs, with immigrants and hipsters and new businesses and experimental schools. I suppose New York isn’t as artistically or intellectually rich as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, but daily life is immeasurably better.

And when I think about the 15 or 20 largest American cities, the same thought applies. Compared with all past periods, American cities and suburbs are sweeter and more interesting places. Of course there are the problems of inequality and poverty that we all know about, but there hasn’t been a time in American history when so many global cultures percolated in the mainstream, when there was so much tolerance for diverse ethnicities, lifestyles and the complex directions of the heart, when there was so little tolerance for disorder, domestic violence and prejudice.

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

I mention all of this because of the despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling that floated around this summer. Now there is a mood of pessimism and fatalism evident in the polls and in conversations — a lack of faith in ourselves.

It’s important in times like these to step back and get clarity. The truest thing to say is this: We are living in an amazingly fortunate time. But we also happen to be living during a leadership crisis, and a time when few people have faith in elites to govern from the top. We live in a vibrant society that is not being led.

We don’t suffer from an abuse of power as much as a nonuse of power. It’s been years since a major piece of legislation was passed, and there’s little prospect that one will get passed in the next two.

This leadership crisis is eminently solvable. First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people. America was governed best when it was governed by a porous, self-conscious and responsible elite — during the American revolution, for example, or during and after World War II. Karl Marx and Ted Cruz may believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses, but this has almost never happened historically.

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness. No luxury cars for college-age kids. No private jet/ski weekends. Live a lifestyle that is more integrated into middle-class America than the one you can actually afford. Strike a blow for social cohesion.

Powerful people might follow a code of public spiritedness. That means restraining your partisan passions and parochial interests for the sake of domestic tranquility. Re-establish the lines between public service and private enrichment.

Third, discredit political bigotry. In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if their children married someone of the opposite party. By 2010, Cass Sunstein observes, those numbers had jumped to 49 percent and 33 percent. How small-minded can you get?

Fourth, put congressional reform atop the national agenda. More states could have open primaries. Nonpartisan commissions could draw district lines. Presidential nominees should get an up-or-down vote within 90 days. Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee suggests that if Congress doesn’t pass a budget or annual spending bills on time, then members don’t get paid.

Politics is generally the same old tasks. Rejuvenating ailing institutions. Fighting barbarians to preserve world order. Today is nothing new. Instead of sliding into fatalism, it might be a good idea to address our problems without exaggerating our plight.

We can address our problems by getting rid of all the Republicans in Congress for starters.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A few weeks ago I was in France, where I’ve owned a village house for almost 20 years that I am now planning to sell. A real estate agent had taken a look at the property and we had made an appointment to discuss how to proceed. She swept into the kitchen, a bundle of energy and conviction, with an impassioned appeal:

“Monsieur Cohen, whatever you do, you must on no account sell this house!”

I gazed at her, a little incredulous.

“You cannot sell it. This is a family home. You know it the moment you step in. You sense it in the walls. You breathe it in every room. You feel it in your bones. This is a house you must keep for your children. I will help you sell it if you insist, but my advice is not to sell. You would be making a mistake.”

This was, shall we say, a cultural moment, one of those times when a door opens and you gaze, if not into the soul of a country, at least into territory that is distinct and deep and almost certainly has greater meaning than the headlines and statistics that are supposed to capture the state of a nation, in this case one called France, whose malaise has become an object of fascination. I tried to imagine an American or British real estate agent, presented with a potentially lucrative opportunity, deciding to begin the pitch with a heartfelt call not to sell the property because it was the repository of something important or irreplaceable. I came up blank. I could not picture it. There were no circumstances in which self-interest, or at least professional obligation, would not prevail. Price would be pre-eminent, along with market conditions and terms. Yet in this French village, across a wooden kitchen table set on a stone floor, the setting of economic interest below emotional intuition seemed a natural outcrop of soil and place.

I thought of this exchange the other day as Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a modernizing socialist, faced a confidence vote in the National Assembly over yet another plan to cut public spending, make the job market more flexible, and break the French logjam of high unemployment, a bloated state sector and handouts that can have the perverse effect of making work in the official economy an unattractive proposition. “What matters today is effectiveness and not ideology,” Valls said.

He prevailed even though 32 members of his own party abstained in protest at a perceived attack on socialist principles. More than any other party of the center-left in Europe, the French socialists have had trouble jettisoning ideological baggage ill-adapted to 21st-century global competition. More than any other Western country, France has resisted modernity, at least in the way it thinks of itself. So my feeling listening to Valls talk about “effectiveness” could be summed up in two words: Good luck!

The prime minister is up against something deeper than the resistance of labor unions or his own party: a culture that views the prizing of efficiency as almost vulgar. Effectiveness had no place in my chat with the real estate agent. Effectiveness does not seem to enter into it as I contemplate French butchers bard a chicken or prepare a cut of beef with deft incisions. Effectiveness is not the rule in French shopping habits. It lies at a far remove from the long conversations between shopkeepers and clients. Efficiency for the French is a poor measure of the good life, just as making a buck from the sale of a house pales before the expression of feeling about what a house may represent. Whether this is good or bad hardly matters. It is often bad for the French economy. It is also a fact of life.

These distinctive cultural components of nations are probably underestimated as globalization and homogenization create the impression that the same standards or systems can be pursued everywhere. I used to be impatient with such thinking. The Russians need a czar! The Egyptians need a pharaoh! The French need to strike! No, I would think, the Russians and the Egyptians and the French are like everyone else, they want to be free, they want governance with the consent of the governed, they do not want their lives subjected to arbitrary rules, or to live less well than they could without czars and pharaohs and strikes. Now I feel I was wrong about that. Globalization equals adaptation to insurmountable differences as much as it equals change. Some things do not change, being the work of centuries.

A couple of days after my meeting I was having a beer with my sons in a French cafe. The bill was 14 euros. The waitress was going to take a credit card, then saw I had a €10 note. “Just give me that,” she said. “Don’t worry about the rest.”

It must be nice to live in London and have a home in France too…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“I am the target of what is probably the most well-funded corporate retaliation campaign in U.S. history,” Steven Donziger emailed me early Monday afternoon.

Donziger, 53, is the sort of attorney they make movies about. Tall, handsome, and charismatic, he has spent the bulk of his legal career on one case: trying to get Chevron to clean up an environmental mess that he says its predecessor left behind in the Ecuadorian rain forest. His clients are poor Ecuadorians who have allegedly been living with the land’s degradation ever since Texaco pulled out of the country in the early 1990s. (Chevron bought Texaco — and acquired its legal liabilities — in 2001). He has worked tirelessly on the case for more than two decades, finally gaining a $19 billion judgment against the company in an Ecuadorian court in 2011. Though a higher court later cut the damages in half, it would still seem to be a fantastic victory by David over Goliath.

But there is another, darker narrative about Donziger, told most recently by Paul Barrett, a Bloomberg Businessweek writer whose book about the Chevron-Ecuador case, “Law of the Jungle,” is being published this week. According to Barrett, Donziger may have begun his quest with the best of intentions, but somewhere along the way, he lost his bearings. To get the judgment he wanted from the Ecuadorian courts, Donziger allegedly committed multiple acts of fraud, including having members of his team ghostwrite a crucial report for the court that was supposed to be authored by an independent expert. Donziger has responded by accusing Barrett of working hand-in-glove with Chevron, in effect being part of the “retaliation campaign.”

I know Donziger slightly. I’ve always liked him. But I have to say that I find Barrett’s account far more persuasive than Donziger’s. Without question, Chevron has gone after him. But Donziger is the one who supplied the ammunition.

One reason Barrett’s account is credible is that he began his reporting with a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story in 2011 that was decidedly pro-Donziger. But once he got the book contract and began digging deeper into the case, he started to have his doubts about Donziger and the plaintiffs’ team. How could the plaintiffs know for sure that Chevron was at fault when the Ecuadorian government’s oil company had continued to extract oil from the rain forest for years after Texaco left? Where was the epidemiology that connected the oil waste to disease? What about the ghostwritten expert’s report? And the ex parte communications with judges? And even an alleged attempt to bribe the judge to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor?

Barrett isn’t the only one to come to view Donziger as a rogue lawyer willing to do virtually anything to win. So has Roger Parloff, Fortune magazine’s legal writer, who has covered the case for years. And so has the highly respected human right lawyer — and Notre Dame law professor — Doug Cassel.

With every critic, Donziger and his allies have replied the same way: The critics have been corrupted by the evil Chevron. But there is one critic who is not so easy to brush aside: the federal judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York. Chevron brought a civil RICO case against Donziger, claiming that his actions had so tainted any Ecuadorian verdict that it should be unenforceable in the United States. (Because Chevron has no assets in Ecuador, the judgment would have to be enforced in countries like the U.S. where it did have assets.)

After a six-week trial, Kaplan essentially agreed, writing an astonishing 485-page decision in which he concluded that Donziger and his team had “corrupted” the trial. (Donziger described Kaplan’s decision as “deeply flawed.”) Donziger had once thought his case against Chevron would show public interest lawyers how to bring big, complex foreign cases against multinational corporations. Instead, it is more likely to show corporations that there is more merit in fighting back than settling.

What’s worse is that the Ecuadorians who live in the affected areas have still not seen any help, 20 years later. A lawyer with a more realistic view of the case might have been able to get a reasonable settlement early on. A lawyer who had played by the rules might have even won a judgment that would now be enforceable in an American court. “Donziger disserved his clients and his cause” by the way he conducted himself during the trial, Cassel now says.

When I spoke to Donziger on Monday, he conceded that he may have made some mistakes, but nothing as egregious as Chevron’s “horrendous actions in Ecuador.” He told me that he was proud of the way he had acted, and that he still stands by the ghostwritten expert’s report.

“I am a big boy,” Donziger said. “I can take responsibility for what I did or did not do.” But that’s just the problem. He can’t. And he hasn’t.

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

September 20, 2014

In “We the People of Scotland” Mr. Cohen says the vote to stay in Britain amounted to a powerful reminder of the virtues of democracy.  Mr. Nocera, in “Getting it Wrong,” says speaking after one of the N.F.L.’s worst weeks, Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, ended up saying what he has already said before.  In “Exercising the Right to Rant” Ms. Collins says never to worry! Our elected representatives have averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a while.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The union has survived, comfortably enough in the end. Scotland will remain part of Britain. The queen’s title will stay unchanged: Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Phew: In that mouthful lurks a lot of history and stability. Relief is palpable. The pound rallied. David Cameron, the Tory prime minister who risked all, exhaled.

A clear majority of 55 percent of Scots rejected independence in a referendum that had many merits. The questioning of democracy has become fashionable. Stillborn after the Arab Spring, paralyzed by discord in the United States, increasingly pliant to money, dithering in its processes beside the authoritarian systems of China and Russia, often unable to deliver growth or stem rising inequality, democracy has become the problem child of the 21st century.

This vote, in which free people expressed their will over the potential breakup of Britain, amounted to a powerful reminder of democracy’s virtues. Participation was high. Civility in disagreement prevailed. “Aye” and “Nae” did battle; then they had a beer. In the words of the defeated Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, the referendum was “a triumph of the democratic process.”

More than two in five Scots voted for independence. Many of these “Yes” voters were young or struggling or both. Another merit of this “democratic process” was to demonstrate the alienation felt toward London with its giddy self-regarding boom and toward the Tory children of privilege running Britain. Scotland did not want to go it alone. Nor does it want more of the same. Cameron will have to deliver on his promise of a radical further devolution of power to Scotland, and to other areas of Britain, if he is to respect this result. Technology is a great enabler. It can now bring democracy closer to people, somewhat in the manner of the Athenian city state 2,500 years ago. That must be democracy’s future. Spain would be wrong to deny Catalonia a similar vote. Union can only make a legitimate claim to be stronger if it is prepared to test its strength at the ballot box. Scottish independence would have created havoc for a time, but an independent Scotland was no more an inconceivable notion than an independent Catalonia.

Tolerance and good sense are the bedrock virtues of the United Kingdom. As I listened to the BBC the other day, a segment on Scotland segued into the trial in China of a prominent Uighur scholar accused of separatism, a crime that can result in the death penalty. Ilham Tohti, a critic of Chinese policies toward his Uighur minority, is widely considered a moderate voice calling for dialogue with the Han majority. In China moderate separatism equals, with luck, a moderate prison sentence rather than execution.

Beijing is the great rising power of the world, a reminder in a time of insouciance that what was embodied in the Scottish vote is worth defending. The ballot is no mere trifle. It is liberty. Scotland, nation of the Enlightenment, has given a timely lesson. That, too, was a merit of this vote.

Mine was a family of immigrants in postwar Britain. They came at a time of great transcontinental reflux from retreating empire. For many, these shores have felt like David Copperfield’s experience of coming “home” to Aunt Betsey Trotwood and being given a good, warm bath. Prejudice for incomers has been inescapable in Britain, and sometimes bigotry, but stronger still were the traditions of a liberal nation of diverse peoples. That was the most important idea conserved in this result.

Whenever I walk in lovely Regent’s Park and see the minaret of London’s Central Mosque looming, I think to myself: Is it really that complicated? Can people of different faiths not accept one another’s beliefs and find common cause? They can, sometimes, but it takes centuries. It is fitting that on the day Scotland decided to honor its embracing identity, more than 100 British Muslim imams, organizations and individuals wrote to express “horror and revulsion” at the murders perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose voice at the beheadings has carried a British accent.

Scotland has given another important lesson to Cameron. It is the most pro-European corner of Britain. Part of its restiveness stemmed from the appalling spectacle of Cameron toying with British membership of the European Union as he tried to appease his little-England right wing. If re-elected, he has promised a referendum on E.U. membership. Complacency followed by panic over the Scottish vote has not enhanced Cameron’s standing, even in victory. It is time to state unambiguously that the very qualities that prevailed in Scotland — good sense, economic interest, tolerance, openness, diversity and cultural ecumenism — also make an irrefutable case for Britain in Europe.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera, who’s at his best when taking on Big Sport:

I turned on ESPN about 15 minutes before Roger Goodell’s Friday afternoon news conference. There was a round table of analysts and reporters, led by Bob Ley, the journalist who covers the serious side of sports for the network. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were prepping for a coming news conference by a politician in trouble rather than the commissioner of the National Football League.

“What do we need to hear from Goodell?” Ley pressed the panel.

“He has to say concretely that this is what we are going to do,” replied Bill Polian, the former president and general manager of the Indianapolis Colts (and now an ESPN analyst).

The screen was split between Ley’s panel and the empty lectern that Goodell would soon step behind. At one point before the news conference, the network switched to a shot in Baltimore of Ravens fans standing in line to trade in their Ray Rice jerseys for a free jersey of a different Ravens player — one who hadn’t been seen in a video cold-cocking someone who was then his fiancée. The wait was several hours long.

Goodell’s news conference came at the end of one of the worst weeks in the history of professional football, a week that ranks right up there with the time Pete Rozelle, the commissioner then, instructed the league to play its games the weekend after President Kennedy was shot.

To recap quickly: The Carolina Panthers, who planned to allow Greg Hardy to play in last week’s home opener, despite his conviction for domestic assault, instead deactivated the defensive end 90 minutes before kickoff and then put him on the “exempt list.” The Minnesota Vikings reactivated their star running back Adrian Peterson after he sat out a game when he was indicted on a charge of child abuse. Then, after a furor that included the loss of a sponsor, the Radisson hotel chain, Peterson was relieved of his duties again. Incredibly, the Vikings’ management then patted themselves on the back for “getting it right.

In Arizona, the Cardinals benched a player named Jonathan Dwyer, who had just posted $25,000 bond after being arrested on charges of aggravated assault against his wife and 17-month-old son. And last Friday, the league acknowledged that one in three players would develop debilitating brain conditions.

Meanwhile, reporters and sports columnists were accusing Goodell of hiding in his bunker — he hadn’t talked to the press since one very shaky CBS interview on Sept. 10 — even as one shoe dropped after another. Far scarier for the league, a raft of sponsors were issuing statements denouncing the N.F.L.’s handling of domestic violence. One sponsor, Procter & Gamble, pulled out of a major on-field initiative for the N.F.L.’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month (which, it’s worth noting, is part of the league’s effort to draw more female fans). This was serious: The N.F.L.’s vaunted business model was suddenly showing cracks.

When he arrived at the podium, Goodell made a short statement in which he said … nothing. Maybe that is a little unfair, but not by much. He was sorry he had initially botched the Ray Rice case by giving him just a two-game suspension. He was going to do better. The league was going to “get it right.” He was going to bring in experts to help the league rewrite its rules about player conduct. Everyone in the league would be getting training on domestic violence and sexual abuse. He was going to establish a conduct committee to “ensure that we are always living with the best practices.” And so on.

You would have thought that if Goodell were going to hold a news conference he would have something more to say than that he was sorry and that he was going to consult experts — things he has said before. Stunningly, he didn’t, which became even clearer when reporters started asking questions.

My former Times colleague Judy Battista, who now works for the NFL Network — and thus is effectively an employee of Goodell’s — asked him bluntly what Ray Rice had initially told him and how that contrasted to what he saw months later on the video. He wouldn’t say.

“Why do you feel like you should be able to continue in this role?” he was asked. “Because I acknowledged my mistake” was his answer.

A CNBC reporter asked him to comment on the loss of the Procter & Gamble sponsorship. He answered in vague platitudes. “We’re going to clean up our house, we’re going to get this straight, and we’re going to make a difference.”

And when asked how he could conceivably have given Ray Rice that original two-game suspension, he replied that the league’s policies “had fallen behind.” Yes, that must be it. It was all the fault of the “policy.”

The truth is that the N.F.L. has had a domestic violence problem for years, which Goodell and the league have largely tolerated. The Ray Rice video put that tolerance on vivid display. That is the fact that Goodell can’t say out loud — and why instead he says nothing at all.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Congress is gone. But not forgotten.

O.K., to be honest, they’re totally forgotten. The members of the House and Senate have been out of session for about a day and the nation has already totally wiped them from the memory bank.

Oh, America’s Legislature, we hardly knew ye.

Before decamping to go home and run for re-election, our elected representatives voted to fund the government and go to war. Pretty much ran the table on their constitutional responsibilities. Normally, that sort of thing would draw attention. “Before I came here I imagined that when war was discussed, everybody would be at their desk,” complained Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, to a rather vacant chamber.

To be fair, Congress actually just gave a vague grunt of acceptance to one part of President Obama’s strategy to combat ISIS. (It could have gone further, but you know how much these guys like leaving everything up to the president.) And it averted a government shutdown by decreeing that we will keep on spending whatever it is we’ve been spending for a couple more months.

“You don’t get perfect,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip.

We were all actually aware of that.

On the plus side — bipartisan! Republicans and Democrats joined together in what was the legislative version of a deep, depressive sigh.

“The bill before us is an imperfect bill.”

“I don’t think we have a better option.”

They were very possibly right. In theory, Congress is supposed to figure out how much money every federal department needs, and then pass some spending bills. However, the system’s been collapsing under partisan pressures for years. The last time it was normal to start every fiscal year with the money plan totally under control, air travel was glamorous.

And when it came to the Obama plans for Syria and Iraq, the members were faced with a rather distressing series of options: A) Give up on the whole idea of doing something about ISIS. B) Come up with their own idea for doing something about ISIS. Or C) Just stay in Washington and keep talking.

While the stay-and-talk option might have been the most honorable path, I think I speak for many Americans in saying that I cannot imagine them coming up with anything helpful. But we should at least reserve the right to rant. They went home! Early!

Let’s discuss, just for the heck of it, a couple of the things Congress did not feel constrained to do before they went back to meet the voters.

What about corporate inversion — the growing tendency of American companies to magically transform themselves into foreign entities in order to avoid paying American taxes? The White House asked Congress to pass a fairly simple plan to deal with that. No dice. Defending his members on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said that fixing inversion is way too low a bar and what they should really do is reform “the whole tax code.”

People, how many of you think Congress is going to fix the whole tax code? It’s like saying you aren’t going to open a door because the public really deserves to see the house levitated.

Speaking of the House, its Ways and Means Committee, which is run by Boehner’s very own party, did come up with a sweeping plan for tax reform this year. The speaker promptly made fun of it. (“Blah, blah, blah, blah.”) Having completely and thoroughly slammed the door on any discussion of the bill, he told reporters this week that he was “shocked at how little I have heard about it.”

Then there’s political intelligence. (I know, I know. Stop snickering.) Reformers want to avert the possibility that congressional insiders might pass on insider information to research firms that counsel investors. For instance, imagine there’s a change coming in government payment rates for health insurers. If, say, a Senate staffer leaked that information, it might cause the stock in said firms to soar before the world is informed of the new policy. Which actually happened last year.

Congress had tackled the problem as part of a bill barring members from insider trading that passed in 2012. The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, stripped the provision out at the last minute. Perhaps you remember Eric Cantor. He was the guy who got tossed out of office in a primary in which his totally unknown opponent claimed Cantor was a creature of crony capitalism.

A bipartisan trio of House members is now trying to revive the idea. Louise Slaughter of New York, one of the sponsors, says a bill’s been introduced. But although there is no end to the marvelous achievements people are predicting for the after-election lame-duck session. Congress reforming itself is not one of them.

“Not a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Slaughter.

Cantor is now a brand-new member of the investment banking industry. With $1.4 million in signing bonuses.

O.K., that was the rant. I feel much better.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 16, 2014

In “Goodbye, Organization Man” Bobo actually whines that the global failure to address the Ebola epidemic stems from a much broader crisis in our culture of government.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out the following:  “Suddenly Mr. Brooks is outraged that the government he has helped submerge in the bathtub is incapable of mounting an effective, expensive, internationally coordinated effort to respond to disease outbreaks. You can’t rail against big government one day and complain that it’s not there when it’s needed the next.  Brooks has repeatedly advocated for big government to be replaced by grassroots volunteerism, or by a distributed gaggle of local government agencies. But when a virus is knocking at the door of his gated community, suddenly big government is looking a whole lot better.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Great Unraveling,” sees a time of weakness and hatred, disorientation and doubt, when nobody can see what disaster looms.  In “Criminal Card Games” Mr. Nocera says in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, you have to wonder if data theft has become a condition of modern life.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems.

The most obvious example is the fight against jihadism. We’ve been facing Islamist terror for several decades, now, but every time it erupts — in Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and beyond — leaders start from scratch and build some new ad hoc coalition to fight it.

The most egregious example is global health emergencies. Every few years, some significant epidemic strikes, and somebody suggests that we form a Medical Expeditionary Corps, a specialized organization that would help coordinate and execute the global response. Several years ago, then-Senator Bill Frist went so far as to prepare a bill proposing such a force. But, as always, nothing came of it.

The result, right now, is unnecessary deaths from the Ebola virus in Africa. Ebola is a recurring problem, yet the world seems unprepared. The response has been slow and uncoordinated.

The virus’s spread, once linear, is now exponential. As Michael Gerson pointed out in The Washington Post, the normal countermeasures — isolation, contact tracing — are rendered increasingly irrelevant by the rate of increase. Treatment centers open and are immediately filled to twice capacity as people die on the streets outside. An Oxford University forecast warns as many as 15 more countries are vulnerable to outbreaks. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, warned: “At this rate, we will never break the transmission chain, and the virus will overwhelm us.”

The catastrophe extends beyond the disease. Economies are rocked as flights are canceled and outsiders flee. Ray Chambers, a philanthropist and U.N. special envoy focused on global health, points out the impact on health more broadly.  For example, people in the early stages of malaria show similar symptoms to Ebola and other diseases. Many hesitate to seek treatment fearing they’ll get sent to an Ebola isolation center. So death rates from malaria, pneumonia and other common diseases could rise, as further Ebola cases fail to be diagnosed.

The World Health Organization has recently come out with an action plan but lacks logistical capabilities. President Obama asked for a strategy, but that was two months ago and the government is only now coming up with a strong comprehensive plan. Up until now, aid has been scattershot. The Pentagon opened a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia. The U.S. donated five ambulances to Sierra Leone. Coordination has just not been there.

At root, this is a governance failure. The disease spreads fastest in places where the health care infrastructure is lacking or nonexistent. Liberia, for example, is being overrun while Ivory Coast has put in a series of policies to prevent an outbreak. The few doctors and nurses in the affected places have trouble acquiring the safety basics: gloves and body bags. More than 100, so far, have died fighting the outbreak.

But it’s not just a failure of governance in Africa. It’s a failure of governance around the world. I wonder if we are looking at the results of a cultural shift.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing broad, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.

It was a time of breakup. The most successful union in history, forged on an island in the North Sea in 1707, headed toward possible dissolution — not because it had failed (refugees from across the seas still clamored to get into it), nor even because of new hatreds between its peoples. The northernmost citizens were bored. They were disgruntled. They were irked, in some insidious way, by the south and its moneyed capital, an emblem to them of globalization and inequality. They imagined they had to control their National Health Service in order to save it even though they already controlled it through devolution and might well have less money for its preservation (not that it was threatened in the first place) as an independent state. The fact that the currency, the debt, the revenue, the defense, the solvency and the European Union membership of such a newborn state were all in doubt did not appear to weigh much on a decision driven by emotion, by urges, by a longing to be heard in the modern cacophony — and to heck with the day after. If all else failed, oil would come to the rescue (unless somebody else owned it or it just ran out).

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.

It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes. Europe’s Muslims felt the ugly backlash from the depravity of the decapitators, who were adept at Facebooking their message. The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms. Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress. Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century. The great rising nations of vast populations held the fate of the world in their hands but hardly seemed to care.

It was a time of fever. People in West Africa bled from the eyes.

It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

Cripes.  He needs to take a pill…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

What is it going to take to get serious about data breaches?

I ask this question in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, in which the “bad guys” — presumably cybercriminals in Russia — apparently penetrated the company’s point of sale terminals and came away with an untold number of credit and debit card data. (Home Depot acknowledges that all 2,200 stores in the United States and Canada were likely hacked, but hasn’t yet revealed the number of cards from which data were stolen.)

This, of course, comes after the Target breach of late 2013, in which some 40 million people had their credit card information stolen. Which comes after the Global Payments breach of 2012 and the Sony breach of 2011. All of which come after the T.J. Maxx breach of 2007, in which 94 million credit and debit card records were stolen in an 18-month period.

That’s right: Seven years have passed between the huge T.J. Maxx breach and the huge Home Depot breach — and nothing has changed. Have we become resigned to the idea that, as a condition of modern life, our personal financial data will be hacked on a regular basis? It is sure starting to seem that way.

The Home Depot breach came to light in the usual way. On Sept. 2, a reporter named Brian Krebs, who specializes in cybercrime and operates the website Krebs on Security, broke the news to his readers. Krebs, who is as deeply sourced as any reporter in the country, almost always breaks the news of a new breach. He also reported that the “malware” had been doing its dirty work at Home Depot since April or May. And he discovered that millions of card numbers were being sold on a website called Rescator.cc, which Bloomberg Businessweek recently described as the “Amazon.com of the black market.”

(Interestingly, they are being sold in batches under the names “American Sanctions” and “European Sanction” — an apparent reference to the recent sanctions against Russia.)

The company — “always the last to know,” Krebs says — hastily pulled together some security experts who, sure enough, confirmed the breach. In this instance, Home Depot released a statement saying that it was investigating the breach on Sept. 3, the day after the Krebs report, and confirmed the breach on Sept. 8. As these things go, that’s lightning speed.

Of course, in its materials, the company insists that it cares deeply about its customers’ data and will stop at nothing to plug the leak. But the damage has already been done. Home Depot also claims that debit card P.I.N.’s were not stolen. There is little solace in that, however; the crooks use weak bank security to change the P.I.N., after which they can use it. Sure enough, Krebs’s banking sources have told him that they “are reporting a steep increase over the past few days in fraudulent A.T.M. withdrawals on customer accounts.”

Why the rash of breaches? “It’s easy money,” said Avivah Litan, a security expert at Gartner Inc. “The criminals are distributing this malware, so why not use it? It’s like winning the lottery.”

Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, noted that months before the attack on Home Depot began, the F.B.I. alerted retailers about being more vigilant about point-of-sale cyberattacks. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Home Depot had, in fact, begun the process of strengthening its systems. But it moved so slowly that the criminals had months to vacuum card data before being discovered. Meanwhile, Bloomberg Businessweek found two unnamed former Home Depot managers who claimed that they were told to “settle for ‘C-level security’ because ambitious upgrades would be costly and might disrupt the operation of critical business systems.”

For years, the banks and the retail industry have spent more time accusing each other of causing the problem than seeking a solution. By October 2015, the United States is supposed to move to a more secure card system, using a chip and P.I.N. instead of a magnetic stripe, as Europe did years ago. But even that won’t put an end to data breaches. It will make it harder and more expensive for criminals to crack, but not impossible.

Which is why the federal government needs to get involved. With the banks and retailers at loggerheads, only the government has the ability to force a solution — or at least make it painful enough for companies with lax security to improve.

As it turns out, there are plenty of congressional initiatives to crack down on companies with weak data security, including a bill that was filed in February and co-sponsored by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. When I asked someone in Markey’s office whether the bill was getting any traction, she replied, “It’s 2014.”

Apparently, we’re on our own.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

September 12, 2014

In “The Reluctant Leader” Bobo says President Obama’s obvious reluctance about expanding the attack on ISIS may be his greatest asset.  Mr. Cohen, in “Auchtermuchty to England,” says it may not be a bad thing if the Scots go it alone. But it’s still uncertain whether an independent Scotland would cut it.  Apparently he hasn’t been reading what Prof. Krugman has had to say…  In “The Inflation Cult” Prof. Krugman says we’re still trying to figure out the persistence and power of the people who keep predicting runaway inflation.  Here’s Bobo:

Moses, famously, tried to get out of it. When God called on him to lead the Israelites, Moses threw up a flurry of reasons he was the wrong man for the job: I’m a nobody; I don’t speak well; I’m not brave.

But the job was thrust upon him. Though he displayed some of the traits you’d expect from a guy who would rather be back shepherding (passivity, whining), he became a great leader. He became the ultimate model for reluctant leadership.

The Bible is filled with reluctant leaders, people who did not choose power but were chosen for it — from David to Paul. The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do. Circumstances thrust certain responsibilities upon them, and they have no choice but to take up their assignment.

History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent. He recently gave a speech on the need to move away from military force. He has tried to pivot away from the Middle East. He tried desperately to avoid the Syrian civil war.

But as he said in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “Evil does exist in the world.” No American president could allow a barbaric caliphate to establish itself in the middle of the Middle East.

Obama is compelled as a matter of responsibility to override his inclinations. He’s obligated to use force, to propel himself back into the Middle East, to work with rotten partners like the dysfunctional Iraqi Army and the two-faced leaders of Qatar. He’s compelled to provide functional assistance to the rancid Syrian regime by attacking its enemies.

The defining characteristic of a reluctant leader is that he is self-divided. He feels compelled to do things he’d rather not do. This self-division can come in negative and positive forms.

The unsuccessful reluctant leader isn’t really motivated to perform the tasks assigned to him. The three essential features of political leadership, Max Weber wrote, are passion, responsibility and judgment. The unsuccessful reluctant leader is passionless. His actions are halfhearted. Look at President Obama’s decision to surge troops into Afghanistan at the same instant he announced their withdrawal date. That’s a reluctant leader undercutting himself. If Obama approaches this campaign that way then he will withdraw as soon as the Iraqi government stumbles, or the Iraqi Army fails to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on the ground.

The successful reluctant leader, on the other hand, is fervently motivated by his own conscience. He forces himself to embrace the fact that while this is not the destiny he would have chosen, it is his duty and he will follow it to the end.

This kind of reluctant leader has some advantages over a full-throated, unreluctant crusader. Unlike George W. Bush in 2003, he’s not carried away by righteous fervor. The successful reluctant leader can be selfless. He’s not doing the work because it’s the expression of his inner being. He’s just an instrument for the completion of a nasty job.

The reluctant leader can be realistic about goals. President Obama can be under no illusions that he is going to solve the Middle East’s fundamental problems, but at least he can degrade ISIS the way we degraded Al Qaeda. Sometimes just preventing something bad — like the fall of the Jordanian regime — is noble enough, even if negative victories don’t exactly get you in the history books.

The reluctant leader can be skeptical. There’s a reason President Obama didn’t want to get involved in this conflict. Our power to manage history in the region is limited. But sometimes a reluctant leader can make wise decisions precisely because he’s aware of his limitations. If you’re going to begin a military campaign in an Arab country, you probably want a leader who’d rather not do it.

The reluctant leader can be dogged. Sometimes when you’re engaged in an unpleasant task, you just put your head down and trudge relentlessly forward. You don’t have to worry about coming down from prewar euphoria because you never felt good about this anyway.

The reluctant leader can be collaborative. He didn’t want his task, so he’s eager to share it. The Arab world can fully trust that Obama doesn’t have any permanent designs on their region because the guy is dying to wash his hands of the whole place as soon as possible.

Everybody is weighing in on the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama strategy. But the strategy will change. The crucial factor is the man. This is the sternest test of Obama’s leadership skills since the early crises of his presidency. If he sticks to this self-assigned duty, and pursues it doggedly, he can be a successful reluctant leader. Sometimes the hardest victories are against yourself.

In the comments “ScottW” from Chapel Hill, NC had this to say:  “What we really need are more “reluctant columnists” who realize since they were so wrong about the Iraq war 11 years ago, they should put away their pens and not comment about the current situation.”  Oh, if only…  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Auchtermuchty, Scotland:

“Conservatives only come to Scotland to shoot grouse, do they not?”

That was the withering verdict of John Latham as he enjoyed a pint in the Cycle Tavern in Auchtermuchty. Locals say southerners have trouble with the name, which means uplands of the wild boar, flattening the guttural “chhh” to a “k” and failing to deploy “plenty of spittle.” Be that as it may, Latham’s dismissal of English Tories is near universal in Scotland, where just over four million voters will decide next week on whether to opt for independence and cast Great Britain into the dustbin of history.

The news would trend on Twitter. Great Britain has had a pretty good run since it was formed by the union of Scotland and England in 1707.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a Tory, of course. That is part of the problem. To Scots he is the spoon-fed “rich toff” from Central Casting who never knew the price of a loaf of bread. He’s the emblem of a money-oozing London that has lost touch with the rest of the country.

Scotland wants to do things another way. It sees itself as a Scandinavia-like bastion of social democracy in the making: Norway with whisky. That, at least, is the vision of Alex Salmond, the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party. Whether an independent Scotland would have the money for comprehensive welfare is another question. Salmond is skirting that for now. A mist of vagueness hovers over how an independent Scotland would cut it. He has a new favorite line in these frenetic last days: “Team Scotland against Team Westminster.”

“Team Westminster,” it has to be said, is giving a convincing impression of panic as the Sept. 18 vote approaches. Several polls now show the referendum as too close to call. Cameron’s complacency over a comfortable “No” vote has vanished. The pound is slumping.

The Saltire, or Scottish flag, was abruptly hoisted over 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence. Cameron zoomed up to Scotland to declare it’s not about “the effing Tories” but love of a country he would be “heartbroken” to lose. Ed Miliband, the opposition Labour leader, also discovered his inner Scotland. He hurtled north to deliver an impassioned appeal. Nick Clegg, Cameron’s Liberal Democrat sidekick in the coalition government, said something; just what nobody can remember. Gordon Brown, a Scot and former prime minister, was wheeled out to say maximum devolution of powers would begin on Sept. 19 if Scotland only sticks with Britain.

All of which has caused amusement in Auchtermuchty and beyond. “If we’re going to fail on our own, why are they so concerned?” said Stephanie Murphy, as she poured another pint. “Aye,” said Latham, “If they want us so bad, maybe we should go.” The sudden Westminster flurry smacks of too little, too late.

Still, going it alone is a risk. “I have a pension, I don’t want to lose it,” said Andrew Dewar. “You’ve got 16-year-old first-time voters watching ‘Braveheart’ and believing we’ll be fine. Salmond says we’ll be like Norway. Well, in Norway a pint costs nine pounds — so hopefully not!” Debbie Marton suggested that, “Maybe we could have a trial period!” That won’t happen: The decision will be binding.

Some Scots have not forgotten that the union of 1707 came about in part because Scotland was bankrupt, having embarked on a mad-cat scheme, now known as the “Darien Disaster,” in a Panamanian malarial swamp.

Scots poured money into the Darien Company believing the Panamanian outpost would turn the country into a giant of global trade. Instead, many met a quick death — as did the project.

My non-scientific survey of voters in St. Andrews, Auchtermuchty and Edinburgh found many people still undecided, torn between a heart that says “yes” and a mind that says “no.” They’d love to “set England afloat” but worry what would happen to pensions, the National Health Service, jobs, the currency and membership in the European Union. Latham, a wine salesman, is hesitant himself, but says, “It’s one of those wee chances in life you may just have to take.”

The truth is nobody knows the answers to all the questions because nobody thought it would come to this. Cameron and Salmond have both been reckless. Now there is an almost surreal quality to Great Britain’s possible demise.

I blame Cameron above all. His deluded rhetoric about possible withdrawal from the European Union, his lack of feel for ordinary people and his glib marketer’s patter over matters great and small have all smacked of little-England smugness — so Scots have every right to make England as little as it often acts. The union’s history is a great one. Its end would be sad. But Scotland has what it takes. The good sense and tolerance that marked the union would in the end prevail across the new border.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Wish I’d said that! Earlier this week, Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica, writing on The Times’s DealBook blog, compared people who keep predicting runaway inflation to “true believers whose faith in a predicted apocalypse persists even after it fails to materialize.” Indeed.

Economic forecasters are often wrong. Me, too! If an economist never makes an incorrect prediction, he or she isn’t taking enough risks. But it’s less common for supposed experts to keep making the same wrong prediction year after year, never admitting or trying to explain their past errors. And the remarkable thing is that these always-wrong, never-in-doubt pundits continue to have large public and political influence.

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But as regular readers know, I’ve been trying to figure it out, because I think it’s important to understand the persistence and power of the inflation cult.

Whom are we talking about? Not just the shouting heads on CNBC, although they’re certainly part of it. Rick Santelli, famous for his 2009 Tea Party rant, also spent much of that year yelling that runaway inflation was coming. It wasn’t, but his line never changed. Just two months ago, he told viewers that the Federal Reserve is “preparing for hyperinflation.”

You might dismiss the likes of Mr. Santelli, saying that they’re basically in the entertainment business. But many investors didn’t get that memo. I’ve had money managers — that is, professional investors — tell me that the quiescence of inflation surprised them, because “all the experts” predicted that it would surge.

And it’s not as easy to dismiss the phenomenon of obsessive attachment to a failed economic doctrine when you see it in major political figures. In 2009, Representative Paul Ryan warned about “inflation’s looming shadow.” Did he reconsider when inflation stayed low? No, he kept warning, year after year, about the coming “debasement” of the dollar.

Wait, there’s more: You find the same Groundhog Day story when you look at the pronouncements of seemingly reputable economists. In May 2009, Allan Meltzer, a well-known monetary economist and historian of the Federal Reserve, had an Op-Ed article published in The Times warning that a sharp rise in inflation was imminent unless the Fed changed course. Over the next five years, Mr. Meltzer’s preferred measure of prices rose at an annual rate of only 1.6 percent, and his response was published in another op-ed article, this time in The Wall Street Journal. The title? “How the Fed Fuels the Coming Inflation.”

So what’s going on here?

I’ve written before about how the wealthy tend to oppose easy money, perceiving it as being against their interests. But that doesn’t explain the broad appeal of prophets whose prophecies keep failing.

Part of that appeal is clearly political; there’s a reason why Mr. Santelli yells about both inflation and how President Obama is giving money away to “losers,” why Mr. Ryan warns about both a debased currency and a government that redistributes from “makers” to “takers.” Inflation cultists almost always link the Fed’s policies to complaints about government spending. They’re completely wrong about the details — no, the Fed isn’t printing money to cover the budget deficit — but it’s true that governments whose debt is denominated in a currency they can issue have more fiscal flexibility, and hence more ability to maintain aid to those in need, than governments that don’t.

And anger against “takers” — anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation; Mr. Santelli is their kind of guy. In an important sense, I’d argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the “affinity fraud” crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.

This tribal interpretation of the inflation cult helps explain the sheer rage you encounter when pointing out that the promised hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen. It’s comparable to the reaction you get when pointing out that Obamacare seems to be working, and probably has the same roots.

But what about the economists who go along with the cult? They’re all conservatives, but aren’t they also professionals who put evidence above political convenience? Apparently not.

The persistence of the inflation cult is, therefore, an indicator of just how polarized our society has become, of how everything is political, even among those who are supposed to rise above such things. And that reality, unlike the supposed risk of runaway inflation, is something that should scare you.


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