Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 27, 2014

In “Fury After Ferguson” Mr. Blow points out that this is about whether black boys and men, as well as the people who love them, must fear both the criminal and the cop.  Mr. Cohen, in “Get Real, Boris Johnson!,” says London’s mayor, an American citizen, goes mano a mano with the Internal Revenue Service. He should give up and pay up.  Mr. Kristof considers “Bill Cosby, U.V.A. and Rape” and says recent high-profile reports of sexual assaults should make us all pause and reflect on a culture that enables violence against women.  Ms. Collins is “Counting Benghazi Blessings.”  She says Congress has been very busy this year, so let’s give thanks for all the investigations into the 2012 attack on an American compound in Libya.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The reaction to the failure of the grand jury to indict in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, touched something deep and ancient and anguished in the black community.

Yes, on one level, the reaction was about the particulars of this case.

It was about whether Wilson’s use of force was appropriate or excessive that summer day when he fired a shot through Brown’s head and ended his life.

It was about whether police officers’ attitudes towards the people they serve are tainted. Why was Wilson’s description of Brown in his testimony so laced with dehumanizing rhetoric, the superhuman predator and subhuman evil, “Hulk Hogan” and the “demon”?

It was about whether the prosecutor performed his role well or woefully inadequately in pursuit of an indictment. Why did he take this course of action? Why didn’t he aggressively question Wilson when Wilson presented testimony before the grand jury? Why did he sound eerily like a defense attorney when announcing the results?

And yet the reaction was also about more than Wilson and Brown. It was about faith in fundamental fairness. It was about whether a population of people with an already tenuous relationship with the justice system — a system not established to recognize them, a system used for generations to deny and subjugate them, a system still rife with imbalances toward them — would have their fragile and fraying faith in that system further shredded.

As President Obama put it: “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country.”

He continued, “There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”

No, they are not. An October analysis by ProPublica of police shootings from 2010 to 2012 found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police officers than their white counterparts.

And yet, people like the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani want to blame the victims. On “Meet the Press,” he dodged the issue of white police forces policing black populations, and raised another: intra-racial murder statistics in the black community. After proclaiming that “93 percent of blacks are killed by other blacks,” he asked a fellow panelist, Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor, “why don’t you cut it down so so many white police officers don’t have to be in black areas?”

Classic blame-the-victims deflection and context-free spouting of facts. What Giuliani failed to mention, what most people who pay attention to murder statistics understand, is that murder is for the most part a crime of intimacy. People kill people close to them. Most blacks are killed by other blacks, and most whites are killed by other whites.

In fact, it is so intimate that one study has found that people likely to be involved in murder cases can be predicted by their social networks. A Yale study last year examining “police and gun homicide records from 2006 to 2011 for residents living within a six-square-mile area that had some of the highest rates for homicide in Chicago” found that “6% of the population was involved in 70% of the murders, and that nearly all of those in the 6% already had some contact with the criminal justice or public health systems.”

As a co-author of the study put it, the relationship among killers and those killed was like a virus: “It’s not unlike needle sharing or unprotected sex in the spread of H.I.V.”

So, what are we saying to the vast majority that are not involved: that they must accept the unconscionable racial imbalance in the police shooting numbers as some sort of collateral damage in a war on crime? No!

It’s an unfathomable, utterly immoral argument, and let’s not give Giuliani a pass for making it. After all, New York’s obscenely race-biased stop-and-frisk program was introduced under Giuliani, and some of the most notorious police violations of black men in recent history happened on his watch. As The New York Times recounted in a lengthy 2001 profile:

“In the summer of 1997, a police officer brutalized a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima in a bathroom of a Brooklyn station house. In the winter of 1999, four members of the Police Department’s Street Crime Unit, searching the Bronx streets for a rapist, shot and killed an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo; they had mistaken his wallet for a gun. And in the winter of 2000, just as Mr. Giuliani was gearing up his candidacy for the United States Senate, an undercover officer shot and killed an unarmed black security guard named Patrick Dorismond after a brief struggle in Midtown; the victim had been offended by the undercover officer’s inquiries about buying some drugs.”

Also, race is not the best lens through which to consider criminality. Concentrated poverty may be a better lens. According to a July Brookings report:

“Poor individuals and families are not evenly distributed across communities or throughout the country. Instead, they tend to live near one another, clustering in certain neighborhoods and regions. This concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.”

If we are serious about fighting crime, we must seriously consider the reason— on both an individual and systemic level — these pockets of concentrated poverty developed, are maintained, and have in fact grown and spread.

But this is not about Giuliani and the police aggression apologists. This is about whether black boys and men, as well as the people who love them, must fear both the criminal and the cop.

Sadly, for many, the Ferguson case reaffirmed a most unsettling sense that they are under siege from all sides.

So people took to the streets. Who could really blame them?

Some simply saw protests marred by senseless violence. I saw that, to be sure, and my heart hurt seeing it. But I also saw decades, generations, centuries of pain and frustration erupting once more into view. I saw hearts crying and souls demanding to be heard, to be seen, to be valued.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King, a great champion of nonviolence, wasn’t advocating rioting, but rather honoring hearing.

Even long-suffering people will not suffer forever. Patience expires. The heart can be broken only so many times before peace is broken. And the absence of peace doesn’t predicate the presence of violence. It does, however, demand the troubling of the comfortable. When the voice goes unheard, sometimes it must be raised. Sometimes when calls for justice go unmet, feet must meet pavement. Sometimes when you are unseen, you can no longer remain seated. Sometimes you must stand and make a stand.

No one of good character and conscience condones rioting or looting or any destruction of property. Those enterprises aren’t only criminal, they’re fruitless and counterproductive and rob one’s own neighborhood of needed services and facilities and unfairly punish the people who saw fit to follow a dream and an entrepreneurial spirit, and invest in themselves and those communities in the first place.

But people absolutely have a right to their feelings — including anger and frustration. Only the energies must be channeled into productive efforts aimed at delivering the changes desired. That is the hard work. That is where stamina is required. That is where the long game is played.

As the old Negro spiritual proclaims: “Walk together children/Don’t you get weary/Oh, talk together children/Don’t you get weary.”

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Come on, Boris!

The mayor of London and would-be prime minister of Britain is funny, smart, erudite and charming. He’s franker than most politicians. He runs a booming city in a boozing country, even if central London has become a private club for the world’s super-rich. He’s a lovable rogue adept at getting out of tight corners of his own creation. He uses a cultivated dishevelment to disarm stuffier fellow Tories and stiffer opponents of the left. But this time bustling, bristling Boris Johnson has gone too far.

It is one thing to flip-flop on immigration (one minute he’s sort of for it, then he’s really against it), or make unsubstantiated claims about European Union regulations, or be the loosest of political cannons. It is another for Johnson, who was born in New York and is a United States citizen, to declare himself above American law and refuse to pay the tax he owes. Blond-haired provocateur takes on the United States Internal Revenue Service: This could get interesting.

In a recent interview with National Public Radio during an American book-promotion tour, Johnson said, “The United States comes after me, would you believe it, for capital gains tax on the sale of your first residence, which is not taxable in Britain.” Asked if he would pay the tax bill, the mayor replied: “No is the answer. I think it’s absolutely outrageous. Why should I?” He then indulged in some whining about how he hadn’t lived in the United States since he was five and paid his taxes in Britain “where I live and work.” The whole “doctrine of global taxation” applied by the United States was, he declared, “incredible.”

Come on, Boris! Give us a break. Get used to it.

All American citizens (even those who have presided over the London Olympics) are, last time I checked, legally obliged to file a tax return and liable for United States taxes on their global income. Even green card holders (permanent residents) are taxable on what they earn worldwide. It is safe to say that no American expat loves this. We may well find it unreasonable, unjust and preposterous. We may envy the Russian and Arab and French and Chinese high-rollers holed up in Mayfair and Knightsbridge and Chelsea, whose global income is not taxed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as it would be if they lived in the United States.

As principles of Western democracies go, equality before the law is important, indeed fundamental. Under United States law, a capital gain on the sale of a first residence is not fully tax-exempt, as in Britain.

“Absolutely outrageous,” angry Johnson declared.

“Why should I?” poor Johnson asked.

It’s the law, that’s why. You can avoid everything in life but death and the tax man. They will come get you.

Johnson could, of course, have given up his American citizenship. In 2006, he wrote he was “getting a divorce from America.” But he never broke the bond, presumably because his inner American — the loud, freedom-loving, rambunctious character wrapped up inside a Latin-spouting eccentric Englishman — resisted.

Johnson has in the past been assiduous on tax matters. Louis Susman, the former American ambassador to Britain, once told me of his embarrassment when, in 2011, Johnson buttonholed President Obama at Buckingham Palace and, by way of opening gambit, demanded from him a check for several million pounds to cover unpaid congestion charges of diplomats at the United States Embassy. The president was not amused.

The United States, along with other countries, argues that diplomatic immunity covers the charge for bringing a vehicle into central London during office hours. William Hague, the former British foreign secretary, said last year that the embassy had 63,000 fines for a total of 7.2 million pounds, or about $11.3 million at current rates. The United States, at that time, was the highest debtor, followed by Russia, which owed £4.89 million from 42,310 fines and Japan, which owed £4.85 million from 42,206 fines.

(Nigerian diplomats owed the most in parking fines, followed by Saudi Arabia, and the worst offenders for alleged drunk driving were Russian diplomats.)

The holiday season is upon us. It’s a time of celebration, reflection and reconciliation. Pay up, Boris. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do — and then fight like crazy to change the law, if you will.

As for those congestion charges, their applicability to diplomats is unclear. Are they a tax, from which diplomats would be exempt, or a “service rendered,” for which they could be considered liable?

It’s Thanksgiving, a day to give thanks, even for the taxman, who reminds us that we’re all in this together. I think Matthew Barzun, the American ambassador, who knows Johnson well, might consider a compromise that settles the matter before the embassy moves south of the River Thames in 2017 to a site outside the congestion zone.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The world’s wrath and revulsion seem to be focused on Bill Cosby these days, as he goes in the public mind from “America’s Dad” to an unofficial serial rape suspect.

Yet that’s a cop-out for all of us. Whatever the truth of the accusations against Cosby — a wave of women have now stepped forward and said he drugged and raped them (mostly decades ago), but his lawyer denies the allegations — it’s too easy for us to see this narrowly as a Cosby scandal of celebrity, power and sex. The larger problem is a culture that enables rape. The larger problem is us.

We collectively are still too passive about sexual violence in our midst, too willing to make excuses, too inclined to perceive shame in being raped. These are attitudes that facilitate violence by creating a protective blanket of silence and impunity. In that sense, we are all enablers.

The revelation of an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity by Rolling Stone underscores how thin our veneer of civilization sometimes is. The article, whose account is unconfirmed, describes an 18-year-old freshman at the university who goes to her first frat party and is led upstairs by her date, pinned down, beaten and punched, and raped by seven men.

Administration policy makes matters even worse. A dean acknowledged in an interview with student-run media that even students at the university who admit to sexual assault invariably avoid expulsion, and that no student had been expelled for rape in years. The student’s report pointed out that the University of Virginia treats cheating more seriously than rape.

The problem once more isn’t just one university, but the broader culture. It’s ubiquitous. This month an inspector-general report in New Orleans revealed that only 14 percent of sexual assault cases referred to the special victims unit there were even investigated. A 2-year-old was treated in a hospital emergency room for a sexual assault and had a sexually transmitted disease, yet detectives closed the case without an investigation.

Meanwhile, prison rape, mostly of men and boys, is too often treated as a joke rather than an appalling human rights abuse. A Justice Department report last year found that in juvenile detention centers, almost 1 youth in 10 had been sexually abused in the course of a single year. At two juvenile centers, the rate of abuse was 30 percent or more.

Then there’s sex trafficking. Ernie Allen, the former president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, estimates that 100,000 children in the United States are trafficked into the sex trade annually. Police and prosecutors often respond by arresting the victims — the kids — rather than the pimps and the johns.

Too often boys are socialized to see women and girls as baubles, as playthings. The upshot is that rapists can be stunningly clueless, somehow unaware that they have committed a crime or even a faux pas. The Rolling Stone article describes how the rape victim at the University of Virginia, two weeks after the incident, ran into her principal assailant.

“Are you ignoring me?” he blithely asked. “I wanted to thank you for the other night. I had a great time.”

Likewise, a university student shared with me a letter her ex-boyfriend wrote her after brutally raping her in her dorm room. He apologized for overpowering her, suggested that she should be flattered and proposed that they get back together. Huh?

Granted, humans are infinitely complex, and consent and coercion represent two poles on a continuum that can fade into grays. We shouldn’t short-circuit the rights of men accused of misconduct, and frustratingly often it may be impossible to attain certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet let’s be real. The dominant problem is not an epidemic of men falsely accused of rape, but of women who endure sexual violence — including about one female college student in five, according to the White House.

One study published in 2002 found that about 90 percent of college rapes were committed by a tiny number of serial rapists.

So bravo to those speaking up, male and female alike. In Norman, Okla., high school students say that a male student raped several girls and distributed a pornographic video of one of them. Frustrated by what they saw as administration passivity, the students have been waging protests to educate school officials about right and wrong.

Sure, sexual violence may be embedded in parts of American culture, but, in my lifetime, we’ve changed other cultural norms. Drunken driving is no longer comical or silly, but repugnant. What will it take to get a serious response to all accusations of rape?

Last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

This year, in a break from tradition, I am giving thanks for the House Intelligence Committee’s final report on Benghazi.

Also family and friends. But I give thanks for them every year. This is our first opportunity to be grateful for the House Intelligence Committee’s Benghazi report. So let’s jump at it.

Really, you don’t get good news like this all the time. The committee spent two years conducting a bipartisan investigation into the terrible night in 2012 when four Americans, including the Libyan ambassador, were killed in a violent attack on an American compound. It found that while mistakes were made, the Americans on the ground in Libya made reasonable decisions, as did the people trying to support them. The C.I.A. was brave and effective. Nobody in the White House thwarted a possible rescue or deliberately tried to mislead the public about what happened.

Whew. You can imagine the excitement when this report was unveiled. Or, actually, quietly posted on the committee’s website. On Friday evening. On the eve of a holiday week.

The Intelligence Committee is, of course, led by members of the Republican majority. The only time Republicans don’t talk about Benghazi, it turns out, is when they report about their findings.

The silence was pretty deafening. Except for Senator Lindsey Graham, who helpfully told CNN: “I think the report’s full of crap.” And Newt Gingrich, who theorized that the Intelligence Committee had been “co-opted by the C.I.A.”

Newt knows. (“I’ve talked to four different people who have a real interest in this topic at a professional level. They are appalled by this report.”)

There have always been two ways of looking at Benghazi. One is as a terrible loss that might have been mitigated if the diplomatic compounds had been better protected, and that the State Department needs to rethink its traditional bureaucratic approach to overseeing security. The other, far more exciting, possibility is that this is all about Obama-Clinton perfidy. Was there a team of potential rescuers who were kept away from the fray because the administration didn’t want to admit it had underestimated the terror threat in Libya? Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, confided at a Republican fund-raising dinner that he had “suspicions” that Hillary Clinton told then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “to stand down.” The Intelligence Committee didn’t find any evidence whatsoever that that had occurred. But they were, you know, co-opted.

The committee and its staff spent what one Democratic member said was “thousands of hours” reading intelligence reports, cables and emails about the incident. It was a heck of a commitment. Although, to be fair, surely no more than the House Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which have been looking into exactly the same events and coming up with pretty much the same conclusions.

Still to come: A special $3.3 million House Committee that Speaker John Boehner has created to pursue what Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina says will be the “final, definitive accounting of the attack.” The effort is needed, Boehner said, because the “American people still have far too many questions” to let the inquiries drop now after nobody has had a chance to look into the matter except a special independent review board, the House Intelligence Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And then, of course, there’s the House Oversight Committee, under the irrepressible Representative Issa, which shows no sign of wrapping up its Benghazi investigations. Issa has already sent Gowdy a 37-page letter listing what he said were State Department efforts to obstruct his probes. But he’s required to step down as chairman at the end of the year, and his replacement, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, seems to be planning a less lively approach. The top Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings, said Chaffetz had shown “a sincere interest in working together,” as opposed to Issa’s sincere interest, at one point, in cutting off Cummings’s microphone at a public hearing.

We give thanks for all the congressional investigations into Benghazi. Who says Congress can’t reduce unemployment? In March, the Defense Department said that it had devoted “thousands of man-hours to responding to numerous and often repetitive congressional requests regarding Benghazi, which includes time devoted to approximately 50 congressional hearings, briefings and interviews” at a cost of “millions of dollars.”

Meanwhile, there are rumblings from some Senate Republicans that what the next Congress needs is a good joint House-Senate Benghazi investigation. On the other hand, the House Agricultural Committee seems to have no interest whatsoever in initiating a probe. For this, we are truly thankful.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

November 25, 2014

Bobo just bursting to tell us all about “The Unifying Leader.”  He squeals that the only way for American political culture to change is for leaders to be more creative in their approach to collaboration.  In the comments “Susan Anderson” from Boston had this to say:  “Blame the victim much? You are better than this. Time to notice that your party is willing to sacrifice the whole country to condemn Obama, who did indeed make an effort to meet your party somewhere a long way towards your end of things. Even that wasn’t good enough for your move-the-goalposts party of selfishness, sociopathy, greed, and wealth, and against dealing with reality in a way that does not exploit to the detriment of not only us, but you and your descendants.”  Well, Susan, he did say that he wasn’t going to apportion blame.  I guess he knew where all the fingers would point…  Mr. Cohen says “Keep Pushing for an Iran Deal,” and that if you don’t like the idea of America at war with Islamic State and with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Iran, double down on diplomacy.  In “Committed to Carbon Goals” Mr. Nocera says the chief executive of NRG Energy is making his company part of the solution.  Now, alas, here’s Bobo:

Over the past two weeks, President Obama and Republicans in Congress have taken their conflicts to another level. I’m not here to apportion blame, but it would be nice if, in the future, we evaluated presidential candidates on the basis of whether they are skilled at the art of collaboration.

When you look at other sectors of society, you see leaders who are geniuses at this. You can spot the collaborative leader because he’s rejected the heroic, solitary model of leadership. He doesn’t try to dominate his organization as its all-seeing visionary, leading idea generator and controlling intelligence.

Instead, he sees himself as a stage setter, as a person who makes it possible for the creativity in his organization to play itself out. The collaborative leader lessens the power distance between himself and everybody else. He believes that problems are too complex for one brain, but if he can create the right context and nudge a group process along, the team will come up with solutions.

Collaborative political leaders would look very different than the ones we’re used to. In the first place, they would do what they could to create a culture of cooperation, not competition. They’d evoke our shared national consciousness more than our partisan consciousness. They’d take the political people out of the policy meetings. Except in high campaign season, they’d reduce the moronically partisan tit-for-tat, which is the pointless fare of daily press briefings.

Second, a collaborative president would draw up what Jeffrey Walker, vice chairman of the MDG Health Alliance and co-author of “The Generosity Network,” calls Key Influencer Maps. This leader would acknowledge that we live in a system in which a proliferating number of groups have veto power over legislation. He would gather influencers into informal policy-making teams as each initiative was executed.

Third, a collaborative president would offer specific goals to each team, but he would not come up with clear visions. He might say the goal of the education team, say, was to reduce high school dropouts by 10 percent. But he would not tell the team how to get there.

Fourth, a collaborative president would see herself as an honest broker above policy-making process, not as a gladiator in it. In an essay posted on LinkedIn, Walker argues that collaborative organizations usually need a person at the top who “is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort.” To be an honest broker, a collaborative president would have to repress some of her own ideas in order to serve as referee, guide and nudge for the people she gathered.

Fifth, a collaborative president would tolerate mess. She would acknowledge that if you don’t give midlevel people the freedom to roam, you won’t attract creative people to those jobs. If you adopt a highly prescriptive set of workplace rules, then nobody can do anything bold.

So what if there are leaks to the press, and the policy process becomes semipublic? That’s a price worth paying in order to harvest diverse viewpoints and the fruits of creative disagreements.

Sixth, a collaborative leader embraces an oppositional mind-set. As Linda A. Hill and others argue in a Harvard Business Review essay called “Collective Genius,” successful collaborative groups resist tepid compromises; instead, they combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive. A collaborative president might jam a mostly Democratic idea, federally financed preschool, and a mostly Republican idea, charter schools, into one proposal.

Seventh, a collaborative president would create a culture in which relationships are more important than one person’s touchy pride. There are going to be people who take cheap shots. The collaborative leader would swallow indignation and be tolerant of error in order to preserve relationships. She would have a merciful sense that every successful working bond is going to require moments of forgiveness.

The collaborative leader is willing to step back from the war posture of politics and be vulnerable. Trust is built when one leader is vulnerable to another and the opposing leader doesn’t take advantage of it to enhance his own power. Then that opposing leader is vulnerable back and the favor is returned. The collaborative leader understands the paradox; you have to take off the armor to build strong bonds.

Finally, the collaborative leader would exile those who consistently refuse to play by the rules. Psychologist David Rand of Yale finds that cooperation exists when people internalize small cooperative habits as their default response to situations. It only takes a few selfish and solitary grandstanders to undermine a culture of trust. Successful leaders have the guts marginalize radicals and nihilists who refuse to play by the rules of the institution (this would be helpful to leaders on Capitol Hill).

We can all think of technocratic reforms to make Washington work better. But, ultimately, it takes a different leadership model and a renewed appreciation for the art of collaboration.

You’ll notice that the name John Boehner appears nowhere in that piece of crap.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I wrote last May that “unreasonable optimism” surrounded nuclear talks between Iran and the major powers. Unreasonable pessimism should not surround the failure to reach an overall agreement and the decision to extend negotiations for seven months. Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, believed 70 percent of the Israeli-Arab conflict was psychological. The same has been true of the American-Iranian confrontation at the heart of the standoff between Tehran and the West. A barrier has fallen through well over a year of discussions; a 35-year-old trauma has receded.

This immense achievement does not in itself assure success. Plenty of people want enmity preserved. Here are seven questions for the next seven months that may prove helpful:

Why is a deal still by far the best option? Because the alternatives are a continuation of the relentless buildup of Iranian nuclear capacity seen over the past decade or yet another American war in the Middle East that would do little to dent the program, lock in hard-liners for a generation and likely prompt an Iranian dash for a bomb, setting off a regional arms race. If you like the idea of the United States at war with the Sunni killers of Islamic State and at war with Islamic State’s sworn enemy, Shiite Iran, this scenario may hold appeal. If it looks like a nightmare, double down on diplomacy.

But doesn’t the extension of talks favor Iran? No. The interim agreement announced last year has proved effective. As Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20-percent-enriched uranium. Today, it has none. The number of operational centrifuges has been frozen. International inspections have been redoubled. Not for a decade had the pause button been hit in this way. Yes, Iran has received some sanctions relief, bringing in about $700 million a month, but that scarcely offsets plunging oil revenue.

Why is Israel’s call for complete dismantlement not the way to go? Because it is not achievable in the real world; the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Diplomacy is about tough compromise, not ideal outcomes. The nuclear know-how attained by Iran cannot be undone. The aim must be to ring fence for at least a decade a strictly monitored program, compatible only with peaceful use of nuclear power, where enrichment is kept below 5 percent. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will not renounce the right set out in that treaty to “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” at the behest of a nuclear-armed nonsignatory of that treaty, Israel. This is reality; deal with it. Iran’s nuclear program has the emotional resonance the nationalization of its oil had in the 1950s. That nationalization prompted a never-forgotten Anglo-American coup. Calls for dismantlement are seen in Iran through this prism. As Kerry’s negotiating partner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said, “You are doomed to failure” if you seek “a zero-sum game.” Setting impossible targets is code for favoring war.

What are the main dangers now to the negotiations? The Republican Congress, hard-liners in Tehran around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to undermine the talks. When the new Congress convenes next year, it may push for new sanctions. There will be talk of “appeasement,” the cheap Chamberlain riff that is a favorite sound bite of naysayers. A sanctions push would be extremely foolish. It would constitute a potential talks-breaker that may prod President Obama into a veto. This would in turn reinforce Washington chatter about “an imperial presidency.” To which Obama should respond that he’s less interested in chatter than the history books.

But isn’t Iran America’s enemy? Yes, Iran supports Hezbollah. It supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its operatives have killed or plotted to kill Americans since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, especially in the early years. But Iran also has overlapping interests with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a relative island of stability in a violent Middle East. Its young population is overwhelmingly pro-American. Most of them place Israel at the bottom of their list of priorities. The United States does business with plenty of strategic adversaries, including Russia. The Middle East is stymied. Even a cold American-Iranian understanding could redraw the map of the region.

President Hassan Rouhani seems reasonable but doesn’t Khamenei call the shots? The supreme leader and the president need each other. The Iranian economy is a shambles. Khamenei needs Rouhani to fix it. Rouhani needs Khamenei as a shield from the toughest hard-liners. The West will never find better interlocutors than Rouhani and Zarif.

Are there other reasons to favor an accord? Yes. Iran is the last sizable emerging market economy not integrated in the global economy. Integrating it will provide a huge boost. The more contact there is between Iran and the West, the more moderating forces will be reinforced.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Since the early 1990s, the consensus view in the climate science community has been that if the world is going to escape the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it needs to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. A few years ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project issued a report in which it estimated that to meet that goal, global carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 percent by 2050 — and the industrialized world would need to reduce its emissions by 80 percent.

This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you meet a man named David Crane. He is the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country. When he took over a decade ago, NRG was just emerging from bankruptcy. Today, it is a Fortune 250 company, with 135 power plants capable of generating 53,000 megawatts of power.

NRG, Crane told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, is the country’s fourth-largest polluter. “We emit 60 or 70 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” he said, mainly because a third of its power is generated by coal-fired plants. “I’m not apologetic about that because, right now, owning those plants and operating those plants are critical to keeping the lights on in the United States.”

But then he quickly added, “We have to move away from that.” And he has, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent in the decade that he’s run the company. And, on Thursday, as The Times reported, he committed NRG to reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

These are terribly ambitious goals, but Crane is not some pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Although he sees climate change as an “intergenerational issue” — a way of ensuring the future for our children and grandchildren — he is also a pragmatic man running a publicly traded company. He firmly believes that the technology exists to make his ambitious goals possible, and that the real problem is the refusal of the rest of the power industry to adapt and change.

Crane likes to say that when he first started hearing about carbon emissions, he didn’t view it all that seriously. “To be frank,” he said in that same Aspen presentation, “I thought this is just the next pollutant that we have to deal with.” But once he got religion — and realized, as he put it, that power producers like NRG are “the biggest part of the problem” — he was determined to make his company a leader in reducing carbon.

One of his early moves was to apply for a license to build a new nuclear power plant. (It already co-owns one nuclear plant.) But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 scotched those plans, and NRG wound up writing off more than $300 million. NRG also invested in a wind company, which it sold three years later “because we got a little disenchanted with the way that the wind technology was moving.”

So how is he planning to get that 90 percent reduction? One answer is solar power, in which NRG has invested some $5 billion. Crane is a big believer in the eventual importance of solar, both for consumers — he foresees a day when millions of Americans rely on solar as their primary power source — and for power companies. Even so, Crane told me that solar generates only 3,000 megawatts of the company’s potential for 53,000.

And then there’s coal. When I asked Crane if he would have to eliminate coal to reach his goals, he said no. Coal, he said, will continue to play a big role. A carbon tax would be a great way of reducing emissions. But that is politically impossible.

So, instead, the carbon will need to be captured and then put to some good use. At one of its Texas power plants, NRG is teaming up with JX Nippon of Japan in a $1 billion joint venture to build a carbon-capturing capacity, which it expects will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon each year — some 90 percent of the plant’s emissions. He is also convinced that that carbon will eventually be used to create liquid fuel or get embedded in cement. “We could rebuild America’s roadways with embedded carbon from coal.”

He has another reason for wanting to be out in front on climate change. He says it will make his company more attractive to investors — and consumers. The day is going to come, he believes, when climate change risk will be something investors factor in to their investment decisions. And he believes that the next generation of consumers will demand clean energy. He views the disinvestment campaign now taking place on college campuses as a harbinger of things to come.

“It’s like Wayne Gretzky said,” he told me before hanging up the phone. “We are skating where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.”

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 13, 2014

In “Race, to the Finish” Mr. Blow reviews how we got to this point where African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly Democratic and are suspicious of Republican motives.  Mr. Cohen, in “Mere Human Behavior,” says few resist, and that in a time of terror the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating or cowed.  Mr. Kristof considers “Politicians, Teens and Birth Control.”  He says teenagers may be terrible at planning ahead, but politicians and our country are, too, by failing to invest in comprehensive sex education and birth control.  In “The Lame-Duck Dynasty” Ms. Collins says keeping up with Congress these days is almost like watching a reality TV show. What would we name it?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, the economist and former Richard Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein went on Fox News and delivered a racial tirade completely detached from the the anchor’s line of questioning.

When asked by the anchor about a Fox News poll showing the economy was the No.1 issue for voters, and how that poll result might work for or against Democrats in the midterms, Stein skirted the question altogether and instead spewed an extraordinary string of psychobabble about how “what the White House is trying to do is racialize all politics” by telling lies to African-Americans about how Republican policies would hurt them. He continued: “This president is the most racist president there has ever been in America. He is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans.”

Pat Buchanan, the two-time Republican presidential candidate, assistant to Richard Nixon and White House director of communications for Ronald Reagan, wrote a column this week accusing Democratic strategists of “pushing us to an America where the G.O.P. is predominantly white and the Democratic Party, especially in Dixie, is dominated by persons of color” in their last-minute get-out-the-vote appeals to African-Americans, by invoking Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Jim Crow.

This glosses over a hundred years of history that will be tucked quietly away into some attic of amnesia.

Let’s review how we got to this point where African-Americans vote so overwhelmingly Democratic and are suspicious of Republican motives.

As NPR reported in July, “If you’d walked into a gathering of older black folks 100 years ago, you’d have found that most of them would have been Republican” because it was the “party of Lincoln. Party of the Emancipation. Party that pushed not only black votes but black politicians during that post-bellum period known as Reconstruction.”

As Buchanan, writing in American Conservative, pointed out, “The Democratic Party was the party of slavery, secession and segregation, of ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman and the K.K.K. ‘Bull’ Connor, who turned the dogs loose on black demonstrators in Birmingham, was the Democratic National Committeeman from Alabama.”

But allegiances flipped.

The first wave of defections by African-Americans from Republican to Democrat came with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s. According to the Roosevelt Institute: “As Mary McLeod Bethune once noted, the Roosevelt era represented ‘the first time in their history’ that African-Americans felt that they could communicate their grievances to their government with the ‘expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation.’”

By the mid 1930s, most blacks were voting Democratic, although a sizable percentage remained Republican. Then came the signing of the Civil Rights Act by the Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson — although he wasn’t perfect on the issue of race, and the bill passed partly because of Republican support.

In response to the bill, Barry Goldwater waged a disastrous campaign built in part on his opposition. As NPR put it: “Goldwater can be seen as the godfather (or maybe the midwife) of the current Tea Party. He wanted the federal government out of the states’ business. He believed the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional — although he said that once it had been enacted into law, it would be obeyed. But states, he said, should implement the law in their own time.” Whites were reassured by the message, but blacks were shaken by it.

Richard Nixon, for whom both Stein and Buchanan would work, helped to seal the deal. Nixon had got nearly a third of the African-American vote in his unsuccessful 1960 bid for the White House, but when he ran and won in 1968 he received only 15 percent. In 1972, he was re-elected with just 13 percent of the black vote. That was in part because the Republican brand was already tarnished among blacks and in part because the Nixon campaign used the “Southern strategy” to try to capitalize on racist white flight from the Democratic Party as more blacks moved into it.

As Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips told The New York Times Magazine in 1970: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

That’s right: Republicans wanted the Democrats’ “Negrophobes.”

The history of party affiliations is obviously littered with racial issues. But now, there is considerable quarreling and consternation about the degree to which racial bias is still a party trait or motivating political factor for support of or opposition to particular politicians or policies.

It is clear that our politics were “racialized” long before this president came along — and that structure persists — but that’s not the same as saying the voters are racist.

To get more directly at the issue of racism in political parties, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Politics looked at “a variety of questions on racial attitudes in the General Social Survey” and specifically at “the numbers for white Democrats and white Republicans.”

This wasn’t a perfect or complete measure of racial bias, but more a measure of flagrant bias — the opinions of people aware of their biases and willing to confess them on a survey.

That said, they found that:

“So there’s a partisan gap, although not as large of one as some political commentators might assert. There are white racists in both parties. By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties. They probably represent a slightly larger minority of white Republicans than white Democrats.”

Still, the question is how much of this muck at the bottom of both barrels sullies what’s on top? The best measure many find for this is in the rhetoric and policies of party leaders.

The growing share of the Democratic Party composed of historically marginalized populations — minorities, women, Jews, L.G.B.T.-identified persons — pushes the party toward more inclusive language and stances. The Republican Party, on the other hand, doesn’t have that benefit. They can’t seem to stop the slow drip of offensive remarks, like those of the Republican governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, who referred to the president’s policies last week as “tar babies” or the obsessive-compulsive need to culturally diagnose and condemn black people, like Stein’s saying this week that “the real problem with race in America is a very, very beaten-down, pathetic, self-defeating black underclass.”

At that rate, Republicans will never attract more minorities, try as they may to skip over portions of the racial past or deny the fullness of the racial present.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

When I was a correspondent in Germany 15 years ago, I attended a ceremony at a military base renamed for a soldier in Hitler’s army who disobeyed orders. His name was Anton Schmid. He was a sergeant whose conscience was moved by the suffering of Jews in the Vilnius ghetto.

Thousands were being shot by the Germans, with help from Lithuanian collaborators, every day. It was the same story throughout Lithuania in the fall of 1941. In my grandmother’s home town of Zagaré, more than 2,200 Jews, by the Nazi count, were shot on a single day, Oct. 2, 1941.

In a letter to his wife, Stefi, Schmid described his horror at the sight of this mass murder and of “children being beaten on the way.” He wrote: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.”

Schmid, forging papers for the Jewish underground and hiding children, managed to save more than 250 Jews before he was arrested in 1942 and summarily executed. In his last letter to his wife he wrote, “I merely behaved as a human being.”

But the human beings had all vanished, swept up in the Nazi death trance. “Merely” had become the wrong adverb; “exceptionally” would have been closer. Schmid’s resistance was almost unknown. It can be singular just to be human. It can be very lonely. It can cost your human life.

I thought of Schmid when I was asked recently to give a talk at Groton School (alma mater of Franklin D. Roosevelt) in Massachusetts honoring Ron Ridenhour. A helicopter gunner in Vietnam, he gathered information that led to the official probe into the 1968 My Lai massacre. He did not do what was easy. He did what was right. He took on entrenched interests within the U.S. military, bureaucratic resistance and personal hostility from fellow G.I.s and from his superiors.

His actions led to the conviction of William Calley for the murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Ridenhour broke ranks, at considerable personal risk, in the name of truth, decency and justice.

Massacres tend to take place in giddy seasons when passions boil up, judgment is jettisoned, and the herd instinct of the human race rises. Suddenly the stranger is the enemy; suddenly all is permitted; suddenly societal restraints and taboos are lifted; suddenly blood rises and is spilt.

To stand apart, in conscience, at moments like this, is rare. The fact is few resist. In a time of terror, the mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating, or cowed.

The righteous few move to an inner compass. Their anonymous acts, however hopeless, constitute a powerful rebuke to perpetrator and bystander. Resistance is never pointless, even if short-lived or doomed. The “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square, never identified, is still riveting.

Whether to opt for conscience or convenience is a recurrent question. For me, although I did not realize it fully at the time, it was posed very early by exposure to Apartheid in South Africa. The easy thing and the right are seldom the same. In a time of conflict, the stakes are raised because choosing one or the other can be a matter of life and death. To save yourself or save another: It can come down to that.

My parents left South Africa in 1957 because they could not abide the abuse and the waste of apartheid. I was not quite 2 but had already absorbed what racism is, felt it like a microbe in the blood. When I became politically conscious, in my teens, I refused for several years to go back. Among my family, there were those who resisted, an aunt in particular who joined the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement. She was always skirting arrest.

But most of my relatives went along, as did most of the Jews. I heard more than one remark that when you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks, you don’t have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. The blacks were a buffer against what had happened in Europe. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches and gas chambers of the Europe they had fled, the Sharpeville massacre and the sight of blacks without passes being bundled into the back of police vans were discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. With conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans — the lawyers who defended Nelson Mandela were overwhelmingly Jews who took that risk), most Jews preferred to look away.

How, people ask, could the Holocaust happen? How could a civilized nation in the middle of Europe get away with industrialized mass murder? Because the Schmids and Ridenhours of this world are rare; it is easier to avert one’s gaze.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Here’s a story of utter irresponsibility: About one-third of American girls become pregnant as teenagers.

But it’s not just a story of heedless girls and boys who don’t take precautions. This is also a tale of national irresponsibility and political irresponsibility — of us as a country failing our kids by refusing to invest in comprehensive sex education and birth control because we, too, don’t plan ahead.

I kind of understand how a teenage couple stuffed with hormones and enveloped in each other’s arms could get carried away. But I’m just bewildered that American politicians, stuffed with sanctimony and enveloped in self-righteousness, don’t adequately invest at home or abroad in birth-control programs that would save the government money, chip away at poverty, reduce abortions and empower young people.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem particularly interested in these investments. The inflation-adjusted sum spent on Title X family planning in the United States has fallen by two-thirds since 1980.

A few depressing facts:

•• American teenagers become pregnant at a rate of about one a minute.

•• Some 82 percent of births to teenagers in the U.S. are unplanned.

•• American and European teenagers seem to be sexually active at roughly similar rates, although Americans may start a bit earlier. But the American teenage birthrate is three times Spain’s rate, five times France’s, and 15 times Switzerland’s.

•• Young Americans show a lack of understanding of where babies come from. Among teenagers who unintentionally became pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the most cited reason for not using contraception was “I didn’t think I could become pregnant.” And 18 percent of young men somehow believed that having sex standing up helps prevent pregnancy, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Hello?

A teenager who has a baby often derails her own education and puts the child on a troubled trajectory as well. In Oklahoma last year, I met one family where the matriarch had a baby at 13, her daughter had a baby at 15, and that child, in turn, gave birth at 13. That’s how poverty replicates.

Medicaid spends an average of $12,770 for a birth. Yet we spend only $8 per teenage girl on programs to avoid pregnancy. In financial terms, that’s nuts. In human terms, it’s a tragedy.

Internationally, we and other donor countries also underinvest in family planning in poor countries. Globally, 220 million women don’t want to become pregnant but lack access to contraception.

Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has written an important new book, “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.” She notes that most young single moms in America don’t intend to become pregnant but drift into it fatalistically, partly because they rely solely on condoms or other less reliable forms of birth control.

Condoms are 82 percent effective in preventing pregnancy in any one year, according to the C.D.C. But that means that after four years of relying only on condoms, most women will have become pregnant at least once.

So Sawhill advocates a move to what she calls “childbearing by design, not by default.” That means providing long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs, to at-risk girls and young women who want them. LARCs are IUDs, or implants that can remain in place for years, and the failure rate is negligible.

Teenage birthrates in America have already dropped by more than half since 1991. But Sawhill calculates that if LARCs became much more widespread, the proportion of children born outside marriage could drop by a quarter, and the proportion of children who are poor would drop sharply as well.

“By turning drifters into planners, we would not only help those women achieve their own goals but also create much stronger starts for their children,” Sawhill writes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged doctors to recommend LARCs for sexually active teenagers. One obstacle is the initial cost — $500 to $1,000 — so that many young people can’t afford them.

A study in St. Louis offered free birth control, including LARCs, to sexually active teenagers and found that pregnancy rates for them plunged by more than three-quarters. Abortions fell by a similar rate. That’s what we need nationwide.

The Affordable Care Act provides free access to all forms of contraception, which helps. But many pediatricians aren’t trained in inserting LARCs.

So we need more women’s health clinics, yet, instead, some are being closed as casualties of abortion wars. Moreover, states and schools should embrace comprehensive sex education, teaching contraception, the benefits of delaying sex and, also, the responsibility of boys.

A starting point for the United States should be to rebuild Title X spending on family planning. Surely we can afford to spend as much in this area as we did back in 1980.

So, of course, let’s ask teenagers to show responsibility toward sex. But let’s demand the same of our politicians.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

How am I going to get you interested in the lame-duck Congress? Did you even know they came back? Perhaps it’s like reports that Randy Jackson is leaving “American Idol” — the amazing news is that “American Idol” is still on the air.

See? You’re already a little more engaged because I mentioned an old hit television show. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

There actually is an interesting “American Idol” story abroad in the political world these days. Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken ran as a Democrat for Congress in North Carolina this year. It was an effort so improbable that it inspired little hope even among Democrats who believed their party was going to do very well in the elections. And, indeed, Aiken lost by 18 percentage points. Although he turned out to be a sort of a winner, since he was secretly filming his entire adventure for a four-part reality TV series for the Esquire Network.

Perhaps you did not even know there was an Esquire Network, although its programming, which includes “Brew Dogs,” “Friday Night Tykes” and “White Collar Brawlers” is currently available in more than 74 million American households.

Some of Aiken’s donors demanded that their faces be blotted out of what the creators like to refer to as the “documentary.” Really, you should not drag innocent bystanders into your reality TV show. People should be more considerate, like Senators Martin Heinrich and Jeff Flake, who staged their “Rival Survival” show on a deserted island, where there was absolutely nobody for the camera to film except the two politicians.

The theme of “Rival Survival,” which aired recently on the Discovery Channel (“Naked and Afraid,” “Dude, You’re Screwed,” “Moonshiners”), was whether two lawmakers from opposing parties could get along when left alone on a remote island with no food, water or shelter. And the answer was: Yes! Heinrich and Flake got along great. They also proved incapable of building a proper camp, boiling water or catching any fish. I believe there is an important metaphor in there somewhere.

But about the lame-duck Congress.

The House and Senate are back. Much like “Rival Survival,” the big suspense involves whether the chastened Democrats and empowered Republicans will manage to work together.

On Wednesday, the initial answer was: For sure! “I have been able to strike compromise with my Republican colleagues, and I’m ready to do it again,” said the majority leader, Harry Reid, when the Senate staggered back into session. Reid said Congress should listen to the will of the voters — who, he noted quickly, had voted in four red states to raise the minimum wage.

“Let’s step back and focus on what can be accomplished together,” said the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. He most definitely made no mention of the minimum wage.

“Let’s begin with trusting each other, moving forward and passing the Keystone pipeline,” said Democrat Mary Landrieu.

Yes! Keystone XL. Landrieu is facing a runoff election Dec. 6, and she wants to send a message to her state that she knows how to help Big Oil.

“Elections have consequences,” she said, calling for a quick vote on a bill authorizing construction of the pipeline. “And this one does. … And one of the consequences is that a clear path for Keystone has been opened up.”

Wow. Who knew that was the message? Many environmentalists are violently against the Keystone project because it would carry oil to the Gulf refineries from the tar sands of Canada, which is particularly bad when it comes to carbon emissions. The pipeline may wind up getting built anyway, but nothing is going to happen until a court case over its route is resolved in Nebraska. A vote right now by Congress would be meaningless, and it’s a terrible moment to take a symbolic stand, since President Obama was just in China, announcing an agreement on fighting global warming.

There’s that. But then, on the other hand, there’s an election in Louisiana. While Landrieu was demanding a vote on her pipeline bill in the Senate, the House was gearing up to pass exactly the same bill, under the sponsorship of Representative Bill Cassidy, who happens to be her opponent in the Senate runoff next month.

There is also going to be a runoff for the House seat in the district Cassidy currently represents. The Democratic candidate is Edwin Edwards, former governor, former incarcerated felon due to a series of political corruption cases and former star of the reality show “The Governor’s Wife,” on A&E (“Storage Wars,” “Duck Dynasty,” “Bad Ink”).

Maybe they could do a series about the Keystone Pipeline (“Tar Sands Tough Guys”) or the Louisiana runoffs. (“Bayou Blowhards”). Or the Lame-Duck Congress! Maybe the nation would get engaged if it could see the behind-the-scenes story of the appropriations process (“Fiscal Cliffhangers”) or the day-to-day achievements of the House of Representatives (“Name That Post Office.”)

All the world’s a stage.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

November 6, 2014

In “Looking Back, Looking Forward” Mr. Blow says now Republicans must demonstrate that they are capable of solutions, and not just sullenness. They have to pass actual legislation.  Which means President Obama had better get out the veto pen…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Bear Turns,” says the West needs a new policy to resist, restrain and retain Russia.  Yes, Mr. Cohen, by all means let’s resurrect the Cold War.  That was such fun.  Mr. Kristof considers “America’s Broken Politics” and says we painlessly inherited democracy, but by allowing political dysfunction to set in, we’ve botched it.  Ms. Collins says we should “Always Look on the Bright Side,” and that there are some positive ways to interpret the midterms. You just have to look for them.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Republicans proved Tuesday that the establishment still knows how to win.

They fielded stronger candidates. They had few gaffes and little going off script. Extreme views were couched in softer language or played down altogether.

Candidates adopted a faux rustic aura, like a strip mall Olive Garden. The campaigns were savvy in their simplicity: anti-Obama, anti-Washington. Republicans damaged the Obama brand as best they could, then attached all Democratic candidates to it.

As the Weekly Standard reported last week:

“According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), Republicans ran nearly 12,000 anti-Obamacare ads in Senate races during the week of October 13-19. That’s almost twice as many ads as they ran on jobs/unemployment, more than twice as many as they ran on international affairs, and more than three times as many as they ran on taxes. In fact, it’s more than they ran on jobs/unemployment, taxes, and social issues combined. It’s also more than they ran on jobs/unemployment and immigration combined.”

Over the same period, but to a far lesser degree, Democrats focused more on issues like education, Social Security, prescription drugs and social issues.

And outside money played a large part in it. As Nicholas Confessore reported in The New York Times, “All told, Republican outside groups spent about $205 million on television advertising, according to a Democrat tracking media purchases, while Democratic groups spent $132 million,” and “the political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch appeared to be the largest overall source of outside television spending on behalf of Republicans.”

The nearly dimwitted, Goober-esque affectations came together with an ocean of dark money in a midterm where the map and the math already favored them to give Democrats a drubbing.

It didn’t help that the Republican strategy pushed Democrats so far back on their heels that they never found enough footing to trumpet their own successes. Many were so busy running away from an association with the president that they never got around to running on Democratic principle.

This was a huge mistake. When someone from your party occupies the White House, you are shackled to them no matter what you say. Better to move together than chop off your own leg trying to free yourself.

Now the president has to determine if there is common ground to be found with a newly ascendant Republican legislature, and Republicans have to determine if they want to squander their victory on vengeance and if they can quash their own internal civil war.

One could certainly make the argument that the president, with an eye toward legacy and posterity, would want to find some areas of compromise, possibly on tax and energy policies. Part of a presidency is judged by which major bills are passed during it, and the present obstructionist do-nothing Congress has certainly hampered the Obama presidency in that respect.

Taking the next few months, before the 2016 presidential race truly sucks all the air out of Washington, to make some headway might be good for him.

However, during a news conference on Wednesday, the president was not contrite or cowed. He presented as a man hopeful for a little compromise but bracing for a lot of fighting. He didn’t tuck his tail as much as bare his fangs.

This defiant stance could actually stiffen the spines of some staunch progressives who are already looking at a list of promises by Obama, only about half of which have been kept in full, according to PolitiFact (some compromises were made and some efforts were simply blocked), and feeling some commingling of betrayal, buyer’s remorse and battle fatigue.

There may even be a compromise to be had on immigration. The president reiterated Wednesday that he would issue an executive order first but, if Congress could pass comprehensive legislation afterward, the order would be supplanted.

On the Republican side, they have a conundrum. As the saying goes: “Be careful what you set your heart upon — for it will surely be yours.”

Republicans ran against Washington, but now they are Washington. Now that they control both houses of Congress, they must demonstrate that they are capable of solutions, and not just sullenness. They have to pass actual legislation and not just demonstration bills that the president will be sure to veto.

Obama has vetoed only two bills in six years. That’s the fewest since James Garfield, who held the office for only 200 days. Obama’s pen has plenty of ink, and I’m sure he’s itching to use it.

The American people, for their part, are eager to have their faith reaffirmed that Washington is not irreparably broken and that our politicians aren’t implacably insolent.

There is only a small window for politicians in Washington to provide some proof.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

For close to a quarter-century there was a basic assumption in the West about Russia: It would, with zigzags and pauses, after huffs and hesitations, gradually integrate with the Western world. Whatever the misgivings in Moscow about the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this appeared to be the course set in the Kremlin, more energetically by Dmitri Medvedev, but even by earlier incarnations of Vladimir Putin.

From Berlin to Washington, the idea was that interdependence would grow. Russian membership (now suspended) in the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries was an important sign of the direction set. Modernity would do its work, breeding openness and connectedness. Autocracy and crony capitalism would yield over time (maybe even a long time, but still) to more representative government in Moscow and law-based markets.

This view of Russia, it is now clear, was wrong. Putin has decided on another course. He has opted for confrontation with the West as the basis for Russian development and the consolidation of his own power. Perhaps it was the street protests in Moscow of late 2011. Perhaps it was a perception of Western perfidy in Libya earlier that year. Perhaps it was some inkling about a moment of American weakness. Perhaps it really was the upheaval in Ukraine. Perhaps it was simply his inner K.G.B. officer rising to the surface as the years advanced.

In the end the reasons are secondary to the reality, which is that Putin has changed direction, igniting a wave of Russian nationalism. This is perhaps the greatest strategic volte-face of the 21st century, with huge and as yet scarcely digested implications. It is Putin who has pivoted to Asia, far more than President Obama, as Russia’s $400 billion gas deal with China this year suggests. He has lost interest in the West as the magnet of Russian development, portraying it rather as the flawed and predatory civilization against which a new Russia can define itself.

Did the West lose Russia? Certainly more could have been done to reassure Moscow and knit the fabric of interdependence closer. The Cold War’s peaceful end was, after all, the work of Mikhail Gorbachev, as much as anyone’s; the ending did not have to yield a stark narrative of winner and loser, much less Western triumphalism.

But the attempt at outreach to Russia from Washington and European capitals was real. Putin’s talk of Russian encirclement is baloney. The expansion of NATO was, on balance, a wise call, laying the basis for freedom and rapid development from Poland to the Baltics, as well as paying a Western debt to abandoned and imprisoned Central Europeans that dated from Yalta. Nothing is more certain than that, absent NATO membership, events in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia would have borne a striking resemblance to those in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years. Putin’s Russia would have bitten back in any Baltic no man’s land. Poland would not be the little miracle of development it is today without its anchor in the Western alliance.

The past, in any event, is gone. What matters now is determining how to deal with the new Russia. Karl Kaiser, an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me that in recent meetings with Russian foreign policy experts one of the most striking things was their conviction that Western economic sanctions against Moscow for the annexation of Crimea could be a useful stimulus to a more autarchic model of development that would work well for Russia. “It’s actually quite scary,” he said.

In Washington, the mood is one of exasperation. Resets with Russia: been there, done that. In Europe, where Germany played a pivotal role in the imposition of sanctions, the mood is rather different. European trade with Russia dwarfs that of the United States. Russia is a critical supplier of energy. At a deeper level, most Europeans feel long-term security on the Continent can only be assured with Russia, rather than against it. If “limited conflict” with the West, as one senior German diplomat put it to me, is now Putin’s preferred approach, how is that to be managed? Germany is in the midst of an in-depth foreign policy review to be concluded early next year. Answering that question must be one of its priorities.

The Russian annexation of Crimea was an outrage, and Putin’s stirring-up of a bloody little war in eastern Ukraine an act of boundless cynicism. The danger now is that his anti-Western turn could spill over into arms control issues. The last thing the world needs is a new Russian-American arms race.

This is not a second Cold War. It is the end of a Western illusion. Cooperation is still possible; there are signs of Russian helpfulness on Iran. But Europe and the United States have not yet framed a policy that at once resists, restrains and retains Russia. It must, for the new reality is combustible.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Let’s face it: The American political system is broken.

The midterm elections were a stinging repudiation of President Obama, but Republicans should also feel chastened: A poll last year found Congress less popular than cockroaches.

So congratulations to those members celebrating election victories. But our democratic institutions are in trouble when they can’t outpoll cockroaches. Which didn’t even campaign.

“Politics is the noblest of professions,” President Eisenhower said in 1954, and politics in the past often seemed a bright path toward improving our country. President Clinton represented a generation that regarded politics as a tool to craft a better world, and President Obama himself mobilized young voters with his gauzy message of hope. He presented himself as the politician who could break Washington’s gridlock and get things done — and we’ve seen how well that worked.

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

A national exit poll conducted by Edison Research found that a majority of voters disapproved of Republicans and Democrats alike, and only 20 percent trust Washington to do what’s right most or all the time.

President Obama is licking his wounds in the White House, and he doesn’t seem to accept that the election is a judgment on his presidency. I’m sorry. When Democrats lose in Colorado and struggle in Virginia, when voters say they’re sending a message to the White House, it’s time for Obama to shake up his staff, reach out beyond his insular circle of longtime aides, and recalibrate.

Critics are right that he should try harder to schmooze with legislators, although I’m skeptical that Republicans are that charmable. After all, some polls have shown more than a third in the Republican Party said he was born abroad and about one-fifth suspected that he could be the antichrist.

Yet it’s not just Obama who is looking ragged today. The entire political system is. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have charted the attitudes of the political parties back to 1879, and they found party polarization in recent years to be greater than at any time since their charts began.

That’s partly because Democrats have become more liberal, but mostly because Republicans have become more conservative — indeed, more conservative than at any time since 1879.

Politicians have also figured out what works for their own careers: playing to their base, denouncing the other side, and blocking rivals from getting credit for anything. Since many politicians are more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election, there’s not much incentive for compromise.

After Obama took office, Republicans assiduously tried to block him, even shutting down the federal government. Republican governors prevented their own citizens from getting health insurance through federally financed Medicaid. I see that as obstructionism, but it paid off in these midterms.

Bravo to Obama’s comments Wednesday about trying to cooperate with Republicans on issues including early education. But I’m not holding my breath. Incentives today militate against bipartisan cooperation, and that’s one reason the current Congress is on track to be the least productive in the post-World War II era.

(Maybe we taxpayers could save money by paying members of Congress not by salary but by the piece, so much for each enacted law?)

One bright spot in the midterms was voter action on ballot measures. They did actually break the gridlock. Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana in some situations. Five states supported an increase in the minimum wage. Washington State approved universal background checks for gun purchases. California reduced prison sentences.

So even if politicians are stalemated, voters managed to get things done. Yet we also get the national government we deserve, and that’s an indictment of all of us.

I find America’s political dysfunction particularly sad because I’ve spent much of my journalistic career covering people risking their lives for democracy, and sometimes dying for it — from Taiwan to Ukraine, Congo to South Korea. It was 25 years ago that I saw people massacred near Tiananmen Square for demanding political change. They risked their lives because they dreamed that democracy would improve their lives and give them greater freedom and dignity.

For those of us in the United States it was easy. We painlessly inherited democracy, yet I’m afraid we’ve botched it.

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

Our topic for today is: looking on the post-election bright side.

The polling places hadn’t even opened before the Senate’s right-wing firebrand, Ted Cruz, was demanding that the majority-leader in-waiting, Mitch McConnell, take a hard line against President Obama or risk losing his new job. Cruz is from Texas, and he wants to recreate the Alamo, if you can imagine Obamacare in disguise as the Mexican Army.

Think of that as a plus. The one thing McConnell and his supporters dislike more than the Democratic agenda is Ted Cruz. It could be an important bonding opportunity. President Obama has never spent much time with the Republican leadership, but now you can sort of imagine them sitting around, sipping drinks and making fun of what Cruz said on Fox News.

Another potential downer: Republicans have fewer veteran women in the Senate, so when they take over there will be fewer women running important committees. But, on the plus side, the overall number of women in Congress will rise, albeit at a rate that would get us to equal representation sometime around 2078. Once all the votes are counted, Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says the percentage of women in the House and Senate, now 18.2 percent, will, at best, go up to “maybe 19.3” percent.

“We’re calling it Not a Landmark Year,” Walsh said.

This could be a useful exercise in living with lowered expectations. Washington might actually want to embrace “Not a Landmark Year” as a slogan. If Ted Cruz tries to get the House Republicans to run the country off a fiscal cliff, the moderates could start chanting: “NALY! NALY!”

Let’s try one more positive interpretation of what the election has wrought: There’s a school of thought that believes Tuesday was actually a great day for reproductive rights. Let me take you through it.

The front lines of the anti-abortion movement belong to the “personhood” people, who strive to give constitutional rights and protections to the “preborn” from the moment of conception. When Americans are confronted with this idea, they quickly come to hate it. Personhood amendments have been defeated wherever they pop up, including Mississippi. This year, one was rejected in Colorado for the third time, by around 65 percent to 35 percent. A personhood amendment lost in North Dakota, 64 percent to 36 percent. In addition, the state senator who was its major sponsor lost her re-election bid, as did one of the measure’s more outspoken House supporters.

We are only mentioning those last details because the number of state legislators who are defeated for re-election in this country is about as low as the number of state legislators who are endowed with the power of levitation.

This year, not only were the personhood proposals rejected, candidates who had previously supported the movement started madly backing away. The most famous example was in Colorado, where Representative Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate candidate, suddenly realized a state personhood amendment was a “bad idea.” In a move that left debate questioners incredulous, Gardner insisted that a personhood bill he had co-sponsored in Congress would have no effect, but was “simply a statement that I support life.”

Gardner also announced that he believed birth control pills should be available over the counter. He made a TV ad about it and sent out pink mailings.

Gardner’s turnaround was so swift and strange that the incumbent senator, Mark Udall, made it the center of his campaign. A Denver Post editorial claimed it was Udall’s “obnoxious” obsession. Now to me, obnoxious is a candidate who steals his opponent’s yard signs. Or who opposes abortions except for the one he pressured his mistress to get, like that guy in Tennessee. But whatever. Udall lost.

Planned Parenthood sent out a press release describing Colorado as an absolute triumph: “Voters have made clear that you can’t win statewide elections in Colorado by openly opposing women’s health and restricting access to safe and legal abortion.”

The theory here — and I am really going to go with it — is that the real story is not anti-choice Republicans weaseling around their political history, but voters of America forcing anti-choice candidates to change their positions.

“Cory Gardner ran aggressively as a supporter of women’s issues. It was sort of a miraculous conversion. We’ll be happy to hold him to it,” said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a phone interview.

The question is what happens when people like Gardner get into office. McConnell promised that he’d bring up a bill in the Senate banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Would the repentant personhood backers go along? At the very least, they would appear to be obliged to add language vastly expanding women’s access to free birth control.

O.K., it’s not an ideal compromise. But then it’s not a landmark year.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

October 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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