Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

April 4, 2014

Bobo seems to have lost what passed for his mind.  In “Party All the Time” he actually tells us that the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision strengthens democracy by enabling the parties to take back power from major donors.  “Eric Flatpick” of Ohio sums the thing up succinctly:  “What pigheaded sophistry.”  Mr. Flatpick had more to say about it, but the summation says it all.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “In Search of Home:”  If you had a few weeks to live, where would you go?  In “Rube Goldberg Survives” Prof. Krugman tells us why those seven million enrollments in Obamacare matter.  Here’s Bobo’s delayed April Fools Day POS:

Over the last several decades, the United States has adopted a series of campaign finance reform laws. If these laws were designed to reduce the power of money in politics, they have failed. Spending on political campaigns has exploded. Washington booms with masses of lobbyists and consultants.

But campaign finance laws weren’t merely designed to take money out of politics; they were designed to protect incumbents from political defeat. In this regard, the laws have been fantastically successful.

The laws rigged the system to make it harder for challengers to raise money. In 1972, at about the time the Federal Election Campaign Act was first passed, incumbents had a campaign spending advantage over challengers of about 3 to 2. These days, incumbents have a spending advantage of at least 4 to 1. In some election years, 98 percent of the incumbents are swept back into office.

One of the ways incumbents secured this advantage is by weakening the power of the parties. They imposed caps on how much donors can give to parties and how much parties can give directly to candidates. By 2008, direct party contributions to Senate candidates accounted for only 0.18 percent of total spending.

The members of Congress did this because an unregulated party can direct large amounts of money to knock off an incumbent of the opposing party. By restricting parties, incumbents defanged a potent foe.

These laws pushed us from a party-centric campaign system to a candidate-centric system. This change has made life less pleasant for lawmakers but it has made their jobs more secure, and they have been willing to accept this trade-off.

Life is less pleasant because with the parties weakened, lawmakers have to do many campaign tasks on their own. They have to do their own fund-raising and their own kissing up to special interests. They have to hire consultants to do the messaging tasks that parties used to do.

But incumbents accept this because the candidate-centric system makes life miserable for challengers. With direct contributions severely limited and parties defanged, challengers find it hard to quickly build the vast network of donors they need to raise serious cash. High-quality challengers choose not to run because they don’t want to spend their lives begging for dough.

The shift to a candidate-centric system was horrifically antidemocratic. It pushed money from transparent, tightly regulated parties to the shadowy world of PACs and 527s. It weakened party leaders, who have to think about building broad national coalitions, and gave power to special interests.

Then came the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which managed to make everything even worse. It moved us from a candidate-centric system to a donor-centric system. Donors were unleashed to create their own opaque yet torrential money flows outside both parties and candidates. This created an explosion in the number of groups with veto power over legislation and reform. It polarized politics further because donors tend to be more extreme than politicians or voters. The candidate-centric system empowered special interests; the donor-centric system makes them practically invincible.

Then along came the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision this week. It has been greeted with cries of horror because it may increase the amount of money in politics. But this is the wrong metric. There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise. The crucial question is where is the money flowing.

The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and “super PACs.” It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.

In their book “Better Parties, Better Government,” Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora propose the best way to reform campaign finance: eliminate the restrictions on political parties to finance the campaigns of their candidates; loosen the limitations on giving to parties; keep the limits on giving to PACs.

Parties are not perfect, Lord knows. But they have broad national outlooks. They foster coalition thinking. They are relatively transparent. They are accountable to voters. They ally with special interests, but they transcend the influence of any one. Strengthened parties will make races more competitive and democracy more legitimate. Strong parties mobilize volunteers and activists and broaden political participation. Unlike super PACs, parties welcome large numbers of people into the political process.

Since the progressive era, campaign reformers have intuitively distrusted parties. These reformers seem driven by a naïve hope that they can avoid any visible concentration of power. But their approach to reform has manifestly failed. By restricting parties, they just concentrated power in ways that are much worse.

Sweet baby Jesus on a tricycle…  I guess Bobo missed the spectacle of pretty much all the Republican “front runners” prostrating themselves before the loathsome Sheldon Adelson.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In a fascinating recent essay in The London Review of Books, called “On Not Going Home,” James Wood relates how he “asked Christopher Hitchens, long before he was terminally ill, where he would go if he had only a few weeks to live. Would he stay in America? ‘No, I’d go to Dartmoor, without a doubt,’ he told me. It was the landscape of his childhood.”

It was the landscape, in other words, of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.

That question is worth repeating: If I had only a few weeks to live, where would I go? It is a good way of getting rid of the clutter that distracts or blinds. I will get to that in a moment.

In the essay, Wood, who grew up in England but has lived in the United States for 18 years, explores a certain form of contemporary homelessness — lives lived without the finality of exile, but also without the familiarity of home.

He speaks of existences “marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end.”

This is a widespread modern condition; perhaps it is the modern condition. Out of it, often, comes anxiety. Wood does not focus on the psychological effects of what he calls “a certain outsider-dom,” but if you dig into people who are depressed you often find that their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.

Wood describes looking at the familiar life of his Boston street, “the heavy maple trees, the unkempt willow down at the end, an old white Cadillac with the bumper sticker ‘Ted Kennedy has killed more people than my gun,’ and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there — just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: How did I get here?”

Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York, I understand that how-did-I-get-here panic. But Wood and I differ. He has no desire to become an American citizen.

He quotes an immigration officer telling him, “‘A Green Card is usually considered a path to citizenship,’ and continues: “He was generously saying, ‘Would you like to be an American citizen?’ along with the less generous: ‘Why don’t you want to be an American citizen?’ Can we imagine either sentiment being expressed at Heathrow airport?”

No, we can’t. And it’s that essential openness of America, as well as the (linked) greater ease of living as a Jew in the United States compared with life in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites,” that made me become an American citizen and elect New York as my home. It’s the place that takes me in.

But it is not the place of my deepest connections. So, what if I had a few weeks to live? I would go to Cape Town, to my grandfather’s house, Duxbury, looking out over the railway line near Kalk Bay station to the ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. During my childhood, there was the scent of salt and pine and, in certain winds, a pungent waft from the fish processing plant in Fish Hoek. I would dangle a little net in rock pools and find myself hypnotized by the silky water and quivering life in it. The heat, not the dry high-veld heat of Johannesburg but something denser, pounded by the time we came back from the beach at lunchtime. It reverberated off the stone, angled into every recess. The lunch table was set and soon enough fried fish, usually firm-fleshed kingklip, would be served, so fresh it seemed to burst from its batter. At night the lights of Simon’s Town glittered, a lovely necklace strung along a promontory.

This was a happiness whose other name was home.

Wood writes: “Freud has a wonderful word, ‘afterwardness,’ which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: It is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Yes, being not quite home, acceptance, which may be bountiful, is what is left to us.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Holy seven million, Batman! The Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start. As the March 31 deadline for 2014 coverage approached, there was a surge in applications at the “exchanges” — the special insurance marketplaces the law set up. And the original target of seven million signups, widely dismissed as unattainable, has been surpassed.

But what does it mean? That depends on whether you ask the law’s opponents or its supporters. You see, the opponents think that it means a lot, while the law’s supporters are being very cautious. And, in this one case, the enemies of health reform are right. This is a very big deal indeed.

Of course, you don’t find many Obamacare opponents admitting outright that 7.1 million and counting signups is a huge victory for reform. But their reaction to the results — It’s a fraud! They’re cooking the books! — tells the tale. Conservative thinking and Republican political strategy were based entirely on the assumption that it would always be October, that Obamacare’s rollout would be an unremitting tale of disaster. They have no idea what to do now that it’s turning into a success story.

So why are many reform supporters being diffident, telling us not to read too much into the figures? Well, at a technical level they’re right: The precise number of signups doesn’t matter much for the functioning of the law, and there may still be many problems despite the March surge. But I’d argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees.

The crucial thing to understand about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s a Rube Goldberg device, a complicated way to do something inherently simple. The biggest risk to reform has always been that the scheme would founder on its complexity. And now we know that this won’t happen.

Remember, giving everyone health insurance doesn’t have to be hard; you can just do it with a government-run program. Not only do many other advanced countries have “single-payer,” government-provided health insurance, but we ourselves have such a program — Medicare — for older Americans. If it had been politically possible, extending Medicare to everyone would have been technically easy.

But it wasn’t politically possible, for a couple of reasons. One was the power of the insurance industry, which couldn’t be cut out of the loop if you wanted health reform this decade. Another was the fact that the 170 million Americans receiving health insurance through employers are generally satisfied with their coverage, and any plan replacing that coverage with something new and unknown was a nonstarter.

So health reform had to be run largely through private insurers, and be an add-on to the existing system rather than a complete replacement. And, as a result, it had to be somewhat complex.

Now, the complexity shouldn’t be exaggerated: The basics of reform only take a few minutes to explain. And it has to be as complicated as it is. There’s a reason Republicans keep defaulting on their promise to propose an alternative to the Affordable Care Act: All the main elements of Obamacare, including the subsidies and the much-attacked individual mandate, are essential if you want to cover the uninsured.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration created a system in which people don’t simply receive a letter from the federal government saying “Congratulations, you are now covered.” Instead, people must go online or make a phone call and choose from a number of options, in which the cost of insurance depends on a calculation that includes varying subsidies, and so on. It’s a system in which many things can go wrong; the nightmare scenario has always been that conservatives would seize on technical problems to discredit health reform as a whole. And last fall that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

But the nightmare is over. It has long been clear, to anyone willing to study the issue, that the overall structure of Obamacare made sense given the political constraints. Now we know that the technical details can be managed, too. This thing is going to work.

And, yes, it’s also a big political victory for Democrats. They can point to a system that is already providing vital aid to millions of Americans, and Republicans — who were planning to run against a debacle — have nothing to offer in response. And I mean nothing. So far, not one of the supposed Obamacare horror stories featured in attack ads has stood up to scrutiny.

So my advice to reform supporters is, go ahead and celebrate. Oh, and feel free to ridicule right-wingers who confidently predicted doom.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work ahead, and we can count on the news media to play up every hitch and glitch as if it were an existential disaster. But Rube Goldberg has survived; health reform has won.

Cohen and Krugman

March 28, 2014

Mr. Cohen considers “Obama’s Anemic Speech in Europe” and says Western democracies cannot resonate when they fail their own citizens.  Prof. Krugman, in “America’s Taxation Tradition,” addresses how we got from Teddy Roosevelt to Mitt Romney and our attitudes on wealth and inequality.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Having pivoted to Asia and done the de rigueur minimum over several years to keep the trans-Atlantic alliance off life-support, Barack Obama awakened with a jolt to Europe this week and, on his first visit to Brussels as president, spoke of “inseparable allies” with a shared mission to demonstrate that Russia cannot “run roughshod over its neighbors.”

Shaken from a view of Europe as a kind of 20th-century yawn, Obama spoke of freedom and the ideas that bind the United States and Europe still in an ongoing “contest of ideas” against autocracy and “brute force.” He rightly rejected the notion that this is “another Cold War that we’re entering into,” noting that President Vladimir Putin of Russia represents “no global ideology.”

He spoke in timely fashion of “our Article 5 duty” under the North Atlantic Treaty to respond with force to any attack on a NATO country, important reassurance to the Baltic states, among others. This military commitment was backed by reference to the need for “very real contingency plans” to protect NATO nations in Central and Eastern Europe. Those plans, to date, have been inadequate. Overall, the combination of sanctions against Russia, economic support for Ukraine, and the dispatch of additional military forces eastward sent a clear message to Putin — one that will not reverse Russia’s Crimea annexation but may stop him going any further.

Better late than never: The Russian president has benefited from the perception of a United States in full-tilt, war-weary retrenchment; of American red lines turning amber and then green; of a divided European Union; and a hollow NATO living more on the past than any vision of a 21st-century future. Obama has been making up for lost ground.

Still, his Brussels speech, presented as a capstone of his visit and one of those Obama specials designed to offset with eloquence a deficit of deeds, was a poor performance overall, a jejune collection of nostrums about binding values of free-market Western societies and their appeal to the hearts (and pocketbooks) of people throughout the world, not least Ukrainians.

The problem is not that these propositions are untrue. The United States and the European Union are still magnets to the poor and disenfranchised of the earth. The problem is not even that an argument that the Iraq war (with its myriad dead) is somehow more defensible than Crimea is impossible to win. The problem is Obama needed to be more honest.

The fact is the Western democracies he was exalting have been failing to deliver, and autocrats of the world, bare-chested Putin included, benefit indirectly from the resulting disenchantment.

It is not just the soaring unemployment in Europe (likely to prompt a surge by rightist anti-immigrant parties in European Parliament elections this year). It is not just the crisis (contained for now) of the euro and the unresolved issue of how the European integration needed to back the currency is to be achieved. It is not just the widespread disillusionment with a navel-gazing European Union seen as over-bureaucratic and under-democratic. It is not just the growing income disparities in both Europe and the United States, and the spreading middle-class dystopia, and the sense in democracies on both sides of the Atlantic that money has skewed fairness and electoral processes themselves. It is not just the sense that something has gone seriously wrong with a polarized American democracy where scorched-earth Republicans devote their politics to obstruction, and the government can grind to a halt as it did last year, and a C.E.O. can earn $80 million for a few weeks of work while incomes for most Americans are stagnant. It is not just the National Security Agency eavesdropping and data-vacuuming revelations. It’s not just the loss of a sense of possibility for many young people.

It is all of this. Unless Western societies find a way to shake their moroseness, level the playing field and rediscover, as Obama put it, the “simple truth that all men, and women, are created equal,” they are going to have a very hard time winning “the contest of ideas.”

Instead of a speech of weary worthiness, Obama should have addressed how an alliance neglected through much of his presidency can be revived; and how American and European democracies, for all their failings, can right themselves because that is the great distinguishing feature of open societies — their capacity for renewal.

“Now is not the time for bluster,” Obama intoned. “The situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers nor a military solution.”

This is true. But nor is it a time for clichés about the wonders of democracy, freedom, open-market economies, the rule of law and other underpinnings of the West. Not when democracy seems blocked, freedom sometimes selective, open markets cruel and the law harshest on those who have least.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

As inequality has become an increasingly prominent issue in American discourse, there has been furious pushback from the right. Some conservatives argue that focusing on inequality is unwise, that taxing high incomes will cripple economic growth. Some argue that it’s unfair, that people should be allowed to keep what they earn. And some argue that it’s un-American — that we’ve always celebrated those who achieve wealth, and that it violates our national tradition to suggest that some people control too large a share of the wealth.

And they’re right. No true American would say this: “The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and follow that statement with a call for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes … increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

Who was this left-winger? Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous 1910 New Nationalism speech.

The truth is that, in the early 20th century, many leading Americans warned about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration, and urged that tax policy be used to limit the growth of great fortunes. Here’s another example: In 1919, the great economist Irving Fisher — whose theory of “debt deflation,” by the way, is essential in understanding our current economic troubles — devoted his presidential address to the American Economic Association largely to warning against the effects of “an undemocratic distribution of wealth.” And he spoke favorably of proposals to limit inherited wealth through heavy taxation of estates.

Nor was the notion of limiting the concentration of wealth, especially inherited wealth, just talk. In his landmark book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the economist Thomas Piketty points out that America, which introduced an income tax in 1913 and an inheritance tax in 1916, led the way in the rise of progressive taxation, that it was “far out in front” of Europe. Mr. Piketty goes so far as to say that “confiscatory taxation of excessive incomes” — that is, taxation whose goal was to reduce income and wealth disparities, rather than to raise money — was an “American invention.”

And this invention had deep historical roots in the Jeffersonian vision of an egalitarian society of small farmers. Back when Teddy Roosevelt gave his speech, many thoughtful Americans realized not just that extreme inequality was making nonsense of that vision, but that America was in danger of turning into a society dominated by hereditary wealth — that the New World was at risk of turning into Old Europe. And they were forthright in arguing that public policy should seek to limit inequality for political as well as economic reasons, that great wealth posed a danger to democracy.

So how did such views not only get pushed out of the mainstream, but come to be considered illegitimate?

Consider how inequality and taxes on top incomes were treated in the 2012 election. Republicans pushed the line that President Obama was hostile to the rich. “If one’s priority is to punish highly successful people, then vote for the Democrats,” said Mitt Romney. Democrats vehemently (and truthfully) denied the charge. Yet Mr. Romney was in effect accusing Mr. Obama of thinking like Teddy Roosevelt. How did that become an unforgivable political sin?

You sometimes hear the argument that concentrated wealth is no longer an important issue, because the big winners in today’s economy are self-made men who owe their position at the top of the ladder to earned income, not inheritance. But that view is a generation out of date. New work by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman finds that the share of wealth held at the very top — the richest 0.1 percent of the population — has doubled since the 1980s, and is now as high as it was when Teddy Roosevelt and Irving Fisher issued their warnings.

We don’t know how much of that wealth is inherited. But it’s interesting to look at the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. By my rough count, about a third of the top 50 inherited large fortunes. Another third are 65 or older, so they will probably be leaving large fortunes to their heirs. We aren’t yet a society with a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, but, if nothing changes, we’ll become that kind of society over the next couple of decades.

In short, the demonization of anyone who talks about the dangers of concentrated wealth is based on a misreading of both the past and the present. Such talk isn’t un-American; it’s very much in the American tradition. And it’s not at all irrelevant to the modern world. So who will be this generation’s Teddy Roosevelt?

Brooks and Cohen

March 25, 2014

Bobo is trying to convince us he cares.  In “The Republic of Fear” he gurgles that for Americans, security is fundamental. But people in places without our inherited institutions live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty.  It would appear that Bobo has never been out of his neighborhood (where he has vast spaces for entertaining).  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  ” ‘We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold.’ — David Brooks, speaking on behalf of the increasingly pathological American ruling class.  The mafia mentality born of deregulated capitalism and globalization knows no boundaries. The USA may spend more on law and order than anybody, but it’s billions of dollars for a paramilitary police/spy state, anti-Occupy Homeland Security fusion centers, and the biggest prison system in the world. We are all considered potential enemies of the state.”  Mr. Cohen ponders “The Story of the Century.”  He has breaking news on Flight 370: Everything is still on the table.  He’s good at parody, and has nailed CNN dead to rights.  Here’s Bobo:

If you’re reading this, you are probably not buffeted by daily waves of physical terror. You may fear job loss or emotional loss, but you probably don’t fear that somebody is going to slash your throat, or that a gang will invade your house come dinnertime, carrying away your kin and property. We take a basic level of order for granted.

But billions of people live in a different emotional landscape, enveloped by hidden terror. Many of these people live in the developing world.

When we send young people out to help these regions, we tell them they are there to tackle “poverty,” using the sort of economic designation we’re comfortable with. We usually assume that scarcity is the big challenge to be faced. We send them to dig wells or bring bed nets or distribute food or money, and, of course, that’s wonderful work.

But as Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros point out in their gripping and perspective-altering book, “The Locust Effect,” these places are not just grappling with poverty. They are marked by disorder, violence and man-inflicted suffering.

“The relentless threat of violence is part of the core subtext of their lives, but we are unlikely to see it, and they are unlikely to tell us about it. We would be wise, however, to not be fooled — because, like grief, the thing we cannot see may be the deepest part of their day.”

People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there.

In the United States, there is one prosecutor for every 12,000 citizens. In Malawi, there is one prosecutor for every 1.5 million citizens. The prosecutors are just not there.

Even when there is some legal system in place, it’s not designed to impose law and order for the people. It is there to protect the regime from the people. The well-connected want a legal system that can be bought and sold.

Haugen and Boutros tell the story of an 8-year-old Peruvian girl named Yuri whose body was found in the street one morning, her skull crushed in, her legs wrapped in cables and her underwear at her ankles. The evidence pointed to a member of one of the richer families in the town, so the police and prosecutors destroyed the evidence. Her clothing went missing. A sperm sample that could have identified the perpetrator was thrown out. A bloody mattress was sliced down by a third, so that the blood stained spot could be discarded.

Yuri’s family wanted to find the killer, but they couldn’t afford to pay the prosecutor, so nothing was done. The family sold all their livestock to hire lawyers, who took the money but abandoned the case. These sorts of events are utterly typical — the products of legal systems that range from the arbitrary to the Kafkaesque.

We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold. Our fundamental security was established by our ancestors. We tend to assume that the primary problems of politics are economic and that the injustices of the world can be addressed with economic levers. When empires like the Soviet Union collapse, we send in economists with privatization plans instead of cops to help create rule of law. When thuggish autocracies invade their neighbors we impose economic sanctions.

But people without our inherited institutions live on the other side of the threshold and have a different reality. They live within a contagion of chaos. They live where the primary realities include violence, theft and radical uncertainty. Their world is governed less by long-term economic incentives and more by raw fear. In a world without functioning institutions, predatory behavior and the passions of domination and submission blot out economic logic.

The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order. Until that is largely achieved, life can be nasty, brutish and short.

Haugen is president of a human rights organization called the International Justice Mission, which tries to help people around the world build the institutions of law. One virtue of his group is that it stares evil in the eyes and helps local people confront the large and petty thugs who inflict such predatory cruelty on those around them. Not every aid organization is equipped to do this, to confront elemental human behavior when it exists unrestrained by effective law. It’s easier to avoid this reality, to have come-together moments in daytime.

Police training might be less uplifting than some of the other stories that attract donor dollars. But, in every society, order has to be wrung out of exploitation. Unless cruelty is tamed, poverty will persist.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Good morning, this is Brian Bowman of CNN on Day X with breaking news on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: The zombie plane theory still has legs! Some aviation experts say it is gaining steam as the search in the South Indian Ocean, one of the most remote and windy places on the planet, continues in an area somewhere between the size of West Virginia and the United States. Now, what is the zombie scenario? Well, it’s a spooky possibility. That this Triple Seven, after making its famous left turn, flew on autopilot for hours with its crew and passengers incapacitated before crashing into the sea or, if you happen to think the Northern Corridor option is still open, in Central Asia. Of course, there are many theories floating around and vertical gyrations are not an autopilot maneuver and no theory at this point connects all the dots and that is why we have an investigation and why we intend to stay on top of this story.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has invaded Crimea.

Interesting development there, but back to our main story. We can reveal that everything is still on the table. There is so much inconsistent information on Flight 370 that it is frankly anyone’s guess as to what to take as gospel. But here’s some more breaking news: Today’s search is more visual, less technical. That’s because satellites from three countries have spotted what could be debris or even a wooden pallet from the plane floating in the rough seas of the “Roaring Forties,” where winds howl around the bottom of the world. Now the satellite images are blurry. There’s lots of junk in the sea. Wooden pallets are used in airline cargo holds but also in shipping. And, as you know, there were lots of missteps early on by the Malaysian authorities. Information from them has been a mess. So everything is pretty sketchy. Right now we just need a better haystack.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has annexed Crimea.

My apologies for these interruptions, folks; we will keep them to a minimum as we move forward with the mystery of Flight 370 on which, incidentally, lamb satay with peanut sauce was almost certainly served to Business Class and peanuts to Economy just before the flight’s transponder stopped. Here’s some breaking news: Contrary to rumors, the last computer transmission from the plane showed no route change. Is that a game changer? No. But it could undermine theories about the pilots preplanning a hijacking. On the other hand, isn’t it a coincidence too far that between Malaysian air space and Vietnamese air space, right in the dead zone, the plane disappears? Well, we’ve been here before, folks. What we need is solid evidence!

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin of Russia has massed troops on the eastern Ukrainian border.

Other developments, schmother developments: Brian Bowman here bringing you the latest on Flight 370. I must relate a conversation I had with my neighbor this morning. I said I wondered where the plane went, and she said we’ll find out soon, and I asked what she meant, and she said, “Well, they’re coming for America.” And I said “Huh?” and she said, well, they hijacked the plane to come for us. So I asked, “Why us?” And she said, “Well, who else would they be coming for?” As you see, folks, people out there are getting pretty antsy. And here’s some breaking news: Mathematical techniques inspired by an 18th-century Presbyterian minister might help locate the plane. And, gosh, why the heck did the Malaysian authorities hide the fact that this passenger plane was full of lithium batteries, a hazardous and highly inflammable cargo?

NEWS FLASH: Russian troops have invaded eastern Ukraine.

I’ve talked to my producers, folks, and there’ll be no more interruptions in our Flight 370 coverage. Don’t they look at the ratings? So I was reading The Onion and there was this great headline, “Families of Missing Flight Passengers Just Hoping Media Gets Closure It Needs.” Dead on! The piece quoted one relative saying, “This has been an extremely difficult time for the reporters and anchors covering this event; they have put their lives on hold.” And she also said, “It’s not surprising that they are obsessing around the clock, wondering what could have possibly occurred on board that flight.” It was a brilliant story, restored my faith in journalism.

NEWS FLASH: President Vladimir Putin, citing need to restore Russian pride, invades Estonia, NATO member. President Obama says this will not stand. World War III begins.

Folks, Americans are not sleeping tonight. There’s this big object passing over Malaysia and Indonesia. Why were military jets not scrambled? Were the facilities inoperative? Were the personnel asleep? Are they too embarrassed to man up and TELL US? Here’s some big breaking news: We may never know.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 21, 2014

Bobo is in Vancouver, BC at the TED conference.  In “Going Home Again” he says that Sting reminds us all that sometimes you have to gaze back into the past in order to move forward.  “Mark Thomason” of Clawson, MI had this to say in the comments:  “Republicans circling back to get inspiration from the past consistently see a past that never existed except in their own present imagination.  They then use that inspiration to hurt those who live here in the present, like Ryan and his memories of school lunches.”  In “Cold Man in the Kremlin” Mr. Cohen says Putin knows what he wants. The West does not. That’s why he’s winning.  Prof. Krugman looks at “The Timidity Trap” and says policy makers have good ideas in principle for tackling terrible economic conditions, yet they consistently go for half-measures in practice and kill all hope.  Here’s Bobo:

The TED conference is dedicated to innovation. Most of the people who give TED talks are working on some creative project: to invent new bionic limbs for amputees, new telescopes, new fusion reactors or new protest movements to reduce the power of money in politics.

The speakers generally live in hope and have the audacity of the technologist. Naturally enough, they believe fervently in their projects. “This will change everything!” they tell the crowds.

And there’s a certain suspension of disbelief as audiences get swept up in the fervor and feel themselves delightedly on the cutting edge. The future will be insanely great. Everything will change at the speed of Moore’s Law.

But at this year’s TED conference, which was held here in Vancouver, British Columbia, the rock star Sting got onstage and gave a presentation that had a different feel. He talked about his rise to stardom and then about a period in middle age when he was unable to write any new songs. The muse abandoned him, he said — for days, then weeks, then months, then years.

But then he went back and started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He’d lived on a street that led down to a shipyard where some of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels were built.

Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head.

At TED, he sang some of those songs about that shipyard. He sang about the characters he remembers and his desire to get away from a life in that yard. These were songs from his musical “The Last Ship,” which he’s performed at The Public Theater and which is expected to arrive on Broadway in the fall.

Most TED talks are about the future, but Sting’s was about going into the past. The difference between the two modes of thinking stood in stark contrast. In the first place, it was clear how much richer historical consciousness is than future vision. When we think about the future, we don’t think about the texture and the tensions, the particular smells, shapes, conflicts — the dents in the floorboards. But Sting’s songs were about unique and unlikely individuals and life as it really is, as a constant process of bending hard iron.

Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match. When we think of the past, we think about the things that seemed bad at the time but turned out to be good in the long run. We think about the little things that seemed inconsequential in the moment but made all the difference.

Then it was obvious how regenerating going home again can be. Sting, like most people who do this, wasn’t going back to live in the past; he was circling back and coming forward.

Going back is a creative process. The events of childhood are like the Hebrew alphabet; the vowels are missing, and the older self has to make sense of them. Robert Frost’s famous poem about the two paths diverging in the woods isn’t only about the two paths. It also describes how older people go back in memory and impose narrative order on choices that didn’t seem so clear at the time.

The person going back home has to invent a coherent tradition out of discrete moments and tease out future implications. He has to see the world with two sets of eyes: the eyes of his own childhood self and the eyes of his current adult self. He has to circle back deeper inside and see parts of himself that were more exposed then than now. No wonder the process of going home again can be so catalyzing.

The process of going home is also reorienting. Life has a way of blowing you off course. People have a way of forgetting what they originally set out to do. Going back means recapturing the original aspirations. That’s one reason Jews go back to Exodus every year. It’s why Augustine went back during a moment of spiritual crisis and wrote a book about his original conversion. Heck, it’s why Miranda Lambert performs “The House That Built Me” — to remind herself of the love of music that preceded the trappings of stardom.

Sting’s appearance at TED was a nice reminder of how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness. Some of the TED speakers seemed hopeful and creative, but painfully and maybe necessarily naïve.

Sting’s talk was a reminder to go forward with a backward glance, to go one layer down into self and then after self-confrontation, to leap forward out of self. History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Stephen Hanson, the vice provost for international affairs at the College of William and Mary, summed up what life has been like these past decades for people in his line of work. “I’m a Russia specialist,” he said. “Nobody has been interested in me for 20 years.”

Sure, relations with Moscow could be prickly, and there was that bloody little invasion of Georgia in 2008 that led to Russia recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia (close to 20 percent of Georgia’s territory) as independent states, but the consensus was that the Cold War struggle with Moscow was over, replaced by a “reset” relationship that hovered somewhere between cooperation and rivalry but would not lapse again into the outright confrontation of two ideologies.

In this scenario, experts like Hanson were not in heavy demand. Their field had become secondary. Russia was 20th-century news. New members of NATO like Poland or Estonia squawked from time to time about the enduring threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but their anxieties were dismissed as the hangover of decades within the mind-twisting Soviet empire.

Nothing was so certain to put audiences to sleep as talk of “trans-Atlanticism” or the need for increasing European military budgets. As the trauma of 9/11 faded and America’s wars wound down, “pivot to Asia” became the modish geopolitical phrase in Washington. Pivot to Europe was a laughable idea.

None of this was lost on Putin, who actually meant it when he described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and for a decade and a half now has been intent on righting Russia’s perceived post-Cold-War humiliation in order to recreate, if not quite the Cold War, then a bipolar system in which Washington and Moscow offer opposing world views. Hanson says Putin “never embraced the borders of the Russian federation” and was always convinced “the West only likes leaders in Moscow, such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who weaken Russia.”

Putin’s push for a revived Soviet-like space reached its apotheosis (after the trial run in Georgia) with the annexation of Crimea (the German word for annexation is “Anschluss”), a watershed moment for Europe, where such an event had not happened since World War II. The Continent is once again combustible. The United States faces a foe in Moscow who laces his comments about America with contempt. This does not mean the Continent is about to lapse into war. It does mean trans-Atlantic unity is once again critical; imposing sanctions on a few second-level Putin lieutenants will not cut it as a Western response.

The language Putin understands is force and power. His meandering annexation speech made clear that he regards eastern Ukraine as wrongly usurped from Russia. If further Russian designs on Ukraine are to be stopped, President Obama has to respond to the Russian president in the idiom he understands. Providing U.S. Army rations as military support to Kiev amounts to history repeated as farce.

Ukraine, my colleague Michael Gordon reports, is seeking communications gear, mine-clearing equipment, vehicles, ammunition, fuel and medical gear, and the sharing of intelligence. Provide it. Hurt the oligarchs with their London mansions and untold billions parked in Western banks. Crimea may not be recoverable but the West must make clear it will not accept a Russian veto on E.U. and NATO expansion. But, some say, a firm response will end Russian cooperation on vital issues like Iran. Not so: Russia has its own interest in stopping nuclear proliferation, and even the Cold War did not preclude cooperation in some areas.

For Putin, “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” have seized power in Kiev. For Putin, “After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability.” (Never mind that hundreds of millions of people gained their freedom.) The United States, the Russian president suggests, knows only “the rule of the gun.”

As during the Cold War, he will find his sympathizers and fellow travelers in the West with such paranoid gambits. Still, his words have to be taken seriously. They are those of a man trained in a totalitarian system and now proposing an alternative civilization of brutality, force, imperial expansion, systemic corruption, a cowed press, conspiracy theories and homophobia.

Tinatin Khidasheli, a member of the Georgian Parliament, told me: “After Georgia in 2008 I was asked what’s next and I said Ukraine and everyone laughed. But Putin was testing the West with us and saw he could proceed. People in Georgia are now very scared, and they are most scared of the inability of the West to give an adequate response. The only political consensus we have is that we want to join the E.U. and NATO, but in Brussels they don’t even want to call us a European state.”

Putin knows what he wants. A supine and disunited West does not. That’s why he’s winning — or has already won.

Last but not least we have Prof. Krugman:

There don’t seem to be any major economic crises underway right this moment, and policy makers in many places are patting themselves on the back. In Europe, for example, they’re crowing about Spain’s recovery: the country seems set to grow at least twice as fast this year as previously forecast.

Unfortunately, that means growth of 1 percent, versus 0.5 percent, in a deeply depressed economy with 55 percent youth unemployment. The fact that this can be considered good news just goes to show how accustomed we’ve grown to terrible economic conditions. We’re doing worse than anyone could have imagined a few years ago, yet people seem increasingly to be accepting this miserable situation as the new normal.

How did this happen? There were multiple reasons, of course. But I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, in part because I’ve been asked to discuss a new assessment of Japan’s efforts to break out of its deflation trap. And I’d argue that an important source of failure was what I’ve taken to calling the timidity trap — the consistent tendency of policy makers who have the right ideas in principle to go for half-measures in practice, and the way this timidity ends up backfiring, politically and even economically.

In other words, Yeats had it right: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

About the worst: If you’ve been following economic debates these past few years, you know that both America and Europe have powerful pain caucuses — influential groups fiercely opposed to any policy that might put the unemployed back to work. There are some important differences between the U.S. and European pain caucuses, but both now have truly impressive track records of being always wrong, never in doubt.

Thus, in America, we have a faction both on Wall Street and in Congress that has spent five years and more issuing lurid warnings about runaway inflation and soaring interest rates. You might think that the failure of any of these dire predictions to come true would inspire some second thoughts, but, after all these years, the same people are still being invited to testify, and are still saying the same things.

Meanwhile, in Europe, four years have passed since the Continent turned to harsh austerity programs. The architects of these programs told us not to worry about adverse impacts on jobs and growth — the economic effects would be positive, because austerity would inspire confidence. Needless to say, the confidence fairy never appeared, and the economic and social price has been immense. But no matter: all the serious people say that the beatings must continue until morale improves.

So what has been the response of the good guys?

For there are good guys out there, people who haven’t bought into the notion that nothing can or should be done about mass unemployment. The Obama administration’s heart — or, at any rate, its economic model — is in the right place. The Federal Reserve has pushed back against the springtime-for-Weimar, inflation-is-coming crowd. The International Monetary Fund has put out research debunking claims that austerity is painless. But these good guys never seem willing to go all-in on their beliefs.

The classic example is the Obama stimulus, which was obviously underpowered given the economy’s dire straits. That’s not 20/20 hindsight. Some of us warned right from the beginning that the plan would be inadequate — and that because it was being oversold, the persistence of high unemployment would end up discrediting the whole idea of stimulus in the public mind. And so it proved.

What’s not as well known is that the Fed has, in its own way, done the same thing. From the start, monetary officials ruled out the kinds of monetary policies most likely to work — in particular, anything that might signal a willingness to tolerate somewhat higher inflation, at least temporarily. As a result, the policies they have followed have fallen short of hopes, and ended up leaving the impression that nothing much can be done.

And the same may be true even in Japan — the case that motivated this article. Japan has made a radical break with past policies, finally adopting the kind of aggressive monetary stimulus Western economists have been urging for 15 years and more. Yet there’s still a diffidence about the whole business, a tendency to set things like inflation targets lower than the situation really demands. And this increases the risk that Japan will fail to achieve “liftoff” — that the boost it gets from the new policies won’t be enough to really break free from deflation.

You might ask why the good guys have been so timid, the bad guys so self-confident. I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with class interests. But that will have to be a subject for another column.

Brooks and Cohen

March 18, 2014

In “How Cities Change” Bobo says the Newark mayoral race exemplifies the conflict in many American cities between those who are part of the political structure and those who want to change it.  “Gemli” from Boston ended his comment thusly:  “So I could be off base, but doing the opposite of what David Brooks wants just feels right.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Unlikely Road to War,” explains what the teenager Gavrilo Princip teaches us about the fragility of peace.  Here’s Bobo:

Shavar Jeffries was born in Newark in 1975, the son of a 19-year-old mother who was unprepared to take care of him. He spent the first nine years of his life shuttling between different relatives. Then his mother came back into his life and moved him to California.

Shortly after they moved to Los Angeles, there was a problem with the lock to their apartment door. Jeffries’ mom called the locksmith and soon began a relationship with him. One evening the locksmith was looking over her phone bill and found a number he didn’t like. He smacked her in the head and sent her hurtling across the room. The beatings continued from then on.

Once his mother picked up Jeffries from Little League wearing big sunglasses, her eyes blackened underneath. Another day she tried to bar the locksmith from their apartment, but he kicked through the door. She moved to Burbank and got restraining orders, but on Nov. 25, 1985, the locksmith stalked her workplace and killed her with a sawed-off shotgun.

Jeffries was brought back to Newark and lived for a few months with his father. But one day he came home and his father had vanished, without leaving a note. By this time, he was numb; he just figured this was the way life is. His grandparents took him in and he spent the rest of his childhood with them, living on a street called Harding Terrace in the South Ward of Newark.

William Spear, who grew up on Harding Terrace a few years later, describes the street the way Jane Jacobs describes Greenwich Village in the 1950s: There were eyes everywhere. “You couldn’t cut class, because the neighbors would see you and call you on it,” Spear recalls. The neighbors couldn’t and can’t stop the worst violence — Spear’s brother was killed in 2012 when a street fight sent bullets flying through a block party — but they could keep some kids in line.

Jeffries’ grandparents brought stability to his life. He became active with the Boys and Girls Club. He did well in grade school, won a scholarship to Seton Hall Prep, then won scholarships to Duke and Columbia Law School, got a prestigious clerkship and began a legal career.

And then, having escaped Newark, he moved back to the crime-ridden South Ward. He has worked as a civil rights lawyer. He was the founding board president of a charter school in the Knowledge Is Power Program called Team Academy. He became an associate law professor at Seton Hall and took a leave from that to serve as assistant attorney general. In 2010, he ran for the Newark school board and became its president.

Now Jeffries is running for mayor of Newark against City Councilman Ras Baraka. The race has taken on a familiar shape: regular vs. reformer.

Baraka has the support of most of the major unions and political organizations. Over the years, he has combined a confrontational 1970s style of racial rhetoric with a transactional, machine-like style of politics. Baraka is well known in Newark and it shows. There are Baraka signs everywhere there.

Jeffries is the outsider and the reformer, promising to end the favor trading in government and modernize the institutions. Three months ago, it looked as though he had no shot of winning. And, according to close observers, he has not organized a particularly effective campaign. But he is an eloquent speaker and has strong people skills. His candidacy has become something of a cause célèbre among New York Democrats who fear Baraka would reverse the strides Newark has recently taken. Jeffries is still the underdog, but the election is much closer than it was.

The election on May 13 will be decided on two issues, one cultural and one structural. Jeffries is being portrayed as a Duke- and Columbia-educated law professor, not somebody who is truly of and for Newark. There’s a veiled or not-so-veiled debate here over what it means to be authentically African-American.

Then there is the split, which we’re seeing in cities across the country, between those who represent the traditional political systems and those who want to change them. In Newark, as elsewhere, charter schools are the main flash point in this divide. Middle-class municipal workers, including members of the teachers’ unions, tend to be suspicious of charters. The poor, who favor school choice, and the affluent, who favor education reform generally, tend to support charters.

These contests aren’t left versus center; they are over whether urban government will change or stay the same. Over the years, public-sector jobs have provided steady income for millions of people nationwide. But city services have failed, leaving educational and human devastation in cities like Newark. Reformers like Jeffries rise against all odds from the devastation. They threaten the old stability, but offer a shot at improvement and change.

I’ll give you odds that Bobo’s never set foot in Newark…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A 19-year-old Ukrainian nationalist from a remote farming village, raised on stories of his family’s suffering during Stalin’s great engineered famine, embittered by Moscow’s long imperialist dominion, enraged by the slaying of a fellow student in Kiev during the uprising of 2014, convinced any price is worth paying to stop the Russian annexation of Crimea, takes the long road to Sevastopol.

He is a simple angular man, a dreamer, who as a young boy had engraved his initials on a retaining wall of rocks at the back of his family’s plot. When asked why, he replied, “Because one day people will know my name.”

On the farm, he works hard by day and reads voraciously by night. He is consumed with the long suffering of the Ukrainian peasant laboring in near feudal conditions. Neighboring countries have gained their independence and dignity after Soviet occupation. Why, he asks, should Ukraine not do the same?

To this teenager, the issue is simple. The imperial ruler in the Kremlin knows nothing of Ukraine. The 21st-century world is changing, but this high officer of the imperium is determined to wind back the clock to the 20th. A good student, the man travels to Kiev, where an older brother works. He falls into the “Young Ukraine” movement, a radical student circle in which feelings run high over the shotgun referendum that saw the people of Crimea vote with Orwellian unanimity for union with Russia. At night, he fingers the hand-engraved Browning pistol that was once his father’s.

A plot is hatched. The Russian defense minister is to visit Sevastopol with his wife to celebrate the wise choice of the Crimean people and speak of the Russia’s civilizing influence over this beautiful but backward region. Fanfare follows. “Wide Is My Motherland” booms from loudspeakers as the minister’s procession of black limousines snakes along the waterfront. The assassin is waiting at a point where the minister and his wife are to greet local dignitaries.

Two shots ring out. One cuts through the minister’s jugular vein. The other penetrates his wife’s abdomen. The minister’s last words are spoken to her: “Don’t die, don’t die, live for our children.”

Events now move quickly. Russia annexes Crimea. It declares war on Ukraine, takes Donetsk in short order, and annexes the eastern half of the country. The United States warns Russia not to advance on Kiev. It reminds the Kremlin of America’s binding alliance with Baltic states that are NATO members. European nations mobilize.

Desperate diplomacy unravels. A Ukrainian counterattack flounders but inflicts heavy casualties, prompting a Russian advance on the capital. Two NATO F-16s are shot down during a reconnaissance flight close to the Lithuanian-Russian border. Russia declares war on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — an attack against one member shall be considered an attack against all — the United States and its European allies come to their defense. China, in what it calls a pre-emptive strike, invades Taiwan, “a potential Crimea.” Japan and India declare war on China. World War III has begun.

It could not happen. Of course, it could not happen. The institutions and alliances of a connected world ensure the worst cannot happen again. The price would be too high, no less than nuclear annihilation. Civilization is strong, humanity wise, safeguards secure.

Anyone who believes that should read Tim Butcher’s riveting “The Trigger,” a soon-to-be-published account of the long road traveled from a remote Bosnian farm to Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, ignited what Churchill called “the hardest, the cruelest and the least-rewarded” of all wars.

Yes, the Great War, the end of empires and the old order, was triggered by a teenager. And, as Butcher writes, “It was out of this turbulent collapse that Bolshevism, socialism, fascism and other radical political currents took root.” They would lead to World War II.

Princip acted with a small group of accomplices bent on securing the freedom of the south Slavs from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Luck helped him, diplomatic ineptitude force-multiplied his deed, and by the age of 23 this farmboy whose name would be remembered was dead of tuberculosis in a Habsburg military prison.

Then, too, exactly a century ago, it could not happen. The world had finessed other moments of tension. Yet very quickly Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, prompting Russia to mobilize in defense of Belgrade, prompting the Kaiser’s Germany to attack France pre-emptively and Britain to declare war on Germany. The war haunts us still.

The unthinkable is thinkable. Indeed, it must be thought. Otherwise it may occur — soldiers reduced, in Butcher’s words, to “fodder locked in the same murderous morass, sharing the same attrition of bullet and barrage, disease and deprivation, torment and terror.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 14, 2014

Oh, dear.  Bobo is trying to “do science” again.  In “The Deepest Self” he gurgles that the evolutionary view on human nature sells humanity short.  “Michael” from Los Angeles said this in the comments:  “Mr. Brooks’s understanding of evolutionary neurobiology is as shallow as his understanding of psychology and sociology. He finds snippets of science to build a case for his view of human nature that is essentially a reflection of his own biases.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Agent in His Labyrinth,” says Putin exploits Western weakness, then confronts his own.  Prof. Krugman considers the “Fear of Wages” and says the troubling crusade against full employment raises the question: What’s wrong with rising wages, anyway?  Here’s Bobo:

There is, by now, a large literature on the chemistry and biology of love and sex. If you dive into that literature, you learn pretty quickly that our love lives are biased by all sorts of deep unconscious processes. When men become fathers, their testosterone levels drop, thus reducing their sex drive. There’s some evidence that it’s the smell of their own infants (but not other people’s infants) that sets this off.

Women, meanwhile, have different tastes at different times in their cycles. During ovulation, according to some research, they prefer ruggedly handsome and risky men, while at other times they are more drawn to pleasant-looking, nice men.

When men look at pictures of naked women, their startle response to loud noises diminishes. It seems that the dopamine surge mutes the prefrontal cortex, and they become less alert to danger and risk.

This literature sometimes reduces the profound and transformational power of love into a series of mating strategies. But it also, like so much of the literature across psychology and the cognitive sciences these days, reinforces a specific view of human nature. We have two systems inside, one on top of the other.

Deep in the core of our being there are the unconscious natural processes built in by evolution. These deep unconscious processes propel us to procreate or strut or think in certain ways, often impulsively. Then, at the top, we have our conscious, rational processes. This top layer does its best to exercise some restraint and executive function.

This evolutionary description has become the primary way we understand ourselves. Deep down we are mammals with unconscious instincts and drives. Up top there’s a relatively recent layer of rationality. Yet in conversation when we say someone is deep, that they have a deep mind or a deep heart, we don’t mean that they are animalistic or impulsive. We mean the opposite. When we say that someone is a deep person, we mean they have achieved a quiet, dependable mind by being rooted in something spiritual and permanent.

A person of deep character has certain qualities: in the realm of intellect, she has permanent convictions about fundamental things; in the realm of emotions, she has a web of unconditional loves; in the realm of action, she has permanent commitments to transcendent projects that cannot be completed in a single lifetime.

There’s great wisdom embedded in this conversational understanding of depth, and it should cause us to amend the System 1/System 2 image of human nature that we are getting from evolutionary biology. Specifically, it should cause us to make a sharp distinction between origins and depth.

We originate with certain biological predispositions. These can include erotic predispositions (we’re aroused by people who send off fertility or status cues), or they can be cognitive (like loss aversion).

But depth, the core of our being, is something we cultivate over time. We form relationships that either turn the core piece of ourselves into something more stable and disciplined or something more fragmented and disorderly. We begin with our natural biases but carve out depths according to the quality of the commitments we make. Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

This amendment seems worth making because the strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. It leaves the impression that we are just slightly higher animals — thousands of years of evolutionary processes capped by a thin layer of rationality. It lops off entire regions of human possibility.

In fact, while we are animals, we have much higher opportunities. While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms.

So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. People make commitments — to a nation, faith, calling or loved ones — and endure the sacrifices those commitments demand. Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions.

So much of our own understanding of our depth occurs later in life, also amid suffering. The theologian Paul Tillich has a great essay in “Shaking the Foundations” in which he observes that during moments of suffering, people discover they are not what they appeared to be. The suffering scours away a floor inside themselves, exposing a deeper level, and then that floor gets scoured away and another deeper level is revealed. Finally, people get down to the core wounds and the core loves.

Babies are not deep. Old people can be, depending upon how they have chosen to lead their lives. Babies start out very natural. The people we admire are rooted in nature but have surpassed nature. Often they grew up in cultures that encouraged them to take a loftier view of their possibilities than we do today.

He’s such a pretentious foof.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The dream flickered briefly after the end of the Cold War: a shared space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Russia gathered into a close association with NATO, or even becoming an alliance member, and the European Union working in cooperation with Moscow on the modernization of the country.

It was a nice idea, like the end of history, and as with many nice ideas, it did not come to pass.

Vladimir Putin, a former K.G.B. agent obsessed with the loss of the Soviet imperium, had a different idea: to define himself and the motherland against the West by casting it as promiscuous and devious, a power lacking true virility and cloaking its interests in empty talk of human rights, advancing to the very gates of Russia through deception and intrigue.

The Russian president’s vision of a revived imperium developed around four pillars. The first was military (the liquidation of Grozny, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and now the drive to annex Crimea). The second was political (drawing the countries of the former Soviet Union into an autocratic Eurasian Union). The third was economic (Russian gas as a tool of coercion and oligarchs’ money as suasion from Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm to London’s Knightsbridge). The fourth was cultural (a heady blend of Orthodoxy and autocracy as expressions of Russian purity and strength against the nihilistic decadence of Europe and the United States).

The culmination of this process sees Putin the bare-chested muscleman of the Siberian outback pitted against America’s languid leg-crossing law professor and the pastor’s methodical daughter in Berlin. Neither of these leaders of the West (whose feelings for each other are cool) will utter of Crimea those four resonant words: “This will not stand.”

Putin notices this unuttered sentence. He notes the flaccid body language in the White House, the post-modern man’s teleprompter, the bloodlessness of the liberal realism emanating from the Oval Office. He hears the Kremlin phone ring and mutters, no, not Angela again, with her reasonable pleas. Germany, unified by America but nullified by it too, was far better when there were two of them.

He has heard the lectures, the veiled and not-so-veiled threats, the expressions of outrage. Let them squeal! He is not going to let that loser of an ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, lose him Crimea to the “Nazis” and pederasts of Kiev, or the oily Beltway-to-Berlin human rights agents, those peddlers of false promises and color revolutions.

Putin laughs at the theory that the West lost the Lisbon-to-Vladivostok dream and turned him into the conspiracy-spouting strongman he is through its provocative failure to reach out to Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its decision to expand NATO eastward into the Baltic states, its enlargement of the European Union, and its general lack of solicitous regard toward Moscow.

No, he was always this way, schooled in Russia’s particular greatness and vastness, its immense sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War, its pursuit of power through ideology. And power, as America knows, must be defined against something or it becomes uninteresting and unpersuasive. The mistake was Russia’s, not the West’s. How could it have stood by while NATO locked in the security and Westward-looking stability of the Soviet empire’s former dominions, from Estonia to Poland, from Latvia to Romania? As a man dedicated to the projection of power, he had to admire the temerity and brilliance of this post-Cold-War American advance.

But America had grown weaker since then. Its wars did not get won. Its red lines did not count for much. Its doctrine was indistinct, an endless series of improvisations whose bottom line was no more shooting wars. All it threatened was visa bans! Weakness was an attitude against which Russia had roused itself. First stop Simferopol, next stop Donetsk!

Putin knows Germany and the United States need him for Iran, need him for Syria, need him for Russia’s energy. He has them where he wants them.

Or Putin thinks so most of the time. But what was it Angela Merkel was saying in her fifth phone call about Russia’s self-isolation? How dare she suggest he had reached a point where black was white, day was night, and two plus two was five!

What was she parroting about Russia’s dependence on European trade? What was that talk of testing the resilience of the Russian economy if he did not step back from the illegal seizure of Crimea and unacceptable threats to east Ukraine? Were the Chinese really unhappy that Crimea could give Taiwan ideas? Did some people honestly think Simferopol was the desperate gambit of a Russian president who had lost Kiev and Ukraine?

Every now and again, in the gilded mirrors of the Kremlin, Putin glimpses his reflection and struggles to avert his eyes: a small man with six-pack abs, eyes cold and pale as a glacier, and a maniacal grin. The agent in his labyrinth.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Four years ago, some of us watched with a mixture of incredulity and horror as elite discussion of economic policy went completely off the rails. Over the course of just a few months, influential people all over the Western world convinced themselves and each other that budget deficits were an existential threat, trumping any and all concern about mass unemployment. The result was a turn to fiscal austerity that deepened and prolonged the economic crisis, inflicting immense suffering.

And now it’s happening again. Suddenly, it seems as if all the serious people are telling each other that despite high unemployment there’s hardly any “slack” in labor markets — as evidenced by a supposed surge in wages — and that the Federal Reserve needs to start raising interest rates very soon to head off the danger of inflation.

To be fair, those making the case for monetary tightening are more thoughtful and less overtly political than the archons of austerity who drove the last wrong turn in policy. But the advice they’re giving could be just as destructive.

O.K., where is this coming from?

The starting point for this turn in elite opinion is the assertion that wages, after stagnating for years, have started to rise rapidly. And it’s true that one popular measure of wages has indeed picked up, with an especially large bump last month.

But that bump is probably a snow-related statistical illusion. As economists at Goldman Sachs have pointed out, average wages normally jump in bad weather — not because anyone’s wages actually rise, but because the workers idled by snow and storms tend to be less well-paid than those who aren’t affected.

Beyond that, we have multiple measures of wages, and only one of them is showing a notable uptick. It’s far from clear that the alleged wage acceleration is even happening.

And what’s wrong with rising wages, anyway? In the past, wage increases of around 4 percent a year — more than twice the current rate — have been consistent with low inflation. And there’s a very good case for raising the Fed’s inflation target, which would mean seeking faster wage growth, say 5 percent or 6 percent per year. Why? Because even the International Monetary Fund now warns against the dangers of “lowflation”: too low an inflation rate puts the economy at risk of Japanification, of getting caught in a trap of economic stagnation and intractable debt.

Over all, then, while it’s possible to argue that we’re running out of labor slack, it’s also possible to argue the opposite, and either way the prudent thing would surely be to wait: Wait until there’s solid evidence of rising wages, then wait some more until wage growth is at least back to precrisis levels and preferably higher.

Yet for some reason there’s a growing drumbeat of demands that we not wait, that we get ready to raise interest rates right away or at least very soon. What’s that about?

Part of the answer, I’d submit, is that for some people it’s always 1979. That is, they’re eternally vigilant against the danger of a runaway wage-price spiral, and somehow they haven’t noticed that nothing like that has happened for decades. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s because a 1970s-style crisis fits their ideological preconceptions, but the phantom menace of stagflation still has an outsized influence on economic debate.

Then there’s sado-monetarism: the sense, all too common among in banking circles, that inflicting pain is ipso facto good. There are some people and institutions — for example, the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements — that always want to see interest rates go up. Their rationale is ever-changing — it’s commodity prices; no, it’s financial stability; no, it’s wages — but the recommended policy is always the same.

Finally, although the current monetary debate isn’t as openly political as the previous fiscal debate, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that class interests are playing a role. A fair number of commentators seem oddly upset by the notion of workers getting raises, especially while returns to bondholders remain low. It’s almost as if they identify with the investor class, and feel uncomfortable with anything that brings us close to full employment, and thereby gives workers more bargaining power.

Whatever the underlying motives, tightening the monetary screws anytime soon would be a very, very bad idea. We are slowly, painfully, emerging from the worst slump since the Great Depression. It wouldn’t take much to abort the recovery, and, if that were to happen, we would almost certainly be Japanified, stuck in a trap that might last decades.

Is wage growth actually taking off? That’s far from clear. But if it is, we should see rising wages as a development to cheer and promote, not a threat to be squashed with tight money.

Brooks and Cohen

March 11, 2014

Oh, gawd.  Bobo is concerned that the US isn’t swinging its big dick in the world enough.  In “The Leaderless Doctrine” he gibbers that there has been a shift in Americans’ understanding of the role of the U.S. and the nature of power, with complex and unnerving consequences.  Mr. Cohen, in “Left Hand Among Bones,” says two children of the disappeared know the nature of endless loss.  Here’s Bobo:

We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe. A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems.

At first blush, this looks like isolationism. After the exhaustion from Iraq and Afghanistan, and amid the lingering economic stagnation, Americans are turning inward.

But if you actually look at the data, you see that this is not the case. America is not turning inward economically. More than three-quarters of Americans believe the U.S. should get more economically integrated with the world, according to Pew.

America is not turning inward culturally. Large majorities embrace the globalization of culture and the internationalization of colleges and workplaces. Americans are not even turning inward when it comes to activism. They have enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development.

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation — that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

This sense of limits is shared equally among Democrats and Republicans, polls show. There has been surprisingly little outcry against the proposed defense cuts, which would reduce the size of the U.S. Army to its lowest levels since 1940. That’s because people are no longer sure military might gets you very much.

These shifts are not just a result of post-Iraq disillusionment, or anything the Obama administration has done. The shift in foreign policy values is a byproduct of a deeper and broader cultural shift.

The veterans of World War II returned to civilian life with a basic faith in big units — big armies, corporations and unions. They tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.

The Cold War was a competition between clearly defined nation-states.

Commanding American leaders created a liberal international order. They preserved that order with fleets that roamed the seas, armies stationed around the world and diplomatic skill.

Over the ensuing decades, that faith in big units has eroded — in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.

The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

This is global affairs with the head chopped off. Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism — the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism — the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power — where it comes from and how it can be used — has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

One set of numbers in the data leaps out. For decades Americans have been asked if they believe most people can be trusted. Forty percent of baby boomers believe most people can be trusted. But only 19 percent of millennials believe that. This is a thoroughly globalized and linked generation with unprecedentedly low levels of social trust.

We live in a country in which many people act as if history is leaderless. Events emerge spontaneously from the ground up. Such a society is very hard to lead and summon. It can be governed only by someone who arouses intense moral loyalty, and even that may be fleeting.

The phrase “intense moral loyalty” gives me a case of hives.  Smacks of torchlit rallies…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Buenos Aires:

In the end it was his father’s left hand, found a couple of years ago in a pile of charred bones outside La Plata, that enabled Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa to know for a fact the man he never knew was dead. This was physical knowledge, different from the almost-certain supposition with which he had lived ever since he discovered as a boy in the late 1980s that the couple who raised him and his twin brother Matías were not his parents.

Even his father’s remains did not constitute closure for this child of the “disappeared,” born in 1977 under the rule of Argentina’s military junta, seized at birth from parents who vanished into the vortex of the “Dirty War,” raised by a police officer named Samuel Miara and his wife Beatriz who initially insisted he was their son, thrust into foster care after Miara was jailed, then handed over to a biological uncle, told to forget his former life, and finally left to sift through the scattered fragments of his existence.

Still the trials go on.

“I am incredibly mad at the cruelty of not allowing a person to mourn his parents,” Reggiardo Tolosa tells me. “They did all they could to destroy the evidence. The other day I left the witness stand after giving testimony and broke down. I was sobbing. I am still trying to mourn my parents.”

We are seated in a Starbucks in the Argentine capital. It is a holiday, as usual. The streets are quiet — apart from the money-changers’ refrain: “Cambio, cambio, cambio.” Yet another little currency crisis has hit Argentina. Nobody wants pesos.

Reggiardo Tolosa speaks slowly of another time, when our sons of bitches, to paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s apocryphal comment, did their foul business in the name of defeating communism in the Americas, and many thousands disappeared. His manner is gentle, his pain evident, still. This is what our sons of bitches wrought, a legacy without end.

His breakdown occurred last month. He and his brother were called to testify in a trial involving former army officers accused of involvement in killings under the junta at a clandestine facility called La Cacha, adjacent to Los Olmos prison in La Plata, where the twins’ parents were held before being “disappeared.”

One of the indicted, Ricardo Fernández, a former intelligence officer, is Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa’s godfather. His godfather! He was chosen by Miara, who always insisted, however, that Fernández had no role in abducting the twins. Now Reggiardo Tolosa is convinced Fernández was the conduit from the hell of La Cacha to the Miaras.

The twins arrived at the Miaras’ home on May 16, 1977. They have no birth certificate. It is estimated they were born around April 27. “What I must find out now is what exactly happened in those three weeks,” Reggiardo Tollosa says. Almost 37 years after he and his brother were taken, he is closing in on the truth.

I have known this man since he was a boy. His hair, now brown, was blond then. He and his brother were playing soccer in a yard in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción. I had followed a lead that the Miaras had fled to Paraguay with two boys born to a disappeared Argentine couple. Miara, when I confronted him in 1987, denied it. But the piece, published in The Wall Street Journal, helped secure his eventual extradition to Argentina.

Some stories will not leave you. They are your actual responsibility.

Reggiardo Tolosa is with his girlfriend, Jimena Vicario. She was a baby when, on Feb. 5, 1977, she was taken from her mother (who disappeared) during police questioning. She was dumped in a Buenos Aires hospital, raised by a woman who took pity. Her father, Juan Carlos Vicario, a Spanish citizen who fled Franco, was also murdered. The couple was about to leave for Spain when they vanished.

Jimena Vicario never gave blood for DNA testing, never wanted to know what exactly happened to her parents, never saw the point. Reggiardo Tolosa thinks she hates the tango and wants to get out of Argentina because that is what her parents were about to do when they were killed. For himself he cannot leave his football club (San Lorenzo), his city’s particular melancholy.

They first glimpsed each other as children in court. They re-met a year ago through Facebook. They laugh that there is so much they don’t have to explain to each other; that they don’t need to deal with in-laws; that money received in compensation for their loss disappeared in another currency crisis; and that they no longer have partners who, when angry, say: “Spare me your story yet again.”

They can laugh, just. The next trial, Reggiardo Tolosa says, will focus specifically on Fernández and the twins’ abduction. Perhaps then, he muses, “I will finish realizing I am an orphan.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 7, 2014

In “The Archipelago of Pain” Bobo says solitary confinement is arguably less humane than flogging. He tells us our prisons need to reform solitary laws.  I guess he doesn’t own stock in a private prison firm…  In “Ukraine Fights for Its Truth” Mr. Cohen says for nations like Ukraine, Europe is escape from the torment of their history.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Hammock Fallacy,” says the big new poverty report from the House committee led by Representative Paul Ryan is yet another con job.  Well, color me completely unsurprised that the Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver hasn’t changed.  Here’s Bobo:

We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades at a time.

We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the brain where pain really resides, this is a distinction without a difference. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking at the screens side by side … you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”

The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at the level of human experience, social pain is, if anything, more traumatic, more destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation, in other words, is arguably more inhumane than flogging.

Yet inflicting extreme social pain is more or less standard procedure in America’s prisons. Something like 80,000 prisoners are put in solitary confinement every year. Prisoners isolated in supermaximum facilities are often locked away in a 6-by-9-foot or 8-by-10-foot barren room. They may be completely isolated in that room for two days a week. For the remaining five, they may be locked away for 23 hours a day and permitted an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced-in area.

If there is communication with the prison staff, it might take place through an intercom. Communication with the world beyond is minimal. If there are visitors, conversation may be conducted through a video screen. Prisoners may go years without affectionately touching another human being. Their only physical contact will be brushing up against a guard as he puts on shackles for trips to the exercise yard.

In general, mammals do not do well in isolation. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow studied monkeys who had been isolated. The ones who were isolated for longer periods went into emotional shock, rocking back and forth. One in six refused to eat after being reintegrated and died within five days. Most of the rest were permanently withdrawn.

Studies on birds, rats and mice consistently show that isolated animals suffer from impoverished neural growth compared with socially engaged animals, especially in areas where short-term memory and threat perception are processed. Studies on Yugoslav prisoners of war in 1992 found that those who had suffered blunt blows to the head and those who had been socially isolated suffered the greatest damage to brain functioning.

Some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it. But this is not typical. The majority of prisoners in solitary suffer severely — from headaches, an oversensitivity to stimuli, digestion problems, loss of appetite, self-mutilation, chronic dizziness, loss of the ability to concentrate, hallucinations, illusions or paranoid ideas.

The psychiatrist Stuart Grassian conducted in-depth interviews with more than 200 prisoners in solitary and concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. Many people just disintegrate. According to rough estimates, as many as half the suicides in prison take place in solitary, even though isolated prisoners make up only about 5 percent of the population.

Prison officials argue that they need isolation to preserve order. That’s a view to be taken seriously because these are the people who work in the prisons. But the research on the effectiveness of solitary confinement programs is ambiguous at best. There’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that prison violence is not produced mainly by a few bad individuals who can be removed from the mainstream. Rather, violence is caused by conditions and prison culture. If there’s crowding, tension, a culture of violence, and anarchic or arbitrary power, then the context itself is going to create violence no matter how many “bad seeds” are segregated away.

Fortunately, we seem to be at a moment when public opinion is turning. Last month, the executive director of the Colorado prisons, Rick Raemisch, wrote a moving first-person Op-Ed article in The Times about his short and voluntary stay in solitary. Colorado will no longer send prisoners with severe mental illnesses into solitary. New York officials recently agreed to new guidelines limiting the time prisoners can spend in isolation. Before long, one suspects, extreme isolation will be considered morally unacceptable.

The larger point is we need to obliterate the assumption that inflicting any amount of social pain is O.K. because it’s not real pain.

When you put people in prison, you are imposing pain on them. But that doesn’t mean you have to gouge out the nourishment that humans need for health, which is social, emotional and relational.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Let’s sweep away Vladimir Putin’s mind games — the supposedly threatened Russian bases, the supposedly threatened ethnic Russians, the supposed humanitarian crisis, the supposed illegitimacy of the government in Kiev (with its 82 percent parliamentary backing) — and be clear that the fight in Crimea is about a simple issue: the freedom of Ukraine to set its course as a European democracy governed by laws rather than an authoritarian, undemocratic, lawless society of Moscow-backed oligarchs in the “fraternal” grasp of Russia.

That would be the fraternity of Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Kabul (1979) and Grozny (1999).

Ukraine shares with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia the fate — eloquently described by the historian Timothy Snyder in his powerful book “Bloodlands” — of being among the worst killing fields of World War II, bounced back and forth between Stalin and Hitler. Now the spread eastward of NATO and the European Union — the greatest of post-Cold-War achievements — has allowed the Baltic states to begin disentangling truth from lies in the carnage of their histories.

That is what westward-gazing Ukrainians are fighting for at the most basic level: truth over lies. They want a life based on facts rather than fabrications, institutions rather than provocations, laws rather than cash-filled envelopes.

Last month my colleague Alison Smale filed a piece from Lviv in western Ukraine. It began: “Under a leaden sky that wept intermittent rain, this fiercely proud city bade farewell on Saturday to one of its sons, a 28-year-old university lecturer killed by a bullet on Thursday in Kiev in the carnage on and around Independence Square.”

Lviv was called Lwów and was in eastern Poland before the Hitler-Stalin pact and World War II. It was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Nazis. Its prewar population of Jews and Poles was murdered or deported. After the war, the city was incorporated into Ukraine — and of course the Soviet orbit.

The reason people in this part of Europe crave the framework of NATO and the European Union is for security and prosperity, of course. Above all, however, they seek a guarantee that the torment of their history, with its lies, is behind them.

My family came from Zagare in northern Lithuania. The Soviet Red Army occupied the town in 1940, was driven out by the Nazis in June of 1941, and fought its way back in 1944.

Like Lviv, Zagare was thrice occupied. When Soviet forces reached the town in 1944, they found a mass grave in the woods. A Soviet Special Commission examined the remains and determined that there were 2,402 corpses: 530 men, 1,223 women, 625 children and 24 babies. This accounting showed a small discrepancy from the numbers given by SS Standartenführer Karl Jäger, who in a report dated Dec. 1, 1941, from the Lithuanian town of Kaunas exulted that 2,266 Jews (663 men, 1,107 women and 496 children) were executed in Zagare on Oct. 2, 1941.

A Soviet sign was put up in the wood: “Memorial to the victims of Fascism.” It hid the truth, as was the norm in Moscow’s empire.

The Soviets found the human remains but had scant interest in an accurate identification of them as Jews. Stalin’s aim, as Snyder explains, was to forge Homo Sovieticus, not to reinforce Jewish identity. The Holocaust had to be managed within the Soviet political agenda.

A cornerstone of this was that the war had begun in 1941 with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, rather than in 1939 with the Hitler-Stalin pact and the joint Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland.

Hitler had managed to blame the Jews for communism. Stalin, the communist, nursed his own hostility. Jews would become the “rootless cosmopolitans” of his postwar propaganda. Jews, rather than victims of Nazism, became agents of an imperial conspiracy against communism.

Stalin had to conflate Jews’ particular suffering into the immense general (read Slavic and Russian) sacrifice of the “Great Patriotic War” against Hitler. So the Jews in the Zagare ditch or Ponary forest near Vilnius, and in countless other pits across the “Bloodlands,” were identified, if at all, as “Soviet victims of Fascism.”

Today, according to Putin, the “Fascists” are in Kiev. His schooling was, of course, in fabrication.

Only with Lithuanian independence from Moscow in 1990 was a memorial detailing the Nazi crime in Zagare put up in the woods. It reads: “In this place on Oct. 2, 1941, Nazi killers and their local helpers killed about 3,000 Jewish men, women and children from the Siauliai region.” In 2012 a similar plaque was placed in the middle of town.

Ukraine is fighting for its right to remember, accurately and truthfully, that 28-year-old Lviv university lecturer killed in the fight for its freedom. No right should be more important to the United States and Europe. Societies based on lies fail.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.

And the big new poverty report from the House Budget Committee, led by Representative Paul Ryan, offers additional reasons for optimism. Mr. Ryan used to rely on “scholarship” from places like the Heritage Foundation. Remember when Heritage declared that the Ryan budget would reduce unemployment to a ludicrous 2.8 percent, then tried to cover its tracks? This time, however, Mr. Ryan is citing a lot of actual social science research.

Unfortunately, the research he cites doesn’t actually support his assertions. Even more important, his whole premise about why poverty persists is demonstrably wrong.

To understand where the new report is coming from, it helps to recall something Mr. Ryan said two years ago: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” There are actually two assertions here. First, antipoverty programs breed complacency; that is, they discourage work. Second, complacency — the failure of the poor to work as much as they should — is what perpetuates poverty.

The budget committee report is almost entirely concerned with the first assertion. It notes that there has been a large decline in labor force participation, and it claims that antipoverty programs, which reduce the incentive to work, are a major reason for this decline. Then come 200 pages of text and 683 footnotes, designed to create the impression that the scholarly research literature supports the report’s claims.

But it doesn’t. In some cases, Mr. Ryan and colleagues outright misstate what the research says, drawing outraged protests from a number of prominent scholars about the misrepresentation of their work. More often, however, the report engages in argument by innuendo. It makes an assertion about the bad effects of a program, then mentions a number of studies of that program, and thereby leaves the impression that those studies support its assertion, even though they don’t.

What does scholarly research on antipoverty programs actually say? We have quite good evidence on the effects of food stamps and Medicaid, which draw most of Mr. Ryan’s ire — and which his budgets propose slashing drastically. Food stamps, it seems, do lead to a reduction in work and working hours, but the effect is modest. Medicaid has little, if any, effect on work effort.

Over all, here’s the verdict of one comprehensive survey: “While there are significant behavioral side effects of many programs, their aggregate impact is very small.” In short, Mr. Ryan’s poverty report, like his famous budget plan, is a con job.

Now, you can still argue that making antipoverty programs much more generous would indeed reduce the incentive to work. If you look at cross-county comparisons, you find that low-income households in the United States, which does less to help the poor than any other major advanced nation, work much more than their counterparts abroad. So, yes, incentives do have some effect on work effort.

But why, exactly, should that be such a concern? Mr. Ryan would have us believe that the “hammock” created by the social safety net is the reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty. But the evidence says nothing of the kind.

After all, if generous aid to the poor perpetuates poverty, the United States — which treats its poor far more harshly than other rich countries, and induces them to work much longer hours — should lead the West in social mobility, in the fraction of those born poor who work their way up the scale. In fact, it’s just the opposite: America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries.

And there’s no puzzle why: it’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much; it’s that it helps them too little.

Which brings us back to the hypocrisy issue. It is, in a way, nice to see the likes of Mr. Ryan at least talking about the need to help the poor. But somehow their notion of aiding the poor involves slashing benefits while cutting taxes on the rich. Funny how that works.

Brooks and Cohen

March 4, 2014

It’s all Ukraine today.  In “Putin Can’t Stop” Bobo has a question:  Can Putin control the nationalism that his vision of Russia has unleashed?  In “Putin’s Crimean Crime” Mr. Cohen says there is a grotesque amnesia to Russia’s Ukrainian gambit.  Here’s Bobo:

Even cynics like to feel moral. Even hard-eyed men who play power politics need to feel that their efforts are part of a great historic mission. So as he has been throwing his weight around the world, Vladimir Putin has been careful to quote Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries like Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin.

Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out recently in The Washington Post, the Kremlin recently assigned three philosophic books to regional governors: Berdyaev’s “The Philosophy of Inequality,” Solovyov’s “Justification of the Good” and Ilyin’s “Our Tasks.”

Putin was personally involved in getting Ilyin’s remains re-buried back in Russian soil. In 2009, Putin went to consecrate the grave himself. The event sent him into a nationalistic fervor. “It’s a crime when someone only begins talking about the separation of Russia and the Ukraine,” he said on that day.

To enter into the world of Putin’s favorite philosophers is to enter a world full of melodrama, mysticism and grandiose eschatological visions. “We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness,” Ilyin wrote.

Three great ideas run through this work. The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.

These philosophers often argued that the rationalistic, materialistic West was corrupting the organic spiritual purity of Russia. “The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia,” Ilyin wrote, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.”

You can hear echoes of this moralistic strain in Putin’s own speeches, especially when he defends his regime’s attitude toward gays and the role of women. Citing Berdyaev, he talks about defending traditional values to ward off moral chaos. He says he is defending the distinction between good and evil, which has been lost in the outside world.

Most important, these philosophers had epic visions of Russia’s role in the world. Solovyov argued that because Russia is located between the Catholic West and the non-Christian East, it has a historic mission to lead the way to human unification. Russia would transcend secularism and atheism and create a unified spiritual kingdom. “The Russian messianic conception,” Berdyaev wrote, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.”

Russia is frequently seen as a besieged fortress. The West is thought to be rotten to the core and weak yet so powerful that it can be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Russia has immeasurable spiritual potential yet is forever plagued by a lack of self-respect, lack of self-assertion and unmet potential.

In his 1948 essay, “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World,” Ilyin describes the Russian people as the “core of everything European-Asian and, therefore, of universal equilibrium.” Yet the West, he argues, is trying to “divide the united Russian broom into twigs to break these twigs one by one.” The West is driven by “a plan of hatred and lust for power.”

All of this adds up to a highly charged and assertive messianic ideology. If Putin took it all literally, he’d be a Russian ayatollah. Up until now, he hasn’t taken it literally. His regime has used this nationalism to mobilize public opinion and to explain itself to itself. But it has tamped down every time this nationalistic ideology threatens to upend the status quo.

The danger is that Russia is now involved in a dispute in Ukraine that touches and activates the very core of this touchy messianism. The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop. Up until now, we have not been in a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia. But with passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil, it may temporarily appear that we are.

The implication for Western policymakers is that we may not be dealing with a “normal” regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks. Threatening to take away inclusion in the Group of 8 or freeze some assets may become irrelevant because the Russian regime will have moved up to a different level. The Russian nation may be motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries and has now found an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host.

And now we come to Mr. Cohen:

For Vladimir Putin the break-up of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Everyone has something that makes them tick. Putin’s obsession is the restoration of Russia’s pride through the restoration of its imperium.

The Russian seizure of control of the Crimean Peninsula, a clear violation of the very international law Putin likes to invoke, has turned Ukraine into a European tinderbox. Sarajevo and the Sudetenland: Europe’s ghosts hover. Putin argues he is protecting Russian-speakers from the usurpers of Kiev, a pro-European government seen in Moscow as the undercover agents of a predatory West whose talk of liberty is mere camouflage for the advance of its interests.

This is baloney, a “trumped-up” Russian case, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s phrase.

This is baloney, a “trumped-up” Russian case, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s phrase.

It is worth recalling that the catalyst for this crisis was not proposed Ukrainian membership in the European Union. It was not proposed Ukrainian membership in NATO. It was not some threat to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. It was, in its infinite banality, a planned trade agreement between Kiev and the European Union.

This was the minnow Putin inflated into a whale through his attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into rejection of the deal, a course the Russian president had followed with equal imperial vehemence elsewhere in Russia’s near-abroad. On this occasion, however, the people rose up, forcing Ukraine’s bungling, sybaritic, trigger-happy president, Viktor Yanukovych, into flight and the arms of his Russian patron.

Putin’s Crimean message to President Obama and the West is clear: Not one inch further. After NATO’s expansion into the Baltic states (and how critical NATO’s protection looks now to Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia), after the European Union’s embrace of the likes of Poland and Romania (freed, like the Baltic states, from the Soviet empire), after the humbling by NATO of Serbia (Russia’s Orthodox ally), after the West’s perceived manipulation of a United Nations mandate to have its way in Libya — after all this the Russian president, as he has already made clear in Syria, is saying: “Game over.”

But this is no game. Putin’s obsession with a 20th-century order, with turning back the clock to before the “catastrophe,” blinds him to the passionate attachment to their nationhood of states liberated from stifling Soviet subjection. There is a grotesque amnesia to Russia’s Ukrainian gambit.

It was in Ukraine, beginning in the 1930s, that Stalin chose to conduct his first experiment in agrarian “utopia,” collectivizing the land, declaring war on the kulaks for grain, and ultimately annihilating the livelihood of the Ukrainian peasant farmer. The result, in 1933, was famine; several million died. The Nazis later did their worst in Ukraine with similar contempt for the very idea of its independence. More millions died.

To imagine Germany today (unthinkable notion) moving into western Poland with a claim of protecting ethnic Germans there conveys some idea of the historical offense Putin has given to many Ukrainians — and of the fear he strikes into other nations with Russian minorities and dire memories of Moscow, like Lithuania.

Obama has said Putin will pay a price. Kerry has spoken of a “huge price.” But the administration’s Syrian equivocations underwrote Putin’s assertiveness and sense of impunity. Options are now limited. This is the Age of Reluctance, a time when American power is dominant but no longer determinant. Americans have turned inward.

The president must lead. Since 1945 America’s security and prosperity have been tied to the steady spread of liberty in a Europe made whole and free. There is a vital U.S. interest in not seeing this process reversed — not in the land of Yalta and the corpse-filled ravine of Babi Yar.

If Ukraine were subjugated to Moscow once more, or dismembered through a Russian annexation of Crimea in flagrant violation of Russia’s own commitments in 1994, Obama would become the president who presided over a watershed diminishment of the trans-Atlantic bond.

Pivot to Asia cannot mean abandonment of Ukraine. Every form of diplomatic, trade and economic pressure should now be mustered by Obama to isolate Putin (China may be ready to help, given its commitment to noninterference); every political means used to buttress the Kiev government; and NATO’s readiness to defend its members should be ostentatiously underscored.

President Obama might say this: “We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

The words, of course, are Putin’s. He used them about Syria — a real catastrophe.

Something about Russia needing to control a warm water port tickles the back of my mind…

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 28, 2014

In “Ease and Ardor” Bobo gurgles that Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson provide two contrasting yet compelling examples of how to lead an inner life.  “Socrates” from Verona, NJ had this to say about Bobo’s book report:  “Sir Brooks has lately avoided the specific mention of any Republican policies, pols and ideological pratfalls….as the GOP is simply too embarrassing to publicly talk about with a straight face.  So we’re left with Brooks’ permanent vacation and veiled diversions through the history books and hall-of-fame thinkers.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Cry For Me, Argentina,” says hope is hard to banish from the human heart, but Argentina does its best to do so.  In “No Big Deal” Prof. Krugman says talks are stalled on an international trade deal, thanks to negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan skepticism at home, but that’s O.K.  Here’s Bobo:

Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson are two of the greatest essayists who ever lived. They tackled similar problems and were fascinated by some of the same perplexities, but they represent different personality types and recommended two different ways to live.

Montaigne grew up in a deeply polarized society, a France torn by religious wars. He tried to make his way in the brutal world of politics. He was afflicted by the death of children and the death of his best friend. He himself was nearly killed in a riding accident.

This external disorder was matched by internal disorder. Montaigne was fascinated by his inability to control his own thoughts. He tried to study his own mind but observed that it was like a runaway horse that presented him with chimeras and imaginary monsters: “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.”

Montaigne advises us to accept the flux. Be cool with it. Much of the fanaticism he sees around him is caused by people in a panic because they can’t accept the elusiveness inside.

Montaigne set out to do a thorough investigation of himself so he wouldn’t be surprised so often: “Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself.” He observed himself with complete honesty, and accepted his limitations with a genial smile. If he has a bad memory, he’ll tell you. If he has a small penis, he’ll tell you.

“If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know.”

This honest self-inventory produced a kind of equipoise. Montaigne didn’t strive to create an all-explaining ideology. He didn’t seek to conquer the world. Instead, he was amiable, mellow, disciplined, restrained, honest and tolerant. He was at ease with life, and even with death. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry, he says. Nature will instruct you.

Johnson was charming, but he was not amiable. Where Montaigne sought a life of wisdom and restraint, Johnson sought a life of improvement and ardor.

Johnson also lived with disorder. He probably had Tourette’s syndrome and couldn’t control his body. He feared insanity. He also worried about the terrors thrown up by the imagination — nighttime fears and jealousies.

But whereas Montaigne put the emphasis on self-understanding, Johnson put the emphasis on self-conquest. Johnson didn’t go inward; he went outward. Social, not solitary, he described human nature in general as a way to understand the common predicament. Many of his sayings display a skepticism about human nature: “A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself. … Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

But then Johnson sought out to earnestly reform and correct his sins. His diaries are filled with urgent self-commands to stop being so lazy. He was a moralist, writing essays on the vices and pains that plagued him: envy, guilt, boredom and sorrow. He pinned down and named everything that terrified him. He wrote biographies of moral exemplars that readers could emulate.

Johnson battled error and vice. Thomas Boswell said he fought his sins as if they were “the wild beasts of the Arena.” He would lash out at things he thought were reprehensible. Even at death, his fighting spirit was evident, “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.”

His goal was self-improvement and the moral improvement of his readers. He hoped his writing would give “ardor to virtue and confidence to truth.”

Formerly a dissolute and depressed youth, he molded himself into something large, weighty and impressive. One biographer wrote that “iron had entered his soul.” He created his own character, which was marked by compassion but also a fierce sense of personal responsibility.

Montaigne was more laid back, and our culture is more comfortable with his brand of genial self-acceptance and restraint. We can each pick what sort of person we would prefer to be. But I’d say Johnson achieved a larger greatness. He was harder on himself. He drove himself to improve more strenuously. He held up more demanding standards for the sort of life we should be trying to live, and constantly rebutted smugness and self-approval.

Montaigne was a calming presence in a country filled with strife, but Johnson was a witty but relentless moral teacher in a culture where people were likely to grade themselves on a generous curve, and among people who spent more time thinking about the commercial climb than ultimate things.

Sooner or later he’s just going to have to admit that he’s been shilling for the mole people…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Ushuaia, Argentina:

A bon mot doing the rounds in post-commodities-boom South America is that Brazil is in the process of becoming Argentina, and Argentina is in the process of becoming Venezuela, and Venezuela is in the process of becoming Zimbabwe. That is a little harsh on Brazil and Venezuela.

Argentina, however, is a perverse case of its own. It is a nation still drugged by that quixotic political concoction called Peronism; engaged in all-out war on reliable economic data; tinkering with its multilevel exchange rate; shut out from global capital markets; trampling on property rights when it wishes; obsessed with a lost little war in the Falklands (Malvinas) more than three decades ago; and persuaded that the cause of all this failure lies with speculative powers seeking to force a proud nation — in the words of its leader — “to eat soup again, but this time with a fork.”

A century ago, Argentina was richer than Sweden, France, Austria and Italy. It was far richer than Japan. It held poor Brazil in contempt. Vast and empty, with the world’s richest top soil in the Pampas, it seemed to the European immigrants who flooded here to have all the potential of the United States (per capita income is now a third or less of the United States level). They did not know that a colonel called Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva (“Evita”) would shape an ethos of singular delusional power.

“Argentina is a unique case of a country that has completed the transition to underdevelopment,” said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College.

In psychological terms — and Buenos Aires is packed with folks on couches pouring out their anguish to psychotherapists — Argentina is the child among nations that never grew up. Responsibility was not its thing. Why should it be? There was so much to be plundered, such riches in grain and livestock, that solid institutions and the rule of law — let alone a functioning tax system — seemed a waste of time.

Immigrants camped here with foreign passports rather than go through the nation-forming absorption that characterize Brazil or the United States. Argentina was far away at the bottom of the world, a beckoning fertile land mass distant enough from power centers to live its own peripheral fantasies or drown its sorrow in what is probably the world’s saddest (and most haunting) dance. Then, to give expression to its uniqueness, Argentina invented its own political philosophy: a strange mishmash of nationalism, romanticism, fascism, socialism, backwardness, progressiveness, militarism, eroticism, fantasy, musical, mournfulness, irresponsibility and repression. The name it gave all this was Peronism. It has proved impossible to shake.

Perón, who discovered the political uplift a military officer could derive from forging links with the have-nots of Latin America and distributing cash (a lesson absorbed by Hugo Chávez), was deposed in the first of four postwar coups. The Argentina I covered in the 1980s was just emerging from the trauma of military rule. If I have a single emblematic image of the continent then it is of the uncontrollable sobbing of Argentine women clutching the photographs of beloved children who had been taken from them for “brief questioning” only to vanish. The region’s military juntas turned “disappear” into a transitive verb. It is what they did to deemed enemies — 30,000 of them in Argentina.

Since 1983, Argentina has ceased its military-civilian whiplash, tried some of the perpetrators of human rights crimes and been governed democratically. But for most of that time it has been run by Peronists, most recently Néstor Kirchner and his widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (shades of Perón’s widow Isabel), who have rediscovered redistribution after a Peronist flurry in the 1990s with neoliberalism. Economic whiplash is alive and well. So are reckless spending in good times and lawless measures in bad. So, too, are mawkish evocations of Perón and Evita and Isabel: On earth as it is in the heavens.

Cry for me, my name is Argentina and I am too rich for my own good.

Twenty-five years ago I left a country of hyperinflation (5,000 percent in 1989), capital flight, currency instability, heavy-handed state interventionism, dwindling reserves, uncompetitive industry, heavy reliance on commodity exports, reawakening Peronist fantasies and bottom-of-the-world complexes. Today inflation is high rather than hyper. Otherwise, not a whole lot has changed.

Coming ashore at Ushuaia on Argentina’s southern tip, the first thing I saw was a sign saying that the “Malvinas” islands were under illegal occupation by the United Kingdom since 1833. The second was a signpost saying Ireland was 13,199 kilometers away (no mention of Britain). The third was a packet of cookies “made in Ushuaia, the end of the world.” The fourth was a pocket calculator used by a shopkeeper to figure out dollar-peso rates.

Hope is hard to banish from the human heart, but it has to be said that Argentina does its best to do so.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Everyone knows that the Obama administration’s domestic economic agenda is stalled in the face of scorched-earth opposition from Republicans. And that’s a bad thing: The U.S. economy would be in much better shape if Obama administration proposals like the American Jobs Act had become law.

It’s less well known that the administration’s international economic agenda is also stalled, for very different reasons. In particular, the centerpiece of that agenda — the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or T.P.P. — doesn’t seem to be making much progress, thanks to a combination of negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan skepticism at home.

And you know what? That’s O.K. It’s far from clear that the T.P.P. is a good idea. It’s even less clear that it’s something on which President Obama should be spending political capital. I am in general a free trader, but I’ll be undismayed and even a bit relieved if the T.P.P. just fades away.

The first thing you need to know about trade deals in general is that they aren’t what they used to be. The glory days of trade negotiations — the days of deals like the Kennedy Round of the 1960s, which sharply reduced tariffs around the world — are long behind us.

Why? Basically, old-fashioned trade deals are a victim of their own success: there just isn’t much more protectionism to eliminate. Average U.S. tariff rates have fallen by two-thirds since 1960. The most recent report on American import restraints by the International Trade Commission puts their total cost at less than 0.01 percent of G.D.P.

Implicit protection of services — rules and regulations that have the effect of, say, blocking foreign competition in insurance — surely impose additional costs. But the fact remains that, these days, “trade agreements” are mainly about other things. What they’re really about, in particular, is property rights — things like the ability to enforce patents on drugs and copyrights on movies. And so it is with T.P.P.

There’s a lot of hype about T.P.P., from both supporters and opponents. Supporters like to talk about the fact that the countries at the negotiating table comprise around 40 percent of the world economy, which they imply means that the agreement would be hugely significant. But trade among these players is already fairly free, so the T.P.P. wouldn’t make that much difference.

Meanwhile, opponents portray the T.P.P. as a huge plot, suggesting that it would destroy national sovereignty and transfer all the power to corporations. This, too, is hugely overblown. Corporate interests would get somewhat more ability to seek legal recourse against government actions, but, no, the Obama administration isn’t secretly bargaining away democracy.

What the T.P.P. would do, however, is increase the ability of certain corporations to assert control over intellectual property. Again, think drug patents and movie rights.

Is this a good thing from a global point of view? Doubtful. The kind of property rights we’re talking about here can alternatively be described as legal monopolies. True, temporary monopolies are, in fact, how we reward new ideas; but arguing that we need even more monopolization is very dubious — and has nothing at all to do with classical arguments for free trade.

Now, the corporations benefiting from enhanced control over intellectual property would often be American. But this doesn’t mean that the T.P.P. is in our national interest. What’s good for Big Pharma is by no means always good for America.

In short, there isn’t a compelling case for this deal, from either a global or a national point of view. Nor does there seem to be anything like a political consensus in favor, abroad or at home.

Abroad, the news from the latest meeting of negotiators sounds like what you usually hear when trade talks are going nowhere: assertions of forward movement but nothing substantive. At home, both Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, have come out against giving the president crucial “fast-track” authority, meaning that any agreement can receive a clean, up-or-down vote.

So what I wonder is why the president is pushing the T.P.P. at all. The economic case is weak, at best, and his own party doesn’t like it. Why waste time and political capital on this project?

My guess is that we’re looking at a combination of Beltway conventional wisdom — Very Serious People always support entitlement cuts and trade deals — and officials caught in a 1990s time warp, still living in the days when New Democrats tried to prove that they weren’t old-style liberals by going all in for globalization. Whatever the motivations, however, the push for T.P.P. seems almost weirdly out of touch with both economic and political reality.

So don’t cry for T.P.P. If the big trade deal comes to nothing, as seems likely, it will be, well, no big deal.


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