Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Cohen and Nocera

September 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gazed at her, a little incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

September 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Congress is gone. But not forgotten.

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

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

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

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

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

We were all actually aware of that.

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

“The bill before us is an imperfect bill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently, we’re on our own.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

September 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s going on here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 9, 2014

In “Becoming a Real Person” Bobo sighs that elite American universities give students extensive résumé guidance but seem to have forgotten the moral component of their mission.  Silly me — almost 69 years old and all this time I thought moral guidance was something that came from home and community, and started as soon as you were old enough to understand the word “no.”  In “A War of Choice in Gaza” Mr. Cohen says the fighting was unnecessary — it rehabilitated a beleaguered Hamas, and gained nothing for Israel.  Mr. Nocera is back to carrying water for Big Bidness.  In “Inversion Delusion” he actually tries to convince us that the argument is bogus that corporations leave the U.S. and set up overseas because of high corporate tax rates.   Here’s Bobo:

This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine’s history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.

This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.

The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.

Stephen Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.”

Pinker suggests the university’s job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc.

The way to select students into the elite colleges is not through any mysterious peering into applicants’ souls, Pinker continues. Students should be selected on the basis of standardized test scores:the S.A.T.’s. If colleges admitted kids with the highest scores and companies hired applicants with the highest scores, Pinker writes, “many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight.”

What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).

Over a century ago, most university administrators and faculty members would have said the moral purpose is the most important. As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, “Character is the main object of education.” The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle.

Today, people at these elite institutions have the same moral aspirations. Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind. Everybody — administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students — knows that the pressures of the résumé race are out of control.

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

The result is that the elite universities are strong at delivering their commercial mission. They are pretty strong in developing their cognitive mission. But when it comes to the sort of growth Deresiewicz is talking about, everyone is on their own. An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Résumé God and toward the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but résumé-padding internship. But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.

I’d say Deresiewicz significantly overstates the amount of moral decay at elite universities. But at least he reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.

Drawing the veil of charity over Bobo, let us proceed to Mr. Cohen:

Another round of violence is over in the Holy Land. More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been killed. More than 70 Israelis are dead. The grass, in that appalling Israeli metaphor, has been mown (and will now start growing again). Hamas, through its resistance, has burnished its reputation among Palestinians. Israel is angrier. Nobody is better off.

Periodic eruptions are intrinsic to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy of maintaining the status quo of rule over millions of Palestinians, expansion of West Bank settlements and maneuver to deflect American mediation. Oppressed people will rise up. Israel’s anemic embrace of a two-state objective is the best possible cover for the evisceration of that aim. Still, the question arises: Was this mini-war necessary?

I think not. Certainly it was not in Israel’s strategic interest. Much mystery continues to shroud its genesis, the abduction on June 12 of three Israeli youths near Hebron and their murder, now attributed to a local Palestinian clan including Hamas operatives who acted without the knowledge or direction of the Hamas leadership. (There has been no major investigative piece in the American press on the incident, a troubling omission.)

But enough detail has emerged to make clear that Netanyahu leapt on “unequivocal proof” of Hamas responsibility (still unproduced) for political ends. The prime minister’s aim was to discredit Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, for reconciling with Hamas; vindicate the collapse of the peace talks Secretary of State John Kerry had pursued; stir up Israeli rage over the fate of the teenagers; sweep through the West Bank arresting hundreds of suspected Hamas members, including 58 released under the terms of an earlier deal with Hamas; and consolidate divide-and-rule.

Assaf Sharon of Tel Aviv University, the academic director of a liberal think tank in Jerusalem, has a powerful piece in The New York Review of Books. It makes the important point that Hamas was beleaguered before the violence, isolated by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This weakness lay behind the reconciliation with Abbas. Netanyahu might have used this development to extend Abbas’s authority into a more open Gaza at the expense of Hamas, the very objective now apparently sought after so much needless loss of life.

For more than two weeks after the abduction, persuasive evidence that the teenagers were dead was kept from the Israeli public. A hugely emotional return-our-boys campaign was pursued while the recording of a phone call from one of those boys to the police in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping was not divulged. In it, shots and cries of pain could be heard. As Shlomi Eldar wrote, “It was a murder in real time, horrifying and monstrous.” After it, “Those who heard the emergency call recording knew that the best one could hope for was to bring the boys to their final resting places.”

The effect of this concealment, whatever its justification, was to whip up an Israeli frenzy. This was the context in which a Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli extremists. It was also the context of the drift to war: air campaign, Hamas rockets and tunnel raids, Israeli ground invasion. Drift is the operative word. Israel’s purpose was shifting. At different moments it included “zero rockets,” demilitarizing Gaza and destroying the tunnels. “Lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control,” Sharon writes.

The only certainty now is that this will happen again unless the situation in Gaza changes. That in turn necessitates Palestinian unity and renunciation of violence. It also hinges on a change in the Israeli calculus that settlement extension, a divided Palestinian movement, and vacuous blah-blah on a two-state peace are in its interest, whatever the intermittent cost in blood.

Two other recent pieces are essential reading in the aftermath of the fighting. The first is Connie Bruck’s “Friends of Israel” in The New Yorker, an examination of the political sway of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby group. In it, she quotes Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman, getting to the nub: “The difficult reality is this: in order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if Aipac is on your side, you can do that.” She also quotes John Yarmuth, a congressman from Kentucky, on upholding the interests of the United States: “We all took an oath of office. And Aipac, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.”

Finally, read Yehuda Shaul in The New Statesman on the corrosive effect of the occupation and his experience of military service in the West Bank: “We needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity.”

And now we get to Joe “Gunga Din” Nocera:

On Monday, the Tax Policy Center in Washington held a panel discussion on the subject of “corporate inversions” — the practice of taking over a small company in someplace like Ireland or the Netherlands, and then using that takeover to “relocate” to the foreign country for tax reasons. One of the panelists was John Samuels, the chief tax lawyer for General Electric.

Samuels started by saying that even the most junior tax lawyers know that, when structuring a cross-border merger, “you should do whatever you can, whatever’s possible, to make sure the ultimate parent or acquirer is a foreign company, not a U.S. company, to avoid having the entire worldwide income caught up in the U.S. tax net.” He went on: “Virtually every major developed country in the world has dramatically reformed its tax system to make it more business-friendly.” He cited Britain as an example. “The U.K. recently abandoned its worldwide system for a territorial system [and] reduced its corporate tax rate to 21 percent.” Quoting the exchequer secretary to the Treasury, he added, Britain “wants to send out the signal loud and clear that Britain is open for business.”

The corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, which is the highest in the industrialized world. And, unlike most other countries, it taxes a company’s worldwide earnings, at that same high rate, once they are repatriated into the United States. (That is what Samuels meant by a “worldwide system.”)

So, at first glance, Samuels’s analysis would seem to make sense: the disparity of our uncompetitive corporate tax rate versus their business-friendly rates must be driving the current mania for inversions. Many other corporate executives have made the same argument. Just a few months ago, Heather Bresch, the chief executive of Mylan, a $7 billion generic drug company, announced that her company would be doing an inversion that would place its new corporate address in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is 25 percent. She complained that the American corporate tax rate needed to become “more competitive.”

But upon closer inspection, this argument turns out to be mainly hogwash. As Edward D. Kleinbard put it in a recent report, “ ‘Competitiveness’ has nothing to do with it.”

Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California, has emerged as one of the leading critics of inversions. In his view, it isn’t so much that the corporate tax code is too tough or the rate is too high; rather, he says, companies are taking advantage of loopholes in the code that make inversions almost irresistible for corporate executives. As another critic, Kimberly Clausing of Reed College, wrote in a recent paper: “Both the high U.S. tax rate and the worldwide system of taxation have more bark than bite.”

For starters, American multinationals, with their high-powered tax departments, rarely pay 35 percent or anything close to it. And those earnings that are supposed to get taxed upon repatriation? Needless to say, they never get repatriated; by some estimates, $2 trillion in earnings by American multinationals reside, untaxed, outside the country.

Indeed, according to Kleinbard and other critics, gaining access to those earnings is a benefit of inversion. Clausing describes the tactic like this: Foreign affiliates of the American company lend money to the new foreign parent, skipping over the U.S. company and thus avoiding the repatriation tax. Kleinbard calls these “hopscotch” transactions.

Then there is something called “earnings stripping,” which inversion also makes possible. This involves using loans between the foreign “owner” and the American “affiliate” to shift income out of the United States. According to Clausing, Walgreens, which was planning an inversion but pulled back after a public outcry, would have saved “over $780 million in taxes in one year alone.”

For years, executives have called for an overhaul of the corporate tax system; recently, as per Samuels and Bresch, inversions have become a part of the argument. But, in truth, curbing inversions shouldn’t have to wait for wholesale reform. In 2004, George W. Bush pushed through a law that temporarily stopped what was then a flood of inversions.

It can be done again. Laws can be written that, for instance, insist that the foreign targets be much larger companies — thus trying to ensure that the deals are done for strategic reasons rather than solely for tax reasons. And the loopholes that allow for earnings stripping and hopscotching can be closed.

Before that panel discussion on Monday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made a speech in which he denounced inversions and essentially pleaded with Congress to take action. He also hinted that the administration might take regulatory action on its own, though there is disagreement among the experts whether regulation alone could stop inversions.

In either case, they need to be stopped. They aren’t just corrosive to the country’s tax base; they are corrosive, in a larger sense, to the country. Thanks to our Swiss cheese of a tax code, multinational companies already have a splendid little deal. They shouldn’t get to sweeten it even more.

Dowd, Cohen, Kristof and Bruni

August 31, 2014

Praise the FSM, The Pasty Little Putz and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today.  MoDo is fizzing over a thespian again.  (Which is certainly better than another venomous column about Obama/Clinton/marijuana/any random Democrat.)  In “High Tea With Mr. Fancypants Sheen” she babbles that after playing everyone from Mozart to Tony Blair, the actor Michael Sheen puts the Master of Sex on top.  In “Diplomat and Warrior” Mr. Cohen says we need Richard Holbrooke’s skill and resolve today.  In the comments “Query” from the West sums it up well:  “Thus column reveals all the useless pettiness of our Very Serious People.”  In “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” Mr. Kristof says white America should wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Many challenges remain to achieving equality.  Mr. Bruni, in “Between Godliness and Godlessness,” says religiously unaffiliated Americans are owed a larger, better vocabulary for their spirituality.  Here’s MoDo:

Is sex more important than music, war, sports and vampires? Is sex more important than Nixon?

Michael Sheen thinks so.

The nimble Welsh actor has played a royal flush of renowned men — Mozart, Tony Blair (three times), the English soccer manager Brian Clough and David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.” He also starred as a villainous vampire in the “Twilight” movies.

Asked how he rates the importance of historical figures he has channeled, he places his current conjuring, William Masters in Showtime’s mesmerizing “Masters of Sex,” on top.

“Sex, sexuality, is something every single person has to engage in, whether you’re actively pursuing, avoiding, enjoying in the moment or regretting later,” Sheen says over tea at Trump SoHo, looking sharp in a black Armani suit and black Prada tie. “So anyone who’s played a part in affecting that, I suppose it’s about as wide-ranging as it gets, really.”

Sheen contended that while the revolutionary research Masters did with his partner and later wife, Virginia Johnson, did not always lead them to correct conclusions — they claimed to have made some homosexuals straight and overstated how easily H.I.V. could be contracted — at least they were trying to measure things scientifically, unlike Alfred Kinsey, whose research comprised interviews.

“All you have to do is talk to someone about their sex life to get a sense of how untrustworthy each of us might be about that,” Sheen said dryly.

In the show, Masters suggests to Johnson that they have research sex, noting that “we get the benefit of interpreting the data first hand.” Later, he tells her it’s a condition of her job. But Sheen and the alluring Lizzy Caplan, plus the writing, soften the nasty coercion on his part and coldblooded careerism on hers with a subtext of mutual attraction.

Late in life, Johnson told the biographer Thomas Maier that she had never desired Masters, only the job.

“It is sexual harassment,” Sheen said, but “they both have different agendas. Conscious and unconscious motivations are something we’re playing with in the show.”

He also suggests that there may have been “a bit of revisionism” on Johnson’s part, colored by the fact that Masters seemed to prefer his Doberman pinschers and left her after 22 years for a woman he’d had a crush on in college.

“While at the beginning he was quite intimidating and wasn’t an easily likable man and Virginia was the one people warmed to, by the end, it had completely reversed,” Sheen said.

He noted that there’s a “Beauty and the Beast” undersong to their telling of the relationship of Masters and Johnson, a sexually free woman who had a stint as a country singer and three divorces behind her when she became his secretary in her early 30s.

“He’s drawn to the beauty but at the same time can’t accept that she might see him as anything else than a monster, which I think is also the story of intimacy — how do you cope with someone seeing the ugliest part of you?” Sheen said.

He said he chose to play Masters as “one of the hardest characters to ever like in a lead role,” knowing that it would make the arrogant gynecologist’s rare displays of vulnerability more affecting. “I only ever play myself, with the volume turned up on certain aspects. If I was playing anyone else, I’d be acting and I hate acting.”

I note that the repellent Masters was the opposite of Blair and Frost, who tried to ingratiate.

“American audiences, at that time anyway, tended to go, ‘Oh, we love Blair and we love what you do because you make him so likable,’ ” he said. “People hate Blair in Britain and saw what I was doing as a kind of criticism of him, that he was false, opportunistic, ambitious. Same with Frost.”

Sheen is also in the spotlight for his romance with Sarah Silverman, who came to New York with him.

When the 43-year-old Silverman won an Emmy for her HBO special, she made an affectionate reference to “Mr. Fancypants Sheen.” At another red carpet event, the raunchy comedienne grabbed her proper boyfriend’s butt.

“She sort of makes a big deal of me doing Shakespeare and I know lots of words and it just makes me laugh,” said the 45-year-old Sheen, who, like Silverman, has never been married.

Not a fan of living in Los Angeles — he is there to raise his 15-year-old daughter, Lily, with ex-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale — Sheen said “one of the things I really appreciate about Sarah is that she’s not concerned about a lot of things that a lot of people are concerned about in L.A.” She’s “grounded,” he said, yet “just as out there and quirky and eccentric as anyone in L.A. but in a lovely way.” After they began dating last winter, she took a role in the Showtime show as a lesbian palm reader.

He seems like the buttoned-up part of the twosome — a variation on the odd-couple romance he had with Tina Fey on “30 Rock” as Brit Wesley Snipes — but Sheen has a wild side, or at least a “Where the Wild Things Are” side.

His daughter gave him an adult Max suit for Christmas a couple years ago because he loves the Maurice Sendak character so much.

“What I actually want to do, if I can get the guts together eventually, is eschew clothes altogether and just wear that,” he says with a delighted grin. “I just want to be the guy in the Max outfit.”

She’d probably be much happier writing breathless puff pieces for “People”…  Next up we have Mr. Cohen, although his POS might just as well have been stolen from MoDo:

On Sept. 8, 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, wrote to the secretary of the Army requesting that an exception to policy be granted to allow Richard C. Holbrooke to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Holbrooke had collapsed in her office nine months earlier. He died soon after while serving in the most thankless of his many assignments, as President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Few diplomats throughout history have made as deep and sustained an impact upon the course of war and peace than Richard did, and few civilian leaders have consistently provided more support to the U.S. military,” Clinton wrote in her appeal. “Indeed, his nearly fifty-year career in public service was inextricably intertwined with our military, and, more than once, Richard found himself on the front lines, the living embodiment of ‘one mission, one team.’ ” Arlington Cemetery is reserved for active or retired members of the Armed Forces and their families, but several exceptions have been made over the course of its history in cases of what are deemed to be exceptional civilian service benefiting the military — and sometimes for other reasons.

Clinton, in a two-page letter made available to me, went on to describe Holbrooke’s long diplomatic career — as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam; at the Paris Peace talks that led to the end of that conflict; as ambassador to Germany at a time of post-Cold War military transformation; as the diplomat who “brokered the historic Dayton Accords that brought the bloody war in the Balkans to a close”; and finally in “the most complex and vexing foreign and military policy challenge of our day” in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That last assignment was particularly “vexing” because Obama and Holbrooke never got along. The “no drama” president had little patience for high-drama Holbrooke. There was no significant place in the president’s young, tight-knit foreign policy team for this man of vast experience and sweeping insights. Holbrooke had backed Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Party primaries; his loyalty was questioned. In an extraordinary put-down, Obama took several staffers with him to Afghanistan in March, 2010, but not Holbrooke, his supposed point man.

In hindsight, this clash offered indications of how Obama’s hesitant foreign policy, forged in that narrow White House circle, would evolve. The president has just declared that “We don’t have a strategy yet.” He was talking about possible military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (a comment later narrowed by his spokesman to apply to military strikes against ISIS in Syria). The comment, however construed, should not have been uttered. It conveys indecision even if intended to convey methodical caution. It suggests weakness.

The remark was of a piece with others about hitting singles and doubles but rarely more as American president, and running a no-stupid-stuff foreign policy, and various riffs on the limits of American power in a tough world. There is merit to prudence after a season of American rashness. But the appearance of feckless incoherence from the White House is very dangerous — as the eruptions in the Middle East and Ukraine have underscored.

Holbrooke was a passionate believer in American power and its capacity for good. He acknowledged American failings but would never talk down the transformative power of a nation that is also an idea. Realism, even fierce realism, could never efface idealism about America’s ability to spread freedom. It is a pity Obama shunned him. More experienced, battle-hardened voices might have helped the president.

On Oct. 26, 2011, John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, wrote to Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton, who had petitioned for an exception, to say that he had reviewed all the information available to him, “including letters of support from some of our Nation’s most senior officials,” and concluded that “Ambassador Holbrooke, unfortunately, is not eligible to be laid to rest at Arlington.” McHugh wrote that Holbrooke’s “national and international service was exceptional,” but noted that “interment and inurnment at Arlington is deeply rooted in military service.” Holbrooke never served in the military.

Adm. Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me he was a strong supporter of the idea that Arlington be Holbrooke’s resting place. “I felt very strongly about it because Richard spent so much time with the military through so many conflicts,” he said. “He was deserving.” But Mullen, who also wrote on Holbrooke’s behalf, believed that only a White House intervention could change McHugh’s decision — and knew that would not be forthcoming. The White House did not respond to emails seeking comment.

My own view of Holbrooke was etched by watching him bring the war in Bosnia to an end — a remarkable achievement involving the full panoply of American power, diplomatic and military. Through skill and conviction at the service of clear strategy, the impossible was achieved at Dayton. Not another shot was fired in anger.

Clinton wrote that Holbrooke was a “great warrior for peace.” As an emblem of service and resolve that America sorely needs today, he was worth an Arlington exception.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Many white Americans say they are fed up with the coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A plurality of whites in a recent Pew survey said that the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

Bill O’Reilly of Fox News reflected that weariness, saying: “All you hear is grievance, grievance, grievance, money, money, money.”

Indeed, a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts found that whites, on average, believed that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

Yes, you read that right!

So let me push back at what I see as smug white delusion. Here are a few reasons race relations deserve more attention, not less:

• The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data. The gap has worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid. (Whites in America on average own almost 18 times as much as blacks; in South Africa in 1970, the ratio was about 15 times.)

• The black-white income gap is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

• A black boy born today in the United States has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white boy.

• Black students are significantly less likely to attend schools offering advanced math and science courses than white students. They are three times as likely to be suspended and expelled, setting them up for educational failure.

• Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned.

All these constitute not a black problem or a white problem, but an American problem. When so much talent is underemployed and overincarcerated, the entire country suffers.

Some straight people have gradually changed their attitudes toward gays after realizing that their friends — or children — were gay. Researchers have found that male judges are more sympathetic to women’s rights when they have daughters. Yet because of the de facto segregation of America, whites are unlikely to have many black friends: A study from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.

That’s unfortunate, because friends open our eyes. I was shaken after a well-known black woman told me about looking out her front window and seeing that police officers had her teenage son down on the ground after he had stepped out of their upscale house because they thought he was a prowler. “Thank God he didn’t run,” she said.

One black friend tells me that he freaked out when his white fiancée purchased an item in a store and promptly threw the receipt away. “What are you doing?” he protested to her. He is a highly successful and well-educated professional but would never dream of tossing a receipt for fear of being accused of shoplifting.

Some readers will protest that the stereotype is rooted in reality: Young black men are disproportionately likely to be criminals.

That’s true — and complicated. “There’s nothing more painful to me,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, “than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery — then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

All this should be part of the national conversation on race, as well, and prompt a drive to help young black men end up in jobs and stable families rather than in crime or jail. We have policies with a robust record of creating opportunity: home visitation programs like Nurse-Family Partnership; early education initiatives like Educare and Head Start; programs for troubled adolescents like Youth Villages; anti-gang and anti-crime initiatives like Becoming a Man; efforts to prevent teen pregnancies like the Carrera curriculum; job training like Career Academies; and job incentives like the earned-income tax credit.

The best escalator to opportunity may be education, but that escalator is broken for black boys growing up in neighborhoods with broken schools. We fail those boys before they fail us.

So a starting point is for those of us in white America to wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Yes, the progress is real, but so are the challenges. The gaps demand a wrenching, soul-searching excavation of our national soul, and the first step is to acknowledge that the central race challenge in America today is not the suffering of whites.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Almost midway through Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.

He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it.

This happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.”

Had Harris at last found God? And is “Waking Up” a stop-the-presses admission — an epiphany — that he slumbered and lumbered through the darkness for too long?

Hardly. Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom broached publicly in America, where religion is such sacred and protected turf, where God is on our currency and at our inaugurals and in our pledge and sometimes written into legislation as a way to exempt the worshipful from dictates that apply to everyone else.

The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?

Reflecting on the high that he felt by the Sea of Galilee, Harris writes: “If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit.”

But that conclusion, in his view, would have been a prejudiced, willed one, because he had felt similar exaltation and rapture “at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned,” or in other circumstances where he had slowed down, tuned out distractions and focused on the moment at hand. In other words, there are many engines of flight from quotidian worries, many routes of escape from gravity and the flesh. They include prayer, but they also include meditation, exercise, communion with music, immersion in nature.

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

According to a 2012 Pew poll that drew considerable attention, nearly 20 percent of adults in this country fell into that category. Less than a third of those people labeled themselves atheists or agnostics. Seemingly more of them had a belief in some kind of higher power, but that conviction was unmoored, unclassifiable and maybe tenuous. These nomads aren’t looking for a church, but may want some of the virtues — emotional grounding, psychic grace — that are associated and sometimes conflated with one. The subtitle of “Waking Up” can be read as a summons to them: “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

Harris made his name with his acclaimed 2004 best seller, “The End of Faith,” which took a buzz saw to Christianity, Islam and the rest of it. He was strenuously edgy and perhaps gratuitously insulting: While he’s right that it’s dangerous to play down all the cruelty done in the name of religion, it’s also a mistake to give short shrift to the goodness.

But the man has guts. Just read a blog post that he wrote in late July about the fighting in Israel and Gaza. By traveling down byways of the debate about Israel’s actions that most politicians and pundits avoid, it rightly caused a stir, along with a surge in traffic to his website that temporarily crashed it.

IN books and lectures since “The End of Faith,” Harris has increasingly redirected his energies from indicting organized religion — “I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse,” he told me — to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it. There is the church of Burning Man, he noted. There is the repetition of mantras. There are the catharsis and clarity of unsullied concentration.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

I’m not casting a vote for godlessness at large or in my own spiritual life, which is muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions. I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word. We hear the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When’s the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?

During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: “May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.” That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.

“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said.

There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.

Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.

Cohen and Bruni

August 26, 2014

Bobo and Nocera are off today, so all we have are Cohen and Bruni.  In “The Making of a Disaster” Mr. Cohen mansplains to us that a long list of American missteps paved the way to ISIS.  Mr. Bruni is feeling “Lost in America,” and moans that we’ve gone from gumption to gloom, with political implications that are impossible to foretell.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Almost 13 years after 9/11, a jihadi organization with a murderous anti-Western ideology controls territory in Iraq and Syria, which are closer to Europe and the United States than Afghanistan is. It commands resources and camps and even a Syrian military base. It spreads its propaganda through social media. It has set the West on edge through the recorded beheading of the American journalist James Foley — with the promise of more to come.

What went wrong? The United States and its allies did not go to war to eradicate Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan only to face — after the expenditure of so much blood and treasure — a more proximate terrorist threat with a Qaeda-like ideology. The “war on terror,” it seems, produced only a metastasized variety of terror.

More than 500, and perhaps as many as 800, British Muslims have headed for Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadi ranks. In France, that number stands at about 900. Two adolescent girls, 15 and 17, were detained last week in Paris and face charges of conspiring with a terrorist organization. The ideological appeal of the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is intact. It may be increasing, despite efforts to build an interfaith dialogue, reach out to moderate Islam, and pre-empt radicalization.

“One minute you are trying to pay bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun,” said Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism. “Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and they buy into a narrow framework that can explain events. Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”

A large part of Western failure has been the inability to counter the attraction of such extremism. Perhaps racked with historical guilt, European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Meanwhile, in the Arab world the central hope of the Arab Spring has been dashed: that more open and representative societies would reduce the frustration that leads to extremism.

President Obama shunned the phrase “war on terror” to distance himself from the policies of President George W. Bush. But in reality he chose to pursue the struggle by other military means. He stepped up drone attacks on several fronts. His most conspicuous success was the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

The curtain, it seemed, had fallen on America’s post-9/11 trauma. Then, a little over three years after Bin Laden’s death, ISIS overran the Iraqi city of Mosul and the world woke up to the radicalization through the festering Syrian war of another generation of Muslims; youths drawn to the slaughter of infidels (as well as Shiite Muslims) and the far-fetched notion of recreating an Islamic caliphate under Shariah law. When a hooded ISIS henchman with a British accent beheaded Foley last week, the new threat acquired urgency at last.

The list of American errors is long: Bush’s ill-conceived and bungled war in Iraq; a failure to deal with the fact that two allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been major sources and funders of violent Sunni extremism; an inability to seize opportunity in Egypt, home to nearly a quarter of the world’s Arabs, and so demonstrate that Arab societies can evolve out of the radicalizing confrontation of dictatorship and Islamism; a prolonged spate of dithering over the Syrian war during which Obama declared three years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” without having any plan to achieve that; a lack of resolve in Syria that saw Obama set a red line on the use of chemical weapons only to back away from military force when chemical weapons were used; an inability to see that no one loves an Arab vacuum like jihadi extremists, and a bloody vacuum was precisely what Obama allowed Syria to become; and inattention, until it was too late, to festering sectarian conflict in a broken Iraqi society left to its fate by a complete American withdrawal.

The chicken that came home to roost from the Syrian debacle is called ISIS. It is not Al Qaeda. But, as the journalist Patrick Cockburn has noted, Al Qaeda “is an idea rather than an organization, and this has long been the case.”

ISIS grew through American weakness — the setting of objectives and red lines in Syria that proved vacuous. But the deepest American and Western defeat has been ideological. As Hussain said, “If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.”

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention.

It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

The poll also showed that 71 percent thought that the country was on the wrong track. While that represents a spike, it also affirms a negative mind-set that’s been fixed for a scarily long time. As the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has repeatedly noted, more Americans have been saying “wrong track” than “right track” for at least a decade now, and something’s got to give.

But to what or whom can Americans turn?

In the most recent of Sosnik’s periodic assessments of the electorate, published in Politico last month, he wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward the federal government.” He cited a Gallup poll in late June that showed that Americans’ faith in each of the three branches had dropped to what he called “near record lows,” with only 30 percent expressing confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency and 7 percent in Congress.

The intensity of Americans’ disgust with Congress came through in another recent poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post. Typically, Americans lambaste the institution as a whole but make an exception for the politician representing their district. But in this poll, for the first time in the 25 years that ABC and The Post had been asking the question, a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that they disapproved even of the job that their own House member was doing.

So we can expect to see a huge turnover in Congress after the midterms, right?

That’s a rhetorical question, and a joke. Congress wasn’t in any great favor in 2012, and 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who sought re-election won it. The tyranny of money, patronage, name recognition and gerrymandering in American politics guaranteed as much. Small wonder that 79 percent of Americans indicated dissatisfaction with the system in the Journal/NBC poll.

Conventional wisdom says that President Obama’s anemic approval ratings will haunt Democrats. But it doesn’t take into account how effectively some Republicans continue to sully their party’s image. It doesn’t factor in how broadly Americans’ disapproval spreads out.

Conventional wisdom says that better unemployment and job-creation numbers could save Democrats. But many Americans aren’t feeling those improvements. When asked in the Journal/NBC poll if the country was in a recession — which it’s not — 49 percent of respondents said yes, while 46 percent said no.

The new jobs don’t feel as sturdy as the old ones. It takes more hours to make the same money or support the same lifestyle. Students amass debt. Upward mobility increasingly seems a mirage, a myth.

“People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.

And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.

In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.

Well, you can drown all the Republicans…

Cohen and Krugman

August 22, 2014

It’s a good day today — Bobo is off.  In “Patient No. 9413″ Mr. Cohen addresses bipolar illness and the mystery, shrouded in taboo, that preceded it.  Prof. Krugman takes a look at “Hawks Crying Wolf” and has a question:  What is it about crying “Inflation!” that makes it so appealing that people keep doing it despite having been wrong again and again?  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

My mother was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning. I wanted to know why.

Ever since her first suicide attempt, in 1978, when I was 22, I had been trying to fill in gaps. She was gone much of the time in my early childhood, and when she returned nobody spoke about the absence.

I learned much later that she had suffered acute depression after my younger sister’s birth in 1957. She was in hospitals and sanitariums being shot full of insulin — a treatment then in vogue for severe mental disorder — and electricity. The resulting spasms, seizures, convulsions and comas were supposed to jar her from her “puerperal psychosis,” the term then used in England for postpartum depression.

In 1958, my mother was admitted to the Holloway Sanatorium, the sprawling Victorian Gothic fantasy of a 19th-century tycoon, Thomas Holloway, who amassed a fortune through the sale of dubious medicinal concoctions. The sanitarium, opened in 1885, was a great heap of gabled redbrick buildings, topped by a tower rising 145 feet into the damp air of Surrey.

Run initially as a private institution, the Holloway Sanatorium became a mental hospital within Britain’s National Health Service after World War II. It was not closed until 1981. Many of its records and casebooks were burned. The gutted building became a setting for horror movies. Directors could not believe their luck. It is now a gated community of luxury homes.

Some records were preserved at the Surrey History Center. In the faint hope that a trace remained of my mother, I wrote to inquire. My parents had never spoken in any detail of her first depression. A letter came back a few weeks later. References to June Bernice Cohen had been located in the admissions register and in ward reports from July 1958.

These showed that “she was patient number 9413, was admitted on 25th July 1958 and discharged on 12th September 1958.” The ward reports for most of August and September had vanished. I applied under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act to see the records.

My re-encounter with my mother involved painstaking negotiation with an archivist. At last I was presented with the weighty register for female patients. Entries are written with fountain pen in cursive script. In columns across the page my mother is identified. “Name: June Bernice COHEN. Ref Number: 9413. Age: 29. Marital Status: Married. Religion: JEW.”

I stared at her age — so young — and at the capitalized entry under religion: “JEW.” The noun form has a weight the adjective, Jewish, lacks. It seems loaded with a monosyllabic distaste, which was redoubled by the strange use of the uppercase. June was not religious. She is the youngest on the page. She is also the only non-Christian.

The first ward notes on my mother read, “History of depression in varying degrees since birth of second child, now fourteen months old. Husband is engaged in medical research. Patient has some private psychotherapy and also modified insulin treatment at St. Mary’s last month, being discharged July 8th. On admission she was depressed, tearful and withdrawn.”

The doctor examining my mother was struck by how “her tension increased remarkably on mention of latest child.” I ran my fingers over the page and paused at “JEW.” I wanted to take a soothing poultice to her face.

On July 28, 1958, my mother was visited by a Dr. Storey. He “confirms diagnosis of post-puerperal depression and advises Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), which patient and husband are now willing to accept.”

She first underwent electroshock treatment on July 30, 1958. I see my slight young mother with metal plates on either side of her head, flattening her dark curls, her heart racing as her skull is enclosed in a high-voltage carapace. I can almost taste the material wedged in her over-salivating mouth for her to bite on as the current passes.

The treatment was repeated a second time, on Aug. 1, 1958. That was one day before my third birthday. So, at last, that is where she was.

I now have some facts to anchor memory, fragments to fill absence. My mother, who recovered sufficiently to be stable, if fragile, for about 15 years through my childhood and adolescence, would suffer from manic depression, or bipolar disorder, through the latter third of her life. She died in 1999 at the age of 69. The ravages of this condition I observed; the onset of her mental instability I only felt.

The hidden hurts most. Mental illness is still too clouded in taboo. It took me a long time to find where my mother disappeared to. Knowledge in itself resolves nothing, but it helps.

Acceptance — it comes down to that. This is how I came to this point, and to this place, by this looping road, from such anguish, and I am still alive and full of hope.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

According to a recent report in The Times, there is dissent at the Fed: “An increasingly vocal minority of Federal Reserve officials want the central bank to retreat more quickly” from its easy-money policies, which they warn run the risk of causing inflation. And this debate, we are told, is likely to dominate the big economic symposium currently underway in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

That may well be the case. But there’s something you should know: That “vocal minority” has been warning about soaring inflation more or less nonstop for six years. And the persistence of that obsession seems, to me, to be a more interesting and important story than the fact that the usual suspects are saying the usual things.

Before I try to explain the inflation obsession, let’s talk about how striking that obsession really is.

The Times article singles out for special mention Charles Plosser of the Philadelphia Fed, who is, indeed, warning about inflation risks. But you should know that he warned about the danger of rising inflation in 2008. He warned about it in 2009. He did the same in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. He was wrong each time, but, undaunted, he’s now doing it again.

And this record isn’t unusual. With very few exceptions, officials and economists who issued dire warnings about inflation years ago are still issuing more or less identical warnings today. Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed, is the only prominent counterexample I can think of.

Now, everyone who has been in the economics business any length of time, myself very much included, has made some incorrect predictions. If you haven’t, you’re playing it too safe. The inflation hawks, however, show no sign of learning from their mistakes. Where is the soul-searching, the attempt to understand how they could have been so wrong?

The point is that when you see people clinging to a view of the world in the teeth of the evidence, failing to reconsider their beliefs despite repeated prediction failures, you have to suspect that there are ulterior motives involved. So the interesting question is: What is it about crying “Inflation!” that makes it so appealing that people keep doing it despite having been wrong again and again?

Well, when economic myths persist, the explanation usually lies in politics — and, in particular, in class interests. There is not a shred of evidence that cutting tax rates on the wealthy boosts the economy, but there’s no mystery about why leading Republicans like Representative Paul Ryan keep claiming that lower taxes on the rich are the secret to growth. Claims that we face an imminent fiscal crisis, that America will turn into Greece any day now, similarly serve a useful purpose for those seeking to dismantle social programs.

At first sight, claims that easy money will cause disaster even in a depressed economy seem different, because the class interests are far less clear. Yes, low interest rates mean low long-term returns for bondholders (who are generally wealthy), but they also mean short-term capital gains for those same bondholders.

But while easy money may in principle have mixed effects on the fortunes (literally) of the wealthy, in practice demands for tighter money despite high unemployment always come from the right. Eight decades ago, Friedrich Hayek warned against any attempt to mitigate the Great Depression via “the creation of artificial demand”; three years ago, Mr. Ryan all but accused Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman at the time, of seeking to “debase” the dollar. Inflation obsession is as closely associated with conservative politics as demands for lower taxes on capital gains.

It’s less clear why. But faith in the inability of government to do anything positive is a central tenet of the conservative creed. Carving out an exception for monetary policy — “Government is always the problem, not the solution, unless we’re talking about the Fed cutting interest rates to fight unemployment” — may just be too subtle a distinction to draw in an era when Republican politicians draw their economic ideas from Ayn Rand novels.

Which brings me back to the Fed, and the question of when to end easy-money policies.

Even monetary doves like Janet Yellen, the Fed chairwoman, generally acknowledge that there will come a time to take the pedal off the metal. And maybe that time isn’t far off — official unemployment has fallen sharply, although wages are still going nowhere and inflation is still subdued.

But the last people you want to ask about appropriate policy are people who have been warning about inflation year after year. Not only have they been consistently wrong, they’ve staked out a position that, whether they know it or not, is essentially political rather than based on analysis. They should be listened to politely — good manners are always a virtue — then ignored.

Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

August 19, 2014

In “Ambivalence About America” Mr. Cohen tells us that even as Europeans rage at the United States, they love its products.  Mr. Nocera tells us about “The Man Who Blew the Whistle.”  He says when the S.E.C. announced last month that it was awarding $400,000 to a whistle-blower, it didn’t name the recipient per the Dodd-Frank law. His name is Bill Lloyd, and Mr. Nocera gives us his story.  Mr. Bruni tells us all about “The Trouble With Tenure” and says teacher job protections are being challenged, and a lawmaker and former school principal explains why that’s good.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Attitudes in Europe toward an America that is regrouping are marked today by extreme ambivalence. Europeans have long been known for finishing their diatribes about the United States by asking how they can get their child into Stanford. These days, European after-dinner conversation tends to be dominated by discussion of the latest episode of “House of Cards” or “Homeland” or “Mad Men.” A French diplomat told me that every meeting he attended at the White House during his tour in Washington ended with one of his party asking if it might be possible to see the West Wing. He found it embarrassing.

Europeans complain of the personal data stored or the tax loopholes exploited by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks, Google and Twitter, but they are hooked on them all. Google, as recently reported by my colleague Mark Scott, now has an 85 percent share of search in Europe’s largest economies, including Germany, Britain and France, whereas its share of the American market is about 67 percent. American tech companies operate seven of the 10 most visited websites in Europe. Rage at the practices of the National Security Agency is outweighed by addiction to a cyberuniverse dominated by American brands.

The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.

But geostrategic shifts over the past year indicate the contrary: that the United States is Imperial Rome, A.D. 376, with various violent enemies playing the role of the Visigoths, Huns, Vandals et al.; the loss at home of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome’s fall, called “civic virtue,” as narrow interests paralyze politics; the partial handover of American security to private military contractors (just as a declining Rome increasingly entrusted its defense to mercenaries); the place of plunder rather than productiveness in the economy; and the apparent powerlessness of a leader given to talk of the limits of what the United States can do. There is no record of the Emperor Valens’s saying, as Obama did, “You hit singles, you hit doubles,” but perhaps he thought it.

Ambivalence is not peculiar to Europe, of course. To heck with the world’s problems, many Americans now say, we have done our share over all these decades of Pax Americana. If China and India are really rising, let them take responsibility for global security, as America took the mantle from Britain in 1945.

Barack Obama — professional, practical and prudent — would appear to suit this American zeitgeist. He may not be managing decline but he is certainly resisting overreach. He is not the decider. He is the restrainer.

Why, then, is Obama’s no-stupid-stuff approach to the globe so unpopular? Fifty-eight percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, the highest of his presidency. A strange duality seems to be at work. Americans want the troops to come home. They want investment to prioritize domestic jobs, education, health care and infrastructure.

Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst. America’s bipolarity sees recent bitter experience vying with the country’s innermost nature, its can-do aspiration to be a “city upon a hill.”

It is not easy to read this world of bipolarity (both European and American), Jihadi Springs and Chinese assertiveness. It is too simple, and probably wrong, to say that the United States is in decline.

But Pax Americana is in decline. America’s readiness to use its power to stabilize the world — the current bombing of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria notwithstanding — is fading. For that reason, the world is more dangerous than it has been in a long time. The waning under Obama of the credibility of American power has created a vacuum no magnetic soft power fills.

The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider. Far from the magician imagined back in 2008, Obama has been the professional moderator. But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.

Immediately after this was a notation that Bobo was off today, so I guess Mr. Cohen had to send in his screed and do the saber-rattling and dick swinging instead.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique press release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

The law also prevents the S.E.C. from doing anything to publicly identify the whistle-blowers — hence, the circumspect press release. But through a mutual friend, I discovered the identity of this particular whistle-blower, who, it turned out, was willing to tell his story.

His name is Bill Lloyd. He is 56 years old, and he spent 22 years as an agent for MassMutual Financial Group, the insurance company based in Springfield, Mass. Although companies often label whistle-blowers as disgruntled employees, Lloyd didn’t fit that category. On the contrary, he liked working for MassMutual, and he was a high performer. He also is a straight arrow — “a square,” said the mutual friend who introduced us — who cares about his customers; when faced with a situation where his customers were likely to get ripped off, he couldn’t look the other way.

In September 2007, at a time when money was gushing into variable annuities, MassMutual added two income guarantees to make a few of its annuity products especially attractive to investors. Called Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 6 and Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 5, they guaranteed that the annuity income stream would grow to a predetermined cap regardless of how the investment itself performed.

Then, upon retirement, the investors had the right to take 6 percent (or 5 percent, depending on the product) of the cap for as long as they wanted or until it ran out of money, and still be able, at some point, to annuitize it. It is complicated, but the point is that thanks to the guarantee, the money was never supposed to run out. That is what the prospectus said, and it is what those in the sales force, made up of people like Lloyd, were taught to sell to customers. It wasn’t long before investors had put $2.5 billion into the products.

The following July, Lloyd — and a handful of others in the sales force — discovered, to their horror, that the guarantee didn’t work as advertised. In fact, because of the market’s fall, it was a near-certainty that thousands of customers were going to run through the income stream within seven or eight years of withdrawing money.

Lloyd did not immediately run to the S.E.C. Rather, he dug in at MassMutual and, as the S.E.C. press release put it, did “everything feasible to correct the issue internally.” For a while, he thought he was going to have success, but, at a certain point, someone stole the files he had put together on the matter and turned them over to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is the industry’s self-regulatory body. It was only when the regulatory authority failed to act that his lawyer told him about the whistle-blower provisions in Dodd-Frank and he went to the S.E.C., which began its own investigation.

The Dodd-Frank law has provisions intended to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, but there are certain aspects of being a whistle-blower that it can’t do anything about. “People started treating me like a leper,” recalls Lloyd. “They would see me coming and turn around and walk in the other direction.” Convinced that the company was laying the groundwork to fire him, he quit in April 2011, a move that cost him both clients and money. (Lloyd has since found employment with another financial institution. For its part, MassMutual says only that “we are pleased to have resolved this matter with the S.E.C.”)

In November 2012, MassMutual agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine; Lloyd’s $400,000 award is 25 percent of that. It was a slap on the wrist, but more important, the company agreed to lift the cap. This will cost MassMutual a lot more, but it will protect the investors who put their money — and their retirement hopes — on MassMutual’s guarantees. Thanks to Lloyd, the company has fixed the defect without a single investor losing a penny.

Ever since the passage of Dodd-Frank reform, the financial industry has been none too happy about the whistle-blower provisions, and there have been rumblings that congressional Republicans might try to roll back some of it. The S.E.C. now has an Office of the Whistleblower, and a website where potential whistle-blowers can report fraud. It has given out $16 million in whistle-blower awards.

There are, without question, parts of the Dodd-Frank law that are problematic, not least the provisions dealing with the Too Big to Fail institutions.

But the whistle-blower provisions? They are working as intended. That is the moral of Bill Lloyd’s story.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Denver:

Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.

So when he expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers, it’s not as someone who sees the profession from a cold, cynical distance.

What I hear in his voice when he talks about teaching is reverence, along with something else that public education could use more of: optimism.

He rightly calls teachers “the single most transformative force in education.”

But the current system doesn’t enable as many of them as possible to rise to that role, he says. And a prime culprit is tenure, at least as it still exists in most states.

“It provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.

The law is still being disputed and has not been fully implemented. But since its enactment, a growing number of states have chipped away at traditional tenure or forged stronger links between student performance and teacher evaluations. And the challenges to tenure have gathered considerable force, with many Democrats defying teachers unions and joining the movement.

After a California judge’s recent ruling that the state’s tenure protections violated the civil rights of children by trapping them with ineffective educators in a manner that “shocks the conscience,” Arne Duncan, the education secretary, praised the decision. Tenure even drew scrutiny from Whoopi Goldberg on the TV talk show “The View.” She repeatedly questioned the way it sometimes shielded bad teachers.

“Parents are not going to stand for it anymore,” she said. “And you teachers, in your union, you need to say, ‘These bad teachers are making us look bad.’ ”

Johnston spent two years with Teach for America in Mississippi in the late 1990s. Then, after getting a master’s in education from Harvard, he worked for six years as a principal in public schools in the Denver area, including one whose success drew so much attention that President Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Johnston said that traditional tenure deprived principals of the team-building discretion they needed.

“Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?” he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said, citing not only his own experience but also the test scores of kids in Harlem who attend the Success Academy Charter Schools.

“You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.”

When job protections are based disproportionately on time served, he said, they don’t adequately inspire and motivate. Referring to himself and other tenure critics, he said, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”

There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.

But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.

We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.

Johnston frames it well.

“Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he said. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”


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