Archive for the ‘Get the butterfly net’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Krugman

September 19, 2014

Oh, gawd…  Bobo has a question in “Startling Adult Friendships:”  How would you spend $500 million? He’s got a few ideas.  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “Mr. Brooks’ editorials of late have been a bit – how shall I put it – weird. This one ascends to new heights of weirdness.”  Bobo’s obviously going through some prolonged midlife crisis.  I just wish he’d keep it to himself.  Prof. Krugman, in “Errors and Emissions,” says fighting climate change could be cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines if we wouldn’t give in to the despair.  Here, dear sweet Baby Jesus help us, is Bobo:

Somebody recently asked me what I would do if I had $500 million to give away. My first thought was that I’d become a moderate version of the Koch brothers. I’d pay for independent candidates to run against Democratic or Republican members of Congress who veered too far into their party’s fever swamps.

But then I realized that if I really had that money, I’d want to affect a smaller number of people in a more personal and profound way. The big, established charities are already fighting disease and poverty as best they can, so in search of new directions I thought, oddly, of friendship.

Ancient writers from Aristotle to Cicero to Montaigne described friendship as the pre-eminent human institution. You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life. Each friendship, they continued, has positive social effects. Lovers face each other, but friends stand side-by-side, facing the world — often working on its behalf. Aristotle suggested that friendship is the cornerstone of society. Montaigne thought that it spreads universal warmth.

These writers probably romanticized friendship. One senses that they didn’t know how to have real conversations with the women in their lives, so they poured their whole emotional lives into male friendships. But I do think they were right in pointing out that friendship is a personal relationship that has radiating social and political benefits.

In the first place, friendship helps people make better judgments. So much of deep friendship is thinking through problems together: what job to take; whom to marry. Friendship allows you to see your own life but with a second sympathetic self.

Second, friends usually bring out better versions of each other. People feel unguarded and fluid with their close friends. If you’re hanging around with a friend, smarter and funnier thoughts tend to come burbling out.

Finally, people behave better if they know their friends are observing. Friendship is based, in part, on common tastes and interests, but it is also based on mutual admiration and reciprocity. People tend to want to live up to their friends’ high regard. People don’t have close friendships in any hope of selfish gain, but simply for the pleasure itself of feeling known and respected.

It’s also true that friendship is not in great shape in America today. In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends, according to the General Social Survey. By 2004, according to research done at Duke University and the University of Arizona, they were reporting they had only two close confidants. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled over that time.

People seem to have a harder time building friendships across class lines. As society becomes more unequal and segmented, invitations come to people on the basis of their job status. Middle-aged people have particular problems nurturing friendships and building new ones. They are so busy with work and kids that friendship gets squeezed out.

So, in the fantasy world in which I have $500 million, I’d try to set up places that would cultivate friendships. I know a lot of people who have been involved in fellowship programs. They made friends that ended up utterly transforming their lives. I’d try to take those sorts of networking programs and make them less career oriented and more profound.

To do that, you have to get people out of their normal hunting grounds where their guard is up. You also probably want to give them challenging activities to do together. Nothing inspires friendship like selflessness and cooperation in moments of difficulty. You also want to give them moments when they can share confidences, about big ideas and small worries.

So I envision a string of adult camps or retreat centers (my oldest friendships were formed at summer camp, so I think in those terms). Groups of 20 or 30 would be brought together from all social and demographic groups, and secluded for two weeks. They’d prepare and clean up all their meals together, and eating the meals would go on for a while. In the morning, they would read about and discuss big topics. In the afternoons, they’d play sports, take hikes and build something complicated together. At night, there’d be a bar and music.

You couldn’t build a close friendship in that time, but you could plant the seeds for one. As with good fellowship programs, alumni networks would grow spontaneously over time.

People these days are flocking to conferences, ideas festivals and cruises that are really about building friendships, even if they don’t admit it explicitly. The goal of these intensity retreats would be to spark bonds between disparate individuals who, in the outside world, would be completely unlikely to know each other. The benefits of that social bridging, while unplannable, would ripple out in ways long and far-reaching.

It’s sad to think that Bobo can’t think of another way to form friendships other than what sounds very much like a reeducation camp for people like him…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

This just in: Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. But will anyone believe the good news?

I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.

But you know that such assessments will be met with claims that it’s impossible to break the link between economic growth and ever-rising emissions of greenhouse gases, a position I think of as “climate despair.” The most dangerous proponents of climate despair are on the anti-environmentalist right. But they receive aid and comfort from other groups, including some on the left, who have their own reasons for getting it wrong.

Where is the new optimism about climate change and growth coming from? It has long been clear that a well-thought-out strategy of emissions control, in particular one that puts a price on carbon via either an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, would cost much less than the usual suspects want you to think. But the economics of climate protection look even better now than they did a few years ago.

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the I.M.F. paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And thanks to these co-benefits, the paper argues, one argument often made against carbon pricing — that it’s not worth doing unless we can get a global agreement — is wrong. Even without an international agreement, there are ample reasons to take action against the climate threat.

But back to the main point: It’s easier to slash emissions than seemed possible even a few years ago, and reduced emissions would produce large benefits in the short-to-medium run. So saving the planet would be cheap and maybe even come free.

Enter the prophets of climate despair, who wave away all this analysis and declare that the only way to limit carbon emissions is to bring an end to economic growth.

You mostly hear this from people on the right, who normally say that free-market economies are endlessly flexible and creative. But when you propose putting a price on carbon, suddenly they insist that industry will be completely incapable of adapting to changed incentives. Why, it’s almost as if they’re looking for excuses to avoid confronting climate change, and, in particular, to avoid anything that hurts fossil-fuel interests, no matter how beneficial to everyone else.

But climate despair produces some odd bedfellows: Koch-fueled insistence that emission limits would kill economic growth is echoed by some who see this as an argument not against climate action, but against growth. You can find this attitude in the mostly European “degrowth” movement, or in American groups like the Post Carbon Institute; I’ve encountered claims that saving the planet requires an end to growth at left-leaning meetings on “rethinking economics.” To be fair, anti-growth environmentalism is a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.

And you sometimes see hard scientists making arguments along the same lines, largely (I think) because they don’t understand what economic growth means. They think of it as a crude, physical thing, a matter simply of producing more stuff, and don’t take into account the many choices — about what to consume, about which technologies to use — that go into producing a dollar’s worth of G.D.P.

So here’s what you need to know: Climate despair is all wrong. The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

April 2, 2013

The only charitable explanation is that Bobo wrote his column yesterday and it’s a particularly ham-handed attempt at a joke.  In “Freedom Loses One” he actually says that if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, it will be a victory for living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.  Now he’s just fcking with us…  Mr. Nocera, in “Investor Activism Gone Wild,” says that if J.C. Penney succumbs to its financial troubles, a shareholder activist will shoulder much of the blame.  Mr. Bruni likes it “When TV Takes Its Time.”  He says the answer to too many “Housewives” and too much forensic hullabaloo? The gentle tempo and steadfast puzzles of shows like Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake.”  Yeah, Frank.  On the Sundance channel…  We’re on a fixed income and can’t afford all those premium channels like HBO and Showtime, etc., etc., etc., so I guess I’m doomed to continue watching “Hoarders.”  (I file that one under “shit that makes me feel normal.”)  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

I don’t think we’ve paused sufficiently to celebrate the wonderful recent defeat for the cause of personal freedom. After all, these sorts of defeats don’t happen every day.

Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak. In the 1960s, we saw a great expansion of social and lifestyle freedom. In the 1980s, we saw a great expansion of economic freedom. Since then, we’ve had everything from jeans commercials to rock anthems to political conventions celebrating freedom as the highest ideal.

People are much more at liberty these days to follow their desires, unhampered by social convention, religious and ethnic traditions and legal restraints.

The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.

Other big thinkers believed that if people are left perfectly free to follow their desires, their baser ones will end up dominating their nobler ones. For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence. As Edmund Burke put it:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Recently, the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack. People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings.

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy. They committed themselves to the idea that these self-restrictions should be reinforced by the state. They committed themselves to the idea that lifestyle choices are not just private affairs but work better when they are embedded in law.

And far from being baffled by this attempt to use state power to restrict individual choice, most Americans seem to be applauding it. Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.

Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.

I suspect that this shift in public acceptance will be permanent, unless it turns out that marriages are more unstable when two people of the same gender are involved.

And, who knows, maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice. Maybe there will be sumptuary codes that will make lavish spending and C.E.O. salaries unseemly. Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organized home. Maybe voters will restrain their appetite for their grandchildren’s money. Maybe more straight people will marry.

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

It’s been a while since I’ve served up a large plate of salted weasel dicks for Bobo, but this one deserves it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

William Ackman, the investor-activist who runs the $12 billion hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital, is like one of those guys you used to see in a certain kind of old-fashioned comedy. On one shoulder sits an angel, encouraging his better nature. On the other sits a devil, whispering temptation.

When he listens to the angel, Ackman does amazing things. He made a $25 million contribution to the Newark school system, an early and important match against the $100 million that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, put up in September 2010. Yet unlike virtually every other actor involved in the Zuckerberg grant, who have been squabbling ever since, Ackman attached virtually no strings to his donation. He wants his money to be used to help Newark’s schoolchildren — not to push someone’s reform agenda.

Then there’s his current Herbalife crusade. After making a $1 billion bet that the stock would fall, Ackman released a lengthy report alleging that the company was running an illegal pyramid scheme. I have been sadly constrained from writing columns about the Ackman-Herbalife battle because the company had the wit to hire my fiancée’s employer, David Boies, after Ackman unveiled his attack. I was, as they say, “conflicted out.”

But I will say this: Pyramid schemes are a hidden scourge, hurting millions of people seduced by their get-rich-quick promises. Until Ackman began agitating, the federal government had largely capitulated to the “multilevel marketing” industry (as it likes to be called), even exempting it from a law passed a few years ago specifically aimed at curbing pyramid schemes. Ackman has been heroic in taking on this litigious, well-financed industry. Not since Jim Chanos went after Enron has a hedge fund manager been willing to question whether a company was actually a criminal enterprise. That takes guts.

Also, his track record as an activist has been good; you don’t get $12 billion in assets if you don’t win more than you lose.

But there is always that devil on the other shoulder. A few years ago, Ackman took a position in Target’s stock. Because of the recession, retailers such as Target were struggling. To get the stock up, Ackman began throwing out ideas that amounted to financial engineering. He then mounted an expensive proxy fight to get on the board, which thankfully, he lost. The stock has since rebounded. Target didn’t need financial engineering; it just needed a better economy.

Which brings me to his latest retail foray, J.C. Penney. Is there a single word that can sum up what has befallen J.C. Penney since Ackman took a stake in the company? Yes: disaster.

J.C. Penney had long catered to lower-middle-class families searching for sales. Its chief executive, Mike Ullman, who had been at the helm since 2004, was widely viewed as solid, if a tad unimaginative. He had led J.C. Penney to some of the most profitable years in its history. But, by the fall of 2010, hurt by the same recession that hurt Target, Penney’s stock was way down. That’s when Ackman showed up.

Being a big-time activist-investor, Ackman could hardly allow Ullman to remain at the helm. Activists have to be, you know, active. Within a year, he landed the executive everyone in retail wanted: Ron Johnson, who had built Apple’s retail business. Imagine: a Steve Jobs disciple was going to run downmarket J.C. Penney. What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything. Johnson decided to eliminate the sales that had always been J.C. Penney’s trademark and move to everyday low prices. He thus alienated the core J.C. Penney customer. He kept talking about how he was going to apply the lessons he had learned at Apple to J.C. Penney, even though the companies sold completely different products to completely different customers. As the core customers departed, Johnson and J.C. Penney didn’t have the merchandise or cachet to attract a more upscale, Target-type customer. People abandoned J.C. Penney.

At the end of 2012, J.C. Penney announced that its revenues had fallen by a staggering $4.3 billion. It has laid off some 20,000 people. Walter Loeb, the former longtime retail analyst at Morgan Stanley who now blogs for Forbes.com, is predicting that its revenues will decline another 22 percent in the first quarter of 2013.

Lately, Johnson has brought back sales and devised a new strategy, revolving around “stores within stores” — selling merchandise much the way Bloomingdale’s does. One of its ministores will be devoted to Martha Stewart-designed home goods. You may have read about that. Macy’s, which says it has a contract that prevents Martha Stewart from selling housewares to other retailers, has sued. On the stand during the trial, I’m told, Johnson kept referring to his experience at Apple. Some people never learn.

The question is no longer whether Johnson will learn in time. If the quarter is as bad as Loeb is predicting, he’ll be gone soon. The question is whether Ackman has learned anything. The next time the devil whispers in his ear, let’s hope he doesn’t listen.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who enjoys classy TV shows:

If you haven’t caught “Top of the Lake,” a cryptic mini-series on the Sundance Channel right now, you owe yourself a peek, if only to behold and savor Holly Hunter, whose character is a mash-up of Pocahontas, the oracle at Delphi and Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family.” She’s all hair, her silvery mane accounting for easily half of her body weight and seemingly destined to sweep the ground. Perhaps when the character isn’t providing terse counsel to the damaged women around her at an odd spiritual retreat, she moonlights as a broom.

Most of the women at the retreat, built from a network of colorful cargo containers arranged like gigantic Legos on the lip of the aforementioned lake, are on the lam from destructive relationships with men. One is on the lam from a destructive relationship with a chimpanzee as well. Still they can’t help themselves. Their eyes rove to the scruffy local lads in the gorgeous patch of New Zealand where the story is set, and in the third of what will be seven episodes, a woman leaves her container to spend the night in the less Spartan digs of a lakeside drug lord. Minor spoiler alert: as she slips into his bed, he announces that he’s impotent, and the day after, as they frolic sexlessly in the woods, he stumbles across his mother’s grave, kneels in front of it and begins flagellating himself. This is a pretty good definition of a really bad date.

I’m mesmerized by “Top of the Lake,” which is now halfway through its run, and friends who are watching it constantly bring it up. And what we’re mainly responding to isn’t the meat of the yarn, which focuses on the effort to unravel what happened to a 12-year-old girl who is about five months pregnant. It’s the ancillary riddles and vaguely explained curiosities, like the interludes in Lego land. It’s the gentle pacing. It’s the way in which the mini-series, one of whose principal writers and directors is Jane Campion, insists on a certain opaqueness and bucks the bulk of what’s on television, even in this golden age of the medium.

“Top of the Lake” belongs to a budding genre that several critics, including Alessandra Stanley in The Times and Matt Zoller Seitz in Salon, have called Slow TV. Stanley sagely noted the parallel to Slow Food, which rebelled against the metastasis of McDonald’s outposts. Slow TV pushes back at the instant gratification and empty calories of too many elimination contests, too many reality shows, too many efficient, literal-minded forensic dramas that perhaps keep certain plot threads dangling but tie up the episode’s main mystery by the hour’s end.

The term Slow TV has multiple meanings, and has been applied to full-length chronicles of actual, incrementally unfolding events, like a ship’s voyage, and to the practice of spacing out viewings of a fictional serial’s episodes rather than watching them in a marathon session. But I think it’s best deployed in the way Stanley and then Seitz, writing about such shows as “Treme” and “Game of Thrones,” used it: to describe unrushed, atmospheric narratives.

Slow TV mines the pleasures of ambiguity, which are affirmed, as it happens, by one of the best movies I’ve recently seen, “Room 237,” a documentary in limited theatrical release and on cable TV. The title refers to a detail in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining,” and the documentary recounts the riot of messages and meanings that obsessive fans have read into Kubrick’s lone foray into horror.

It’s a testament, hilarious at times, to the human genius for overanalysis. One “Shining” fan points to a German-made typewriter in the movie to support his theory that it’s a Holocaust parable; another cites the feathered-headdress logo on baking-powder cans in a few scenes for his belief that “The Shining” is about the massacre of American Indians. A desktop paper tray is determined to be a metaphoric erection, and so on. The abstruseness of some of “The Shining” is arguably a flaw, but “Room 237” reminds you that only an artistic work that resists tidy explanation can accommodate such enjoyable flights of interpretive fancy.

Ambiguity has never been what TV values most, “Twin Peaks” excepted. But it was central to “The Killing,” which highlighted an additional characteristic of Slow or Slowish TV, the willingness to wander off the main road and down an intriguing cul-de-sac, as “Girls” did in a discrete episode with Patrick Wilson as a guest star. Another HBO series, “Enlightened,” partly redeemed its irritations with its habits of straying, and of lingering: on a sigh, on a glare, on a soulless office building. It cared as much for mood as for plot.

The same is true of “Top of the Lake,” which preserves some enigmas, hirsute and otherwise, and surrenders others on its own timetable, making you wait and making you work. Just like life.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

January 8, 2013

Bobo thinks he knows “Why Hagel Was Picked.”  He squeals that as our budget braces for Medicare’s tyranny, we just need a good overseer to manage the inevitable military decline.  Jesus…  Mr. Cohen, in “Israel’s True Friends,” says the Hagel nomination will spur a much-needed debate in America on what constitutes friendship toward Israel.  In “Bloomberg Takes on the N.R.A.” Mr. Nocera says the country needs New York’s mayor to lead it to a saner gun policy.  Mr. Bruni, in “For Each Age, Its Agonies,” says “This is 40” and “Girls” uphold the tradition of deeming your own juncture of life the most significant of all.  Here’s Bobo’s latest tirade against old farts like me:

Americans don’t particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidize their health care. They believe that health care spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent.

In a democracy, voters get what they want, so the line tracing federal health care spending looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia. Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade. This is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 percent of G.D.P. in 30 years.

There are no conceivable tax increases that can keep up with this spending rise. The Democrats had their best chance in a generation to raise revenue just now, and all they got was a measly $600 billion over 10 years. This is barely a wiggle on the revenue line and does nothing to change the overall fiscal picture.

As a result, health care spending, which people really appreciate, is squeezing out all other spending, which they value far less. Spending on domestic programs — for education, science, infrastructure and poverty relief — has already faced the squeeze and will take a huge hit in the years ahead. President Obama excoriated Paul Ryan for offering a budget that would cut spending on domestic programs from its historical norm of 3 or 4 percent of G.D.P. all the way back to 1.8 percent. But the Obama budget is the Ryan budget. According to the Office of Management and Budget, Obama will cut domestic discretionary spending back to 1.8 percent of G.D.P. in six years.

Advocates for children, education and the poor don’t even try to defend their programs by lobbying for cutbacks in Medicare. They know that given the choice, voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children.

So far, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vice. But that is about to change. Oswald Spengler didn’t get much right, but he was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.

Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting. As late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 percent of G.D.P. on defense. Now that spending is closer to 1.5 percent, and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further.

The United States will undergo a similar process. The current budget calls for a steep but possibly appropriate decline in defense spending, from 4.3 percent of G.D.P. to 3 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But defense planners are notoriously bad at estimating how fast postwar military cuts actually come. After Vietnam, the cold war and the 1991 gulf war, they vastly underestimated the size of the cuts that eventually materialized. And those cuts weren’t forced by the Medicare vice. The coming cuts are.

As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations. If we postpone action for another decade, then we have to cut all non-interest federal spending by 37 percent and raise all taxes by 54 percent.

As this sort of crunch gradually tightens, Medicare will be the last to go. Spending on things like Head Start, scientific research and defense will go quicker. These spending cuts will transform America’s stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today. This is why Adm. Mike Mullen called the national debt the country’s biggest security threat.

Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.

All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernizing the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defense strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?

How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.

Disgusting.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

President Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, a maverick Republican with enough experience of war to loathe it, as his next secretary of defense is the right choice for many reasons, chief among them that it will provoke a serious debate on what constitutes real friendship toward Israel.

That debate, which will unfold during Senate confirmation hearings, is much needed because Jewish leadership in the United States is often unrepresentative of the many American Jews who have moved on from the view that the only legitimate support of Israel is unquestioning support of Israel, and the only mark of friendship is uncritical embrace of a friend.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, fired an opening salvo by telling CNN that, “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”

The comment, based on Hagel’s lack of enthusiasm for war on Iran and his single allusion to advocates of Israel as “the Jewish lobby,” was of a piece with last year’s in-your-face Republican line that Obama, a strong supporter of Israeli security, had thrown Israel “under the bus.”

Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly favored Obama once again, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unsubtle nudges, demonstrated at the ballot box what they thought of this characterization of the president.

Identifying Israel’s enemies is easy. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, illustrated why when he declared: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land. We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take.”

That is the sort of absolutist, annihilation-bent position that has been a losing proposition since 1948 and will continue to undermine the legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood alongside a secure Israel — the one embraced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — for as long as it is advocated by self-serving merchants of hatred.

But deciding who Israel’s real friends are is more difficult — and that decision is critical both for Israel itself and for the future of U.S. policy toward the Jewish state.

The question has been on the president’s mind for a long time. During the 2008 campaign, in a meeting with the Cleveland Jewish community, Obama said: “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”

He suggested that to equate asking “difficult questions” with “being soft or anti-Israel” was a barrier to moving forward.

Five years on, that needed dialogue has scarcely advanced. Self-styled “true friends” of Israel now lining up against the Hagel nomination are in fact true friends only of the Israeli right that pays no more than lip service to a two-state peace (when it even does that); scoffs at Palestinian national aspirations and culture; dismisses the significant West Bank reforms that have prepared Palestine for statehood; continues with settlement construction on the very shrinking land where a Palestinian state is envisaged (and was granted nonmember observer status at the United Nations last November by 138 votes to 9 with 41 abstentions, including Germany); cannot find a valid Palestinian interlocutor on the face of the earth despite the moderate reformist leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; ignores the grave implications for Israel of its unsustainable, corrosive dominion over another people and the question of how Israel can remain Jewish and democratic without a two-state solution (it cannot); bays for war with Iran despite the contrary opinions of many of Israel’s intelligence and military leaders; and propels Israel into repetitive miniwars of dubious strategic value.

These “true friends” shout the loudest. They are well-organized and remorseless.

Then there are the other friends of Israel, the quieter ones, the many who are unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security within its 1967 borders (with agreed land swaps); who believe continued settlement expansion in the West Bank is self-defeating and wrong; who hold that a good-faith quest for a two-state solution that will involve painful compromises on both sides (Palestinian abandonment of the “right of return” and Israeli abandonment of conquered land) is the only true path to Israeli security and the salvaging of its core Jewish values; who counsel against go-it-alone military adventurism against Iran; and who are troubled by a rightward nationalist drift in Israel whose central political tenet seems to be that holding on to all the land is doable and sustainable.

Hagel, like Obama, is a quiet strong friend of Israel. The movement against him is a relic of a binary with-Israel or against-Israel vision that does not have the true interests of Israel or the United States at heart.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

TO: Michael Bloomberg

FROM: Joe Nocera

RE: Your Next Act

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

This time next year, as you’re keenly aware, you will no longer be the mayor of New York. We all know how much you love the job, and how much you’ll miss it. No question about it: though you have had your critics (including, at times, me), you’ve been a very good mayor.

They say that you’re thinking a lot these days about what to do next. When you step down you’ll be 71, and plenty vital enough to do something significant. And of course, with a net worth of $20 billion or so, you certainly have the financial wherewithal to affect the issues that are important to you. You showed it in the last election, ginning up a super PAC and spending around $10 million on a handful of elections across the country where you thought your money could make a difference. Even though you got into the game late, you won more than you lost.

I know you have lots of interests, but after listening to you these past few weeks — ever since the horrible massacre in Newtown, Conn. — I am hoping you will direct your postmayoral energies to one issue: gun control. There is, quite simply, no one else in America who has a better chance of moving the country toward a saner gun policy than you. It is an effort worthy of your talents, and your money.

First, there is your obvious passion for the issue. They say it was your experience as mayor that sensitized you to the issue — and how could it not, with the funerals you’ve had to attend, and the mothers of murdered children you’ve had to console? Since the Newtown tragedy, no other high-profile politician has been as forceful in condemning gun violence and demanding “immediate action” in Congress. Millions of Americans — indeed, a majority of them — agree with you. They are looking for somebody to lead the charge against the National Rifle Association.

Second, though your message has been blunt, your tactics have been politically shrewd. In 2006, you started a new organization to fight gun violence: Mayors Against Illegal Guns. You thought that mayors had the credibility to reframe the issue as one of crime control, rather than gun control. Mayors Against Illegal Guns now has more than 800 mayors, and nearly one million “active supporters.” It has lobbyists in Washington and elsewhere, and has had success resisting recent N.R.A. legislative initiatives. Its short-term agenda — ban assault weapons, require background checks for all gun sales, make gun trafficking a federal crime, and so on — is a good, sensible place to start regulating guns.

Third — and let’s not be coy here — you’re rich. The N.R.A. has an annual budget that is reported to be $300 million. In 2011, the combined budgets of all the groups trying to prevent gun violence came to around $16 million. The best-known of those groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has seen its support and its funding dwindle in recent years. Meanwhile, the N.R.A. and its allies have done a brilliant job at pushing through laws that make it nearly impossible to prevent gun violence. There are more than 200 members of Congress who regularly get a perfect score from the N.R.A. It is going to take money to change that because money is what Congress responds to.

To be honest, Mr. Mayor, I wish you could start tomorrow. With each passing day, the urgency that accompanied the Newtown shooting slips further away. President Obama, who seems absolutely terrified to take on the gun lobby, didn’t even mention guns when asked about his second-term priorities. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has said that the first months of the new Congressional session will be devoted to the issue of federal spending. Guns, he said, will just have to wait.

In recent years, even in states that experienced horrific mass killings, gun laws have only become looser. In Virginia, the State Legislature repealed a law that barred people from buying more than one handgun a month, and passed a law “to allow permit holders to carry concealed and loaded weapons into bars and restaurants,” according to ProPublica. That same article reported that in Texas, two years after the Fort Hood shooting, legislators “gave gun carriers greater freedom to take their weapons to more places.”

The only two gun bills President Obama has signed were laws that expanded gun rights. “The country needs his leadership,” you said of Obama after he announced that Vice President Joe Biden was going to lead a panel making a new effort to reduce gun violence.

With all due respect, sir, what the country needs is your leadership on this issue. The sooner the better.

We’ll see a rational gun policy in this nation when pigs fly.  Teatard lunatics made a show of carrying weapons to political rallies and that was just fine (remember, IOKIYAR), but OWS peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed.  You think we’ll get gun control?  I don’t.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

In the new movie “This is 40,” the writer and director Judd Apatow casts the arrival of life’s four-decade mark as a uniquely brutal crossroads, flagged by sputtering libido, suffocating commitments and curdled dreams.

Judd, buddy, add another eight years, then talk to me. Your body will be even wobblier, your obligations weightier, and time running out more ruthlessly on the gaudiest of your plans. This is 48: in the mail last week, I got a solicitation from AARP. It included a membership card, ready to be activated just as soon as I send in dues, which won’t be anytime soon. And while that premature come-on reflects the group’s relentlessness more than anything else, it’s an accurate reminder that I’m closer to when I’ll quit working than to when I started, my hopes and my hair so fluffy and intact.

That was in my 20s, a period with travails all its own, depicted in another project that Apatow is involved in, as an executive producer. I speak of “Girls,” whose post-college, pre-mortgage heroines flail professionally, fumble romantically and make deeply puzzling wardrobe choices, their outfits emblems of their befuddlement.

The half-hour comedy-drama will begin its second season this coming weekend, and HBO made the first few episodes available to us media types, who have proved that we simply can’t stop gnawing on it. “Girls” is to cultural arbiters what rawhides are to cocker spaniels.

The new episodes immediately reintroduce Lena Dunham’s naked body, which was introduced aplenty in the old episodes. At this fleshy point I could draw it, I could paint it, I could probably reproduce it in clay. Dunham’s character, Hannah, has a new roommate, gay, and a new playmate, Republican. There’s considerable friction, out of bed as well as in.

And there’s a portrait of the period between 20 and 30 as one of peerlessly keen neediness and doubt. You yearn to believe that you’ve figured out the dating game, not yet realizing that it’s eternally unfathomable. You ache for an assurance that you’re pointed in a purposeful direction, but suspect that you’re going nowhere fast. Your desire to project confidence is inversely proportional to your store of it, and you have some really, really bad furniture. I recall, from my mid-20s, a lacquered black table with fake gold accents that cost me next to nothing except, for many years afterward, an undying, unspeakable shame.

We’re a self-absorbed species, and one wrinkle of our self-absorption is our tendency, reflected in our art and entertainment, to believe that there’s no passage of human existence as fraught with perils and as peculiarly significant as the one we just so happen to be going through. Dunham is 26, and “Girls,” which she created, is predicated on the notion that the 20s herald an inimitable sequence of humiliations and unrivaled state of ambivalence. Apatow is 45, and his new movie maintains that to enter your 40s is to encounter an especially messy set of questions about the road taken and the unsmooth pavement ahead. Could any other age compare?

Well, the 30s are no picnic, as we learned in the television drama “thirtysomething,” whose four-season run began in 1987, when its sires, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, turned 35. The characters they hatched were roughly their age peers, and turned soul searching into an exercise so vigorous it practically burned calories. Angst overwhelmed them as surely as hormones capsize teenagers.

Speaking of teens, they support whole submarkets of publishing and series of movies dedicated to reassuring them that their pimply predicament is by far the worst: cliques, virginity, trigonometry. But I’m clinging to the conviction that the late 40s are tougher — just try to find a 17-year-old whose left shoulder creaks like mine, and who suddenly has to pitch in thousands toward his apartment building’s new elevators — so that I can congratulate myself for every day I successfully muddle through, every smile I courageously summon.

Then again, this passage isn’t really so insufferable. By 48 you’ve come to know, and quite possibly accept, the well-intentioned wretch that you are, and you most likely have the furniture situation worked out.

The 20s, too, have their perks. You get the freedom of full-fledged adulthood but can make big mistakes without paying huge prices, because there are still so many opportunities ahead for amends.

Dunham isn’t blind to this. In “Girls” she finds the exhilaration amid the mortification. And Apatow’s new movie ultimately understands that being weighed down is just a pessimist’s way of looking at — and talking about — being grounded, which so many of us struggle to achieve. What feel like tethers one day feel like roots the next.

This is 25 and 35 and 40 and, I’ll wager, 50: a matchless kind of awful, a particular stripe of wonderful and just another phase in a struggle that, like our narcissism, is ageless.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

January 6, 2013

Well, it would appear that The Pasty Little Putz has finally gone off the deep end.  The poor soul has obviously lost his mind.  In “Boehner, American Hero” he babbles that in a dysfunctional Washington, this is what success looks like.  Really.  He’s calling the orange weeper a hero.  Someone needs to do some sort of intervention with the Putz…  MoDo looks at “The Surreal World: Capitol Hill” and has a question:  Is C-Span’s V.P. more entertaining than HBO’s Veep?  Of course, she works in her standard hissing at the president for being detached and aloof…  The Moustache of Wisdom suggests we need “More Risk-Taking, Less Poll-Taking.”  He says we’ve had lots of deal-making in Washington lately, but hardly any displays of courage from anyone.  (Apparently The Putz hasn’t yet ‘splained to The Moustache that Weeping John is a hero.)  Mr. Kristof is still in Beijing.  In “Looking for a Jump-Start in China” he says China’s next top leader has the potential to be a game changer, and to nourish China’s rise with sweeping economic and political reforms.  Mr. Bruni addresses “How to Choose a College” and says when picking a school, you can focus on ranking, reputation, ivy. Or you can ask yourself where you’ll really be forced to grow.  Here’s the Putz:

Here are a few things that happened to John Boehner, ostensibly one of the most powerful men in Washington, during the past two weeks.

First his own backbenchers blew up his attempt at a fiscal cliff negotiating maneuver. Then he had to step back and let Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell hammer out the details of the fiscal cliff deal, which he then had to shepherd through his own legislative body with more Democratic than Republican votes. The next day he was dressed down on national television by a grandstanding Chris Christie. The day after that, he survived an utterly incompetent revolt against his re-election as speaker of the House.

These tribulations have earned Boehner press coverage that’s sympathetic without being particularly respectful. It’s increasingly taken for granted that he’s an ineffective speaker who holds his position mostly because nobody else wants the job — an anti-Sam Rayburn, a survivor who’s liked but not feared. The only compliments he ever seems to earn are backhanded, rueful, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

Yet at the same time, Boehner has done his country a more important service over the last two years than almost any other politician in Washington.

That service hasn’t been the achievement of a grand bargain with the White House, which he has at times assiduously sought. Nor has it been the sweeping triumph over liberalism that certain right-wing activists expect him to somehow gain. Rather, it’s been a kind of disaster management — a sequence of bomb-defusal operations that have prevented our dysfunctional government from tipping into outright crisis.

Three realities have made these constant defusing operations necessary. First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways. (It’s far, far easier to be a successful legislator when you’re negotiating over an expanding pie.) Second, there’s the combination of gridlocked government and ideological polarization, which simultaneously requires compromise while reducing the common ground available to would-be deal makers.

Such obstacles might be enough to frustrate even the legislative giants of the past. Pundits talk blithely about the good old days of bipartisanship, but there’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.

The Republicans’ current position makes things harder still, because Boehner’s party has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole. Republicans are a minority party nationally, but thanks to redistricting they control the House despite Democrats’ 2012 successes. This mismatch leaves the base spoiling for fights that can’t actually be won: House Republicans have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will.

Boehner’s job, then, requires constantly pushing hard enough to persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage, while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment. Which he’s always found, by hook or by crook: there was no government shutdown in the spring of 2011, no debt default that summer, and the fiscal cliff was averted (at least temporarily) last week.

The fact that all these crises have been resolved at the 11th hour, amid persistent brinkmanship and repeated near-death moments for his speakership, isn’t a sign that he’s a failure. Instead, given the correlation of forces he’s dealing with, this is what success looks like. (For a glimpse of the alternative, just imagine rerunning the last two years with Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.)

You might say that this is no way to run a government. I’d agree. But the nation’s polarization and his party’s dysfunction are beyond a speaker’s ability to undo. As Democrats learned across the 1970s and ’80s, the House is a poor base from which to rebuild a national party. Nobody blames Tip O’Neill or Jim Wright for failing to do what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ultimately achieved. And anyone who thinks that Boehner would transform the Republican Party for the better by, say, resigning his leadership position and excoriating his colleagues should watch fewer Aaron Sorkin shows.

No, the way out of our predicament is through the ballot box, not the speaker’s office. Either Democrats need to consolidate their advantages and win back the House or Republicans need to find a way to start winning national elections again, at which point the current impasse will be broken and policy will tilt more clearly toward the left or right.

Until then, we’re stuck with the cycle of brinkmanship — another debt-ceiling debate, another shutdown possibility, the spending portion of the fiscal cliff.

It would probably be better to call the whole thing off and accept that the fiscal picture won’t change much in two years. But if we’re going to go through it again, I’m glad that the speaker who prevented dysfunction from producing disaster last time is around to try again.

He really should have his medications adjusted…  Here’s MoDo:

It was hard not to feel sorry for John Boehner, wounded, weepy, mercilessly flogged by Chris Christie. The miserable-looking Boehner was even scaring small children.

After squeaking out re-election as House speaker when crazed conservatives rebelled on Thursday, Boehner summoned gruff bonhomie as he presided at a ceremonial swearing-in for House members.

But some of the kids posing for pictures seemed a little alarmed at Boehner’s awkward pats, brusque small talk and barked orders when someone posed the wrong way.

The speaker opened his arms to help out Sean Duffy, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was juggling five small children and two stuffed animals. Duffy, who met his wife, Rachel, through MTV after they were on different seasons of “The Real World,” tried to hand over his young daughter, who recoiled.

“No?” the rejected speaker asked her, muttering sardonically, “You could be a member of our caucus.” He followed the girl as she rolled away on the floor, trying to tickle her and making Donald Duck quacking noises. That kind of thing may work on Michele Bachmann, but Miss Duffy was having none of it.

It was a day for old-pol shtick. And if Boehner was the nicotine-stained prince of darkness in the House, Joe Biden was the garrulous white knight over in the Senate. Fresh from his deal-making triumph with Mitch McConnell — no Tickle Monster, he — Biden presided over the Senate ceremonial swearing-in and lived up to his reputation for “bringing sexy back to the Medicare-eligible set,” as Politico once put it.

Every time Biden spied a member’s mom, he called out with utter delight, “Mom!” as though she were his own, enfolding the glowing woman in a tender embrace.

“Mom, I’ll see you in a little bit,” he flirted with the mother of Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “I hope I’ll sneak over and see you.” To the mother of Senator Deb Fischer, a new Republican from Nebraska, he cooed, “You’ve got beautiful eyes, Mom.”

The bouncy, irrepressible Biden also had better karma with kids, persuading one little boy to raise his hand to take the oath with his father, the new Connecticut senator, Chris Murphy. It turned into a YouTube moment so adorable it even melted the hearts of jaded journalists who usually prefer videos of Ukrainian pols fistfighting.

The prolix vice president had his off-kilter moments, of course. He made a risqué frisking joke to the husband of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and he gushed over a brunette accompanying Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey: “You are so pretty. God love you, holy mackerel.”

But it was hard not to fall for his daffy charm — a rare 86 minutes of feeling good about a Congress that has now officially entered Ionesco territory as the most absurd place on earth.

When the young daughter of Senator Ted Cruz, the new Tea Party hotshot from Texas, began crying, the vice president reassured her, noting that he was a Democrat but that “it’s O.K.”

When Tim Scott, the first black senator from South Carolina, came up with his muscular brother, a former football player, to pose, the 70-year-old Biden deadpanned, “Need any help with your pecs, let me know.”

The vice president has come in for his share of mockery by late-night comics. But fox-trotting in to save the day on the fiscal cliff as the “dancing partner” of McConnell, Biden seemed more like an indispensable partner to the detached president who loathes dealing with Congress — a capable, genial Captain Kirk balancing out Obama’s brilliant but rigid Spock.

As the presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what J.F.K. was always too wary to let the experienced L.B.J. do for him.”

A petition even popped up on the White House Web site suggesting that the Obama administration create a reality show around the vice president. C-Span ratings would go through the Capitol dome, giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “Veep” a run for its money.

It was sweet justice for a man who was the victim of friendly fire from White House aides after he blurted out his support for gay marriage during the campaign while the president was still dithering, spurring Obama to do the right thing. From the beginning of their alliance in 2008, Biden felt passionately that he needed to interpret the dispassionate Obama for regular folk. It was an attitude that probably annoyed Obama, who does not like to feel dependent or beholden, having fought his way up in the world mostly under his own steam.

But when Obama let Biden take over the cliff talks, and when he noted with asperity that he would not debate Congress again over paying its bills, he dug into his revulsion at playing the game, his reluctance to even fake the flattering, schmoozing and ring-kissing needed to coax Congress into doing what he wants.

Even members of his own party have lost faith in his ability to use the White House as a social lubricant to get his agenda passed, or to use that big brain of his to become a more clever negotiator, rather than a scolding lecturer.

“His inability to engage the politicians here has been a real liability,” one Democratic lawmaker complained. It’s odd, given that he was renowned for making a group of egotists feel that they were being heeded at The Harvard Law Review.

The vice president was in the Senate for 36 years while the president merely breezed through. Obama radiates contempt at Congress for not being a bunch of high-minded, effective people, and for expecting him to clean up its mess. He thinks reasonable people should see things his way in a reasonable amount of time, and gets impatient when ideology, ego, identity politics and pork-project whining hold up progress.

Biden is a realist. He understands lawmakers’ limitations, motivations and needs. He leans right in and speaks — and speaks and speaks — their language. That’s who he is. And he believes, as creaky and unwieldy as the system is, that it still has integrity. More Rocky than Spocky, Biden can spread everything out on the table and negotiate his way through all of his former colleagues’ shortcomings, weaknesses, fears and frailties.

It’s actually fun for him, while Obama seems so often to be pulling back, aggrieved by the need to engage. The president and his staff seem clueless about what Republicans on the Hill are thinking. And Obama ignores those who urge him to be less insular and — like Jefferson, Lincoln, L.B.J. and Reagan — socialize more with political players, combining fairy dust, elbow grease, intimidation and seduction to get his way.

Joe Biden has a valuable skill: He knows how to stoop to conquer.

MoDo, you’re wrong in your first statement.  I would find it extremely difficult to feel sorry for Weeping John.  Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

The U.S. military trains its fighter pilots on a principle called the “OODA Loop.” It stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The idea is that if your OODA Loop is faster and more accurate than the other pilot’s, you’ll shoot his plane out of the sky. If the other pilot’s OODA Loop is better, he’ll shoot you down. Right now, our national OODA Loop is broken. We’re are doing something crazy — taking the country back and forth to the financial brink to produce suboptimal, midnight compromises without any overall plan for how this will lead to growth in the world in which we’re living. We’re doing the worst thing a country can do — cutting taxes and spending without a plan. Maybe you can grow without a plan. But if you want to ensure that every scarce dollar gets the biggest bang, you can’t cut without a plan. It’s deciding and acting without observing and orienting. It’s how fighter pilots get shot down.

President Obama, by his own admission, focused his campaign almost exclusively on the need to raise taxes on the wealthy, and the Republicans focused theirs on lowering them. But neither one offered the country what we need most: a description of what world we’re living in, what is new, and how we maximize our ability to compete and grow in this world — and then offering up a comprehensive, detailed plan of appropriate phased-in spending cuts, tax reforms and investments in research, infrastructure and early childhood education to create more good jobs and the workers to fill them.

What world are we living in? It’s a world in which we face three major challenges: responding to the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, which is changing every job and workplace; dealing with our mounting debt and entitlement burdens, driven by steadily rising health care costs and unsustainable defined benefits; and, finally, developing energy sources that can grow the world economy without tipping it into disruptive climate change. (At one point last week, the Senate approved a $60.4 billion aid package to help New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. If fully implemented, that would mean we’d spend on one storm all the new tax revenue for next year that the House and Senate just agreed to in the fiscal-cliff negotiations.)

What each party should be saying is, “Given this world, here are the specific tax reforms, spending cuts, investments and policy innovations we need to grow our middle class, sustain our retirees and shrink inequality.” Instead, we have no leaders ready to trust the public with the truth, so both parties are shooting themselves in the foot and our future in the head. As Matt Miller, author of “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” noted in The Washington Post, “Republicans haven’t identified anything remotely equal to the savings we need. And because many liberals haven’t thought through the long-term budget implications, or wrongly assume that taxes can rise indefinitely or that the Pentagon can be shrunk to something less than a triangle, they resist sensible steps to slow the growth of Social Security and Medicare, not realizing that this course will assure before long that there isn’t any new money to spend on, say, poor children.”

I expect nothing from the G.O.P. It’s lost and leaderless. I expect a lot from Obama, who knows what needs to be done and has said so in the past. I expect him to stop acting as a party leader and start acting like the president of the whole country. When I heard Obama say, after the election, that this time he was going to take his plan to the country, and not make the mistake again of just negotiating with Congress, I thought, “Great, I can’t wait to hear what he says.” But all he took to the country was a plan for increasing taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” There was nothing comprehensive, nothing bold, no great journey for America and no risks for him. Really disappointing.

Maybe Obama has a strategy: First raise taxes on the wealthy, which gives him the credibility with his base to then make big spending cuts in the next round of negotiations. Could be. But raising taxes on the wealthy is easy. Now we’re at the hard part: comprehensive tax reform, entitlement cuts, radical cost-saving approaches to health care and new investments in our growth engines. This will require taking things away from people — to both save and invest. A lot of lobbies will fight it. The president will need to rally the center of the country and the business community to overcome them. He’ll have to change the polls, not just read the polls. He will have to take on his own base and the G.O.P.’s.

Obama has spent a lot of time lately bashing the rich to pay their “fair share.” You know what? There are definitely some Wall Street bankers and C.E.O.’s who deserve that bashing. But there are many successful Americans who got their wealth the old-fashioned way — by risk-taking, going into debt to start a business or pursue a dream. It’s time for the president to do some risk-taking — to stop just hammering the wealthy, which is so easy, and to start selling the country on a strategy to multiply them. We need to tax more millionaires, but we also need more millionaires and middle classes to tax. The president was elected to grow our national pie, not just re-divide it.

One of the commenters on this thing put in a link to The Thomas Friedman Op/Ed Generator.  Honest to God, you can’t tell the difference between what’s generated and a real column…  Next we have Mr. Kristof:

Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.

These won’t happen immediately — Xi won’t even be named president until March — and I may be wrong entirely. But my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.

Here’s my case for Xi as a reformer.

First, it’s in his genes. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a pioneer of economic restructuring and publicly denounced the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Xi’s mother chooses to live in Shenzhen, the most capitalist enclave in the country.

Xi is also one of the first Chinese leaders to send a child to the United States as an undergraduate. His daughter is a junior at Harvard, reflecting her parents’ emphasis on learning English and their admiration for American education.

It helps that the bar is low for Xi: he follows President Hu Jintao, who is widely regarded in China as a failure. Even government ministers complain that he squandered his 10 years as leader. Today there is pent-up demand for change.

President Hu, who always reads speeches from texts, is a robot who surrounds himself with robots. One such robot aide is Ling Jihua, whose 23-year-old son was driving a Ferrari one night last March with two half-naked women as passengers. The car crashed on a Beijing road, killing the young man and badly injuring the women, one of whom later died.

Ling feared a scandal and reportedly began a cover-up. He went to the morgue, according to the account I got from one Chinese official, and looked at the body — and then coldly denied that it was his son. He continued to work in the following weeks as if nothing had happened. The cover-up failed, and the episode underscored all that was wrong with the old leadership: the flaunting of dubious wealth, the abuse of power and the lack of any heart.

Xi is trying to send a message that he is different. His first act upon becoming Communist Party general secretary in November was to replicate a famous “southern tour” by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 that revived economic reforms. Xi and his team have also startled officials by telling them to stop reading empty speeches at meetings.

Another good sign: I hear that Wang Yang, a reformist who has been the party chief in Guangdong Province and is perhaps the single most capable leader in China today, will be named a vice premier in March.

The new leaders would probably prefer to accelerate economic change while minimizing political relaxation, but that is increasingly difficult as China develops an educated, worldly and self-confident middle class. Over the years, most of China’s neighbors — from Taiwan to Mongolia, South Korea to Thailand — have become more democratic, and now even Myanmar is joining the parade. How can mighty China be more backward than Myanmar?

For 25 years, I’ve regularly been visiting my wife’s ancestral village in the Taishan area of southern China. At first, the villagers were semiliterate and isolated, but now their world has been transformed. On this visit, we dropped by a farmhouse where a former peasant was using the Internet to trade stocks on his laptop. His daughter is in college, and he watches Hong Kong television on a big screen.

People like him are ever harder to control or manipulate, and they’re steamed at China’s worsening corruption. A couple of decades ago, a friend who is a son of a Politburo member was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year to lend his name to a Chinese company so that it could get cheap land from local governments. These days, the family members of leaders can rake in billions of dollars over time.

The 70 richest delegates to China’s National People’s Congress have a collective net worth of almost $90 billion, Bloomberg News reported. That’s more than 10 times the collective net worth of the entire American Congress.

Granted, there is evidence to counter my optimistic take. Most troubling, the authorities are cracking down on the Internet. That’s a great leap backward, but I am skeptical that it will be sustained. Right now a fascinating test case is unfolding: a senior propaganda official censored a New Year’s message in a major Guangdong newspaper, and now journalists are publicly demanding that he be fired. Stay tuned.

Xi is also more nationalistic than President Hu, and I worry that a confrontation with Japan over disputed islands could escalate out of control — in which case all bets are off.

Still, the pre-eminent story of our time is the rise of China. For the last decade it has been hobbled by the failed leadership of President Hu. I’m betting that in the coming 10 years of Xi’s reign, China will come alive again.

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

My niece Leslie is still more than nine months away from sending in a college application and more than 18 from stepping into her first college class, but already she’s swimming in numbers: the average SAT scores for one university’s student body; the percentage of applicants another school admits; how much money, on average, the graduates of yet another school tend to make once they’ve been in the work force awhile. This is the kind of information spotlighted in the articles and books that are supposed to guide her and her peers. These are the types of factoids that the adults around them often focus on.

Which school will bequeath the best network? Which diploma has the most cachet? Various relatives pitch Leslie on the virtues of their alma maters, and as surely as my niece swims in numbers, she drowns in advice. But much of it strikes me as shortsighted and incomplete, and I worry that she’ll be coaxed to make her choice in a way that disregards the inimitable opportunity that college presents, the full bounty and splendor of those potentially transformative years. I have the same worry about other secondary-school students who, like her, possess the economic and intellectual good fortune — and the hard-won transcripts — to entertain a wealth of alternatives, because I think we let them get too distracted by rankings, ratings, brands. We don’t point them toward assessments and dynamics that are arguably more meaningful.

Last week was the deadline to apply to many colleges and universities, though the admissions dance — the dreaming, scheming, waiting and worrying — has really become a year-round, nonstop phenomenon, starting well before the final stretch of high school. Leslie’s a junior and has already visited half a dozen campuses, to see how they feel.

And if she’s like most of my peers when I was her age, she’ll wind up picking one that gives her a sense of comfort, of safety. That’s what too many kids do. They perpetuate what they’re familiar with, gravitating to the same schools that their friends are or duplicating their parents’ paths. And there’s so much lost in that reflex, so much surrendered by that timidity.

If you’re among the lucky who can factor more than cost and proximity into where you decide to go, college is a ticket to an adventure beyond the parameters of what you’ve experienced so far. It’s a passport to the far side of what you already know. It’s a chance to be challenged, not coddled. To be provoked, not pacified.

Does brand matter? To a point. There are indeed future employers who see certain diplomas as seals of approval, as pre-screening of a sort, and there are many successful people who got that way by milking contacts made at storied universities. But there are just as many who prospered without the imprimatur of one of the hyper-exclusive schools near the top of the annual U.S. News & World Report list. And even if you’re confining yourself to those schools, you can and should ask questions about them that prospective freshmen frequently don’t.

How many of a college’s or university’s students are coming from other countries? Favor schools with higher percentages of foreigners, because as much of your education will happen outside as inside any lecture hall, and globalism is here and real. The dexterity with which you can navigate other cultures — your awareness of, and openness to, them — could be more valuable and happy-making than any knowledge gleaned from a book.

When it comes to the internationalism of a school, don’t assume the loftiest ones win the race. In one measure of this, Carnegie Mellon, Boston University and Brandeis came out ahead of Harvard, Stanford, Williams or Duke.

You might also take into account what percentage of a school’s students travel in the opposite direction and do some study abroad. That could be an indication of your future classmates’ daring or curiosity, and those classmates will presumably bring the fruits of their experiences back to campus. According to U.S. News & World Report, of the 41 schools that claim to have sent more than 50 percent of their students to a study-abroad program, only one, Dartmouth, is in the Ivy League.

I use the word “claim” deliberately and urge skepticism with rankings. They depend on honest reporting from schools, and in recent years both Claremont McKenna College and Emory University were forced to admit inflation in what they’d trumpeted about the test scores or other achievements of their students. Also, what does “study abroad” mean? A semester or a week, and in Mumbai or just Montreal? As it happens, more than half of the American college students who take an academic detour from the United States still head to Europe, and the most popular destination is Britain, according to the Institute of International Education. They’re not exactly honing new language skills there.

SO dig as deeply as you can into what the statistics that colleges showcase do and don’t assure. And treat your undergraduate education as a rare license, before you’re confined by the burdens of full-fledged adulthood and before the costs of experimentation rise, to be tugged outside your comfort zone. To be yanked, preferably. If you’ve spent little time in the thick of a busy city, contemplate a school in precisely such a place. If you know only the North, think about the South. Seek diversity, not just in terms of nationality, ethnicity and race, but also in terms of financial background, especially if your bearings have been resolutely and narrowly upper middle class. You’ll most likely encounter a different economic cross-section of classmates at one of the top state universities than you will at a small private college. Doesn’t that have merit, and shouldn’t that be weighed?

And if your interests and circumstances don’t demand an immediate concentration on one field of study, go somewhere that’ll force you to stretch in multiple directions. (A core curriculum isn’t a bad thing at all.) The world is in constant flux, life is a sequence of surprises, and I can think of no better talents to pick up in college than fearlessness, nimbleness and the ability to roll with change, adapt to newness and improvise.

I have 11 nieces and nephews in all. There are 10 younger than Leslie. I hope all of them have the options that she seems to, and I hope they ask themselves not which school is the surest route to riches but which will give them the richest experiences to draw from, which will broaden their frames of reference. College can shrink your universe, or college can expand it. I vote for the latter.

Brooks and Krugman

January 6, 2012

I don’t know if Bobo is drunk or on drugs.  In “A New Social Agenda” he babbles that Rick Santorum’s ideas may need some massaging, but their roots offer an important seedbed for a new 21st-century philosophy of government.  Bobo (and Santorum too, for that matter) should be hit with sticks, sewn into a leather sack with an angry weasel and thrown in the lake.  Prof. Krugman, in “Bain, Barack and Jobs,” says Mitt Romney says that President Obama has been a job destroyer, while he was a job-creating businessman. But those claims border on dishonesty.  Here’s Bobo:

I’m to Rick Santorum’s left on most social issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion. I’m also put off by his Manichaean political rhetoric. He seems to imagine America’s problems can best be described as the result of a culture war between the God-fearing conservatives and the narcissistic liberals.

Like most Americans, including most evangelicals under 40, I find this culture war language absurd. If conservative ideas were that much more virtuous than liberal ideas, then the conservative parts of the country would have fewer social pathologies than the liberal parts of the country. They don’t.

But having said all that, I’m delighted that Santorum is making a splash in this presidential campaign. He is far closer to developing a new 21st-century philosophy of government than most leaders out there.

One of Santorum’s strengths is that he understands that a nation isn’t just an agglomeration of individuals; it’s a fabric of social relationships. In his 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” he had chapters on economic capital as well as social capital, moral capital, cultural capital and intellectual capital. He presents an extended argument against radical individualism. “Just as original sin is man’s inclination to try to walk alone without God, individualism is man’s inclination to try to walk alone among his fellows,” he writes.

Communities breed character. Santorum argues that government cannot be agnostic about the character of its citizens because the less disciplined the people are, the more government must step in to provide order.

His political philosophy is built around the Catholic concept of subsidiarity — that everything should be done at the lowest possible level. That produces a limited role for Washington, but still an important one.

Over the years, Santorum has sought to use the federal government to nurture healthy communities. Welfare reform, which he helped lead, was a paternalistic way to use state power to encourage hard work.

He seeks to triple the size of the child tax credit, to make families more financially secure. He has supported flex time and transportation policies to make life easier for working parents. After initial opposition, he came to support AmeriCorps, the federal community service program.

Santorum believes Head Start should teach manners to children. He has supported efforts to police the airwaves and corporate marketing campaigns. He believes that felons should recover the right to vote if they stay out of trouble for five years after their release from prison.

Santorum’s policies on tax reform, entitlement reform and the other big issues are similar to Mitt Romney’s and most of the other Republican candidates. But he seems to understand that simply cutting is not enough to build a healthy society. To avert decline, America has to restore its values.

Santorum understands that we have to fuse economics talk and values talk. But he hasn’t appreciated that the biggest challenge to stable families, healthy communities and the other seedbeds of virtue is not coastal elites. It’s technological change; it’s globalization; it’s personal mobility and expanded opportunity; it’s an information-age economy built on self-transformation and perpetual rebranding instead of fixed inner character. It is the very forces that give us the dynamism and opportunities in the first place.

Santorum doesn’t yet see that once you start thinking about how to foster an economic system that would nurture our virtues, you wind up with an agenda far more drastic and transformational.

If you believe in the dignity of labor, it makes sense to support an infrastructure program that allows more people to practice the habits of industry. If you believe in personal responsibility, you have to force Americans to receive only as much government as they are willing to pay for. If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable.

If you believe social trust is the precondition for a healthy society, you have to have a simplified tax code that inspires trust instead of degrading it. If you believe that firm attachments and stable relationships build human capital, you had better offer early education for children in disorganized neighborhoods. If you want capitalists thinking for the long term and getting the most out of their workers, you have to encourage companies to be more deeply rooted in local communities rather than just free-floating instruments of capital markets.

I doubt Santorum is going to win the nomination. Main Street Republicans like Romney usually beat social conservatives like Santorum because there are just so many more of them in the Republican electorate. But social conservatives and libertarians often provide the ideas that Main Street leaders co-opt.

America is creative because of its moral materialism — when social values and economic ambitions get down in the mosh pit and dance. Santorum is in the fray.

Oooh — look how hip Bobo is!  He knows what a mosh pit is.  Let’s toss him in and see if he gets trampled.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

America’s recovery from recession has been so slow that it mostly doesn’t seem like a recovery at all, especially on the jobs front. So, in a better world, President Obama would face a challenger offering a serious critique of his job-creation policies, and proposing a serious alternative.

Instead, he’ll almost surely face Mitt Romney.

Mr. Romney claims that Mr. Obama has been a job destroyer, while he was a job-creating businessman. For example, he told Fox News: “This is a president who lost more jobs during his tenure than any president since Hoover. This is two million jobs that he lost as president.” He went on to declare, of his time at the private equity firm Bain Capital, “I’m very happy in my former life; we helped create over 100,000 new jobs.”

But his claims about the Obama record border on dishonesty, and his claims about his own record are well across that border.

Start with the Obama record. It’s true that 1.9 million fewer Americans have jobs now than when Mr. Obama took office. But the president inherited an economy in free fall, and can’t be held responsible for job losses during his first few months, before any of his own policies had time to take effect. So how much of that Obama job loss took place in, say, the first half of 2009?

The answer is: more than all of it. The economy lost 3.1 million jobs between January 2009 and June 2009 and has since gained 1.2 million jobs. That’s not enough, but it’s nothing like Mr. Romney’s portrait of job destruction.

Incidentally, the previous administration’s claims of job growth always started not from Inauguration Day but from August 2003, when Bush-era employment hit its low point. By that standard, Mr. Obama could say that he has created 2.5 million jobs since February 2010.

So Mr. Romney’s claims about the Obama job record aren’t literally false, but they are deeply misleading. Still, the real fun comes when we look at what Mr. Romney says about himself. Where does that claim of creating 100,000 jobs come from?

Well, Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post got an answer from the Romney campaign. It’s the sum of job gains at three companies that Mr. Romney “helped to start or grow”: Staples, The Sports Authority and Domino’s.

Mr. Kessler immediately pointed out two problems with this tally. It’s “based on current employment figures, not the period when Romney worked at Bain,” and it “does not include job losses from other companies with which Bain Capital was involved.” Either problem, by itself, makes nonsense of the whole claim.

On the point about using current employment, consider Staples, which has more than twice as many stores now as it did back in 1999, when Mr. Romney left Bain. Can he claim credit for everything good that has happened to the company in the past 12 years? In particular, can he claim credit for the company’s successful shift from focusing on price to focusing on customer service (“That was easy”), which took place long after he had left the business world?

Then there’s the bit about looking only at Bain-connected companies that added jobs, ignoring those that reduced their work forces or went out of business. Hey, if pluses count but minuses don’t, everyone who spends a day playing the slot machines comes out way ahead!

In any case, it makes no sense to look at changes in one company’s work force and say that this measures job creation for America as a whole.

Suppose, for example, that your chain of office-supply stores gains market share at the expense of rivals. You employ more people; your rivals employ fewer. What’s the overall effect on U.S. employment? One thing’s for sure: it’s a lot less than the number of workers your company added.

Better yet, suppose that you expand in part not by beating your competitors, but by buying them. Now their employees are your employees. Have you created jobs?

The point is that Mr. Romney’s claims about being a job creator would be nonsense even if he were being honest about the numbers, which he isn’t.

At this point, some readers may ask whether it isn’t equally wrong to say that Mr. Romney destroyed jobs. Yes, it is. The real complaint about Mr. Romney and his colleagues isn’t that they destroyed jobs, but that they destroyed good jobs.

When the dust settled after the companies that Bain restructured were downsized — or, as happened all too often, went bankrupt — total U.S. employment was probably about the same as it would have been in any case. But the jobs that were lost paid more and had better benefits than the jobs that replaced them. Mr. Romney and those like him didn’t destroy jobs, but they did enrich themselves while helping to destroy the American middle class.

And that reality is, of course, what all the blather and misdirection about job-creating businessmen and job-destroying Democrats is meant to obscure.

 

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

January 3, 2012

Bobo’s finally gone off the deep end.  In “Workers of the World, Unite!” he babbles that the largest slice of the Republican Party may have found a champion in Rick Santorum.  I hope each and every one of them Googles “Santorum.”  For added giggles here’s his opening sentence:  “The Republican Party is the party of the white working class.”  [snort]  Mr. Cohen suggests “A Time to Tune Out,” and says addiction to the hand-held device is a modern curse.  He may be right.  I spent part of Sunday watching the tenor across from me in the choir texting or twitter-twatting during the sermon…  Mr. Nocera, in “The Central Falls Success,” says in one of Rhode Island’s poorer cities, a reading experiment flourishes.  Mr. Bruni looks at “Mitt, The Paisley Tiger,” and says Mitt Romney likes to use the song “Eye of the Tiger” at his campaign events. But “Karma Chameleon” might be a better tune for him.  Here’s Bobo, who’s in Radar O’Reilly’s home town of Ottumwa:

The Republican Party is the party of the white working class. This group — whites with high school degrees and maybe some college — is still the largest block in the electorate. They overwhelmingly favor Republicans.

It’s a diverse group, obviously, but its members generally share certain beliefs and experiences. The economy has been moving away from them. The ethnic makeup of the country is shifting away from them. They sense that the nation has gone astray: marriage is in crisis; the work ethic is eroding; living standards are in danger; the elites have failed; the news media sends out messages that make it harder to raise decent kids. They face greater challenges, and they’re on their own.

The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs. The leading lights of the party tend to be former College Republicans who have a more individualistic and even Randian worldview than most members of the working class. Most Republican presidential candidates, from George H.W. Bush to John McCain to Mitt Romney, emerge from an entirely different set of experiences.

Occasionally you get a candidate, like Tim Pawlenty, who grew up working class. But he gets sucked up by the consultants, the donors and the professional party members and he ends up sounding like every other Republican. Other times a candidate will emerge who taps into a working-class vibe — Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin. But, so far, these have been flawed candidates who get buried under an avalanche of negative ads and brutal coverage.

This year, Romney is trying to establish some emotional bond with the working class by waging a hyperpatriotic campaign: I may be the son of a millionaire with a religion that makes you uncomfortable, but I love this country just like you. The strategy appears to be only a partial success.

Enter Rick Santorum.

Santorum is the grandson of a coal miner and the son of an Italian immigrant. For years, he represented the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. He has spent the last year scorned by the news media — working relentlessly, riding around in a pickup truck to more than 370 towns. He tells that story of hard work and elite disrespect with great fervor at his meetings.

His worldview is not individualistic. His book, “It Takes a Family,” was infused with the conservative wing of Catholic social teaching. It was a broadside against Barry Goldwater-style conservatism in favor of one that emphasized family and social solidarity. While in Congress, he was a leader in nearly every serious piece of antipoverty legislation. On the stump, he cries, “The left has a religion, too. It’s just not based on the Bible. It’s based on the religion of self.”

Santorum does not have a secular worldview. This is not just a matter of going to church and home-schooling his children. When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, he and his wife, a neonatal nurse, spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home — praying over it and welcoming it, with their other kids, into the family. This story tends to be deeply creepy to many secular people but inspiring to many of the more devout.

He is not a representative of the corporate or financial wing of the party. Santorum certainly wants to reduce government spending (faster even than Representative Paul Ryan). He certainly wants tax reform. But he goes out of his way in his speeches to pick fights with the “supply-siders.” He scorns the Wall Street bailouts. His economic arguments are couched as values arguments: If you want to enhance long-term competitiveness, you need to strengthen families. If companies want productive workers, they need to be embedded in wholesome communities.

It’s hard to know how his campaign will fare after a late surge that he is experiencing in Iowa. These days, he is a happy and effective campaigner, but, in the past, there has been a dourness and rigidity to him. He’s been consumed by resentment over unfair media coverage. As his ally in the AIDS fight, Bono, once told a reporter, Santorum seems to have a Tourette’s syndrome that causes him to say the most unpopular thing imaginable.

But I suspect he will do better post-Iowa than most people think — before being buried under a wave of money and negative ads. And I do believe that he represents sensibility and a viewpoint that is being suppressed by the political system. Perhaps, in less rigid and ideological form, this working-class experience will someday find a champion.

If you took a working-class candidate from the right, like Santorum, and a working-class candidate from the left, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and you found a few islands of common ground, you could win this election by a landslide. The country doesn’t want an election that is Harvard Law versus Harvard Law.

It’s obviously time to stuff Bobo into a barrel, nail it shut, and feed him through the bung hole.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Let’s hear it for Volkswagen at the start of 2012. The German automaker has responded to demands from its works council by agreeing to stop the e-mail server to its BlackBerry-using employees a half-hour after their shift ends, only restoring it 30 minutes before work begins the next day.

The agreement for now only affects about 1,150 of Volkswagen’s more than 190,000 workers in Germany, but it’s a start in encouraging employees to switch off, curb the twitchy reflex to check e-mail every couple of minutes, and take a look out at things — like family and the big wide world — without the distraction of a blinking red light.

Now I know we’re all supposed to be grown-ups and switching off should be a simple enough decision, but the fact is addictions to BlackBerries and other hand-held devices are powerful and nobody expects addicts to self-administer the right medicine without some help. The Volkswagen decision reflects growing evidence of stress-related burnout tied to employees’ inability to separate their working and private lives now that developed societies live in a 24/7 paroxysm of connection.

Employee burnout has become an issue in socially conscious Germany — the object of a Spiegel cover story following the resignation in September of a prominent Bundesliga soccer coach, Ralf Rangnick of Schalke, who complained of exhaustion. A Volkswagen spokesman in Wolfsburg told Bloomberg News the company had to balance the benefits of round-the-clock access to staff with protecting their private lives.

Inside those German private lives, I’d wager, couples are experiencing the now near-universal irritation of finding conversations interrupted by a familiar glance toward the little screen, or conversations deadened by the state of near-permanent distraction from their immediate surroundings in which people live. Device-related marital rows must now be running close to back-seat driving and how to raise the kids as the leading cause of domestic discord.

Connectivity aids productivity. It can also be counterproductive by generating that contemporary state of anxiety in which focus on any activity is interrupted by the irresistible urge to check e-mail or texts; whose absence can in turn provoke the compounded anxiety of feeling unloved or unwanted just because the in-box is empty for a nanosecond; whose onset can in turn induce the super-aggravated anxiety that is linked to low self-esteem and poor performance.

Inhabiting one place — that is to be fully absorbed by and focused on one’s surroundings rather than living in some diffuse cyberlocation composed of the different strands of a device-driven existence — is a fast-dwindling ability. This in turn generates a paradox: People have never traveled as much but at the same time been less able to appreciate the difference between here and there.

To be permanently switched on is also to switch off to what takes time to be seen. A lot of good ideas, as well as some of life’s deeper satisfactions, can get lost that way.

Companies are beginning to perceive these costs. Volkswagen is not alone in its move, which does not affect senior management or employees’ ability to make calls. Thierry Breton, the chief executive of Atos, the French information technology services giant, has said workers are wasting hours of their lives on internal messages at home and work. He plans to ban internal e-mail altogether from 2014. A survey found Atos’s 80,000 employees were receiving an average of 100 internal e-mails a day of which only 15 percent were of any use.

Henkel, the manufacturer of Persil detergent, declared an e-mail “amnesty” between Christmas and New Year, saying mail should only be sent in an emergency.

One interesting recent case of employee burnout came at the very top, with the stress-induced absence for a couple of months of António Horta-Osório, the chief executive of Lloyds Bank. The Portuguese banker, who will return to work Jan. 9, came after he was afflicted with what Sir Win Bischoff, the Lloyds chairman, called an “inability to switch off.”

Inability to switch off (ITSO) is a modern curse.

Horta-Osório has said he made the decision after not sleeping for five days in late October and realizing that there was, according to his doctor, such a thing as “getting close to the end of your battery.” He has now been pronounced fit by the Lloyds board but has said he will change his work habits, presumably in ways that will lower ITSO risks.

I’ve just returned to work after a few days with my 90-year-old father in Scotland. He lives without any access to e-mail or hand-held devices. It was interesting observing the effects of this vacuum on my teenage children, suddenly unable to center their lives around their laptops (and the screen-lowering gesture that seems to accompany the entry of an adult). They started to read voraciously. They were communicative. They got up earlier. To be fair, they also had a Dad with them who was not device distracted.

It’s the start of a new year, a time for resolutions. To each his own, but I know this: Nobody will ever lie on his or her deathbed and say: “I should have kept my device on longer.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Central Falls, R.I., is a speck of a city, one square mile of triple-decker houses and tired storefronts a few miles up the road from the state capital, Providence. It is the poorest city in Rhode Island, with 27 percent of its residents below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Earlier this year, it started bankruptcy proceedings. Its mayor, who is the subject of a state police investigation, has been pushed aside in favor of a receiver, who has taken control of the city’s finances.

Central Falls, though, also has one of the most promising reading experiments in the country. The Learning Community, a local charter school, and the Central Falls public elementary schools have joined forces in a collaboration that has resulted in dramatic improvements in the reading scores of the public schoolchildren from kindergarten to grade 2. Given the mistrust of charter schools by public schoolteachers, creating this collaboration was no small feat. And while the city’s bankruptcy now threatens it, the Central Falls experiment not only needs to be preserved, it should be replicated across the country. I haven’t seen anything that makes more sense.

When I last wrote about public schools, it was through the prism of Steven Brill’s book, “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.” Though a fan of the charter school movement, Brill concluded that, by themselves, charters were never going to fix what ails the nation’s public schools; you couldn’t possibly scale them to encompass 50 million public school students.

As it turns out, Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman, the co-founders of The Learning Community, had gotten there a whole lot earlier. Before starting The Learning Community in 2004, they spent three years working with the Providence school system on a pilot program designed to come up with ways to “transform teaching practices and improve outcomes,” says Friedman. During a time of upheaval in the school system, a small corps of great teachers were the real anchors in the schools. In setting up The Learning Community, O’Leary and Friedman wanted to apply the best practices they had learned during the Providence project — and, eventually, to use their knowledge to help public school districts in Rhode Island.

They got their chance in 2007, when Frances Gallo became the Central Falls Schools superintendent. After she got the job, Gallo stopped in on several families just as they had learned that their children had won a spot (via lottery) in The Learning Community. “They were so excited,” recalls Gallo. She wanted to understand why.

So Gallo began spending time at The Learning Community — where she, too, became excited. The school drew from the same population as the public schools. It had the same relatively large class sizes. It did not screen out students with learning disabilities. Yet the percentage of students who read at or above their grade level was significantly higher than the public school students. When Gallo asked O’Leary and Friedman if they would apply their methods to the public schools, they jumped at it.

Did everything go smoothly at first? Not even close. “At first it was, ‘Oh, here comes another initiative,’ ” recalls Friedman. There were plenty of “venting” sessions at the beginning, along with both resentment and resistance. But The Learning Community invited the teachers to visit its classrooms, where the public school teachers saw the same thing Gallo had seen. And very quickly they also began to see results. Most public schoolteachers yearn to see their students succeed — just like charter schoolteachers do. Most of the resistance melted away.

There is another important element to this collaboration: The Learning Community advisers who work most closely with Central Falls teachers haven’t just done a fly-by. They have worked hand in hand with their public school colleagues for three years. They have been a constant, encouraging presence. They have developed relationships. And they have treated the public schoolteachers with respect. It makes a huge difference.

Early on, O’Leary and Friedman convinced Gallo to hire reading specialists for Central Falls. (The Learning Community’s methods call for a great deal of one-on-one instruction, especially when a teacher sees a student beginning to lag behind.) Ann Lynch, a Central Falls elementary school principal, told me that budget cuts have already forced her to cut back from two specialists to one. Everybody is worried about more cuts: the combination of the bankruptcy and a new state funding formula — which will cut back some state financing for the Central Falls School District — has people fearful that The Learning Community’s project will be pared back, too.

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen. What is happening between this one charter school and this one school district offers an all-too-rare chance for optimism — not just about Central Falls’s public schools, but America’s.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, who’s in Des Moines:

Given how assiduously plotted every last detail of Mitt Romney’s events has been, it was impossible not to wonder about the levels of meaning in the song blaring from speakers in Ames, Iowa, as he loped to the microphone on a recent night.

“Eye of the Tiger” was the anthem of the moment. It’s performed by a band helpfully named Survivor. It extols grit and stamina and their contributions to eventual glory. Then there’s this: the beast in its title never changes its stripes.

Romney changes more than that. “Karma Chameleon” would be the truer tune for him, as a few bloggers have noted. Years back, he was light blue; now, he’s red; by next fall, if he gets there, he’ll be purplish. He adapts to his context. Adjusts to his surroundings.

For most of this campaign season, that has been framed as a serious weakness. Democrats have hammered him for being a man without a core. In a new commercial by a super PAC supporting Jon Huntsman Jr., New Hampshire voters are urged to “stop the chameleon.” Romney has pushed back, giving lip service, at least, to his constancy.

But what if his doubters, his nemeses and many of us pondering the protean wonder of him have it all wrong? What if changeability is his strength? Someone not fixed in a single place can pivot to more advantageous ones. A vessel partly empty has room for the beverage du jour. And Romney is ready to be filled with whatever’s most nutritive.

Every aspect of his campaign seems intricately sculptured to circumstance, an elastic response to some qualm a voter might have.

Concerned that he lacks a pulse, a soul — humanity? Well, here’s Ann Romney, whom he calls “my sweetheart,” taking the microphone at his Iowa rallies to talk about what a tender husband and father he is.

Worried that he lacks sizzle, no rock in his roll? As “Tiger” roared that night, the campaign bus carrying the Romneys didn’t stop outside the building in which voters were gathered but rather drove through a garage-style door and onto the floor.

Not sure that this man, a devout Mormon given to exclamations like “my goodness gracious,” is a sufficiently hip member of the popular-culture club? In Council Bluffs, Iowa, he cracked that the gap between Barack Obama’s pledges and performance is “the largest I’ve seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of ‘til death do we part.’ ” Mitt and Kim, a marriage of the utmost convenience.

The attention to atmospherics is extraordinary. In Atlantic, Iowa, he notably bypassed the Pizza Ranch, a Christian-affiliated chain that his rivals have visited. Why? His watchful aides had determined that one of its founders did prison time for sexually abusing employees, as A.G. Sulzberger and Michael Barbaro reported in The Times.

So no pepperoni for Mitt. Instead he hit a different restaurant down the road. Its name? The Family Table.

Romney is as limber as almost any politician I’ve seen. As soon as complaints about his avoidance of interviews reached a crescendo last month, he started popping up everywhere and chattering ad nauseam. You couldn’t escape him.

A week ago, he had no definite plans to spend as much time in Iowa as he ended up doing over the last few days. But when polls suggested that he had a good shot at winning the caucuses, he scrambled, and after leaving the state Friday for New Hampshire, he was back on Saturday. He stumped on Sunday with bags under his eyes.

Is he really conservative? Moderate? To watch him deliver his gauzy stump speech is to behold a beautifully framed, impeccably coiffed blur: a vague shimmer of presidential-looking light that means everything and nothing.

The takeaway from the speech? Romney good. America great. Obama bad. America in trouble.

He doesn’t delve into the soporific specifics pouring out of Rick Santorum, who wouldn’t know a sound bite if it ripped off his sweater vest. So you can fill in the blanks as you like.

In the primaries, that’s a liability, and Santorum, with his ideological rigidity, could haunt Romney for a while. But if Romney nabs the nomination, his malleability may be an asset, allowing Obama-soured voters to talk themselves into him. After all, a creature without passionate conviction doesn’t cling to extremes. He surveys the scenery and makes sure his outfit doesn’t clash.

Democrats have considered all this. They’re questioning whether flip-flop barbs are the best weapons against Romney in a battle for swing voters.

As for Romney, he has to spend the primaries claiming inalterable conservative stripes. That’s the nature of the game. But there are paisleys in his wardrobe as well. Maybe polka dots, too.

 

Oh Cripes, the Putz is Solo

August 22, 2011

Oh, gawd, Prof. Krugman is off so The Pasty Little Putz is flying solo.  He’s feeling his oats.  He seems to think he’s found the Republican Savior.  In “Messing With Texas” he lectures us that Rick Perry’s opponents can’t beat him by turning the race into a referendum on his state.  Honey, we won’t have to, although the statistics are tempting (27% of Texans without health insurance).  He condemns himself with his own words (secession anyone?  Medicare and Social Security are Ponzi schemes?)  Here’s the Putz:

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas hasn’t lost an election in 10 tries. Among his vanquished opponents, this streak has inspired not only the usual mix of resentment and respect, but a touch of supernatural awe. “Running against Perry,” one of them told Texas Monthly, “is like running against God.”

Perry’s 2012 rivals can’t afford to entertain such thoughts. If either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama hopes to snap the Texas governor’s winning streak, the election will need to become a referendum on Perry himself, in all his heat-packing, secession-contemplating glory. If it becomes a referendum on his home state instead, Perry’s 11th campaign will probably turn out like all the others.

Perry’s critics don’t like to admit this. After he launched his campaign with an extended brag about Texas job creation, there was a rush to cut Texas down to size — to dismiss the Lone Star economic miracle as a mirage conjured by population growth, petro-dollars and low-paying McJobs.

But the more the Internet’s hive mind worked through the data, the weaker this critique looked. Yes, Texas’s growing population has contributed to the job boom, but the boom has driven population growth as well. The influx of people has been too extraordinary to just be chalked up to, say, snowbirds seeking 105-degree retirements. More likely, thousands of Americans have responded to hard times in their home states by moving to Texas in search of work.

As the policy blogger Matthias Shapiro pointed out in an exhaustive analysis, the jobs they’re finding aren’t unusually low-paying: the state’s median hourly wage is close to the national average, and since the recession started, Texan wages have increased at the sixth-fastest pace in the country. Nor are the jobs confined to the oil and gas industries: “Take the energy sector completely out of the equation,” Shapiro noted, “and Texas is still growing faster than any other state.”

On Friday, in a Bloomberg Television interview, Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to open up another anti-Texan front, saying he feels “very, very badly for the children” in Texas’s supposedly underfinanced public schools. But here, too, the evidence doesn’t back up Duncan’s criticism. Texas does have higher high school dropout rates than the average American state. But then again, Texas isn’t an average state: it’s an enormous melting pot that shares a porous, 1,969-mile border with Mexico. Once you control for demographics and compare like with like, the Texan educational record looks much more impressive.

When a 2009 McKinsey study contrasted Perry’s home state to the similarly sized and situated California, it found that Texas students were “one to two years of learning ahead of California students of the same age, even though Texas has less income per capita and spends less per pupil than California.”

When it comes to minority achievement, Texas looks even better: On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam, black eighth graders in Texas outscored black eighth graders in every other state.

To be sure, the Texas model doesn’t always impress. (Twenty-seven percent of Texans lack health insurance, for instance, compared with 21 percent of Californians.) But Perry can credibly claim that his state delivers on conservative governance’s two most important promises: a private sector that creates jobs at a remarkable clip, and a public sector that seems to get more for the taxpayers’ money than many more profligate state governments.

The question is whether Perry himself deserves any of the credit. Here his critics become much more persuasive. When Perry became governor, taxes were already low, regulations were light, and test scores were on their way up. He didn’t create the zoning rules that keep Texas real estate affordable, or the strict lending requirements that minimized the state’s housing bubble. Over all, the Texas model looks like something he inherited rather than a system he built.

This means that unlike many of his fellow Republican governors, from Mitch Daniels to Chris Christie to Scott Walker — or a Democratic governor like Andrew Cuomo, for that matter — Perry can’t claim to have battled entrenched interest groups, or stemmed a flood tide of red ink. Instead, many of his policy forays have been boondoggles or train wrecks, from the failed attempt to build a $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor (the kind of project conservatives would mock mercilessly if a Democrat proposed it) to an ill-designed 2006 tax reform that’s undercut the state’s finances.

But of course none of those reforming governors are currently in the race against him. Instead Perry faces an unloved Republican front-runner, with a weakened incumbent president waiting in the wings.

Which bring us back to that 10-election winning streak. Maybe God really is on Rick Perry’s side. Or maybe Perry just knows how to pick his opponents.

Or maybe, just maybe, Texas is, well, Texas…

Brooks and Nocera

April 19, 2011

Oh sweet Jesus on a pogo stick.  Today Bobo has decided to tell us all about “Why Trump Soars.”  He gurgles that many regard The Donald as a repulsive joke, but the reality is that he emerges from currents long embedded in American culture.  He makes sure that we know that he would’t actually VOTE for him…  (As an aside, what nobody really mentions is that the sampling size of all those polls that show Trump up at the top of the Republican pack of “contenders” is abysmally small, with the largest sample being 385 in the CNN poll.  So, useless crap just like The Donald.)  Mr. Nocera states the obvious in “Letting the Banks Off the Hook.”  He points out that apparently, bank regulators still view big banks as their “clients.”  No shit?  Really???  Never could have figured that out…  Here’s Bobo:

Very few people have the luxury of being freely obnoxious. Most people have to watch what they say for fear of offending their bosses and colleagues. Others resist saying anything that might make them unpopular.

But, in every society, there are a few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern. Each morning they take their own abrasive urges out for parade. They are so impressed by their achievements, so often reminded of their own obvious rightness, that every stray thought and synaptic ripple comes bursting out of their mouth fortified by impregnable certitude. When they have achieved this status they have entered the realm of Upper Blowhardia.

These supremely accomplished blowhards offend some but also arouse intense loyalty in others. Their followers enjoy the brassiness of it all. They live vicariously through their hero’s assertiveness. They delight in hearing those obnoxious things that others are only permitted to think.

Thus, there has always been a fan base for the abrasive rich man. There has always been a market for books by people like George Steinbrenner, Ross Perot, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Bobby Knight, Howard Stern and George Soros. There has always been a large clump of voters who believe that America could reverse its decline if only a straight-talking, obnoxious blowhard would take control.

And today, apparently, Donald Trump is that man. Trump, currently most famous for telling people that they are fired, has surged toward the top of the presidential primary polls. In one poll, he was in (remote) striking distance in a head-to-head against President Obama. Many people regard Trump as a joke and his popularity a disgrace. But he is actually riding a deep public fantasy: The hunger for the ultimate blowhard who can lead us through dark times.

He is riding something else: The strongest and most subversive ideology in America today. Donald Trump is the living, walking personification of the Gospel of Success.

It is obligatory these days in a polite society to have a complicated attitude toward success. If you attend a prestigious college or professional school, you are supposed to struggle tirelessly for success while denying that you have much interest in it. If you do achieve it, you are expected to shroud your wealth in locally grown produce, understated luxury cars and nubby fabrics.

Trump, on the other hand, is utterly oblivious to such conventions. When it comes to success, as in so many other things, he is the perpetual boy. He is the enthusiastic adventurer thrilled to have acquired a gleaming new bike, and doubly thrilled to be showing it off.

He labors under the belief — unacceptable in polite society — that two is better than one and that four is better than two. If he can afford a car, a flashy one is better than a boring one. In private jets, lavish is better than dull. In skyscrapers, brass is better than brick, and gold is better than brass.

This boyish enthusiasm for glory has propelled him to enormous accomplishment. He has literally changed the landscape of New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas and many places in between. He has survived a ruinous crash and come back stronger than ever.

Moreover, he shares this unambivalent attitude toward success with millions around the country. Though he cannot possibly need the money, he spends his days proselytizing the Gospel of Success through Trump University, his motivational speeches, his TV shows and relentlessly flowing books.

A child of wealth, he is more at home with the immigrants and the lower-middle-class strivers, who share his straightforward belief in the Gospel of Success, than he is among members of the haute bourgeoisie, who are above it. Like many swashbuckler capitalists, he is essentially anti-elitist.

Now, I don’t mean to say that Donald Trump is going to be president or get close. There is, for example, his hyper-hyperbolism and opportunism standing in the way.

In 2009, Trump published a book with a very Trumpian title: “Think Like a Champion.” In that book, he praised Obama’s “amazing” and “phenomenal” accomplishments. “Barack Obama proved that determination combined with opportunity and intelligence can make things happen — and in an exceptional way,” Trump gushed.

Now he spouts birther nonsense and calls Obama the worst president in American history. Now he leads rallies that make Michele Bachmann events look like the League of Women Voters. Even angry American voters want some level of seriousness, prudence and self-control.

But I do insist that Trump is no joke. He emerges from deep currents in our culture, and he is tapping into powerful sections of the national fantasy life. I would never vote for him, but I would never want to live in a country without people like him.

Actually, Bobo, lots and lots of people decide not to be obnoxious because they have manners, self-respect, and simple human decency.  Asshole.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Judging by last week’s performance, it sure looks as though the country’s top bank regulator is back to its old tricks.

Though, to be honest, calling the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency a “regulator” is almost laughable. The Environmental Protection Agency is a regulator. The O.C.C. is a coddler, a protector, an outright enabler of the institutions it oversees.

Back during the subprime bubble, for instance, it was so eager to please its “clients” — yes, that’s how O.C.C. executives used to describe the banks — that it steamrolled anyone who tried to stop lending abuses. States and cities around the country would pass laws requiring consumer-friendly measures such as mandatory counseling for subprime borrowers, or the listing of the fees the banks were going to charge for the loan. The O.C.C. would then use its power to either block or roll back the legislation.

It relied on the doctrine of pre-emption, which holds, in essence, that federal rules pre-empt state laws. More than 20 times, states and municipalities passed laws aimed at making subprime loans less predatory; every time, the O.C.C. ruled that national banks were exempt. Which, of course, rendered the new laws moot.

You’d think the financial crisis would have knocked some sense into the agency, exposing the awful consequences of its regulatory negligence. But you would be wrong. Like the banks themselves, the O.C.C. seems to have forgotten that the financial crisis ever took place.

It has consistently defended the Too Big to Fail banks. It opposes lowering hidden interchange fees for debit cards, even though such a move is mandated by law, because the banks don’t want to take the financial hit. Its foot-dragging in implementing the new Dodd-Frank laws stands in sharp contrast to, say, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is working diligently to create a regulatory framework for derivatives, despite Republican opposition. Like the banks, it views the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as the enemy.

And, as we learned last week, it is doing its darndest to make sure the banks escape the foreclosure crisis — a crisis they created with their sloppy, callous and often illegal practices — with no serious consequences. There is really no other way to explain the “settlement” it announced last week with 14 of the biggest mortgage servicers (which includes all the big banks).

The proposed terms call on servicers to have a single point of contact for homeowners with troubled mortgages. They would have to stop the odious practice of secretly beginning foreclosure proceedings while supposedly working on a mortgage modification. They would have to hire consultants to do spot-checks to see if people were foreclosed on improperly. (Gee, I wonder how that’s going to turn out?)

If you’re thinking: that’s what they should have done in the first place, you’re right. If you’re wondering what the consequences will be if the banks don’t abide by the terms, the answer is: there aren’t any. And although the O.C.C. says that it might add a financial penalty, I’ll believe it when I see it. While John Walsh, the acting comptroller, called the terms “tough,” they’re anything but.

No, the real reason the O.C.C. raced to come up with its weak settlement proposal is that last month, a document surfaced that contained a rather different set of terms with the banks. These were settlement ideas being batted around by the states’ attorneys general, who have been investigating the foreclosure crisis since late October. The document suggested that the attorneys general were not only trying to fix the foreclosure process but also wanted to penalize the banks for their illegal actions.

Their ideas included all the terms (and then some) included in the O.C.C. proposal, though with more specificity. Unlike the O.C.C., the attorneys general had devised a way to actually enforce their settlement, by deputizing the new consumer bureau, which opens in July. And they wanted to impose a stiff fine — possibly $20 billion — which would be used to modify mortgages. In other words, the attorneys general were trying to help homeowners rather than banks.

By jumping out in front of the attorneys general, the O.C.C. has made the likelihood of a 50-state master settlement much less likely. Any such settlement needs bipartisan support; now, thanks to the O.C.C., there’s a good chance that Republican attorneys general will walk away. The banks will be able to say that they’ve already settled with the federal government, so why should they have to settle a second time? If they wind up being sued by the states, the federal settlement will help them in court.

“It’s a vintage O.C.C. move,” said Prentiss Cox, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who was formerly an assistant attorney general. “It is clearly an attempt to undercut the A.G.’s”

Old habits die hard in Washington. The O.C.C.’s historical reliance on pre-emption should have died after the financial crisis. Instead, it’s merely been disguised to look like a settlement.

Brooks and Krugman

January 28, 2011

Better late than never…  (Our intarwebz tubez died this morning.)  MoDo has gone to ground, so Bobo has taken up the task of writing fiction for the op-ed page.  Today, in “Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Burke,” he fantasizes about two of the greats debating the president’s State of the Union address.  Yes, it’s leaden…  Prof. Krugman, in “Their Own Private Europe,” says American conservatives have long used the myth of a failing Europe to argue against progressive policies in America.  Here’s Bobo:

Every Thursday my gurus, Mr. Burke and Mr. Hamilton, get together at the Heavenly Rest to drink and talk politics. Mr. Burke prefers a whiskey and water, while Mr. Hamilton likes a good strong Sex on the Beach. This week, they ended up talking about President Obama.

Burke: I congratulate you. Your president is most prudent and wise. He has decided to focus on three things: education reform, infrastructure investment and scientific innovation. He’s not wasting money on desperate schemes to pump up the employment rate before the next elections. He’s thinking about the long-term prosperity of the nation.

Moreover, his State of the Union address demonstrated an admirable sense of moderation and continuity. His competitiveness initiatives build intelligently on the ones Bill Clinton spoke of in 1996 and the ones George W. Bush mentioned in 2006. They also demonstrate an exquisite realism. With your nation so divided, he has plucked out the proposals on which there is some agreement. By working together on these things now, your leaders can establish the trust necessary to tackle bigger and tougher issues during Obama’s second term.

Hamilton: You’re mad, Burke! Obama has completely misread the national situation. The United States is careening toward disaster. The deficit this year is the highest in history: $1.48 trillion. In a mere eight years, the national debt will hit 90 percent of G.D.P. Interest payments alone on the debt will be $1 trillion! And he goes before the country with nostalgic happy talk and decides to spend the next two years treading water?

He pats himself on the back for a spending freeze projected to save $400 billion over 10 years. That’s an infinitesimal sliver of the $45 trillion the government will be spending over that time.

Is he aware of the national bankruptcy rushing ever closer? Doesn’t he see that the nation wants a fundamental change in Washington, not a few more tax credits for solar panels?

Obama is going to go down in history as the Nero who fiddled as Rome burned. He reformed health care without changing the ruinous incentives that were bankrupting the system. He submitted budgets that hastened the national collapse. The Republicans accuse him of being a socialist, but, the fact is, he’s Mr. Status Quo.

Burke: My dear sir. He’s an officeholder, not a think-tank Johnny. I know intellectuals are perpetually exercised by the crisis du jour, but the current deficits are not really that big. A tad more revenue and a normal bit of spending restraint will take care of them. Besides, look at Japan and Europe. They’re in much worse fiscal shape. The world is happy to keep lending you money.

Obama has to deal with the country as it is. The electorate does not want entitlement cuts, which is why even the Republicans don’t dare mention the word “Medicare” except to promise even more money for it. Do you know how many Republican activists support Medicare reforms? According to a survey by Conservative Home, it is 3 percent!

I’d say Obama is a practical realist, building gradually on America’s present prosperity, not venturing out rashly in the grip of some abstract plan.

Hamilton: You vastly underestimate the structural problems leading to slowing growth rates, higher unemployment and higher inequality. I advise you to read Tyler Cowen’s new e-book, “The Great Stagnation,” in which he argues that Americans have already picked the low-hanging economic fruit and now face an entirely set of difficult decisions. You also underestimate the dysfunction of the nation’s government.

We’re in the middle of a global race to see who can most intelligently reform the welfare state. The Simpson-Bowles commission put everything on the table, and far from seizing the opportunity to lead a national discussion on big things like fundamental tax and entitlement reform, he gave them the most cursory of mentions.

Besides, where is his vision? Is his entire philosophy encapsulated in the phrase, “Light Rail?” Does he realize that by being so modest he is ceding all momentum to the Republicans in Congress?

Burke: Ideologies are for theoreticians. President Obama will emerge as the mature moderate while the Republicans will seem unstable and dangerous. He will talk about realistic concrete improvements, like higher teacher salaries, while the Republicans will talk of unpopular and devastating spending cuts that never materialize. He will be optimistic while they will offer austerity and alarm. Have you seen that only 34 percent of Americans approve of the G.O.P. agenda, according to a PSRA/Pew poll.

Hamilton: You are wrong. Obama talks of a Sputnik moment as if NASA were a model for the future. He will be regarded as the embodiment of a government that is no longer working. As the unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent, and as problems accumulate, he will come to realize that he has sealed his doom.

He’s so tiresome, and so very, very, very predictable.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

President Obama’s State of the Union address was a ho-hum affair. But the official Republican response, from Representative Paul Ryan, was really interesting. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Mr. Ryan made highly dubious assertions about employment, health care and more. But what caught my eye, when I read the transcript, was what he said about other countries: “Just take a look at what’s happening to Greece, Ireland, the United Kingdom and other nations in Europe. They didn’t act soon enough; and now their governments have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.”

It’s a good story: Europeans dithered on deficits, and that led to crisis. Unfortunately, while that’s more or less true for Greece, it isn’t at all what happened either in Ireland or in Britain, whose experience actually refutes the current Republican narrative.

But then, American conservatives have long had their own private Europe of the imagination — a place of economic stagnation and terrible health care, a collapsing society groaning under the weight of Big Government. The fact that Europe isn’t actually like that — did you know that adults in their prime working years are more likely to be employed in Europe than they are in the United States? — hasn’t deterred them. So we shouldn’t be surprised by similar tall tales about European debt problems.

Let’s talk about what really happened in Ireland and Britain.

On the eve of the financial crisis, conservatives had nothing but praise for Ireland, a low-tax, low-spending country by European standards. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranked it above every other Western nation. In 2006, George Osborne, now Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, declared Ireland “a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policy making.” And the truth was that in 2006-2007 Ireland was running a budget surplus, and had one of the lowest debt levels in the advanced world.

So what went wrong? The answer is: out-of-control banks; Irish banks ran wild during the good years, creating a huge property bubble. When the bubble burst, revenue collapsed, causing the deficit to surge, while public debt exploded because the government ended up taking over bank debts. And harsh spending cuts, while they have led to huge job losses, have failed to restore confidence.

The lesson of the Irish debacle, then, is very nearly the opposite of what Mr. Ryan would have us believe. It doesn’t say “cut spending now, or bad things will happen”; it says that balanced budgets won’t protect you from crisis if you don’t effectively regulate your banks — a point made in the newly released report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which concludes that “30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation” helped create our own catastrophe. Have I mentioned that Republicans are doing everything they can to undermine financial reform?

What about Britain? Well, contrary to what Mr. Ryan seemed to imply, Britain has not, in fact, suffered a debt crisis. True, David Cameron, who became prime minister last May, has made a sharp turn toward fiscal austerity. But that was a choice, not a response to market pressure.

And underlying that choice was the new British government’s adherence to the same theory offered by Republicans to justify their demand for immediate spending cuts here — the claim that slashing government spending in the face of a depressed economy will actually help growth rather than hurt it.

So how’s that theory looking? Not good. The British economy, which seemed to be recovering earlier in 2010, turned down again in the fourth quarter. Yes, weather was a factor, and, no, you shouldn’t read too much into one quarter’s numbers. But there’s certainly no sign of the surging private-sector confidence that was supposed to offset the direct effects of eliminating half-a-million government jobs. And, as a result, there’s no comfort in the British experience for Republican claims that the United States needs spending cuts in the face of mass unemployment.

Which brings me back to Paul Ryan and his response to President Obama. Again, American conservatives have long used the myth of a failing Europe to argue against progressive policies in America. More recently, they have tried to appropriate Europe’s debt problems on behalf of their own agenda, never mind the fact that events in Europe actually point the other way.

But Mr. Ryan is widely portrayed as an intellectual leader within the G.O.P., with special expertise on matters of debt and deficits. So the revelation that he literally doesn’t know the first thing about the debt crises currently in progress is, as I said, interesting — and not in a good way.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 162 other followers