Archive for the ‘Keller’ Category

Keller and Krugman

February 24, 2014

This marks Mr. Keller’s last visit to the op-ed pages.  He has a question in “Crime and Punishment and Obama:”  Where’s the community organizer when we need him?  In “Health Care Horror Hooey” Prof. Krugman looks at when bad things happen to imaginary people.  Here is Mr. Keller’s swan song:

I doubt any president has been as well equipped as Barack Obama to appreciate the vicious cycle of American crime and punishment. As a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, he would have witnessed the way a system intended to protect the public siphoned off young black men, gave them an advanced education in brutality, and then returned them to the streets unqualified for — and too often, given the barriers to employment faced by those who have done time, disqualified from — anything but a life of more crime. He would have understood that the suffering of victims and the debasing of offenders were often two sides of the same coin.

It’s hard to tell how deeply he actually absorbed this knowledge. In the Chicago chapters of his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama notes that in the low-income housing projects “prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation,” but he has surprisingly little to say about the shadow cast by prisons on the families left behind, about the way incarceration became the default therapy for drug addicts and the mentally ill, about the abject failure of rehabilitation.

Still, when the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system. It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far.

I’ll begin by making his excuses. The president’s powers in this area are limited. The action (and there is a lot of it right now) is mostly at the state level. His first term was entangled in economic crisis and health care. This president has faced tireless and often petty resistance from the Republican House on almost every initiative. Historically Democrats have risked being Willie-Horton’ed if they don’t maintain a tougher-than-tough-on-crime posture. And African-American constituents — who are also disproportionately the victims of crime — are not necessarily bleeding-heart voters. In short, it was probably naïve to assume that Obama was going to be the Criminal Justice Reform President.

And yet Obama took office at a time of tidal shifts. The economics of imprisonment, the ebbing of crime rates, the horror stories of overcrowded penitentiaries and the persistent activism of reform advocates had begun to generate a public consensus that merely caging people is not a crime-fighting strategy. Fiscal conservatives alarmed at the high cost of incarceration, evangelicals shocked by the waste of lives, and libertarians who spotted another realm of government power abused have clambered onto what was once a liberal bandwagon. (How much those conservatives will be willing to invest in alternative ways of protecting the public — drug treatment, more intensive parole and probation programs, job training and so on — is another question.)

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject. But his proxy, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., was outspoken from the start. Six months into the first term, he was already at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York talking about the social costs of mass incarceration and pressing for policies that would divert low-level drug offenders to treatment and ease the re-entry of former prisoners into a productive life. In the last five years, Holder has become increasingly bold, and encountered little backlash. This month he exhorted states to repeal policies that deny felons the right to vote, policies that disenfranchise 5.8 million Americans, including nearly one in 13 African-American adults. He framed it not just as an act of compassion but as a way of re-engaging prodigal souls.

“By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes,” Holder said.

“All that sounds very good,” said Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” a scorching 2010 indictment of the racialized war on drugs. ”And it is good, because for decades the rhetoric was running in the other direction. But if the rhetoric is not matched with action … then it is fair to wonder whether the shift in rhetoric reflects significant shifts in public opinion in recent years, rather than a real commitment to these issues and a willingness to take political risks.”

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive. The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row. However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states. In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

The administration has some achievements to tout. Obama signed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and has put some muscle behind the Smarter Sentencing Act, two measures aimed at making drug-sentencing laws less absurd. Holder has issued guidance to prosecutors to avoid routinely seeking maximum sentences for low-level offenders — though it’s not clear yet whether prosecutors are going along. The administration created an Interagency Reentry Council that uses federal guidance to whittle away at the barriers to employment, housing and education so that released prisoners have some hope of becoming productive citizens.

At the same time, long after the War on Drugs has been recognized as a failure, there has been little serious effort to cut the number of federal drug prosecutions, or to shift money from incarceration to drug treatment. Alexander cites as a significant disappointment the continued federal reluctance to decriminalize marijuana, despite Obama’s acknowledgment to David Remnick of The New Yorker that pot is less harmful than alcohol and that the laws are mostly enforced against poor minorities. Another missed opportunity: he could have pushed more aggressively to fill district and circuit court vacancies with judges who would buck the status quo.

Obama has also been the stingiest of recent presidents in using his powers of pardon and commutation to undo the damage of the crack panic and of sentencing that keeps prisoners in lockup long past the age when they represent a danger. Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with a justice reform agenda, points out that in his first term Obama pardoned one in 50 applicants while Ronald Reagan pardoned one in three. Late last year Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders, out of more than 8,000 federal convicts serving time under outdated crack laws.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it. And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered. That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week. “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”

I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Remember the “death tax”? The estate tax is quite literally a millionaire’s tax — a tax that affects only a tiny minority of the population, and is mostly paid by a handful of very wealthy heirs. Nonetheless, right-wingers have successfully convinced many voters that the tax is a cruel burden on ordinary Americans — that all across the nation small businesses and family farms are being broken up to pay crushing estate tax liabilities.

You might think that such heart-wrenching cases are actually quite rare, but you’d be wrong: they aren’t rare; they’re nonexistent. In particular, nobody has ever come up with a real modern example of a family farm sold to meet estate taxes. The whole “death tax” campaign has rested on eliciting human sympathy for purely imaginary victims.

And now they’re trying a similar campaign against health reform.

I’m not sure whether conservatives realize yet that their Plan A on health reform — wait for Obamacare’s inevitable collapse, and reap the political rewards — isn’t working. But it isn’t. Enrollments have recovered strongly from the law’s disastrous start-up; in California, which had a working website from the beginning, enrollment has already exceeded first-year projections. The mix of people signed up so far is older than planners had hoped, but not enough so to cause big premium hikes, let alone the often-predicted “death spiral.”

And conservatives don’t really have a Plan B — in their world, nobody even dares mention the possibility that health reform might actually prove workable. Still, you can already see some on the right groping toward a new strategy, one that relies on highlighting examples of the terrible harm Obamacare does. There’s only one problem: they haven’t managed to come up with any real examples. Consider several recent ventures on the right:

■ In the official G.O.P. response to the State of the Union address, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers alluded to the case of “Bette in Spokane,” who supposedly lost her good health insurance coverage and was forced to pay nearly $700 more a month in premiums. Local reporters located the real Bette, and found that the story was completely misleading: her original policy provided very little protection, and she could get a much better plan for much less than the claimed cost.

■ In Louisiana, the AstroTurf (fake grass-roots) group Americans for Prosperity — the group appears to be largely financed and controlled by the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors — has been running ads targeting Senator Mary Landrieu. In these ads, we see what appear to be ordinary Louisiana residents receiving notices telling them that their insurance policies have been canceled because of Obamacare. But the people in the ads are, in fact, paid actors, and the scenes they play aren’t re-enactments of real events — they’re “emblematic,” says a spokesman for the group.

■ In Michigan, Americans for Prosperity is running an ad that does feature a real person. But is she telling a real story? In the ad, Julia Boonstra, who is suffering from leukemia, declares that her insurance has been canceled, that the new policy will have unaffordable out-of-pocket costs, and that “If I do not receive my medication, I will die.” But Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post tried to check the facts, and learned that thanks to lower premiums she will almost surely save nearly as much if not more than she will be paying in higher out-of-pocket costs. A spokesman for Americans for Prosperity responded to questions about the numbers with bluster and double-talk — this is about “a real person suffering from blood cancer, not some neat and tidy White House PowerPoint.”

Even supporters of health reform are somewhat surprised by the right’s apparent inability to come up with real cases of hardship. Surely there must be some people somewhere actually being hurt by a reform that affects millions of Americans. Why can’t the right find these people and exploit them?

The most likely answer is that the true losers from Obamacare generally aren’t very sympathetic. For the most part, they’re either very affluent people affected by the special taxes that help finance reform, or at least moderately well-off young men in very good health who can no longer buy cheap, minimalist plans. Neither group would play well in tear-jerker ads.

No, what the right wants are struggling average Americans, preferably women, facing financial devastation from health reform. So those are the tales they’re telling, even though they haven’t been able to come up with any real examples.

Hey, I have a suggestion: Why not have ads in which actors play Americans who have both lost their insurance thanks to Obamacare and lost the family farm to the death tax? I mean, once you’re just making stuff up, anything goes.

Keller and Krugman

February 17, 2014

I guess Keller had to get in a few final shots before he moves on next month.  In “South Africa’s Growing Pains” he says a meaningful opposition party seemed possible, but only for a moment.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Barons of Broadband:”  Why did we stop worrying about monopoly power?  Here’s Keller:

South Africa — the democratic version fathered by Nelson Mandela — turns 20 this year. Like most adolescents emerging into adulthood, it has issues. It could use more impulse control, better self-esteem, less conformity to peer pressure and some plain old parental wisdom. For those of us who watch and root for this struggling young democracy, the year began with a disappointing setback.

In case you missed it, an anti-apartheid luminary named Mamphela Ramphele announced that she was joining the Democratic Alliance, giving that opposition party its most prominent black headliner and its most credible candidate for the presidency in the elections expected in the spring. Then a few days later the deal fell apart, embarrassing both Ramphele and the D.A., and extinguishing a moment of promise. Apparently, while her financial backers were pushing her toward a partnership, her network of followers was not ready for it. (A South African news site, The Daily Maverick, cited “unconfirmed reports” that one of the donors who helped nudge Ramphele into the deal was Bill Gates. In several days of badgering a Gates spokesman, I was unable to get a straight answer.)

Don’t get me wrong. I did not see the remotest chance that Ramphele would actually become the next president. She is astonishingly accomplished, with a résumé that includes medicine, academia, business and international banking, and she suffered abundantly for the cause of South African freedom, but she seems more at home at a board meeting than a campaign rally. (Her base, as John McCain used to say about himself, was the press corps.) And the Democratic Alliance has traditionally been the anti-apartheid party of white and mixed-race liberals in a country that is 80 percent black and still pretty tribal in its loyalties. Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, dismissed the D.A.’s recruitment of Ramphele as “rent-a-black,” an insult that was crudely offensive and probably politically effective.

The Democratic Alliance “is still a hard sell for the majority of black people, regardless of whose face is on the ballot paper,” said Vukani Mde, an editor at the Independent Newspapers group, writing in Johannesburg’s The Star. “Electoral politics in this country is still very much a game of identity.”

But there were several reasons to hope that the merger signified a spurt of maturity in the country’s politics.

First, it brought South Africa closer than it had come since the end of white rule to having a meaningful opposition. The African National Congress, which propelled Mandela to the presidency in the days before its idealism withered, has lost much of its popular support by failing to pay adequate attention to the country’s enormous underclass and by tolerating corruption and ineptitude. The last time I was in South Africa, 14 months ago, it was already apparent that some of this discontent was redounding to the benefit of the Democratic Alliance, despite its reputation for being led by whites and localized in a single province, the Western Cape. In squatter camps outside Johannesburg — shanty towns named for the heroes of the A.N.C. and long strongholds of the ruling party — the Democratic Alliance was slowly building a constituency by recruiting capable local black activists who nagged town councils to deliver better services. One well-connected black leader, a longtime A.N.C. loyalist, told me back then that even without a black politician at the top, the Democratic Alliance stood to win 30 percent of the vote in 2014, which would be an impressive showing and — in South Africa’s parliamentary system — could mean real influence on national policy. There are 135 national parties registered in South Africa, but none have come this close to critical mass.

Second, Ramphele’s induction into the D.A. represented the perseverance of some badly needed political grown-ups. Over the years some of the best talent of the anti-apartheid movement — and it had a deep bench — drifted from politics into business, academia or other civilian pursuits. After decades of prison, exile and struggle, it was time to make some money — and white-owned businesses were desperate to diversify their boardrooms. Ramphele, who was close to Mandela but never had much use for the authoritarian drift of the A.N.C., became vice chancellor at the University of Cape Town, a managing director of the World Bank, a director of the mighty Anglo American mining house, and one of the country’s richest women. Another example is Cyril Ramaphosa, a masterly union organizer and negotiator who was Mandela’s preferred successor as president, but was elbowed aside and instead became a business magnate. Ramaphosa has returned to the A.N.C. leadership and is likely to be the A.N.C. candidate for deputy president.

Whether figures like Ramphele and Ramaphosa could reconnect with the masses has yet to be tested, but the country needs an antidote to the populists on the A.N.C.’s left flank. A talented demagogue named Julius Malema, who lived a dubiously lavish life as head of the A.N.C.’s Youth League before being expelled from the party for hate speech, has founded his own party. Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters advocate nationalizing the country’s land, mines and banks — basically the agenda that ruined neighboring Zimbabwe. The upstart party registers barely 4 percent in the polls, but it is only a few months old, and Malema’s message has a visceral appeal in a country with nearly 25 percent unemployment and millions stranded in squalid poverty. Unless the more sober heads prevail, the A.N.C. will be tempted to veer further left in response.

The third reason Ramphele stirred a bit of optimism is that she carried a message of national unity and pride that her country badly needs to hear. For all the talk of a rainbow nation, South Africa remains perilously divided. A 2012 survey found that most South Africans still identify themselves by language, ethnicity or race. They are Zulus or Xhosa, Afrikaans- or English-speakers, Indian or “colored.” Only 8.3 percent regard themselves as South Africans first — and the percentage is even lower among young people.

“In America, your presidents talk about the American people,” Ramphele told me during my last visit to Johannesburg. “Here, they don’t talk about the South African people. They talk about ‘our people’ or ‘black people’ or ‘white people.’ So the sense of citizenship that is a shared thing, a common wealth, doesn’t exist.” Citizenship “is not a lived reality” and never has been, she observes.

Ramphele came up in a tributary of the liberation movement known as black consciousness. Her partner and the father of her son was the charismatic black-consciousness pioneer Steve Biko, who was beaten to death in police custody in 1977. With the death or banishment of its most compelling thinkers, the philosophy of black self-reliance was eclipsed by the “non-racial” politics of the African National Congress, which was united mainly by what it opposed.

Over time Ramphele’s views expanded to a philosophy she calls “human consciousness,” but the heart of it is the same: a conviction that the essential prerequisite for liberation is self-confidence and responsibility. As a teacher, she urged her black students to confront their sense of despair and impotence, the prevailing “culture of acceptance of mediocrity.” Now she urges the same on the whole country.

“The authoritarian political culture that has been the legacy of this country — colonial, pre-colonial, apartheid — is very deeply ingrained in the psyche of South Africa.” In other words, what South Africa needs now is more South Africans.

That wisdom does not scan as thrillingly as the warlike anthems of struggle. But Nelson Mandela, I’m quite sure, would have approved. With the collapse, probably irreparable, of last month’s compact, Ramphele has sadly become not a prophet of national unity, but a symptom of its elusiveness.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week’s big business news was the announcement that Comcast, a gigantic provider of cable TV and high-speed Internet service, has reached a deal to acquire Time Warner, which is merely huge. If regulators approve the deal, Comcast will be an overwhelmingly dominant player in the business, with around 30 million subscribers.

So let me ask two questions about the proposed deal. First, why would we even think about letting it go through? Second, when and why did we stop worrying about monopoly power?

On the first question, broadband Internet and cable TV are already highly concentrated industries, with a handful of corporations accounting for most of the customers. Once upon a time antitrust authorities, looking at this situation, would probably have been trying to cut Comcast down to size. Letting it expand would have been unthinkable.

Comcast’s chief executive says not to worry: “It will not reduce competition in any relevant market because our companies do not overlap or compete with each other. In fact, we do not operate in any of the same ZIP codes.” This is, however, transparently disingenuous. The big concern about making Comcast even bigger isn’t reduced competition for customers in local markets — for one thing, there’s hardly any effective competition at that level anyway. It is that Comcast would have even more power than it already does to dictate terms to the providers of content for its digital pipes — and that its ability to drive tough deals upstream would make it even harder for potential downstream rivals to challenge its local monopolies.

The point is that Comcast perfectly fits the old notion of monopolists as robber barons, so-called by analogy with medieval warlords who perched in their castles overlooking the Rhine, extracting tolls from all who passed. The Time Warner deal would in effect let Comcast strengthen its fortifications, which has to be a bad idea.

Interestingly, one cliché seems to be missing from the boilerplate arguments being deployed on behalf of this deal: I haven’t seen anyone arguing that the deal would promote innovation. Maybe that’s because anyone trying to make that argument would be met with snorts of derision. In fact, a number of experts — like Susan Crawford of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, whose recent book “Captive Audience” bears directly on this case — have argued that the power of giant telecommunication companies has stifled innovation, putting the United States increasingly behind other advanced countries.

And there are good reasons to believe that this isn’t a story about just telecommunications, that monopoly power has become a significant drag on the U.S. economy as a whole.

There used to be a bipartisan consensus in favor of tough antitrust enforcement. During the Reagan years, however, antitrust policy went into eclipse, and ever since measures of monopoly power, like the extent to which sales in any given industry are concentrated in the hands of a few big companies, have been rising fast.

At first, arguments against policing monopoly power pointed to the alleged benefits of mergers in terms of economic efficiency. Later, it became common to assert that the world had changed in ways that made all those old-fashioned concerns about monopoly irrelevant. Aren’t we living in an era of global competition? Doesn’t the creative destruction of new technology constantly tear down old industry giants and create new ones?

The truth, however, is that many goods and especially services aren’t subject to international competition: New Jersey families can’t subscribe to Korean broadband. Meanwhile, creative destruction has been oversold: Microsoft may be an empire in decline, but it’s still enormously profitable thanks to the monopoly position it established decades ago.

Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that monopoly is itself a barrier to innovation. Ms. Crawford argues persuasively that the unchecked power of telecom giants has removed incentives for progress: why upgrade your network or provide better services when your customers have nowhere to go?

And the same phenomenon may be playing an important role in holding back the economy as a whole. One puzzle about recent U.S. experience has been the disconnect between profits and investment. Profits are at a record high as a share of G.D.P., yet corporations aren’t reinvesting their returns in their businesses. Instead, they’re buying back shares, or accumulating huge piles of cash. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if a lot of those record profits represent monopoly rents.

It’s time, in other words, to go back to worrying about monopoly power, which we should have been doing all along. And the first step on the road back from our grand detour on this issue is obvious: Say no to Comcast.

I’ve loathed Comcast since I was forced to use them as my cable provider (only one available for the apartment building I lived in).  Repeated unexplained outages, ever-increasing fees, and absolutely non-existent customer service were the good points about them.  Thank the FSM for DishTV.  (Comcast still sends me enticements to come back, and they actually used to send people to the house until I told them to stay the hell off my property.)

Keller and Krugman

January 27, 2014

In “America on Probation” Mr. Keller raises a question.  He says we may be getting over our peculiar love of prisons. But if not prisons, what?  Prof. Krugman looks at the “Paranoia of the Plutocrats” and says extreme inequality, it turns out, creates a class of insecure but powerful people who are alarmingly detached from reality.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

In recent years Americans have begun to wise up to the idea that our overstuffed prisons are a shameful waste of lives and money. Lawmakers have recoiled from the high price of mass incarceration (the annual per-inmate cost of prison approaches the tuition at a good college) and some have recognized that our prisons feed a pathological cycle of poverty, community dysfunction, crime and hopelessness. As crime rates have dropped, the public has registered support for reforms that would have fewer nonviolent offenders languishing in prison. For three years in a row, the population of America’s prisons has inched down; 13 states closed prisons last year. Efforts to fix the perpetual misery machine that is our criminal justice system have won support not only from progressives and academics but from conservatives (both fiscal and evangelical), from enlightened law enforcement groups, from business and even from advocates for crime victims.

This emerging consensus is good news, since our prisons are an international scandal, and we can only hope the new attitude doesn’t evaporate with the next Willie Horton-style rampage or spike in the crime rate. But it raises an important question: What is the alternative? How do we punish and deter criminals, protect the public and — the thing prisons do most abysmally — improve the chances that those caught up in the criminal justice system emerge with some hope of productive lives?

That has become about the hottest subject in criminal justice, the focus of a profusion of experiments in states and localities, and of researchers trying to determine what works. California alone, which is under a Supreme Court mandate to relieve its inhumanely congested prisons, is offering counties $1 billion a year to try out remedies. A study released on Monday by the Urban Institute examined 17 states, red and blue, testing an approach called Justice Reinvestment — reducing prison costs and putting some of the savings into alternatives. Perhaps the most striking thing, said Nancy La Vigne, the principal investigator on the report, is the enthusiasm of law-and-order states that a few years ago might have shunned such programs as bleeding-heart liberalism.

In conversations with a wide range of criminal justice experts, I found several broad strategies that seem promising:

SENTENCING America has long been more inclined than other developed countries to treat crime as a disposal problem; “trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em,” is our tough-on-crime slogan. Beginning in the ‘70’s, rising crime rates, compounded by the crack epidemic and the public fear it aroused, set off a binge of punitive sentencing laws. Three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentences and requirements that felons serve a minimum portion (often 85 percent) of their sentence lengthened the time offenders — especially drug offenders, and especially black men — spent in lockup. Restoring common sense to sentencing is the obvious first step in downsizing prisons. New York rolled back its notorious Rockefeller drug laws, California has softened its three-strikes law and several other states have tinkered with rigid sentencing laws. But there is stiff resistance from prosecutors, who use the threat of long sentences to compel cooperation or plea deals. Reformers concede that those draconian laws have had a modest effect on the crime rate, but because of them we are paying to imprison criminals long past the time they present any danger to society. “Keeping a 60-year-old in prison until he’s 65 does close to zero for crime rates,” said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If we’re really seeing something deep going on here, the proof will be whether legislators have the political will to roll back sentencing.”

SUPERVISION For every inmate in our state and federal prisons, another two people are under the supervision of probation or parole. Caseworkers are often poorly paid and usually overwhelmed. About all they can do is keep count of an offender’s violations until the system decides to kick that offender back to prison. A few jurisdictions have tried to make parole and probation less of a revolving door back to prison, with some encouraging results. They focus attention on offenders considered most likely to commit crimes. They send caseworkers out of the office and into the community. They use technology (ankle bracelets with GPS, A.T.M.-style check-in stations, Breathalyzer ignition locks to keep drinkers from driving) to enhance supervision. They employ a disciplinary approach called “swift and certain,” which responds promptly with a punishment for missing an interview or failing a drug test. The punishments start small, then escalate until the offender gets the message and changes his behavior — preferably before he has to be sent back to prison. Mark Kleiman, a U.C.L.A. public policy professor who is a champion of the technique, says, “It’s basically applying the principles of parenting to probation.”

DIVERSION Many jurisdictions now send drug offenders to special courts that divert nonviolent drug abusers to treatment instead of prison. Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said more than 2,000 drug courts have been created. The popularity of drug courts has spawned other specialized venues — veterans’ courts, domestic violence courts — that aim to address problems rather than simply dispense punishment.

RE-ENTRY We release more than 650,000 prisoners into society every year, often just dropping them on a curb to fend for themselves. Two-thirds of them are rearrested within three years. A number of programs aim to improve the odds that a released felon will have options besides unemployment, homelessness and a return to crime. Some feature prerelease counseling and enlist family members to assure a safe landing. “Ban the box” initiatives encourage employers to eliminate the box on job applications that asks if you have ever been arrested. A criminal history can still count against you in hiring, but it doesn’t eliminate you from consideration. (Target is the biggest retailer to ban the box.) Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says another simple measure is to repeal rules that say a felon can’t be licensed as a barber or beautician.

POLICING It may seem counterintuitive, but sophisticated police work has helped reduce prison populations in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and other cities while also bringing down violent crime, according to David Kennedy of John Jay. Instead of wholesale policing of “bad neighborhoods” and indiscriminately stopping and frisking residents, they target micro hot spots, such as drug corners, and small groups of violent actors, such as gang members. Police in these cities have become more selective about who gets arrested and put into the criminal justice system in the first place.

Although the government has stepped up evaluation of all these programs (see the National Institute of Justice’s impressive CrimeSolutions.gov website), most of the evidence is still tentative. Joan Petersilia of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, who is monitoring California’s wild experiment in prison downsizing, says the reform movement has been hampered by a lack of rigorous science — and by public impatience. To know what works, she said, “We have to stay the course, and we never do in criminal justice policy.” Sooner or later crime ticks back up, and, she said, “When fear gets in the American public, they will pay anything for prisons.”

The quest for safe and humane alternatives to lockup faces opposition from prosecutors protecting their leverage, from corrections employee unions protecting jobs and from a private prison industry protecting profits. (Private prison operators, who house about 9 percent of prison inmates, have a vested interest in keeping prisons full because they are paid based on occupancy.) Liberal skeptics, in turn, point out that these programs do not solve the root problems: communities, bereft of good schools, decent housing and jobs, that become cradles of crime. They are right, of course, but they remind me of critics who oppose charter schools because the real problem is poverty. I’m all for reaching out to those trapped on the bottom. But in the meantime, why not try to save some lives?

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Rising inequality has obvious economic costs: stagnant wages despite rising productivity, rising debt that makes us more vulnerable to financial crisis. It also has big social and human costs. There is, for example, strong evidence that high inequality leads to worse health and higher mortality.

But there’s more. Extreme inequality, it turns out, creates a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality — and simultaneously gives these people great power.

The example many are buzzing about right now is the billionaire investor Tom Perkins, a founding member of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Perkins lamented public criticism of the “one percent” — and compared such criticism to Nazi attacks on the Jews, suggesting that we are on the road to another Kristallnacht.

You may say that this is just one crazy guy and wonder why The Journal would publish such a thing. But Mr. Perkins isn’t that much of an outlier. He isn’t even the first finance titan to compare advocates of progressive taxation to Nazis. Back in 2010 Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group, declared that proposals to eliminate tax loopholes for hedge fund and private-equity managers were “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

And there are a number of other plutocrats who manage to keep Hitler out of their remarks but who nonetheless hold, and loudly express, political and economic views that combine paranoia and megalomania in equal measure.

I know that sounds strong. But look at all the speeches and opinion pieces by Wall Streeters accusing President Obama — who has never done anything more than say the obvious, that some bankers behaved badly — of demonizing and persecuting the rich. And look at how many of those making these accusations also made the ludicrously self-centered claim that their hurt feelings (as opposed to things like household debt and premature fiscal austerity) were the main thing holding the economy back.

Now, just to be clear, the very rich, and those on Wall Street in particular, are in fact doing worse under Mr. Obama than they would have if Mitt Romney had won in 2012. Between the partial rollback of the Bush tax cuts and the tax hike that partly pays for health reform, tax rates on the 1 percent have gone more or less back to pre-Reagan levels. Also, financial reformers have won some surprising victories over the past year, and this is bad news for wheeler-dealers whose wealth comes largely from exploiting weak regulation. So you can make the case that the 1 percent have lost some important policy battles.

But every group finds itself facing criticism, and ends up on the losing side of policy disputes, somewhere along the way; that’s democracy. The question is what happens next. Normal people take it in stride; even if they’re angry and bitter over political setbacks, they don’t cry persecution, compare their critics to Nazis and insist that the world revolves around their hurt feelings. But the rich are different from you and me.

And yes, that’s partly because they have more money, and the power that goes with it. They can and all too often do surround themselves with courtiers who tell them what they want to hear and never, ever, tell them they’re being foolish. They’re accustomed to being treated with deference, not just by the people they hire but by politicians who want their campaign contributions. And so they are shocked to discover that money can’t buy everything, can’t insulate them from all adversity.

I also suspect that today’s Masters of the Universe are insecure about the nature of their success. We’re not talking captains of industry here, men who make stuff. We are, instead, talking about wheeler-dealers, men who push money around and get rich by skimming some off the top as it sloshes by. They may boast that they are job creators, the people who make the economy work, but are they really adding value? Many of us doubt it — and so, I suspect, do some of the wealthy themselves, a form of self-doubt that causes them to lash out even more furiously at their critics.

Anyway, we’ve been here before. It’s impossible to read screeds like those of Mr. Perkins or Mr. Schwarzman without thinking of F.D.R.’s famous 1936 Madison Square Garden speech, in which he spoke of the hatred he faced from the forces of “organized money,” and declared, “I welcome their hatred.”

President Obama has not, unfortunately, done nearly as much as F.D.R. to earn the hatred of the undeserving rich. But he has done more than many progressives give him credit for — and like F.D.R., both he and progressives in general should welcome that hatred, because it’s a sign that they’re doing something right.

Keller and Krugman

January 20, 2014

In “An Unsung Hero of Civil Rights” Mr. Keller says we should celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and lift a glass to Bill McCulloch. (Who?)  Prof. Krugman, in “The Undeserving Rich,” explains why you can’t lump the plutocrats in with the upper middle class.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

This year America will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a candidate for the greatest legislative accomplishment of the last century. We will recall the presidents who launched (J.F.K.) and landed (L.B.J.) this profound if incomplete attempt to repair the damage racism had done to our democracy and our humanity. We will esteem the leaders and martyrs of the movement that forced the issue onto our national conscience, including the man we honor on this holiday. We will recall, too, the Southern Democrats who stood — and stalled — in defense of segregation, and the Republicans who later capitalized on the outcome with a cynical appeal to white resentment. We will lament the current attempts by several states, with the Supreme Court’s blessing, to roll back the basic franchise promised in the Civil Rights Act (and reinforced by the Voting Rights Act the following year). And we will probably invoke the legacy of this great law many times as we debate the status of millions of undocumented residents and the rights of gay Americans.

Somewhere in all this worthy commemoration we should pause to pay homage to a conservative white Republican named William Moore McCulloch. Never heard of him? Neither had I. But there is a good case to be made that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have become law without him. And there is a very good case to be made that Washington desperately needs his example today.

McCulloch was a congressman from a rural, conservative district in west central Ohio. He was frugal with the taxpayers’ money, favored allowing prayer in schools and keeping the federal government out of them, voted against foreign aid and gun control. These views were sufficiently in sync with his constituents that voters re-elected him 12 times.

With a district that was 2.7 percent black, he had no political incentive to stick his neck out on something as contentious as civil rights. But McCulloch was descended from abolitionists, and had been appalled by his exposure to Jim Crow when he worked as a young lawyer in Florida. This fortified in him a strong belief that the blessings of the Constitution were not meant exclusively for white men, and that it was the highest duty of the federal government to secure those blessings for all.

Moreover — quaint as this may seem today — he believed that principles were not things to be surrendered to polls and lobbyists and that clamorous mob called “the base.” On the wall of his district office in Piqua, Ohio, McCulloch displayed a framed excerpt from Edmund Burke’s message to the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations knew they would need a large contingent of Republicans to get the civil rights bill past the segregationist Southern Democrats who held the commanding heights on Capitol Hill. And so they sent an emissary to McCulloch, who was the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and enlisted him as a partner. He agreed to an active collaboration with the Democratic White House, an alliance hard to imagine today and even then viewed by some in his party as bordering on treason. He had two conditions. First, if McCulloch helped get a strong bill through the House, he insisted the president would not allow it to be weakened in the Senate, where the oligarchy of Southern Democrats had successfully filibustered past civil rights measures until they were rendered toothless. Second, McCulloch wanted assurances that Republicans would share the credit for passage.

McCulloch’s story is rescued from obscurity in Todd Purdum’s forthcoming account of the great battle, “An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Purdum, a former New York Times colleague who now writes for Vanity Fair and Politico, has composed a suspenseful legislative procedural that is a synthesis of history and fresh reporting. His account of the Civil Rights Act is rich in characters, including other Republicans instrumental in passing the landmark bill, like Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Representative Charles Halleck of Indiana, the Republican leader in the House. (Those were the days when “party of Lincoln” actually meant something.) But Purdum has a particular affection for Bill McCulloch, who became, as one legislative aide put it, “the conscience of the bill.” McCulloch assured the bill was the toughest and most enforceable that could muster a majority, and he stiffened the spines of President Johnson and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, when the opposition got tough. The Southerners’ filibuster dragged on for 57 days but was ended without major concessions, the first time supporters had ever broken a filibuster on a civil rights bill.

The final version outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations. It empowered the attorney general to bring suit to desegregate public schools. It prohibited discrimination in hiring, and let victims of such discrimination seek redress in the courts. And it expanded protection of the right to vote, which would be greatly strengthened the following year. (Yes, McCulloch was a champion of the Voting Rights Act, too.) In the end, the Civil Rights Act passed with a larger percentage of Republicans in support than Democrats.

Among the documents found in McCulloch’s papers years after his death was a handwritten and unusually heartfelt letter from the former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, who wrote: “Your integrity under such pressures is what makes our political system worth fighting for and dying for. Please forgive the emotional tone of this letter — but I want you to know how much your example means to me. It is a light of hope in an often dark world, and one I shall raise my children on as they grow older.”

It is political writ in today’s Washington that you can be a person of conviction or a compromiser, but not both. McCulloch believed that principles and pragmatism were not only compatible, but that the combination was the bedrock of representative democracy.

“The function of Congress,” he explained, in a farewell speech to House colleagues on his retirement, “is not to convert the will of the majority of the people into law; rather its function is to hammer out on the anvil of public debate a compromise between polar positions acceptable to a majority.” In contrast to the direct democracy of a town meeting, “It is less clear that there is a losing side.”

“Anyone, of course, can introduce grandiose legislative schemes,” he noted on another occasion. “But reaching for the sky, rather than aiming for the possible, is a form of showmanship we don’t wish to engage in. Reality is what we live by and accomplishment is what we seek. For only in compromise, moderation and understanding are we able to fashion our society into a cohesive and durable structure.”

You would be hard pressed to find a McCulloch in today’s Congress of zero-sum partisans and base-whipped invertebrates. Lawmakers now, as President Kennedy said of purists who favored a civil rights bill that was maximalist but unwinnable, “would rather have an issue than a bill.” The handful of surviving legislators in the McCulloch mold seem to be retiring. There are members of the ruling House majority who occasionally show signs of wanting to make law rather than make bumper-sticker slogans, but they are too often beaten back into line. In that category we can count the man who now represents McCulloch’s hometown of Piqua, Ohio: John Andrew Boehner.

In the House of Representatives there is an imposing two-story amphitheater called the National Statuary Hall, to which each state may contribute two marble or bronze likenesses of favorite historical figures. Ohio is represented by President James A. Garfield and William Allen, a former senator and governor known as a champion of westward expansion. Allen was also, as it happens, a champion of slavery, and a few years ago the state began a campaign to replace him. The names of 10 Ohioans were put to voters in a statewide ballot. Bill McCulloch came in fourth, after Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Jesse Owens. I can’t argue with the result, but in this year when our commitment to equality is both remembered and tested, isn’t it nice to imagine the message a statue of Bill McCulloch would have sent?

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The reality of rising American inequality is stark. Since the late 1970s real wages for the bottom half of the work force have stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have nearly quadrupled (and the incomes of the top 0.1 percent have risen even more). While we can and should have a serious debate about what to do about this situation, the simple fact — American capitalism as currently constituted is undermining the foundations of middle-class society — shouldn’t be up for argument.

But it is, of course. Partly this reflects Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. But it also, I think, reflects distaste for the implications of the numbers, which seem almost like an open invitation to class warfare — or, if you prefer, a demonstration that class warfare is already underway, with the plutocrats on offense.

The result has been a determined campaign of statistical obfuscation. At its cruder end this campaign comes close to outright falsification; at its more sophisticated end it involves using fancy footwork to propagate what I think of as the myth of the deserving rich.

For an example of de facto falsification, one need look no further than a recent column by Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, which first accused President Obama (wrongly) of making a factual error, then proceeded to assert that rising inequality was no big deal, because everyone has been making big gains. Why, incomes for the bottom fifth of the U.S. population have risen 186 percent since 1979!

If this sounds wrong to you, it should: that’s a nominal number, not corrected for inflation. You can find the inflation-corrected number in the same Census Bureau table; it shows incomes for the bottom fifth actually falling. Oh, and for the record, at the time of writing this elementary error had not been corrected on The Journal’s website.

O.K., that’s what crude obfuscation looks like. What about the fancier version?

I’ve noted before that conservatives seem fixated on the notion that poverty is basically the result of character problems among the poor. This may once have had a grain of truth to it, but for the past three decades and more the main obstacle facing the poor has been the lack of jobs paying decent wages. But the myth of the undeserving poor persists, and so does a counterpart myth, that of the deserving rich.

The story goes like this: America’s affluent are affluent because they made the right lifestyle choices. They got themselves good educations, they got and stayed married, and so on. Basically, affluence is a reward for adhering to the Victorian virtues.

What’s wrong with this story? Even on its own terms, it postulates opportunities that don’t exist. For example, how are children of the poor, or even the working class, supposed to get a good education in an era of declining support for and sharply rising tuition at public universities? Even social indicators like family stability are, to an important extent, economic phenomena: nothing takes a toll on family values like lack of employment opportunities.

But the main thing about this myth is that it misidentifies the winners from growing inequality. White-collar professionals, even if married to each other, are only doing O.K. The big winners are a much smaller group. The Occupy movement popularized the concept of the “1 percent,” which is a good shorthand for the rising elite, but if anything includes too many people: most of the gains of the top 1 percent have in fact gone to an even tinier elite, the top 0.1 percent.

And who are these lucky few? Mainly they’re executives of some kind, especially, although not only, in finance. You can argue about whether these people deserve to be paid so well, but one thing is clear: They didn’t get where they are simply by being prudent, clean and sober.

So how can the myth of the deserving rich be sustained? Mainly through a strategy of distortion by dilution. You almost never see apologists for inequality willing to talk about the 1 percent, let alone the really big winners. Instead, they talk about the top 20 percent, or at best the top 5 percent. These may sound like innocent choices, but they’re not, because they involve lumping in married lawyers with the wolves of Wall Street. The DiCaprio movie of that name, by the way, is wildly popular with finance types, who cheer on the title character — another clue to the realities of our new Gilded Age.

Again, I know that these realities make some people, not all of them hired guns for the plutocracy, uncomfortable, and they’d prefer to paint a different picture. But even if the facts have a well-known populist bias, they’re still the facts — and they must be faced.

Keller and Krugman

January 13, 2014

In “Heroic Measures” Mr. Keller says the online writings of a woman who has been fighting cancer for seven years invite us to think about the different approaches people take.  Prof. Krugman considers the “Enemies of the Poor” and says the reverse Robin-Hoodism of the Republicans runs deep.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

Lisa Bonchek Adams has spent the last seven years in a fierce and very public cage fight with death. Since a mammogram detected the first toxic seeds of cancer in her left breast when she was 37, she has blogged and tweeted copiously about her contest with the advancing disease. She has tweeted through morphine haze and radiation burn. Even by contemporary standards of social-media self-disclosure, she is a phenomenon. (Last week she tweeted her 165,000th tweet.) A rapt audience of several thousand follows her unsparing narrative of mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, biopsies and scans, pumps and drains and catheters, grueling drug trials and grim side effects, along with her posts on how to tell the children, potshots at the breast cancer lobby, poetry and resolute calls to “persevere.”

In the last month or two, her broadcasts have changed tone slightly; her optimism has become a little less unassailable. As 2013 ended, the cancer that had colonized her lymph nodes, liver, lungs and bones had established a beachhead in her spine, the pathway to her (so far tumor-free) brain. She was deemed too sick to qualify for the latest drug trial. She is bedridden at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which has embraced her as a research subject and proselytizer for the institution.

Lisa Adams is still alive, still blogging, and insists she is not dying, but the blog has become less about prolonging her survival and more about managing her excruciating pain. Her poetry has become darker.

“The words of disease become words my brain gravitates to,” she pecked the other day after a blast of radiation. “The ebb and flow of cancer, Of life. And so too, Inevitably, Of death.”

In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.

Among doctors here, there is a growing appreciation of palliative care that favors the quality of the remaining life rather than endless “heroic measures” that may or may not prolong life but assure the final days are clamorous, tense and painful. (And they often leave survivors bankrupt.) What Britain and other countries know, and my country is learning, is that every cancer need not be Verdun, a war of attrition waged regardless of the cost or the casualties. It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently. One intriguing lung cancer study even suggests that patients given early palliative care instead of the most aggressive chemotherapy not only have a better quality of life, they actually live a bit longer.

When my wife, who had her own brush with cancer and who has written about Lisa Adams’s case for The Guardian, introduced me to the cancer blog, my first thought was of my father-in-law’s calm death. Lisa Adams’s choice is in a sense the opposite. Her aim was to buy as much time as possible to watch her two children grow up. So she is all about heroic measures. She is constantly engaged in battlefield strategy with her medical team. There is always the prospect of another research trial to excite her hopes. She responds defiantly to any suggestion that the end is approaching.

“I am not on my deathbed,” she told me in an email from the hospital. “Periods of cancer progression and stability are part of the natural course of this disease. I will be tweeting about my life and diagnosis for some time to come,” she predicted, and I hope she’s right. In any case, I cannot imagine Lisa Adams reaching a point where resistance gives way to acceptance. That is entirely her choice, and deserving of our respect. But her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it.

The first thing I would say is that her decision to treat her terminal disease as a military campaign has worked for her. Her relationship with the hospital provides her with intensive, premium medical care, including not just constant maintenance and aggressive treatment but such Sloan-Kettering amenities as the Caring Canines program, in which patients get a playful cuddle with visiting dogs. (Neither Adams nor Sloan-Kettering would tell me what all this costs or whether it is covered by insurance.)

Whether or not this excellent care has added months or years to her life, as she clearly believes, is a medical judgment, and her doctors, bound by privacy rules, won’t say. Most trials of new drugs aim to determine safety and calibrate dosages, and make no promise of slowing the disease in the participants. But any reader can see that Adams’s online omnipresence has given her a sense of purpose, a measure of control in a tumultuous time, and the comfort of a loyal, protective online community. Social media have become a kind of self-medication.

Lisa Adams’s defiance has also been good for Memorial Sloan-Kettering. She has been an eager research subject, and those, I was surprised to learn, are in short supply. Scott Ramsey of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle cited a study showing that only 3 percent of adult cancer patients who are eligible to enroll in clinical trials do so, and, he said, their reluctance has been “a huge bottleneck in cancer research.” Some 40 percent of clinical trials fail to get the minimum enrollment. Adams has been a cheerleader for cancer research in general and Memorial Sloan-Kettering in particular. In fact, she has implored followers to contribute to a research fund set up at the hospital in her name, and has raised about $50,000 so far. “We love it!” the hospital tweeted last week about the Lisa Adams phenomenon. “An important contribution to cancer patients, families, and clinicians! :)”

Beyond that, whether her campaign has been a public service is a more complicated question.

“I am public about this disease in order to shed light on the daily lives of women living with this diagnosis rather than hiding behind the pink party line that is the only one that gets the spotlight,” she told me in an email. (The ubiquitous pink-ribbon breast cancer campaigners have been faulted for overselling the wonders of early detection and giving short shrift to research.)

Her digital presence is no doubt a comfort to many of her followers. On the other hand, as cancer experts I consulted pointed out, Adams is the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures.

Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, said he cringes at the combat metaphor, because it suggests that those who choose not to spend their final days in battle, using every weapon in the high-tech medical arsenal, lack character or willpower.

“I’m the last person to second-guess what she did,” Goodman told me, after perusing Adams’s blog. “I’m sure it has brought meaning, a deserved sense of accomplishment. But it shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Suddenly it’s O.K., even mandatory, for politicians with national ambitions to talk about helping the poor. This is easy for Democrats, who can go back to being the party of F.D.R. and L.B.J. It’s much more difficult for Republicans, who are having a hard time shaking their reputation for reverse Robin-Hoodism, for being the party that takes from the poor and gives to the rich.

And the reason that reputation is so hard to shake is that it’s justified. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that right now Republicans are doing all they can to hurt the poor, and they would have inflicted vast additional harm if they had won the 2012 election. Moreover, G.O.P. harshness toward the less fortunate isn’t just a matter of spite (although that’s part of it); it’s deeply rooted in the party’s ideology, which is why recent speeches by leading Republicans declaring that they do too care about the poor have been almost completely devoid of policy specifics.

Let’s start with the recent Republican track record.

The most important current policy development in America is the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare. Most Republican-controlled states are, however, refusing to implement a key part of the act, the expansion of Medicaid, thereby denying health coverage to almost five million low-income Americans. And the amazing thing is that they’re going to great lengths to block aid to the poor even though letting the aid through would cost almost nothing; nearly all the costs of Medicaid expansion would be paid by Washington.

Meanwhile, those Republican-controlled states are slashing unemployment benefits, education financing and more. As I said, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the G.O.P. is hurting the poor as much as it can.

What would Republicans have done if they had won the White House in 2012? Much more of the same. Bear in mind that every budget the G.O.P. has offered since it took over the House in 2010 involves savage cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and other antipoverty programs.

Still, can’t Republicans change their approach? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is almost surely no.

First of all, they’re deeply committed to the view that efforts to aid the poor are actually perpetuating poverty, by reducing incentives to work. And to be fair, this view isn’t completely wrong.

True, it’s total nonsense when applied to unemployment insurance. The notion that unemployment is high because we’re “paying people not to work” is a fallacy (no matter how desperate you make the unemployed, their desperation does nothing to create more jobs) wrapped in a falsehood (very few people are choosing to remain unemployed and keep collecting benefit checks).

But our patchwork, uncoordinated system of antipoverty programs does have the effect of penalizing efforts by lower-income households to improve their position: the more they earn, the fewer benefits they can collect. In effect, these households face very high marginal tax rates. A large fraction, in some cases 80 cents or more, of each additional dollar they earn is clawed back by the government.

The question is what we could do to reduce these high effective tax rates. We could simply slash benefits; this would reduce the disincentive to work, but only by intensifying the misery of the poor. And the poor would become less productive as well as more miserable; it’s hard to take advantage of a low marginal tax rate when you’re suffering from poor nutrition and inadequate health care.

Alternatively, we could reduce the rate at which benefits phase out. In fact, one of the unheralded virtues of Obamacare is that it does just that. That is, it doesn’t just improve the lot of the poor; it improves their incentives, because the subsidies families receive for health care fade out gradually with higher income, instead of simply disappearing for anyone too affluent to receive Medicaid. But improving incentives this way means spending more, not less, on the safety net, and taxes on the affluent have to rise to pay for that spending. And it’s hard to imagine any leading Republican being willing to go down that road — or surviving the inevitable primary challenge if he did.

The point is that a party committed to small government and low taxes on the rich is, more or less necessarily, a party committed to hurting, not helping, the poor.

Will this ever change? Well, Republicans weren’t always like this. In fact, all of our major antipoverty programs — Medicaid, food stamps, the earned-income tax credit — used to have bipartisan support. And maybe someday moderation will return to the G.O.P.

For now, however, Republicans are in a deep sense enemies of America’s poor. And that will remain true no matter how hard the likes of Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio try to convince us otherwise.

Keller and Krugman

December 23, 2013

Mr. Keller thinks he’s going to teach us something about inequality.  In “Inequality For Dummies” he offers a a citizen’s guide to the great debate.  All you need to know about this POS is that it includes the phrase “Liberals from Elizabeth Warren to Third Way…”  Remember that until 2011 he was Managing Editor of the Times.  You’d think he’d be able to at least consult Wikipedia about Third Way.  Prof. Krugman, in “Bits and Barbarism,” says from real gold to virtual gold, we’re digging our way back to the 17th century.  Here’s Keller:

Inequality is in. The president, you have probably heard, has declared income inequality to be “the defining challenge of our time.” (Except he didn’t quite, but we’ll get to that.) Politicians, pundits and activists on the left have seized on the president’s words, along with the rising fortunes of progressive idols Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, to refute the apostles of austerity (mostly Republicans these days) and lay down early populist markers for the 2016 elections. Liberals of a more centrist bent — notably the former Clintonites at the Third Way think tank — have refused to join the chorus and been lashed by fellow Democrats for their blasphemy. Senator Warren has suggested that liberals who disagree with her are in the pocket of Wall Street. Third Way executives took to the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal to accuse the populists of indulging a “ ‘we can have it all’ fantasy.”

If you traffic in opinions, as a pro or an amateur, you’d better have opinions about inequality. And so I set off into the intramural battlefield to see what’s up.

For starters, economic inequality is manifestly real, growing and dangerous. The gulf between the penthouse and the projects is obscenely wide. Obama cited some of the startling numbers: The top 10 percent of Americans used to take in a third of the national income. Now they gobble up half. The typical corporate C.E.O. used to make 30 times as much as the average worker. Now the boss makes 270 times as much as the minion. Many factors have led to this trend, including the offshoring of work to low-paid foreign labor, the automation of everything from manufacturing to meter-reading, a tax code that allows the accumulation of riches at the top, the slow growth of educational attainment, the demise of strong unions, a collapse of the social contract.

The alarming thing is not inequality per se, but immobility. It’s not just that we have too many poor people, but that they are stranded in poverty with long odds against getting out. The rich (and their children) stay rich, the poor (and their children) stay poor. President Obama’s speech on Dec. 4, widely characterized as his inequality speech, was actually billed by the White House as a speech on economic mobility. The equality he urged us to strive for was not equality of wealth but equality of opportunity.

A stratified society in which the bottom and top are mostly locked in place is not just morally offensive; it is unstable. Recessions are more frequent in such countries. A widely praised 2012 book, “Why Nations Fail,” argues that historically when the ruling elites have pulled up the ladder and kept newcomers from getting a foothold, their economies have suffocated and died. “The most pernicious fact of inequality is when it translates into political inequality,” said Daron Acemoglu, a co-author of the book and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist. “That means our democracy ceases to function because some people have so much money they command greater power.” The rich spend heavily on lobbyists and campaign donations to secure tax breaks and tariff advantages and bailouts that perpetuate their status. Not only does a dynamic economy stagnate, but the left-out citizenry becomes disillusioned and cynical. Sound familiar?

The left-left sees economic inequality as mainly a problem of distribution — the accumulation of vast wealth that never really trickles down from on high. Their prescription is to tax the 1 percent and close corporate loopholes, using the new revenues to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class. They would string the safety net higher: expand Social Security, hold Medicare inviolate, extend unemployment insurance, protect food stamps, create more low-income housing. They would raise the minimum wage.

The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. Yes, you want to provide greater security for those without independent means (see Obamacare), but you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. Yes, you can raise taxes on the rich, but you don’t want to punish success. “You want to increase social mobility by providing an opportunity for the bottom to become rich, not forcing the rich to become poor,” said Acemoglu, who aligns more with the center than with the populists.

The center-left (I’m somewhat oversimplifying these categories) agrees on the menace of inequality, but places equal or greater emphasis on the fact that the economy is not growing the way it did for most of the last century. The sluggish growth means that not only are the poorest stuck at the bottom, but the broad middle is in economic decline. “The central economic problem is that a middle-class wage does not make a middle-class life anymore,” said Jon Cowan, president of Third Way. This diagnosis leads to somewhat different priorities. Of the arguments that pit Democrat against Democrat, three strike me as most important:

The first is how to restart the engine of growth. The populists favor putting more money in the hands of the bottom and middle, who will then spend us back to economic vigor. This is classic Keynesian thinking, largely vindicated by history. But the center-left points out that our economy is already 70 percent dependent on domestic consumers, way more than other developed countries. Liberals of all shades favor greater government investments in education, infrastructure, clean energy and other research. But they divide over policies that might unleash the energy of the private sector. In a line from his speech that was not widely quoted, President Obama said, “The fact is if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private-sector investment.” While closing loopholes, Obama would also lower corporate tax rates; he would do trade deals to expand our diminishing share of foreign markets; he would shrink long-term deficits and streamline regulations.

The second argument is over entitlements. The left-left seems to believe that government investments — roads and bridges, clean energy, education, etc. — and more-generous safety-net benefits can all be had by milking the rich and cutting military spending. Most centrists would raise taxes some and cut defense spending some, but they say that unless we also curb the growth of entitlements, the stampede of baby boomers into Social Security and Medicare will crowd out everything else. Between now and 2030, the working-age population that pays into Social Security grows by 15 percent; the over-65 population that withdraws from Social Security grows by 65 percent. No one on the left favors entrusting Social Security and Medicare to the mercies of the private marketplace, as some Republicans do. But while the left tends to treat entitlements as sacred (Senator Warren and others would increase benefits for everyone, even the rich), centrists favor measures to slow the growth of entitlements: using a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) formula that more accurately reflects how people spend, cutting benefits for those who don’t really need them, possibly extending the retirement age a couple of years, and using the government’s leverage to drive down the costs of medical care. The tension between entitlements and investment is a Third Way obsession. In a column and two blog posts last year (here, and here, and here) I sympathized with the case for imposing some restraint on entitlements. I still do.

And a third difference between the near left and the far left is the question of making government more efficient. This is not so much a policy dispute as a mind-set. In education, health care, Social Security and other areas, the center seems more receptive to reforms intended to get decent results at lower costs. Further left, reform is seen as a euphemism for taking stuff away, and often resisted. The left responds to rising costs with rising subsidies; the center looks for ways to change incentives. Thus centrists put into the Affordable Care Act a so-called Cadillac tax, which aims to assure the government is not subsidizing plans that encourage a lot of unnecessary treatment. The idea encountered resistance from the left, led by unions that had negotiated hard to get more lavish coverage.

There is more common ground than you would know from watching the op-eds fly. Almost everyone to the left of John Boehner agrees, for example, that we are overdue for a raise in the minimum wage. The public overwhelmingly supports it. It won’t help those with no jobs at all, but the best evidence is that it won’t kill jobs either, and it does help inequality by boosting the incomes of the working poor. Even the free-market editorial writers at The Economist have begun to come around in favor of a higher minimum wage.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank that hosted Obama’s speech, has quarreled with the centrists at Third Way, but defines the basic problem — immobility and declining middle-class wages — in the same way. Her group has advocated Social Security reforms similar to Third Way’s — including the contentious COLA fix. Significantly, many centrist Democrats who used to side with the budget hawks have mostly conceded that the federal deficit is not a near-term problem for the economy.

Liberals from Elizabeth Warren to Third Way have one other thing in common: a Republican-controlled House that hews to a discredited gospel of gutting government, cutting taxes and letting the market sort it out. Barring a purge of Congress, most of the ideas put forth by the liberals, center-left or left-left, are going nowhere in the partisan sludge pit that is Washington. If you want to see good intentions turned into actual success stories, innovation pressed into service against inequality, you should turn your attention elsewhere — to cities. In the new year, I plan to do that.

Oh, goody.  I can hardly wait…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

This is a tale of three money pits. It’s also a tale of monetary regress — of the strange determination of many people to turn the clock back on centuries of progress.

The first money pit is an actual pit — the Porgera open-pit gold mine in Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s top producers. The mine has a terrible reputation for both human rights abuses (rapes, beatings and killings by security personnel) and environmental damage (vast quantities of potentially toxic tailings dumped into a nearby river). But gold prices, while down from their recent peak, are still three times what they were a decade ago, so dig they must.

The second money pit is a lot stranger: the Bitcoin mine in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland. Bitcoin is a digital currency that has value because … well, it’s hard to say exactly why, but for the time being at least people are willing to buy it because they believe other people will be willing to buy it. It is, by design, a kind of virtual gold. And like gold, it can be mined: you can create new bitcoins, but only by solving very complex mathematical problems that require both a lot of computing power and a lot of electricity to run the computers.

Hence the location in Iceland, which has cheap electricity from hydropower and an abundance of cold air to cool those furiously churning machines. Even so, a lot of real resources are being used to create virtual objects with no clear use.

The third money pit is hypothetical. Back in 1936 the economist John Maynard Keynes argued that increased government spending was needed to restore full employment. But then, as now, there was strong political resistance to any such proposal. So Keynes whimsically suggested an alternative: have the government bury bottles full of cash in disused coal mines, and let the private sector spend its own money to dig the cash back up. It would be better, he agreed, to have the government build roads, ports and other useful things — but even perfectly useless spending would give the economy a much-needed boost.

Clever stuff — but Keynes wasn’t finished. He went on to point out that the real-life activity of gold mining was a lot like his thought experiment. Gold miners were, after all, going to great lengths to dig cash out of the ground, even though unlimited amounts of cash could be created at essentially no cost with the printing press. And no sooner was gold dug up than much of it was buried again, in places like the gold vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where hundreds of thousands of gold bars sit, doing nothing in particular.

Keynes would, I think, have been sardonically amused to learn how little has changed in the past three generations. Public spending to fight unemployment is still anathema; miners are still spoiling the landscape to add to idle hoards of gold. (Keynes dubbed the gold standard a “barbarous relic.”) Bitcoin just adds to the joke. Gold, after all, has at least some real uses, e.g., to fill cavities; but now we’re burning up resources to create “virtual gold” that consists of nothing but strings of digits.

I suspect, however, that Adam Smith would have been dismayed.

Smith is often treated as a conservative patron saint, and he did indeed make the original case for free markets. It’s less often mentioned, however, that he also argued strongly for bank regulation — and that he offered a classic paean to the virtues of paper currency. Money, he understood, was a way to facilitate commerce, not a source of national prosperity — and paper money, he argued, allowed commerce to proceed without tying up much of a nation’s wealth in a “dead stock” of silver and gold.

So why are we tearing up the highlands of Papua New Guinea to add to our dead stock of gold and, even more bizarrely, running powerful computers 24/7 to add to a dead stock of digits?

Talk to gold bugs and they’ll tell you that paper money comes from governments, which can’t be trusted not to debase their currencies. The odd thing, however, is that for all the talk of currency debasement, such debasement is getting very hard to find. It’s not just that after years of dire warnings about runaway inflation, inflation in advanced countries is clearly too low, not too high. Even if you take a global perspective, episodes of really high inflation have become rare. Still, hyperinflation hype springs eternal.

Bitcoin seems to derive its appeal from more or less the same sources, plus the added sense that it’s high-tech and algorithmic, so it must be the wave of the future.

But don’t let the fancy trappings fool you: What’s really happening is a determined march to the days when money meant stuff you could jingle in your purse. In tropics and tundra alike, we are for some reason digging our way back to the 17th century.

Keller and Krugman

December 16, 2013

In “Russia vs. Europe” Mr. Keller discusses how Czar Vladimir takes on the decadent West.  In “Why Inequality Matters” Prof. Krugman says the economic populists have it right.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

The world needs Nelson Mandelas. Instead, it gets Vladimir Putins. As the South African hero was being sung to his grave last week, the Russian president was bullying neighboring Ukraine into a new customs union that is starting to look a bit like Soviet Union Lite, and consolidating his control of state-run media by creating a new Kremlin news agency under a nationalistic and homophobic hard-liner.

Putin’s moves were not isolated events. They fit into a pattern of behavior over the past couple of years that deliberately distances Russia from the socially and culturally liberal West: laws giving official sanction to the terrorizing of gays and lesbians, the jailing of members of a punk protest group for offenses against the Russian Orthodox Church, the demonizing of Western-backed pro-democracy organizations as “foreign agents,” expansive new laws on treason, limits on foreign adoptions.

What’s going on is more complicated and more dangerous than just Putin flexing his political pecs. He is trying to draw the line against Europe, to deepen division on a continent that has twice in living memory been the birthplace of world wars. It seems clearer than ever that Putin is not just tweaking the West to rouse his base or nipping domestic opposition in the bud. He is also attempting to turn back 25 years of history.

The motivation of Vladimir Putin has long been a subject of journalistic and scholarly speculation, resulting in several overlapping theories: He is the boy tormented in the rough courtyards of postwar Leningrad, who put on a KGB uniform to get even and never took it off. He is the cynical, calculating master of realpolitik, who sees the world in conspiracies and responds in kind. He is a tortured Russian soul out of Dostoevsky, distressed by godlessness, permissiveness and moral decline. He is Soviet Man, still fighting the Cold War. He is a classic narcissist, best understood by his penchant for being photographed bare-chested on horseback.

Since his current presidential term began in 2012, Putin has felt increasingly that his overtures to the West were not met with due respect, that Russia was treated as a defeated nation, not an equal on the world stage. His humiliation and resentment have soured into an ideological antipathy that is not especially Soviet but is deeply Russian. His beef with the West is no longer just about political influence and economic advantage. It is, in his view, profoundly spiritual.

“Putin wants to make Russia into the traditional values capital of the world,” said Masha Gessen, author of a stinging Putin biography, an activist for gay and lesbian rights and a writer for the Latitudes blog on this paper’s website.

What, you may wonder, does Russia’s retro puritanism have to do with the turmoil in the streets of Kiev, where Ukrainian protesters yearning for a partnership with the European Union confront a president, Viktor Yanukovich, who has seemed intent on joining Putin’s rival “Eurasian” union instead? More than you might think.

Listen to the chairman of the Russian Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, warning that if Ukraine joins the E.U., European advisers will infiltrate the country and introduce “a broadening of the sphere of gay culture.” Or watch Dmitry Kiselyov, the flamboyantly anti-Western TV host Putin has just installed at the head of a restructured news agency. Kiselyov recently aired excerpts from a Swedish program called “Poop and Pee,” designed to teach children about bodily functions, and declared it was an example of the kind of European depravity awaiting Ukraine if it aligns with Europe. (Kiselyov is also the guy who said that when gay people die their internal organs should be burned and buried so that they cannot be donated.)

Dmitri Trenin, a scholar in the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is convinced this is not just pandering to a devout constituency, but also something more personal. In the past two years Putin has become more ideologically conservative, more inclined to see Europe as decadent and alien to the Orthodox Christian, Eastern Slav world to which both Russia and Ukraine belong.

“It’s tolerance that has no bounds,” Trenin told me. “It’s secularism. He sees Europe as post-Christian. It’s national sovereignty that is superseded by supranational institutions. It’s the diminished role of the church. It’s people’s rights that have outstripped people’s responsibilities to one another and to the state.”

To appreciate the magnitude of what Putin is doing, it helps to recall a bit of history.

In July 1989, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a speech in Strasbourg that many took as an important step back from the Cold War. His theme was that Russia now regarded itself as sharing a “common European home” alongside its Western rivals. Mutual respect and trade should replace confrontation and deterrence as the foundations of the relationship. Military blocs would be refashioned into political organizations. What President Reagan dubbed “the evil empire” would be the good neighbor.

“The long winter of world conflict based on the division of Europe seems to be approaching an end,” Jim Hoagland, the chief foreign correspondent of The Washington Post, wrote at the time. It was a common theme.

When the Soviet Union unraveled a few years later, the largest of the 14 republics liberated from Russian dominion was Ukraine. While savoring their independence, many Ukrainians wanted to follow Russia on the path Gorbachev had announced.

“There was this slogan, ‘To Europe with Russia,’ ” said Roman Szporluk, former director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. “Clearly that idea is now out, and I guess Putin must have decided to restore the empire.”

Nearly 25 years after Gorbachev’s “common European home,” Putin sounds like a common European home wrecker.

It is true that during the recent years of recession and austerity Europe has lost some of its dazzle. But it is still more alluring than Ukraine’s threadbare economy, presided over by an ineffectual and corrupt governing class. Ukrainians have never abandoned their hope to be part of the West. Protesters rallying at Independence Square in Kiev represent a generation that has studied, worked and traveled in Poland since it joined Europe, and that does not want to retreat to some shabby recreation of the Russian empire. They are backed, too, by a significant segment of Ukrainian business, which prefers Western rule of law to the corruption and legal caprice of Russia and Ukraine.

Putin may succeed in capturing Ukraine, but he could come to regret it. While he’s looking to the past, he might linger over the experience of an earlier potentate, Josef Stalin, who annexed western Ukraine from Poland. As Szporluk points out, Stalin thought he was being clever, but he ended up doubling his problems: He brought politically restive Ukrainians into the Soviet tent, and left a stronger, homogenous Poland no longer unsettled by its Ukrainian minority.

Likewise, if Putin dragoons Ukraine into his Russian-dominated alliance, he will need to pacify public opinion by showering the new member with gifts he can’t afford, and ceding it influence that he would rather not share. And even then, resentments of the young Ukrainian Europhiles will fester, and feed the already ample discontent of Russia’s own younger generation. As Trenin points out, “Ukraine will always be looking for the exit.” Putin may learn, as Stalin did, that a captive Ukraine is more trouble than it’s worth.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Rising inequality isn’t a new concern. Oliver Stone’s movie “Wall Street,” with its portrayal of a rising plutocracy insisting that greed is good, was released in 1987. But politicians, intimidated by cries of “class warfare,” have shied away from making a major issue out of the ever-growing gap between the rich and the rest.

That may, however, be changing. We can argue about the significance of Bill de Blasio’s victory in the New York mayoral race or of Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement of Social Security expansion. And we have yet to see whether President Obama’s declaration that inequality is “the defining challenge of our age” will translate into policy changes. Still, the discussion has shifted enough to produce a backlash from pundits arguing that inequality isn’t that big a deal.

They’re wrong.

The best argument for putting inequality on the back burner is the depressed state of the economy. Isn’t it more important to restore economic growth than to worry about how the gains from growth are distributed?

Well, no. First of all, even if you look only at the direct impact of rising inequality on middle-class Americans, it is indeed a very big deal. Beyond that, inequality probably played an important role in creating our economic mess, and has played a crucial role in our failure to clean it up.

Start with the numbers. On average, Americans remain a lot poorer today than they were before the economic crisis. For the bottom 90 percent of families, this impoverishment reflects both a shrinking economic pie and a declining share of that pie. Which mattered more? The answer, amazingly, is that they’re more or less comparable — that is, inequality is rising so fast that over the past six years it has been as big a drag on ordinary American incomes as poor economic performance, even though those years include the worst economic slump since the 1930s.

And if you take a longer perspective, rising inequality becomes by far the most important single factor behind lagging middle-class incomes.

Beyond that, when you try to understand both the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery that followed, the economic and above all political impacts of inequality loom large.

It’s now widely accepted that rising household debt helped set the stage for our economic crisis; this debt surge coincided with rising inequality, and the two are probably related (although the case isn’t ironclad). After the crisis struck, the continuing shift of income away from the middle class toward a small elite was a drag on consumer demand, so that inequality is linked to both the economic crisis and the weakness of the recovery that followed.

In my view, however, the really crucial role of inequality in economic calamity has been political.

In the years before the crisis, there was a remarkable bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of financial deregulation — a consensus justified by neither theory nor history. When crisis struck, there was a rush to rescue the banks. But as soon as that was done, a new consensus emerged, one that involved turning away from job creation and focusing on the alleged threat from budget deficits.

What do the pre- and postcrisis consensuses have in common? Both were economically destructive: Deregulation helped make the crisis possible, and the premature turn to fiscal austerity has done more than anything else to hobble recovery. Both consensuses, however, corresponded to the interests and prejudices of an economic elite whose political influence had surged along with its wealth.

This is especially clear if we try to understand why Washington, in the midst of a continuing jobs crisis, somehow became obsessed with the supposed need for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. This obsession never made economic sense: In a depressed economy with record low interest rates, the government should be spending more, not less, and an era of mass unemployment is no time to be focusing on potential fiscal problems decades in the future. Nor did the attack on these programs reflect public demands.

Surveys of the very wealthy have, however, shown that they — unlike the general public — consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs. And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse.

Which brings me to my final point. Underlying some of the backlash against inequality talk, I believe, is the desire of some pundits to depoliticize our economic discourse, to make it technocratic and nonpartisan. But that’s a pipe dream. Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping — and distorting — the debate.

So the president was right. Inequality is, indeed, the defining challenge of our time. Will we do anything to meet that challenge?

Of course not.  It might cost some billionaire a dime.

Keller and Krugman

December 2, 2013

In “Sex and the Single Priest” Mr. Keller suggests that there are hints that Pope Francis may take up the issue of a celibate, and lonely, clergy.  Prof. Krugman, in “Better Pay Now,” says raising the minimum wage would help many Americans, and might actually be politically possible.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

Among the teaching nuns at St. Matthew’s Catholic School, Sister Mary Robert was my favorite. She was young, not yet 30, with a gentle face framed by the starched white wimple. She tamed a classroom of hormone-dizzy eighth graders by making us want to please her. We offered up our compositions and our ventures in iambic pentameter, and were rewarded with encouragement that, at least in my case, never wore off.

Not many years after I left St. Matthew’s, I left the church. Leaving your church is not so much like quitting a club as emigrating from the country where you grew up. You forfeit citizenship and no longer consider yourself subject to its laws, but you follow the news from the Old Country and wish its people well, because they are still in some sense your people. And if you write for a living you may sometimes write about that world, from a distance.

Last year, 50 years after eighth-grade graduation, Sister Mary Robert saw something I wrote on this subject and sent me a letter. Only she was no longer Sister Mary Robert. She had met a priest, Father John Hydar. They fell in love and, after extricating themselves from their respective religious vows, they married. At the time of her letter the marriage of Roberta (her reclaimed birth name) and John Hydar was in its 41st year, and it seemed to be a happy one.

If I’m an émigré from the country of Catholicism, the Hydars would be best described as dissidents who stayed. They ended up in one of the many small communities of disaffected Catholics where women are ordained, same-sex marriages are blessed, and members of the clergy are not required to endure the loneliness of celibacy. Eventually John began ministering to these Catholics on the margins. As one of four married priests at St. Anthony’s Community in Santa Barbara, Calif., he baptized children and presided over weddings and funerals. Sometimes he was invited to fill in at short-handed mainstream Catholic parishes, with a wink from the archdiocese. In the view of the official church they were outliers, if not outcasts, but in their own view they were the real Catholics, waiting for Rome to wise up. “My husband and I may not live to see the fruits of our labors,” Roberta wrote to me, “but in the meantime we find new ways to be Catholic, believing that the Spirit is on the move and there is no stopping Her by the institutional church.” That “Her” made me smile.

Enter the new pope, Francis, who has heartened many progressive Catholics and infuriated many Catholic conservatives by suggesting that Jesus did not intend to establish a legion of scolds. The pope’s efforts to promote a more tolerant tone and to reorient the church’s priorities from inquisition to compassion are mostly words. I do not mean that as a slight. The kindness of his language, his empathy for the least among us, and the humility of his example are undeniably refreshing. Still, at some point Francis will, and should, be judged by the substance of his leadership. What should we look for?

Much of the social agenda that church reformers like the Hydars advocate — full ordination of women, full equality for gays, an end to the widely ignored prohibition on birth control — is so entangled in past papal proclamations and historical precedents that I doubt Francis will take the issues on. An apostolic exhortation the pope released last week was a heartfelt appeal for inclusiveness — but on the Vatican’s familiar terms.

There is one issue, however, where the internal politics, while difficult, are less difficult, where the case for reform is pressing, and where there are hints that Francis may be inclined to change. That is priestly celibacy.

The arguments for lifting the requirement that priests forswear sex and marriage are not new, but they have become more urgent. Mandatory celibacy has driven away many good priests and prospects at a time when parishes in Europe and the United States are closing for lack of clergy. It deprives priests of experience that would make them more competent to counsel the families they minister. Celibacy — by breeding a culture of sexual exceptionalism and denial — surely played some role in the church’s shameful record of pedophilia and cover-up.

“Lots of people don’t see [celibacy] as some extraordinary act of witness,” said Thomas Groome, who heads the department of religious education and pastoral ministry at Boston College. “They see it as just a peculiar lifestyle, and one not to be trusted.” Groome was a priest for 17 years but left to be a husband and father. “The loneliness of it, I think, can drive people crazy,” he told me. “I’ve known hundreds of priests in my life,” from student days in an Irish seminary through the priesthood and decades as a theologian. “I don’t know too many diocesan priests, maybe three or four, who have lived a rich, life-giving, celibate lifestyle.”

The requirement that priests be celibate is not a doctrine but a cultural and historical aberration. The first apostles had wives. Catholic clergy were free to marry for the first millennium, until a series of church councils in the 12th century changed the rules, motivated in part by financial disputes. (Priests were trying to pass on church property to their children; the crude remedy was to deny them children.)

There are, in fact, many married priests in the Catholic Church, priests who were ordained in the Eastern traditions of Catholicism as well as Anglicans and other married priests whose families were grandfathered in when they converted to the Church of Rome. In parts of Latin America and Africa, priests marry or have common law wives and the church looks the other way. Francis knows this well. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future pope befriended a radical and famously noncelibate bishop, Jeronimo Podesta, ministered to him on his deathbed, and remained close for years thereafter to Podesta’s widow, who recalls that they often discussed the issue of celibacy.

Francis’s intentions have been a subject of intense speculation in church circles since September, when Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a Francis confidant and second in command at the Vatican, told an interviewer that celibacy “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.” Parolin qualified his remarks (“We cannot simply say that it is part of the past”), but his declaration that the subject “can be discussed” guaranteed that it would be.

One place it has been much discussed is among the married priests in the dissident parish where John and Roberta Hydar found sanctuary. John told me that if celibacy had been optional back in the ’60s, “most of us would have remained in active ministry” (although “most of us would also have gotten in hot water” over other disagreements with Vatican policy). He admitted taking a little sinful pleasure in the discomfort Francis has caused among Catholic hard-liners: “Well, the shoe is on the other foot now.” And he said he can even imagine that Francis, given 10 or 15 years of good health, might change the church sufficiently — not to win back lost causes like me, but to make Catholics like my old teacher and her husband feel at home there again. John Hydar will be watching, with keen hope, but without his wife. Roberta Hydar died of cancer on Oct. 18 at the age of 79.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

’Tis the season to be jolly — or, at any rate, to spend a lot of time in shopping malls. It is also, traditionally, a time to reflect on the plight of those less fortunate than oneself — for example, the person on the other side of that cash register.

The last few decades have been tough for many American workers, but especially hard on those employed in retail trade — a category that includes both the sales clerks at your local Walmart and the staff at your local McDonald’s. Despite the lingering effects of the financial crisis, America is a much richer country than it was 40 years ago. But the inflation-adjusted wages of nonsupervisory workers in retail trade — who weren’t particularly well paid to begin with — have fallen almost 30 percent since 1973.

So can anything be done to help these workers, many of whom depend on food stamps — if they can get them — to feed their families, and who depend on Medicaid — again, if they can get it — to provide essential health care? Yes. We can preserve and expand food stamps, not slash the program the way Republicans want. We can make health reform work, despite right-wing efforts to undermine the program.

And we can raise the minimum wage.

First, a few facts. Although the national minimum wage was raised a few years ago, it’s still very low by historical standards, having consistently lagged behind both inflation and average wage levels. Who gets paid this low minimum? By and large, it’s the man or woman behind the cash register: almost 60 percent of U.S. minimum-wage workers are in either food service or sales. This means, by the way, that one argument often invoked against any attempt to raise wages — the threat of foreign competition — won’t wash here: Americans won’t drive to China to pick up their burgers and fries.

Still, even if international competition isn’t an issue, can we really help workers simply by legislating a higher wage? Doesn’t that violate the law of supply and demand? Won’t the market gods smite us with their invisible hand? The answer is that we have a lot of evidence on what happens when you raise the minimum wage. And the evidence is overwhelmingly positive: hiking the minimum wage has little or no adverse effect on employment, while significantly increasing workers’ earnings.

It’s important to understand how good this evidence is. Normally, economic analysis is handicapped by the absence of controlled experiments. For example, we can look at what happened to the U.S. economy after the Obama stimulus went into effect, but we can’t observe an alternative universe in which there was no stimulus, and compare the results.

When it comes to the minimum wage, however, we have a number of cases in which a state raised its own minimum wage while a neighboring state did not. If there were anything to the notion that minimum wage increases have big negative effects on employment, that result should show up in state-to-state comparisons. It doesn’t.

So a minimum-wage increase would help low-paid workers, with few adverse side effects. And we’re talking about a lot of people. Early this year the Economic Policy Institute estimated that an increase in the national minimum wage to $10.10 from its current $7.25 would benefit 30 million workers. Most would benefit directly, because they are currently earning less than $10.10 an hour, but others would benefit indirectly, because their pay is in effect pegged to the minimum — for example, fast-food store managers who are paid slightly (but only slightly) more than the workers they manage.

Now, many economists have a visceral dislike of anything that sounds like price-fixing, even if the evidence strongly indicates that it would have positive effects. Some of these skeptics oppose doing anything to help low-wage workers. Others argue that we should subsidize, not regulate — in particular, that we should expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (E.I.T.C.), an existing program that does indeed provide significant aid to low-income working families. And for the record, I’m all for an expanded E.I.T.C.

But there are, it turns out, good technical reasons to regard the minimum wage and the E.I.T.C. as complements — mutually supportive policies, not substitutes. Both should be increased. Unfortunately, given the political realities, there is no chance whatsoever that a bill increasing aid to the working poor would pass Congress.

An increase in the minimum wage, on the other hand, just might happen, thanks to overwhelming public support. This support doesn’t come just from Democrats or even independents; strong majorities of Republicans (57 percent) and self-identified conservatives (59 percent) favor an increase.

In short, raising the minimum wage would help many Americans, and might actually be politically possible. Let’s give it a try.

Keller and Krugman

November 25, 2013

In “Less Than American” Mr. Keller considers the case for compromise on a path to citizenship.  In “California, Here We Come?” Prof. Krugman says that if Obamacare can work in a state of 38 million people, it can work in America as a whole.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

Not so long ago, it seemed the debate over immigration reform was all about borders. Politicians competed to offer the most draconian solutions — higher fences, longer fences, electrified fences, armies of guards, fleets of drones, moats and crocodiles. Never mind that the Border Patrol had already more than doubled in a decade. Never mind that many of those here illegally never hopped a fence but simply overstayed a student or tourist visa. The nativist mythology has us under siege from relentless hordes striding toward Arizona on, in the fevered imagination of Tea Party Congressman Steve King, “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” To pacify the border neurotics, authors of the bill that passed the Senate last summer included $46.3 billion to militarize our southern flank.

Now, with the bill stranded in the House, it seems the immigration debate is all about citizenship. To opponents, the idea of offering 11-plus million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship — even a 13-year slog like the one envisioned by the Senate bill — is anathema, so politically toxic that the measure’s most prominent Republican sponsor, Senator Marco Rubio, pulled back as if he’d put his hand on a lit stove. To proponents of comprehensive reform, or at least to activists on the issue, citizenship is the prize, and nonnegotiable.

It’s beginning to look as if advocates of fixing our broken immigration system will face an unpleasant choice: no bill at all, or a bill that legalizes the foreigners who are already here but does not offer most of them a chance to become citizens. On Capitol Hill several lawmakers are quietly drafting compromises that give the undocumented millions little hope of full membership in America.

The first thing to note is that this is progress. The Republican mainstream view has moved in the last year or so, from Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” to something considerably less callous. Most Republicans in Congress now say they can live with legalizing the undocumented as long as (a) we don’t call it amnesty and (b) we don’t reward lawbreakers by bestowing the precious gift of citizenship.

The second point that needs making — and my Times colleague Julia Preston made it last week — is that while citizenship is the priority for pro-immigration activists, to immigrants living here as a fearful underclass the aim is not so clear cut. For many of them, the priority is to be made legal, to come out of hiding and live their lives without the threat of deportation, without the risk of exploitation by unscrupulous employers, without wondering whether your spouse will make it home at night.

“The entire narrative behind comprehensive immigration reform has elevated the path to citizenship as this must-have component of an acceptable bill,” said Oscar Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, a network of immigrant organizations that includes many foreigners here without visas. “What you hear from the undocumented is: ‘We like the idea of citizenship, but what really hurts us is that we are vulnerable, that I can’t easily get a job to feed my family, that I can’t drive a car without being at risk, that I want to be able to visit relatives back home and come back safely.”

Just to be clear, I believe (and so does Oscar Chacon) that deliberately creating a class of disenfranchised residents goes against the American grain. There are few precedents for consigning whole categories of people to a sub-citizen limbo, and they are not proud moments in our history. (See the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.) It is clearly in the public interest to have people become assimilated, taxpaying, participating stakeholders in our democracy. Most Americans polled, including a majority of Republicans, agree that those now in the country illegally should be allowed to eventually apply for citizenship.

If House Speaker John Boehner is willing to brave the fury of his extreme flank and put the matter to a vote, a path to citizenship stands a decent chance of passing the House with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans. You might even think Republicans would want to get immigration settled and off the table so they could begin wooing Hispanic voters on more favorable ground — social issues, taxes, education. But among the people most immersed in this issue, I can’t find many who expect Boehner to suddenly become a statesman and defy his fanatics. In part, let’s be honest, that’s because the Republican stance is, “We protect America from Obama.” It is also in part because they fear newly enfranchised Hispanics will become Democrats — which the Republicans, by opposing citizenship, make a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it may well be that supporters of immigration reform have to choose between half a loaf and none at all. Half a loaf might include a prospect of citizenship for some undocumented immigrants — the so-called Dreamers, who entered the country as children, and those in the military — but not the majority. If that’s the option, should Democrats swallow hard and take it?

Yes, and here’s why.

First, even without a prospect of citizenship, legalization would make the undocumented much safer from the family-wrecking heartbreak of deportation, which has continued at record numbers under President Obama. It would free them to press for better education for their children, to approach the police when they are victims of crime, to challenge abusive employers, to seek medical care without fear of exposure. Some advocates of citizenship-or-nothing suggest that the president should simply use his prosecutorial discretion to stop deportations altogether, as he has done for the Dreamers and undocumented soldiers. But the public would view that as a grievous abuse of power, and Congress might very well take away his authority. An executive order is no substitute for a protection enshrined in the law.

Second, the legislation has other good things going for it. It puts a little sense into our archaic legal immigration system, and establishes some meaningful protection against future illegal immigration (like holding employers rigorously accountable for assuring their workers have legal status, much more important than fortifying the border.)

Third, this is not the end of the story. We elect a new Congress in 2014, and another in 2016, and so on, and the electoral clout of Hispanics will continue to grow. “I’m a firm believer in the notion of incremental change,” Chacon told me. “The best public policies — look at gay rights — have evolved, they didn’t happen all at once.”

And fourth, even if many undocumented workers never make it to citizenship, the injustice will last for just one generation. Their children are citizens by birth. Young Latinos are reaching voting age at the rate of about 50,000 per month. I suspect many in that rising generation will remember, and punish, the politicians who decided their parents should remain less than American.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It goes without saying that the rollout of Obamacare was an epic disaster. But what kind of disaster was it? Was it a failure of management, messing up the initial implementation of a fundamentally sound policy? Or was it a demonstration that the Affordable Care Act is inherently unworkable?

We know what each side of the partisan divide wants you to believe. The Obama administration is telling the public that everything will eventually be fixed, and urging Congressional Democrats to keep their nerve. Republicans, on the other hand, are declaring the program an irredeemable failure, which must be scrapped and replaced with … well, they don’t really want to replace it with anything.

At a time like this, you really want a controlled experiment. What would happen if we unveiled a program that looked like Obamacare, in a place that looked like America, but with competent project management that produced a working website?

Well, your wish is granted. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you California.

Now, California isn’t the only place where Obamacare is looking pretty good. A number of states that are running their own online health exchanges instead of relying on HealthCare.gov are doing well. Kentucky’s Kynect is a huge success; so is Access Health CT in Connecticut. New York is doing O.K. And we shouldn’t forget that Massachusetts has had an Obamacare-like program since 2006, put into effect by a guy named Mitt Romney.

California is, however, an especially useful test case. First of all, it’s huge: if a system can work for 38 million people, it can work for America as a whole. Also, it’s hard to argue that California has had any special advantages other than that of having a government that actually wants to help the uninsured. When Massachusetts put Romneycare into effect, it already had a relatively low number of uninsured residents. California, however, came into health reform with 22 percent of its nonelderly population uninsured, compared with a national average of 18 percent.

Finally, the California authorities have been especially forthcoming with data tracking the progress of enrollment. And the numbers are increasingly encouraging.

For one thing, enrollment is surging. At this point, more than 10,000 applications are being completed per day, putting the state well on track to meet its overall targets for 2014 coverage. Just imagine, by the way, how different press coverage would be right now if Obama officials had produced a comparable success, and around 100,000 people a day were signing up nationwide.

Equally important is the information on who is enrolling. To work as planned, health reform has to produce a balanced risk pool — that is, it must sign up young, healthy Americans as well as their older, less healthy compatriots. And so far, so good: in October, 22.5 percent of California enrollees were between the ages of 18 and 34, slightly above that group’s share of the population.

What we have in California, then, is a proof of concept. Yes, Obamacare is workable — in fact, done right, it works just fine.

The bad news, of course, is that most Americans aren’t lucky enough to live in states in which Obamacare has, in fact, been done right. They’re stuck either with HealthCare.gov or with one of the state exchanges, like Oregon’s, that have similar or worse problems. Will they ever get to experience successful health reform?

The answer is, probably yes. There won’t be a moment when the clouds suddenly lift, but the exchanges are gradually getting better — a point inadvertently illustrated a few days ago by John Boehner, the speaker of the House. Mr. Boehner staged a publicity stunt in which he tried to sign up on the D.C. health exchange, then triumphantly posted an entry on his blog declaring that he had been unsuccessful. At the bottom of his post, however, is a postscript admitting that the health exchange had called back “a few hours later,” and that he is now enrolled.

And maybe the transaction would have proceeded faster if Mr. Boehner’s office hadn’t, according to the D.C. exchange, put its agent — who was calling to help finish the enrollment — on hold for 35 minutes, listening to “lots of patriotic hold music.”

There will also probably be growing use of workarounds — for example, encouraging people to go directly to insurers. This will temporarily defeat one of the purposes of the exchanges, which was to make price comparisons easy, but it will be good enough as a short-term patch. And one shouldn’t forget that the insurance industry has a big financial stake in the success of Obamacare, and will soon be pitching in with big efforts to sign people up.

Again, Obamacare’s rollout was a disaster. But in California we can see what health reform will look like, beyond the glitches. And it’s going to work.

Keller and Krugman

November 18, 2013

Mr. Keller poses a question in “Toy Story.”  He says America is still the birthplace of inventions. But for how long?  (Don’t bother with the link if you want to find out what the Rainbow Loom is.  He linked to an article in The Atlantic listing the 50 greatest inventions.  Figures…)  In “A Permanent Slump” Prof. Krugman says the new normal for our economy may be a state of mild depression.  Here’s Mr. Keller:

My model American entrepreneur of the moment is Cheong Choon Ng. He has not attracted a $3 billion bid from Facebook, like the young inventors of the photo-sharing service Snapchat. Wall Street is not cooking up an I.P.O. But Ng is a star in my household. He is the creator of the Rainbow Loom, which in the middle-schooler market is the hottest device not called iSomething. If you have noticed that half the children in America — and a fair number of adults — seem to be sporting bracelets that are braids of brightly colored rubber bands, then you have seen the fruits of the Rainbow Loom.

Ng told me he has sold about three million of them, even before cracking the overseas market. Not least among the charms of his simple device is the fact that it unplugs children for a while from the mind-sucking Matrix in favor of projects that require focus and creativity. (In fairness to the Internet, I should note that kids learn new bracelet designs from demonstration videos on YouTube.)

The United States may not manufacture as much stuff as it used to, but we are still the world’s cradle of innovation. Inventiveness has been an American point of pride dating back to the days when the country was in its infancy. The Atlantic magazine, in one of those exercises that manages to be both arbitrary and fascinating, this month asked a panel of smart people to identify the greatest inventions since the wheel. If you discard breakthroughs made before the United States was up and running, an astonishing number of civilization-altering innovations — 16 of 30 on that list — were born here. Oil drilling. The telegraph. Refrigeration. Anesthesia. Electricity. The airplane. The Pill. The semiconductor. You might say that America itself is something of a civilization-altering innovation.

Choon Ng is in several respects a case study in how America has kept its edge. He moved here from Malaysia at age 21 to earn a master’s degree in engineering from Wichita State University. He hadn’t planned on staying, but he was offered a job as a crash-test engineer in the auto industry. The companies he worked for sponsored him for work visas until, after a dozen years, he had negotiated the arduous path to citizenship. Then inspiration struck.

The loom, originally a wooden tablet with a grid of pushpins, began as an attempt to score dad points with his craft-obsessed daughters. When it was a hit at home, he fashioned a version out of molded plastic, scraped together his savings and loans from his family, and went into business. Eventually he managed to line up a few retailers to stock the loom, and quit his day job. He is a cheerful advertisement for the American dream. “The longer you stay, the more you see the opportunity,” Ng told me from his home in Michigan, where he is working on a loom upgrade and his next invention. “Whatever you work for, you can own.”

His loom, by the way, is now manufactured in China, which makes a lot of things but invents very few.

In Ng’s story you can discern the main components of America’s success as an incubator of new things: a welcome mat for talented, ambitious immigrants. An education system that (when it is not teaching test-taking) values creativity. The availability of start-up capital. Patent laws that protect intellectual property. An infrastructure that gets things shipped and marketed. And, perhaps most important, a culture that preaches opportunity and celebrates the risk-taker, the pioneer. From the Wright Brothers taking flight, to Bill Bowerman of Nike using a waffle iron to revolutionize running shoes, to Steve Jobs and his beautiful machines, to Choon Ng, we worship the inventive spark.

The question is, can we keep it up?

The culture part, at least, seems to be alive and well. “Entrepreneur” is to the academic achiever of today what “doctor” and “lawyer” were to my generation. “It’s the cool thing,” said Bill Aulet, who runs a center for entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I would say nationally we’re looking at 20 or 25 percent of the student population that wants to be entrepreneurs.”

But for all the pop-culture enthusiasm, there are signs that our innovative dynamism is diminishing. The pace of new business creation, on a per-capita basis, has been in a slow but steady decline since the mid-1980s, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurial trends. That suggests that other essentials of a thriving innovative economy have been neglected.

Let us count the ways. The decline of our education system is exaggerated but real, especially in the scientific and technical fields. The Internet has made it harder to enforce intellectual property rights, creating havens for pirates and narrowing the advantage of innovator over copycat. (Ng’s greatest frustration is protecting his patent against aggressively lawyered-up imitators.)

Start-up capital is still more abundant than anywhere else on earth, but the supply has been depleted by the recession. Dane Stangler, Kauffman’s research director, said most new small businesses are financed not by high-profile venture capital firms, but by family and friends, including home equity loans that went away when the housing bubble burst. Crowdfunding is a new source of capital, but still minuscule.

And then there is the erosion of our infrastructure — physical and intellectual. James Fallows, who wrote up The Atlantic’s great-inventions list (and who is an astute student of the economic cultures of the U.S. and China) worries about the dwindling of America’s publicly financed research. The budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other sources of investment in the long-term basic science that undergirds practical innovation have been slowly eroding — even before the ham-handed budget sequester and the idiotic government shutdown. “This is more maddening than the other most obvious problem, the neglect of physical infrastructure, because it would be so much easier to solve,” Fallows told me in an email. “Rebuilding bridges, ports, etc. takes a long time. Increasing research budgets is an ‘it’s only money’ issue. The sums are small on the national budgetary scale but large in their implications.”

Probably the most perverse impediment is our immigration law. Currently, Bill Aulet reports, the brightest foreign students come to M.I.T., earn degrees in high-demand disciplines (with a healthy side order of rigorous entrepreneurship training) and then are recruited to work in Canada or Britain because they can’t get an American green card. “We should be embracing these people,” Aulet said, as a source of the heterogeneity and drive that generate new ideas.

“The U.S. attracts a lot of talent,” Ng agreed. “But it’s very hard to stay and contribute.”

The comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate includes more immigrant visas for foreign graduates in sciences and technology and a small pilot program to admit promising entrepreneurs. But that measure is stranded in the House, another casualty of our broken politics, and another reminder that these days Washington is where bright ideas go to die.

Choon Ng 2.0 will just have to wait.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Spend any time around monetary officials and one word you’ll hear a lot is “normalization.” Most though not all such officials accept that now is no time to be tightfisted, that for the time being credit must be easy and interest rates low. Still, the men in dark suits look forward eagerly to the day when they can go back to their usual job, snatching away the punch bowl whenever the party gets going.

But what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades?

You might imagine that speculations along these lines are the province of a radical fringe. And they are indeed radical; but fringe, not so much. A number of economists have been flirting with such thoughts for a while. And now they’ve moved into the mainstream. In fact, the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers. Yes, that Larry Summers.

And if Mr. Summers is right, everything respectable people have been saying about economic policy is wrong, and will keep being wrong for a long time.

Mr. Summers began with a point that should be obvious but is often missed: The financial crisis that started the Great Recession is now far behind us. Indeed, by most measures it ended more than four years ago. Yet our economy remains depressed.

He then made a related point: Before the crisis we had a huge housing and debt bubble. Yet even with this huge bubble boosting spending, the overall economy was only so-so — the job market was O.K. but not great, and the boom was never powerful enough to produce significant inflationary pressure.

Mr. Summers went on to draw a remarkable moral: We have, he suggested, an economy whose normal condition is one of inadequate demand — of at least mild depression — and which only gets anywhere close to full employment when it is being buoyed by bubbles.

I’d weigh in with some further evidence. Look at household debt relative to income. That ratio was roughly stable from 1960 to 1985, but rose rapidly and inexorably from 1985 to 2007, when crisis struck. Yet even with households going ever deeper into debt, the economy’s performance over the period as a whole was mediocre at best, and demand showed no sign of running ahead of supply. Looking forward, we obviously can’t go back to the days of ever-rising debt. Yet that means weaker consumer demand — and without that demand, how are we supposed to return to full employment?

Again, the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing.

Why might this be happening? One answer could be slowing population growth. A growing population creates a demand for new houses, new office buildings, and so on; when growth slows, that demand drops off. America’s working-age population rose rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, as baby boomers grew up, and its work force rose even faster, as women moved into the labor market. That’s now all behind us. And you can see the effects: Even at the height of the housing bubble, we weren’t building nearly as many houses as in the 1970s.

Another important factor may be persistent trade deficits, which emerged in the 1980s and since then have fluctuated but never gone away.

Why does all of this matter? One answer is that central bankers need to stop talking about “exit strategies.” Easy money should, and probably will, be with us for a very long time. This, in turn, means we can forget all those scare stories about government debt, which run along the lines of “It may not be a problem now, but just wait until interest rates rise.”

More broadly, if our economy has a persistent tendency toward depression, we’re going to be living under the looking-glass rules of depression economics — in which virtue is vice and prudence is folly, in which attempts to save more (including attempts to reduce budget deficits) make everyone worse off — for a long time.

I know that many people just hate this kind of talk. It offends their sense of rightness, indeed their sense of morality. Economics is supposed to be about making hard choices (at other people’s expense, naturally). It’s not supposed to be about persuading people to spend more.

But as Mr. Summers said, the crisis “is not over until it is over” — and economic reality is what it is. And what that reality appears to be right now is one in which depression rules will apply for a very long time.

Yet another reason for me to be glad that I’m reaching the end of my life.


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