Archive for the ‘Krugman’ Category

Blow and Krugman

September 1, 2014

In “Obama and the Warmongers” Mr. Blow points out that the president’s deliberative approach to the ISIS threat may be drowned out by the chants for blood.  May be?  Absolutely has been, is being, and will be.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Medicare Miracle,” says after all the talk about how providing health care to the uninsured would be unaffordable and unsustainable, it turns out that it isn’t hard at all.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

We seem to be drifting inexorably toward escalating our fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as the Obama administration mulls whether to extend its “limited” bombing campaign into Syria.

Part of the reasoning is alarm at the speed and efficiency with which ISIS — a militant group President Obama described as “barbaric” — has made gains in northern Iraq and has been able to wash back and forth across the Syrian border. Part is because of the group’s ghastly beheading of the American journalist James Foley — which Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the C.I.A., called “ISIS’s first terrorist attack against the United States” — and threats to behead another.

But another part of the equation is the tremendous political pressure coming from the screeching of war hawks and an anxious and frightened public, weighted most heavily among Republicans and exacerbated by the right-wing media machine.

In fact, when the president tried to tamp down some of the momentum around more swift and expansive military action by indicating that he had not decided how best to move forward militarily in Syria, if at all, what Politico called an “inartful phrase” caught fire in conservative circles. When responding to questions, the president said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

His aide insisted that the phrase was only about how to move forward in Syria, not against ISIS as a whole, but the latter was exactly the impression conservatives moved quickly to portray.

It was a way of continuing to yoke Obama with the ill effects of a war started by his predecessor and the chaos it created in that region of the world.

In fact, if you listen to Fox News you might even believe that Obama is responsible for the creation of ISIS.

A few months ago, the Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro told her viewers that “you need to be afraid” because of Obama’s fecklessness in dealing with ISIS, adding this nugget:

“And the head of this band of savages is a man named Abu al-Baghdadi — the new Osama bin Laden — a man released by Obama in 2009 who started ISIS a year later.”

That would be extremely troubling, if true. But the fact-checking operation PolitiFact rated it “false,” saying:

“The Defense Department said that the man now known as Baghdadi was released in 2004. The evidence that Baghdadi was still in custody in 2009 appears to be the recollection of an Army colonel who said Baghdadi’s ‘face is very familiar.’

“Even if the colonel is right, Baghdadi was not set free; he was handed over to the Iraqis who released him some time later. But, more important, the legal contract between the United States and Iraq that guaranteed that the United States would give up custody of virtually every detainee was signed during the Bush administration.”

Fox, facts; oil, water.

But the disturbing reality is that the scare tactics are working. In July, a Pew Research Center report found that most Americans thought the United States didn’t have a responsibility to respond to the violence in Iraq.

According to a Pew Research Center report issued last week, however: “Following the beheading of American journalist James Foley, two-thirds of the public (67 percent) cite ISIS as a major threat to the United States.”

The report said that 91 percent of Tea Party Republicans described ISIS as a “major threat” as opposed to 65 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents.

The report also said:

“Half of the sample was asked about ISIS and the other half was asked about the broader threat of ‘Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda,’ which registered similar concern (71 percent major threat, 19 percent minor threat, 6 percent not a threat). Democrats were more likely to see global climate change than ISIS as a major threat.

Americans were thrilled by our decision to exit Iraq when we did, but support for that decision is dropping. In October 2011, Gallup asked poll respondents if they approved or disapproved of Obama’s decision that year to “withdraw nearly all United States troops from Iraq.” Seventy-five percent said they approved. In June of this year, the approval rate had fallen to 61 percent.

Yet 57 percent still believe that it was a mistake to send troops to fight in Iraq in the first place.

Now, Republicans are beginning to pull out the big gun — 9/11 — to further scare the public into supporting more action. Senator Lindsey Graham has said on Fox News that we must act to “stop another 9/11,” possibly a larger one, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has warned, “Sadly, we’re getting back to a pre-9/11 mentality, and that’s very dangerous.”

Fear is in the air. The president is trying to take a deliberative approach, but he may be drowned out by the drums of war and the chants for blood.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So, what do you think about those Medicare numbers? What, you haven’t heard about them? Well, they haven’t been front-page news. But something remarkable has been happening on the health-spending front, and it should (but probably won’t) transform a lot of our political debate.

The story so far: We’ve all seen projections of giant federal deficits over the next few decades, and there’s a whole industry devoted to issuing dire warnings about the budget and demanding cuts in Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid. Policy wonks have long known, however, that there’s no such program, and that health care, rather than retirement, was driving those scary projections. Why? Because, historically, health spending has grown much faster than G.D.P., and it was assumed that this trend would continue.

But a funny thing has happened: Health spending has slowed sharply, and it’s already well below projections made just a few years ago. The falloff has been especially pronounced in Medicare, which is spending $1,000 less per beneficiary than the Congressional Budget Office projected just four years ago.

This is a really big deal, in at least three ways.

First, our supposed fiscal crisis has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. The federal government is still running deficits, but they’re way down. True, the red ink is still likely to swell again in a few years, if only because more baby boomers will retire and start collecting benefits; but, these days, projections of federal debt as a percentage of G.D.P. show it creeping up rather than soaring. We’ll probably have to raise more revenue eventually, but the long-term fiscal gap now looks much more manageable than the deficit scolds would have you believe.

Second, the slowdown in Medicare helps refute one common explanation of the health-cost slowdown: that it’s mainly the product of a depressed economy, and that spending will surge again once the economy recovers. That could explain low private spending, but Medicare is a government program, and shouldn’t be affected by the recession. In other words, the good news on health costs is for real.

But what accounts for this good news? The third big implication of the Medicare cost miracle is that everything the usual suspects have been saying about fiscal responsibility is wrong.

For years, pundits have accused President Obama of failing to take on entitlement spending. These accusations always involved magical thinking on the politics, assuming that Mr. Obama could somehow get Republicans to negotiate in good faith if only he really wanted to. But they also implicitly dismissed as worthless all the cost-control measures included in the Affordable Care Act. Inside the Beltway, cost control apparently isn’t considered real unless it involves slashing benefits. One pundit went so far as to say, after the Obama administration rejected proposals to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, “America gets the shaft.”

It turns out, however, that raising the Medicare age would hardly save any money. Meanwhile, Medicare is spending much less than expected, and those Obamacare cost-saving measures are at least part of the story. The conventional wisdom on what is and isn’t serious is completely wrong.

While we’re on the subject of health costs, there are two other stories you should know about.

One involves the supposed savings from running Medicare through for-profit insurance companies. That’s the way the drug benefit works, and conservatives love to point out that this benefit has ended up costing much less than projected, which they claim proves that privatization is the way to go. But the budget office has a new report on this issue, and it finds that privatization had nothing to do with it. Instead, Medicare Part D is costing less than expected partly because enrollment has been low and partly because an absence of new blockbuster drugs has led to an overall slowdown in pharmaceutical spending.

The other involves the “sticker shock” that opponents of health reform have been predicting for years. Bulletin: It’s still not happening. Over all, health insurance premiums seem likely to rise only modestly next year, and they are on track to be flat or even falling in several states, including Connecticut and Arkansas.

What’s the moral here? For years, pundits and politicians have insisted that guaranteed health care is an impossible dream, even though every other advanced country has it. Covering the uninsured was supposed to be unaffordable; Medicare as we know it was supposed to be unsustainable. But it turns out that incremental steps to improve incentives and reduce costs can achieve a lot, and covering the uninsured isn’t hard at all.

When it comes to ensuring that Americans have access to health care, the message of the data is simple: Yes, we can.

Brooks and Krugman

August 29, 2014

Bobo has one of his burning questions in “The Mental Virtues:”  How do you build character in front of your keyboard at work?  Well, Bobo, you could start by not playing Gunga Din to the Mole People.  Just a thought…  Prof. Krugman also has a question in “The Fall of France:”  Has President François Hollande doomed the European project as the disastrous consequences of austerity policies grow more obvious with each passing month?  Here’s Bobo:

We all know what makes for good character in soldiers. We’ve seen the movies about heroes who display courage, loyalty and coolness under fire. But what about somebody who sits in front of a keyboard all day? Is it possible to display and cultivate character if you are just an information age office jockey, alone with a memo or your computer?

Of course it is. Even if you are alone in your office, you are thinking. Thinking well under a barrage of information may be a different sort of moral challenge than fighting well under a hail of bullets, but it’s a character challenge nonetheless.

In their 2007 book, “Intellectual Virtues,” Robert C. Roberts of Baylor University and W. Jay Wood of Wheaton College list some of the cerebral virtues. We can all grade ourselves on how good we are at each of them.

First, there is love of learning. Some people are just more ardently curious than others, either by cultivation or by nature.

Second, there is courage. The obvious form of intellectual courage is the willingness to hold unpopular views. But the subtler form is knowing how much risk to take in jumping to conclusions. The reckless thinker takes a few pieces of information and leaps to some faraway conspiracy theory. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is unwilling to put anything out there except under ideal conditions for fear that she could be wrong. Intellectual courage is self-regulation, Roberts and Wood argue, knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out that scientists often simply ignore facts that don’t fit with their existing paradigms, but an intellectually courageous person is willing to look at things that are surprisingly hard to look at.

Third, there is firmness. You don’t want to be a person who surrenders his beliefs at the slightest whiff of opposition. On the other hand, you don’t want to hold dogmatically to a belief against all evidence. The median point between flaccidity and rigidity is the virtue of firmness. The firm believer can build a steady worldview on solid timbers but still delight in new information. She can gracefully adjust the strength of her conviction to the strength of the evidence. Firmness is a quality of mental agility.

Fourth, there is humility, which is not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy. The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance. He’s not writing those sentences people write to make themselves seem smart; he’s not thinking of himself much at all. The humble researcher doesn’t become arrogant toward his subject, assuming he has mastered it. Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage in life.

Fifth, there is autonomy. You don’t want to be a person who slavishly adopts whatever opinion your teacher or some author gives you. On the other hand, you don’t want to reject all guidance from people who know what they are talking about. Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.

Finally, there is generosity. This virtue starts with the willingness to share knowledge and give others credit. But it also means hearing others as they would like to be heard, looking for what each person has to teach and not looking to triumphantly pounce upon their errors.

We all probably excel at some of these virtues and are deficient in others. But I’m struck by how much of the mainstream literature on decision-making treats the mind as some disembodied organ that can be programed like a computer.

In fact, the mind is embedded in human nature, and very often thinking well means pushing against the grain of our nature — against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.

Montaigne once wrote that “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing how to handle your own limitations. Warren Buffett made a similar point in his own sphere, “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 I.Q. beats the guy with the 130 I.Q. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble.”

Character tests are pervasive even in modern everyday life. It’s possible to be heroic if you’re just sitting alone in your office. It just doesn’t make for a good movie.

What a tool…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

François Hollande, the president of France since 2012, coulda been a contender. He was elected on a promise to turn away from the austerity policies that killed Europe’s brief, inadequate economic recovery. Since the intellectual justification for these policies was weak and would soon collapse, he could have led a bloc of nations demanding a change of course. But it was not to be. Once in office, Mr. Hollande promptly folded, giving in completely to demands for even more austerity.

Let it not be said, however, that he is entirely spineless. Earlier this week, he took decisive action, but not, alas, on economic policy, although the disastrous consequences of European austerity grow more obvious with each passing month, and even Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, is calling for a change of course. No, all Mr. Hollande’s force was focused on purging members of his government daring to question his subservience to Berlin and Brussels.

It’s a remarkable spectacle. To fully appreciate it, however, you need to understand two things. First, Europe, as a whole, is in deep trouble. Second, however, within that overall pattern of disaster, France’s performance is much better than you would guess from news reports. France isn’t Greece; it isn’t even Italy. But it is letting itself be bullied as if it were a basket case.

On Europe: Like the United States, the euro area — the 18 countries that use the euro as a common currency — started to recover from the 2008 financial crisis midway through 2009. But after a debt crisis erupted in 2010, some European nations were forced, as a condition for loans, to make harsh spending cuts and raise taxes on working families. Meanwhile, Germany and other creditor countries did nothing to offset the downward pressure, and the European Central Bank, unlike the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, didn’t take extraordinary measures to boost private spending. As a result, the European recovery stalled in 2011, and has never really resumed.

At this point, Europe is doing worse than it did at a comparable stage of the Great Depression. And even more bad news may lie ahead, as Europe shows every sign of sliding into a Japanese-style deflationary trap.

How does France fit into this picture? News reports consistently portray the French economy as a dysfunctional mess, crippled by high taxes and government regulation. So it comes as something of a shock when you look at the actual numbers, which don’t match that story at all. France hasn’t done well since 2008 — in particular, it has lagged Germany — but its overall G.D.P. growth has been much better than the European average, beating not only the troubled economies of southern Europe but creditor nations like the Netherlands. French job performance isn’t too bad. In fact, prime-aged adults are a lot more likely to be employed in France than in the United States.

Nor does France’s situation seem particularly fragile. It doesn’t have a large trade deficit, and it can borrow at historically low interest rates.

Why, then, does France get such bad press? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s political: France has a big government and a generous welfare state, which free-market ideology says should lead to economic disaster. So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.

And Mr. Hollande, even though he leads France’s Socialist Party, appears to believe this ideologically motivated bad-mouthing. Worse, he has fallen into a vicious circle in which austerity policies cause growth to stall, and this stalled growth is taken as evidence that France needs even more austerity.

It’s a very sad story, and not just for France.

Most immediately, Europe’s economy is in dire straits. Mr. Draghi, I believe, understands how bad things are. But there’s only so much the central bank can do, and, in any case, he has limited room for maneuvering unless elected leaders are willing to challenge hard-money, balanced-budget orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Germany is incorrigible. Its official response to the shake-up in France was a declaration that “there is no contradiction between consolidation and growth” — hey, never mind the experience of the past four years, we still believe that austerity is expansionary.

So Europe desperately needs the leader of a major economy — one that is not in terrible shape — to stand up and say that austerity is killing the Continent’s economic prospects. Mr. Hollande could and should have been that leader, but he isn’t.

And if the European economy continues to stagnate or worse, what will become of the European project — the long-term effort to secure peace and democracy through shared prosperity? In failing France, Mr. Hollande is also failing Europe as a whole — and nobody knows how bad it might get.

Blow and Krugman

August 25, 2014

In “A Funeral in Ferguson” Mr. Blow reminds us that nobody should know what it feels like to bury a child as the whole world watches. But that is what Michael Brown’s parents must do.   In “Wrong Way Nation” Prof. Krugman says the Sunbelt may be growing in population, but it’s not because of pro-business and pro-wealthy policies and higher wages.   Here’s Mr. Blow:

Two weeks after the killing of Michael Brown, we have become painfully familiar with his parents through their public appearances and television interviews, their faces drawn, their sorrow apparent.

Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, constantly dabbing tears from her face, sparing in her responses, but powerfully articulating her agony with the words she chooses. Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., with shaved head and full beard, a large man often clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” and a baby picture of his son. The senior Brown is stoic, resolute in his speech, but even in the power of his presence there is the certainness that a hollow space has been made.

On Monday, they are scheduled to bury their boy as the whole world watches.

No one should know what that feels like.

Whatever one may feel about the contours of this case — about what led Officer Darren Wilson to shoot the teenager, about the relationship of the police to people of color, about the protests and unrest that followed, about the militarized police response to the unrest, about the quality of the investigations and the level of confidence people have in them, about the perverse sense of theater emerging from the rhythms of the days under the glare of media lights — we can all, in our shared humanity, feel for parents who lose a child.

As a parent myself, I can’t fathom the ache and inextinguishable anguish that must accompany such a loss.

Losing any loved one is painful, but losing a child — particularly in such a violent way and particularly a young child — must be exceedingly painful. It also upsets the order of things. Children should outlive you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way the world and life would have it. But, in a moment, the world stops making sense.

I don’t think anyone can be properly prepared to deal with the news of such a thing. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday, the mother recounted, with tears streaming down her face, the feeling of getting the call that her son had been shot, before getting to the scene:

“Before even getting there, somebody call you on the phone and tell you something like that, and you miles away. It’s terrible.”

The father recounted the excruciating wait once he and the mother arrived on the scene and how upsetting it all was:

“We couldn’t even see him. They wouldn’t even let us go see him. They just left him out there, four and a half hours, with no answers. Wouldn’t nobody tell us nothing.”

It’s hard to imagine a more painful scenario and the grief it must carry.

And that grief can last for a very long time.

A 2008 study published in The Journal of Family Psychology found that, understandably, the death of a child can have “long-term effects on the lives of parents,” including “more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems.” Even that, to me, feels like an understatement. I am always in awe at the strength displayed by parents who lose a child and are immediately thrust into the public eye because their children cease to simply be children but graduate into being a cause.

Yet, too many people have had to endure a similar grief, if often under different circumstances. According to ChildDeathReview.org, in 2010, 45,068 children ages 0 to 19 died in the United States. Two-thirds died of natural causes. Another 8,684 died of unintentional injuries like car accidents and drowning. But 2,808 died as result of homicide, including 1,790 by firearm.

And when the person being shot is shot not by one of the bad guys (people all parents teach children to avoid as best they can) but by one of the people we as a society count as one of the good guys (police officers sworn to protect and serve) there are obviously going to be questions that need answering.

Whenever I see parents like these, standing and speaking in the wake of tragedy, I find myself studying their faces, imagining — hoping, really — that if I were them, I, too, would be this strong, that I, too, would fight on my child’s behalf, for justice and against the besmirchment of his or her memory. But something in me whispers that it’s a lie, that I would be overcome and inconsolable, that so much of me would die with my child that not enough of me would be left to carry on.

So the least I think all of us can do, in consoling solidarity, is to join them in paying our last respects. At 10 a.m. Central time on Monday, when the funeral is scheduled to begin, take a moment to think of them, to commiserate with two grieving parents, knowing they are in a position that none of us would want to be in.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is running for president again. What are his chances? Will he once again become a punch line? I have absolutely no idea. This isn’t a horse-race column.

What I’d like to do, instead, is take advantage of Mr. Perry’s ambitions to talk about one of my favorite subjects: interregional differences in economic and population growth.

You see, while Mr. Perry’s hard-line stances and religiosity may be selling points for the Republican Party’s base, his national appeal, if any, will have to rest on claims that he knows how to create prosperity. And it’s true that Texas has had faster job growth than the rest of the country. So have other Sunbelt states with conservative governments. The question, however, is why.

The answer from the right is, of course, that it’s all about avoiding regulations that interfere with business and keeping taxes on rich people low, thereby encouraging job creators to do their thing. But it turns out that there are big problems with this story, quite aside from the habit economists pushing this line have of getting their facts wrong.

To see the problems, let’s tell a tale of three cities.

One of these cities is the place those of us who live in its orbit tend to call simply “the city.” And, these days, it’s a place that’s doing pretty well on a number of fronts. But despite the inflow of immigrants and hipsters, enough people are still moving out of greater New York — a metropolitan area that, according to the Census, extends into Pennsylvania on one side and Connecticut on the other — that its overall population rose less than 5 percent between 2000 and 2012. Over the same period, greater Atlanta’s population grew almost 27 percent, and greater Houston’s grew almost 30 percent. America’s center of gravity is shifting south and west. But why?

Is it, as people like Mr. Perry assert, because pro-business, pro-wealthy policies like those he favors mean opportunity for everyone? If that were the case, we’d expect all those job opportunities to cause rising wages in the Sunbelt, wages that attract ambitious people away from moribund blue states.

It turns out, however, that wages in the places within the United States attracting the most migrants are typically lower than in the places those migrants come from, suggesting that the places Americans are leaving actually have higher productivity and more job opportunities than the places they’re going. The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.

So why are people moving to these relatively low-wage areas? Because living there is cheaper, basically because of housing. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, rents (including the equivalent rent involved in buying a house) in metropolitan New York are about 60 percent higher than in Houston, 70 percent higher than in Atlanta.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

But why are housing prices in New York or California so high? Population density and geography are part of the answer. For example, Los Angeles, which pioneered the kind of sprawl now epitomized by Atlanta, has run out of room and become a surprisingly dense metropolis. However, as Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and others have emphasized, high housing prices in slow-growing states also owe a lot to policies that sharply limit construction. Limits on building height in the cities, zoning that blocks denser development in the suburbs and other policies constrict housing on both coasts; meanwhile, looser regulation in the South has kept the supply of housing elastic and the cost of living low.

So conservative complaints about excess regulation and intrusive government aren’t entirely wrong, but the secret of Sunbelt growth isn’t being nice to corporations and the 1 percent; it’s not getting in the way of middle- and working-class housing supply.

And this, in turn, means that the growth of the Sunbelt isn’t the kind of success story conservatives would have us believe. Yes, Americans are moving to places like Texas, but, in a fundamental sense, they’re moving the wrong way, leaving local economies where their productivity is high for destinations where it’s lower. And the way to make the country richer is to encourage them to move back, by making housing in dense, high-wage metropolitan areas more affordable.

So Rick Perry doesn’t know the secrets of job creation, or even of regional growth. It would be great to see the real key — affordable housing — become a national issue. But I don’t think Democrats are willing to nominate Mayor Bill de Blasio for president just yet.

Cohen and Krugman

August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow and Krugman

August 18, 2014

In “Frustration in Ferguson” Mr. Blow says beneath the protests over the killing of Michael Brown are deep layers of injustice.  In “Why We Fight Wars” Prof. Krugman says conquest doesn’t pay, but political leaders don’t seem to care.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The response to the killing of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown — whom his family called the “gentle giant” — by the Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson — who was described by his police chief as “a gentle, quiet man” and “a gentleman” — has been anything but genteel.

There have been passionate but peaceful protests to be sure, but there has also been some violence and looting. Police forces in the town responded with an outlandish military-like presence more befitting Baghdad than suburban Missouri.

There were armored vehicles, flash grenades and a seemingly endless supply of tear gas — much of it Pentagon trickle-down. There were even officers perched atop vehicles, in camouflage and body armor, pointing weapons in the direction of peaceful protesters.

Let me be clear here: Pointing a gun at an innocent person is an act of violence and provocation.

Americans were aghast at the images, and condemnation was swift and bipartisan. The governor put the state’s Highway Patrol in charge of security. Tensions seemed to subside, for a day.

But then on Friday, when releasing the name of the officer who did the shooting, the police chief also released details and images of a robbery purporting to show Brown stealing cigars from a local convenience store and pushing a store employee in the process.

The implication seemed to be that Wilson was looking for the person who committed the convenience store crime when he encountered Brown. But, later in the day, the chief said Wilson didn’t know Brown was a robbery suspect when they encountered each other.

Something seemed off. The police chief’s decision to release the details of the robbery and the images — without releasing an image of Wilson — struck many as perfidious. In a strongly worded statement, Brown’s family and attorneys accused the chief of attempting to assassinate the character of the dead teen.

Some also deemed it an attempt at distraction from the central issue: An officer shot an unarmed teenager who witnesses claim had raised his hands in surrender when at least some of the shots were fired, which the family and its attorneys called “a brutal assassination of his person in broad daylight.”

The Justice Department is even investigating whether Brown’s civil rights were violated. This would include the excessive use of force. As the department makes clear, this “does not require that any racial, religious, or other discriminatory motive existed.”

It’s impossible to truly know the chief’s motives for his decision to release the robbery information at the same time as the officer’s name, but the effect was clear: That night, a fragile peace was shattered. There was more looting, although peaceful protesters struggled heroically to block the violent ones.

On Saturday, the governor issued a midnight curfew for the town. A small band of protesters defied it and some were arrested.

The community is struggling to find its way back to normalcy, but it would behoove us to dig a bit deeper into the underlying frustrations that cause a place like Ferguson to erupt in the first place and explore the untenable nature of our normal.

Yes, there are the disturbingly repetitive and eerily similar circumstances of many cases of unarmed black people being killed by police officers. This reinforces black people’s beliefs — supportable by actual data — that blacks are treated less fairly by the police.

But I submit that this is bigger than that. The frustration we see in Ferguson is about not only the present act of perceived injustice but also the calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines.

In 1951, Langston Hughes began his poem “Harlem” with a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Today, I must ask: What happens when one desists from dreaming, when the very exercise feels futile?

The discussion about issues in the black community too often revolves around a false choice: systemic racial bias or poor personal choices. In fact, these factors are interwoven like the fingers of clasped hands. People make choices within the context of their circumstances and those circumstances are affected — sometimes severely — by bias.

These biases do material damage as well as help breed a sense of disenfranchisement and despair, which in turn can have a depressive effect on aspiration and motivation. This all feeds back on itself.

If we want to truly address the root of the unrest in Ferguson, we have to ask ourselves how we can break this cycle.

Otherwise, Hughes’s last words of “Harlem,” referring to the dream deferred, will continue to be prophetic: “does it explode?”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

A century has passed since the start of World War I, which many people at the time declared was “the war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, wars just kept happening. And with the headlines from Ukraine getting scarier by the day, this seems like a good time to ask why.

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay. And this has been true for a long time. In his famous 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” the British journalist Norman Angell argued that “military power is socially and economically futile.” As he pointed out, in an interdependent world (which already existed in the age of steamships, railroads, and the telegraph), war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm even on the victor. Furthermore, it’s very hard to extract golden eggs from sophisticated economies without killing the goose in the process.

We might add that modern war is very, very expensive. For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.

So the thesis of “The Great Illusion” was right: Modern nations can’t enrich themselves by waging war. Yet wars keep happening. Why?

One answer is that leaders may not understand the arithmetic. Angell, by the way, often gets a bum rap from people who think that he was predicting an end to war. Actually, the purpose of his book was to debunk atavistic notions of wealth through conquest, which were still widespread in his time. And delusions of easy winnings still happen. It’s only a guess, but it seems likely that Vladimir Putin thought that he could overthrow Ukraine’s government, or at least seize a large chunk of its territory, on the cheap — a bit of deniable aid to the rebels, and it would fall into his lap.

And for that matter, remember when the Bush administration predicted that overthrowing Saddam and installing a new government would cost only $50 billion or $60 billion?

The larger problem, however, is that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle. (To be fair, some scholars are highly critical of this claim.)

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

No doubt it’s an oversimplification to say that the confrontation in Ukraine is all about shoring up an authoritarian regime that is stumbling on other fronts. But there’s surely some truth to that story — and that raises some scary prospects for the future.

Most immediately, we have to worry about escalation in Ukraine. All-out war would be hugely against Russia’s interests — but Mr. Putin may feel that letting the rebellion collapse would be an unacceptable loss of face.

And if authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China’s rulers will face if and when that nation’s economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.

Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway.

Brooks and Krugman

August 15, 2014

In “The Bacall Standard” Bobo says that with her steel spine, gutsy flirtation, and unmistakable presence, Lauren Bacall created a new film noir feminine ideal.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Forever Slump,” says the United States should learn from Europe’s experience of raising interest rates too soon.   Here’s Bobo:

“I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance,” the detective writer Raymond Chandler wrote in his notebook in 1949. If Shakespeare came back today, “he would have refused to die in a corner.”

Shakespeare, Chandler theorized, would have gone into the movie business and made its tired formulas fresh. He wouldn’t have cared about the vulgarity of Hollywood, Chandler thought, “because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything.”

Chandler had a tough, urban sensibility, and he created his own vision of the complete modern man, especially in the image of his most famous character, Philip Marlowe. Every new type of hero is like a new word added to the common vocabulary. It gives people a new possibility to emulate and a new standard of excellence. Chandler succeeded in giving his era a compelling male ideal.

Chandler was not particularly kind to women, though. It was up to the director Howard Hawks and his star, Lauren Bacall — who died this week — to give that era a counterpart female ideal, a hero both tough and tender, urbane and fast-talking, but also vulnerable and amusing.

Vivian Rutledge, the lead female character in the movie version of Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” is stuck in a classic film noir world. Every situation is confusing, shadowed and ambiguous. Every person is dappled with virtue and vice. Society rewards the wrong things, so the ruthless often get rich while the innocent get it in the neck.

The lead character, played by Bacall, emerges from an ambiguous past, but rises aristocratically above it. She has her foibles; she’s manipulative and spoiled. But she’s strong. She seems physically towering, with broad shoulders and a rich, mature voice that is astounding, given that Bacall was all of 20 years old when she made the picture.

She projects a hardened wisdom about the way the world works, and an ironic gaze. Her most outstanding feature is near perfect self-possession. She is composed and self-assured under stress. You get the sense that she has spent her life effortlessly wrapping men around her fingers. Her self-command must have seemed simultaneously masculine and feminine at the time.

The movie’s plot is famously incomprehensible. But you get to watch Vivian meet her equal. The badinage between Bacall’s Vivian and Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe is a cross between swordplay and foreplay. (They were married during the drawn-out filming process.)

The heiress greets Marlowe with a put-down: “So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors.”

But he’s self-sufficient enough to stand up to her. He wins her over with a series of small rejections. And he can match her verbal pyrotechnics. When she says she doesn’t like his manners, he comes straight back at her: “I’m not crazy about yours. … I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings.”

A connoisseur of love games, she’s soon enjoying the competition. The verbal dueling becomes a way of testing each other’s composure and finally turns into pure come-on, which, of course, she leads. The most famous exchange in the movie is allegedly about horse racing:

Bacall: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front-runners or come-from-behind. … I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch and then come home free.”

Bogart: “You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.”

Bacall: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”

By the end, they are united by a moral sensibility. Both characters are constantly making character distinctions, identifying who’s legit and who’s not. The distinctions that matter in their world are not between rich and poor, or pure and impure; they are between those who are faithful to the code of their professions and those who aren’t; between those who are loyal and honest and those who are petty, snobbish and phony.

The feminine ideal in “The Big Sleep” is, of course, dated now. But what’s lasting is a way of being in a time of disillusion. At a cynical moment when many had come to distrust institutions, and when the world seemed incoherent, Bacall and Bogart created a non-self-righteous way to care about virtue. Their characters weren’t prissy or snobbish in the slightest. They were redeemed by their own honor code, which they kept up, cocktail after cocktail.

Bobo apparently couldn’t bring himself to mention the fact that Bacall was a life-long liberal…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s hard to believe, but almost six years have passed since the fall of Lehman Brothers ushered in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Many people, myself included, would like to move on to other subjects. But we can’t, because the crisis is by no means over. Recovery is far from complete, and the wrong policies could still turn economic weakness into a more or less permanent depression.

In fact, that’s what seems to be happening in Europe as we speak. And the rest of us should learn from Europe’s experience.

Before I get to the latest bad news, let’s talk about the great policy argument that has raged for more than five years. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, but basically it has been a debate between the too-muchers and the not-enoughers.

The too-muchers have warned incessantly that the things governments and central banks are doing to limit the depth of the slump are setting the stage for something even worse. Deficit spending, they suggested, could provoke a Greek-style crisis any day now — within two years, declared Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles some three and a half years ago. Asset purchases by the Federal Reserve would “risk currency debasement and inflation,” declared a who’s who of Republican economists, investors, and pundits in a 2010 open letter to Ben Bernanke.

The not-enoughers — a group that includes yours truly — have argued all along that the clear and present danger is Japanification rather than Hellenization. That is, they have warned that inadequate fiscal stimulus and a premature turn to austerity could lead to a lost decade or more of economic depression, that the Fed should be doing even more to boost the economy, that deflation, not inflation, was the great risk facing the Western world.

To say the obvious, none of the predictions and warnings of the too-muchers have come to pass. America never experienced a Greek-type crisis of soaring borrowing costs. In fact, even within Europe the debt crisis largely faded away once the European Central Bank began doing its job as lender of last resort. Meanwhile, inflation has stayed low.

However, while the not-enoughers were right to dismiss warnings about interest rates and inflation, our concerns about actual deflation haven’t yet come to pass. This has provoked a fair bit of rethinking about the inflation process (if there has been any rethinking on the other side of this argument, I haven’t seen it), but not-enoughers continue to worry about the risks of a Japan-type quasi-permanent slump.

Which brings me to Europe’s woes.

On the whole, the too-muchers have had much more influence in Europe than in the United States, while the not-enoughers have had no influence at all. European officials eagerly embraced now-discredited doctrines that allegedly justified fiscal austerity even in depressed economies (although America has de facto done a lot of austerity, too, thanks to the sequester and cuts at the state and local level). And the European Central Bank, or E.C.B., not only failed to match the Fed’s asset purchases, it actually raised interest rates back in 2011 to head off the imaginary risk of inflation.

The E.C.B. reversed course when Europe slid back into recession, and, as I’ve already mentioned, under Mario Draghi’s leadership, it did a lot to alleviate the European debt crisis. But this wasn’t enough. The European economy did start growing again last year, but not enough to make more than a small dent in the unemployment rate.

And now growth has stalled, while inflation has fallen far below the E.C.B.’s target of 2 percent, and prices are actually falling in debtor nations. It’s really a dismal picture. Mr. Draghi & Co. need to do whatever they can to try to turn things around, but given the political and institutional constraints they face, Europe will arguably be lucky if all it experiences is one lost decade.

The good news is that things don’t look that dire in America, where job creation seems finally to have picked up and the threat of deflation has receded, at least for now. But all it would take is a few bad shocks and/or policy missteps to send us down the same path.

The good news is that Janet Yellen, the Fed chairwoman, understands the danger; she has made it clear that she would rather take the chance of a temporary rise in the inflation rate than risk hitting the brakes too soon, the way the E.C.B. did in 2011. The bad news is that she and her colleagues are under a lot of pressure to do the wrong thing from the too-muchers, who seem to have learned nothing from being wrong year after year, and are still agitating for higher rates.

There’s an old joke about the man who decides to cheer up, because things could be worse — and sure enough, things get worse. That’s more or less what happened to Europe, and we shouldn’t let it happen here.

Blow and Krugman

August 11, 2014

In “Intervening in Our Name” Mr. Blow says Americans need to perk up and pay attention to global issues.  This is true, but unlikely to happen given the state of our media.  Prof. Krugman, in “Phosphorus and Freedom” Prof. Krugman says free markets can’t solve all our problems. Just ask Toledo.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Americans, it must be admitted, are not always the most engaged people on world issues. It’s a sad truth.

But the world, at this moment, is aflame, and more Americans must perk up and pay attention. Before we know it, we will have already been drawn into these conflicts.

On Thursday, President Obama said he had authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, which the president said threatens some citizens of northern Iraq with “genocide.” The president, ever-conscious of his own commitment to extract us from the war in Iraq and of American weariness about our re-engaging, added: “As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq.”

Most Americans probably had not heard of ISIS until a few months ago, but we have known about the civil war in Syria for years. Many Americans, understandably, didn’t want to engage in another foreign conflict, but from this region sprang ISIS. We, understandably, were eager to exit Iraq, but into that void flowed ISIS.

Russia annexed the Crimea, a commercial airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine — likely by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists — and now Russia appears to be gathering a menacing troop presence on the Ukrainian border. As Reuters reported last week:

“Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and could use the pretext of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission to invade, NATO said.”

The on-again-off-again cease-fires in Gaza have yet to produce a lasting peace. Before last week’s cease-fire,  according to United Nations figures, there had been “1,814 Palestinians killed, including at least 1,312 civilians, of whom 408 are children and 214 are women.” By comparison, the report said there were “67 Israelis killed, including 64 soldiers, two civilians and one foreign national.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released last week asked Americans if they were satisfied with, dissatisfied with or didn’t know enough about how the United States was dealing with many of these topics, and the answers were thoroughly depressing.

On ISIS in Iraq, Syria, the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Israel and Hamas, at least 32 percent — and as high as 42 percent in the case of Syria — said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion. Of respondents who did have an opinion, those who were dissatisfied far outnumbered those who were satisfied, and most of the dissatisfied said their dissatisfaction was rooted in their belief that the United States wasn’t involved enough.

More Americans need to be more engaged, because these conflicts are complicated. There are no easy answers. Sometimes there will be no clear choices between good guys and bad guys but only choices among lesser demons. Sometimes conflicts are a swirl of history, ambition, grievance, vengeance and egos. Sometimes actors can only see righteousness in their wrong. Sometimes nobility and savagery coexist.

But if America, as the world’s last remaining superpower, is to faithfully play a role — if we must play that role — as a check against tyranny and terror in the world, its citizenry must be up to the task of discernment.

You don’t necessarily have to be privy to national security reports to be part of the national conversation. Those who know more don’t always know better. It has been my experience that truth has a way of revealing itself to those willing to search for it.

We have a responsibility to stay abreast of the conflicts in the world so that we can support or reject our leaders’ efforts to navigate them.

Abdicating that responsibility inevitably seems to grant more power to the war machine and its warmongers who have never seen a fight they didn’t want to join.

But we continue to be reminded that what’s left in the wake of force can be worse than what existed before it. Sadly, not every population can be freed, nor every life saved, by an exterior force when threatened by the reign of dictators or the rise of terrorists. This is a hard truth to swallow in the land of the free and home of the brave. Our hearts hurt for the oppressed and the slain.

But sometimes we must use softer power. As the president said in May at West Point: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Sometimes sanctions will be the more appropriate path, sometimes appeals for peace. And regardless of our approach, we have no guarantees of success. There are limits to all expressions of power. Sometimes we can only influence — but not dictate — events.

Sometimes the best we can do is to maintain constant pressure, so that we slowly bend the world toward freedom and justice.

Whatever our politics, we must at least make an effort to know enough about the issues to take a position.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

In the latest Times Magazine, Robert Draper profiled youngish libertarians — roughly speaking, people who combine free-market economics with permissive social views — and asked whether we might be heading for a “libertarian moment.” Well, probably not. Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders. But I’d like to ask a different question: Is libertarian economics at all realistic?

The answer is no. And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus.

As you’ve probably heard, the City of Toledo recently warned its residents not to drink the water. Why? Contamination from toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, largely caused by the runoff of phosphorus from farms.

When I read about that, it rang a bell. Last week many Republican heavy hitters spoke at a conference sponsored by the blog Red State — and I remembered an antigovernment rant a few years back from Erick Erickson, the blog’s founder. Mr. Erickson suggested that oppressive government regulation had reached the point where citizens might want to “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp.” And the source of his rage? A ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent. After all, why would government officials want to do such a thing?

An aside: The states bordering Lake Erie banned or sharply limited phosphates in detergent long ago, temporarily bringing the lake back from the brink. But farming has so far evaded effective controls, so the lake is dying again, and it will take more government intervention to save it.

The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.

Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. For example, Milton Friedman famously called for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. But in that case, how would consumers know whether their food and drugs were safe? His answer was to rely on tort law. Corporations, he claimed, would have the incentive not to poison people because of the threat of lawsuits.

So, do you believe that would be enough? Really? And, of course, people who denounce big government also tend to call for tort reform and attack trial lawyers.

More commonly, self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is. We’re living in an Ayn Rand novel, they insist. (No, we aren’t.) We have more than a hundred different welfare programs, they tell us, which are wasting vast sums on bureaucracy rather than helping the poor. (No, we don’t, and no, they aren’t.)

I’m often struck, incidentally, by the way antigovernment clichés can trump everyday experience. Talk about the role of government, and you invariably have people saying things along the lines of, “Do you want everything run like the D.M.V.?” Experience varies — but my encounters with New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission have generally been fairly good (better than dealing with insurance or cable companies), and I’m sure many libertarians would, if they were honest, admit that their own D.M.V. dealings weren’t too bad. But they go for the legend, not the fact.

Libertarians also tend to engage in projection. They don’t want to believe that there are problems whose solution requires government action, so they tend to assume that others similarly engage in motivated reasoning to serve their political agenda — that anyone who worries about, say, environmental issues is engaged in scare tactics to further a big-government agenda. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, doesn’t just think we’re living out the plot of “Atlas Shrugged”; he asserts that all the fuss over climate change is just “an excuse to grow government.”

As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t believe talk of a rising libertarian tide; despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers. But libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.

Brooks and Krugman

August 8, 2014

Oh FSM help us, Bobo has produced another “think” piece.  As if…  In “Introspective or Narcissistic?” he gurgles that the answer to that question might be found in whether you keep a journal.  In the comments “ailun99″ from Wisconsin has a question:  “I’m wondering what makes Mr. Brooks feel like he has enough expertise on this topic to write this?”  Good question.  Prof. Krugman says “Inequality is a Drag,” and that the gap between the rich and poor in the United States has grown so wide that it is inflicting a lot of economic damage and makes a new case for trickle-up economics.  Here’s Bobo:

Some people like to keep a journal. Some people think it’s a bad idea.

People who keep a journal often see it as part of the process of self-understanding and personal growth. They don’t want insights and events to slip through their minds. They think with their fingers and have to write to process experiences and become aware of their feelings.

People who oppose journal-keeping fear it contributes to self-absorption and narcissism. C.S. Lewis, who kept a journal at times, feared that it just aggravated sadness and reinforced neurosis. Gen. George Marshall did not keep a diary during World War II because he thought it would lead to “self-deception or hesitation in reaching decisions.”

The question is: How do you succeed in being introspective without being self-absorbed?

Psychologists and others have given some thought to this question. The upshot of their work is that there seems to be a paradox at the heart of introspection. The self is something that can be seen more accurately from a distance than from close up. The more you can yank yourself away from your own intimacy with yourself, the more reliable your self-awareness is likely to be.

The problem is that the mind is vastly deep, complex and variable. As Immanuel Kant famously put it, “We can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action.” At the same time, your self-worth and identity are at stake in every judgment you make about yourself.

This combination of unfathomability and “at stakeness” is a perfect breeding ground for self-deception, rationalization and motivated reasoning.

When people examine themselves from too close, they often end up ruminating or oversimplifying. Rumination is like that middle-of-the-night thinking — when the rest of the world is hidden by darkness and the mind descends into a spiral of endless reaction to itself. People have repetitive thoughts, but don’t take action. Depressed ruminators end up making themselves more depressed.

Oversimplifiers don’t really understand themselves, so they just invent an explanation to describe their own desires. People make checklists of what they want in a spouse and then usually marry a person who is nothing like their abstract criteria. Realtors know that the house many people buy often has nothing in common with the house they thought they wanted when they started shopping.

We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts. This can be done in several ways.

First, you can distance yourself by time. A program called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing had victims of trauma write down their emotions right after the event. (The idea was they shouldn’t bottle up their feelings.) But people who did so suffered more post-traumatic stress and were more depressed in the ensuing weeks. Their intimate reflections impeded healing and froze the pain. But people who write about trauma later on can place a broader perspective on things. Their lives are improved by the exercise.

Second, we can achieve distance from self through language. We’re better at giving other people good advice than at giving ourselves good advice, so it’s smart, when trying to counsel yourself, to pretend you are somebody else. This can be done a bit even by thinking of yourself in the third person. Work by Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross finds that people who view themselves from a self-distanced perspective are better at adaptive self-reflection than people who view themselves from a self-immersed perspective.

Finally, there is narrative. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia suggests in his book “Strangers to Ourselves” that we shouldn’t see ourselves as archaeologists, minutely studying each feeling and trying to dig deep into the unconscious. We should see ourselves as literary critics, putting each incident in the perspective of a longer life story. The narrative form is a more supple way of understanding human processes, even unconscious ones, than rationalistic analysis.

Wilson writes, “The point is that we should not analyze the information [about our feelings] in an overly deliberate, conscious manner, constantly making explicit lists of pluses and minuses. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of finding reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely.”

Think of one of those Chuck Close self-portraits. The face takes up the entire image. You can see every pore. Some people try to introspect like that. But others see themselves in broader landscapes, in the context of longer narratives about forgiveness, or redemption or setback and ascent. Maturity is moving from the close-up to the landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self, and survival.

My guess is that poor Bobo is going through a really tough midlife crisis.  I just wish he’d keep it to himself.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

For more than three decades, almost everyone who matters in American politics has agreed that higher taxes on the rich and increased aid to the poor have hurt economic growth.

Liberals have generally viewed this as a trade-off worth making, arguing that it’s worth accepting some price in the form of lower G.D.P. to help fellow citizens in need. Conservatives, on the other hand, have advocated trickle-down economics, insisting that the best policy is to cut taxes on the rich, slash aid to the poor and count on a rising tide to raise all boats.

But there’s now growing evidence for a new view — namely, that the whole premise of this debate is wrong, that there isn’t actually any trade-off between equity and inefficiency. Why? It’s true that market economies need a certain amount of inequality to function. But American inequality has become so extreme that it’s inflicting a lot of economic damage. And this, in turn, implies that redistribution — that is, taxing the rich and helping the poor — may well raise, not lower, the economy’s growth rate.

You might be tempted to dismiss this notion as wishful thinking, a sort of liberal equivalent of the right-wing fantasy that cutting taxes on the rich actually increases revenue. In fact, however, there is solid evidence, coming from places like the International Monetary Fund, that high inequality is a drag on growth, and that redistribution can be good for the economy.

Earlier this week, the new view about inequality and growth got a boost from Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, which put out a report supporting the view that high inequality is a drag on growth. The agency was summarizing other people’s work, not doing research of its own, and you don’t need to take its judgment as gospel (remember its ludicrous downgrade of United States debt). What S.& P.’s imprimatur shows, however, is just how mainstream the new view of inequality has become. There is, at this point, no reason to believe that comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted is good for growth, and good reason to believe the opposite.

Specifically, if you look systematically at the international evidence on inequality, redistribution, and growth — which is what researchers at the I.M.F. did — you find that lower levels of inequality are associated with faster, not slower, growth. Furthermore, income redistribution at the levels typical of advanced countries (with the United States doing much less than average) is “robustly associated with higher and more durable growth.” That is, there’s no evidence that making the rich richer enriches the nation as a whole, but there’s strong evidence of benefits from making the poor less poor.

But how is that possible? Doesn’t taxing the rich and helping the poor reduce the incentive to make money? Well, yes, but incentives aren’t the only thing that matters for economic growth. Opportunity is also crucial. And extreme inequality deprives many people of the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Think about it. Do talented children in low-income American families have the same chance to make use of their talent — to get the right education, to pursue the right career path — as those born higher up the ladder? Of course not. Moreover, this isn’t just unfair, it’s expensive. Extreme inequality means a waste of human resources.

And government programs that reduce inequality can make the nation as a whole richer, by reducing that waste.

Consider, for example, what we know about food stamps, perennially targeted by conservatives who claim that they reduce the incentive to work. The historical evidence does indeed suggest that making food stamps available somewhat reduces work effort, especially by single mothers. But it also suggests that Americans who had access to food stamps when they were children grew up to be healthier and more productive than those who didn’t, which means that they made a bigger economic contribution. The purpose of the food stamp program was to reduce misery, but it’s a good guess that the program was also good for American economic growth.

The same thing, I’d argue, will end up being true of Obamacare. Subsidized insurance will induce some people to reduce the number of hours they work, but it will also mean higher productivity from Americans who are finally getting the health care they need, not to mention making better use of their skills because they can change jobs without the fear of losing coverage. Over all, health reform will probably make us richer as well as more secure.

Will the new view of inequality change our political debate? It should. Being nice to the wealthy and cruel to the poor is not, it turns out, the key to economic growth. On the contrary, making our economy fairer would also make it richer. Goodbye, trickle-down; hello, trickle-up.

Blow and Krugman

August 4, 2014

In “The Do-Even-Less Congress” Mr. Blow says legislating is only a hobby for members of this deliberative body.  Prof. Krugman considers “Obama’s Other Success” and says the Dodd-Frank financial reforms have probably gotten worse press than Obamacare, but they, too, are working.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Congress is a joke. But the joke isn’t funny — unless, of course, you’re into dark humor.

The entire legislative body has been consumed by kvetching, at the expense of actual legislating. And the numbers that highlight this reality are simply atrocious.

According to a Pew Research Center report issued Thursday:

“As of Wednesday the current Congress had enacted 142 laws, the fewest of any Congress in the past two decades over an equivalent time span. And only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation, under our deliberately broad criteria (no post-office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other purely ceremonial laws).”

President Obama has felt it necessary to veto only two bills since becoming president. That is fewer than any president since James Garfield in 1881, who vetoed none. But Garfield’s term lasted only 200 days before his death, and he was struck more than two months earlier by an assassin’s bullets.

Part of the reason for the dearth of vetoes is the dearth of legislation making it to the president’s desk. And this is in part because of the ever-shrinking periods of time that Congress is in session.

As a New York Times article declared in January, “The ‘do nothing’ Congress is preparing to do even less.”

The House of Representatives is scheduled to be in session even fewer days than last year’s depressingly low 135 days. That’s right: The House is underperforming even last session’s underperformance. Last December, The New York Times’s Jeremy W. Peters crunched the numbers and found:

“Not counting brief, pro forma sessions, the House was in session for 942 hours, an average of about 28 hours each week that it conducted business in Washington.”

Tell that to the average American full-time worker busting his or her hump working more than 1,700 hours a year. And the average American is laboring for only a fraction of the $174,000 most members of Congress bring home.

The Senate didn’t fare much better than the House in Peters’s analysis:

“By a similar measure, the Senate was near its recorded lows for days on the floor. Senators have spent 99 days casting votes this year, close to the recent low point for a nonelection year in 1991, when there were 95 voting days.”

And yet, as much as the president has been criticized for his recent fund-raising efforts, members of Congress are making the time to do the same. As ABC News reported last week:

“Republicans and Democrats in Congress are holding at least 100 fund-raisers in Washington in the days leading up to the August recess, according to fund-raising lists obtained by ABC News, with senators who aren’t even on the ballot in 2014 holding events.”

Part of the problem with Washington is a manifestation of polarization.

A June Pew study found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” And that polarized public is represented by an increasingly polarized Congress. According to the political scientists Christopher Hare, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction.”

The polarization has bastardized the meaning of compromise. The June Pew poll found that the more liberal people were, the more they preferred politicians who compromise, and the more conservative Americans were, the more they preferred politicians who stick to their positions. And yet, a majority of those who were consistently liberal and those who were consistently conservative thought that an ideal compromise was tantamount to their getting more of what they wanted than the other side.

There is no longer a real middle.

This is not to say that there is some equivalency between left and right when it comes to hostility and intransigence. As I see it, what middle remains has been dragged so far right that it doesn’t feel like a real middle anymore. America in general may be becoming more liberal on a variety of social issues, but there is a strident and forceful push to dial back the clock — or at least prevent it from moving forward — from a new strain of conservative politicians and the people who support them.

There is still time for this Congress to get more things done. As Pew pointed out: “Among the past seven Congresses, between 39 percent and 59 percent of all the substantive laws they passed came in the last five months of their respective two-year terms; the average was 49 percent.”

But I’m not holding my breath. Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress. Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Although the enemies of health reform will never admit it, the Affordable Care Act is looking more and more like a big success. Costs are coming in below predictions, while the number of uninsured Americans is dropping fast, especially in states that haven’t tried to sabotage the program. Obamacare is working.

But what about the administration’s other big push, financial reform? The Dodd-Frank reform bill has, if anything, received even worse press than Obamacare, derided by the right as anti-business and by the left as hopelessly inadequate. And like Obamacare, it’s certainly not the reform you would have devised in the absence of political constraints.

But also like Obamacare, financial reform is working a lot better than anyone listening to the news media would imagine. Let’s talk, in particular, about two important pieces of Dodd-Frank: creation of an agency protecting consumers from misleading or fraudulent financial sales pitches, and efforts to end “too big to fail.”

The decision to create a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shouldn’t have been controversial, given what happened during the housing boom. As Edward M. Gramlich, a Federal Reserve official who warned prophetically of problems in subprime lending, asked, “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” He went on, “The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.” The need for more protection was obvious.

Of course, that obvious need didn’t stop the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, financial industry lobbyists and conservative groups from going all out in an effort to prevent the bureau’s creation or at least stop it from doing its job, spending more than $1.3 billion in the process. Republicans in Congress dutifully served the industry’s interests, notably by trying to prevent President Obama from appointing a permanent director. And the question was whether all that opposition would hobble the new bureau and make it ineffective.

At this point, however, all accounts indicate that the bureau is in fact doing its job, and well — well enough to inspire continuing fury among bankers and their political allies. A recent case in point: The bureau is cracking down on billions in excessive overdraft fees.

Better consumer protection means fewer bad loans, and therefore a reduced risk of financial crisis. But what happens if a crisis occurs anyway?

The answer is that, as in 2008, the government will step in to keep the financial system functioning; nobody wants to take the risk of repeating the Great Depression.

But how do you rescue the banking system without rewarding bad behavior? In particular, rescues in times of crisis can give large financial players an unfair advantage: They can borrow cheaply in normal times, because everyone knows that they are “too big to fail” and will be bailed out if things go wrong.

The answer is that the government should seize troubled institutions when it bails them out, so that they can be kept running without rewarding stockholders or bondholders who don’t need rescue. In 2008 and 2009, however, it wasn’t clear that the Treasury Department had the necessary legal authority to do that. So Dodd-Frank filled that gap, giving regulators Ordinary Liquidation Authority, also known as resolution authority, so that in the next crisis we can save “systemically important” banks and other institutions without bailing out the bankers.

Bankers, of course, hate this idea; and Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell tried to help their friends with the Orwellian claim that resolution authority was actually a gift to Wall Street, a form of corporate welfare, because it would grease the skids for future bailouts.

But Wall Street knew better. As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute points out, if being labeled systemically important were actually corporate welfare, institutions would welcome the designation; in fact, they have fought it tooth and nail. And a new study from the Government Accountability Office shows that while large banks were able to borrow more cheaply than small banks before financial reform passed, that advantage has now essentially disappeared. To some extent this may reflect generally calmer markets, but the study nonetheless suggests that reform has done at least part of what it was supposed to do.

Did reform go far enough? No. In particular, while banks are being forced to hold more capital, a key force for stability, they really should be holding much more. But Wall Street and its allies wouldn’t be screaming so loudly, and spending so much money in an effort to gut the law, if it weren’t an important step in the right direction. For all its limitations, financial reform is a success story.

Brooks and Krugman

August 1, 2014

Bobo is busy playing “Let’s All Blame Teh Poors.”  In “The Character Factory” he has the unmitigated gall to say that antipoverty programs will continue to be ineffective until they integrate a robust understanding of character.  “Gemli” from Boston ends an extended comment with this:  “So the poor should not lament the outrageous income inequality, or fight to raise the pitiful minimum wage, but rather should learn to improve their character, accept their lot, and be the best darn hopeless drudges they can be.”  And tug the forelock when Bobo sweeps past on the way to his limo…  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Knowledge Isn’t Power:”  Why does ignorance rule in policy debates?  Here’s Bobo:

Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.

Most Democratic antipoverty programs consist of transferring money, providing jobs or otherwise addressing the material deprivation of the poor. Most Republican antipoverty programs likewise consist of adjusting the economic incentives or regulatory barriers faced by the disadvantaged.

As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution pointed out recently in National Affairs, both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions — as if they were part of a species of “hollow man” whose destiny is shaped by economic structures alone, and not by character and behavior.

It’s easy to understand why policy makers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim — spreading the calumny that the poor are that way because they don’t love their children enough, or don’t have good values. Furthermore, most sensible people wonder if government can do anything to alter character anyway.

The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.

Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood. Carol Dweck’s work has shown that people who have a growth mind-set — who believe their basic qualities can be developed through hard work — do better than people who believe their basic talents are fixed and innate. Angela Duckworth has shown how important grit and perseverance are to lifetime outcomes. College students who report that they finish whatever they begin have higher grades than their peers, even ones with higher SATs. Spelling bee contestants who scored significantly higher on grit scores were 41 percent more likely to advance to later rounds than less resilient competitors.

Summarizing the research in this area, Reeves estimates that measures of drive and self-control influence academic achievement roughly as much as cognitive skills. Recent research has also shown that there are very different levels of self-control up and down the income scale. Poorer children grow up with more stress and more disruption, and these disadvantages produce effects on the brain. Researchers often use dull tests to see who can focus attention and stay on task. Children raised in the top income quintile were two-and-a-half times more likely to score well on these tests than students raised in the bottom quintile.

But these effects are reversible with the proper experiences.

People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don’t help. The superficial “character education” programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either. Instead, sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb. Government-supported programs can contribute in all realms.

First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P. schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.

Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.

Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.

Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.

Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.

And maybe if people didn’t have to work 3 jobs to put food on the table and keep the lights on that might be easier, you poisonous turd.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

One of the best insults I’ve ever read came from Ezra Klein, who now is editor in chief of Vox.com. In 2007, he described Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, as “a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”

It’s a funny line, which applies to quite a few public figures. Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a prime current example. But maybe the joke’s on us. After all, such people often dominate policy discourse. And what policy makers don’t know, or worse, what they think they know that isn’t so, can definitely hurt you.

What inspired these gloomy thoughts? Well, I’ve been looking at surveys from the Initiative on Global Markets, based at the University of Chicago. For two years, the initiative has been regularly polling a panel of leading economists, representing a wide spectrum of schools and political leanings, on questions that range from the economics of college athletes to the effectiveness of trade sanctions. It usually turns out that there is much less professional controversy about an issue than the cacophony in the news media might have led you to expect.

This was certainly true of the most recent poll, which asked whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the Obama “stimulus” — reduced unemployment. All but one of those who responded said that it did, a vote of 36 to 1. A follow-up question on whether the stimulus was worth it produced a slightly weaker but still overwhelming 25 to 2 consensus.

Leave aside for a moment the question of whether the panel is right in this case (although it is). Let me ask, instead, whether you knew that the pro-stimulus consensus among experts was this strong, or whether you even knew that such a consensus existed.

I guess it depends on where you get your economic news and analysis. But you certainly didn’t hear about that consensus on, say, CNBC — where one host was so astonished to hear yours truly arguing for higher spending to boost the economy that he described me as a “unicorn,” someone he could hardly believe existed.

More important, over the past several years policy makers across the Western world have pretty much ignored the professional consensus on government spending and everything else, placing their faith instead in doctrines most economists firmly reject.

As it happens, the odd man out — literally — in that poll on stimulus was Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard. He has claimed that cuts in government spending are actually expansionary, but relatively few economists agree, pointing to work at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere that seems to refute his claims. Nonetheless, back when European leaders were making their decisive and disastrous turn toward austerity, they brushed off warnings that slashing spending in depressed economies would deepen their depression. Instead, they listened to economists telling them what they wanted to hear. It was, as Bloomberg Businessweek put it, “Alesina’s hour.”

Am I saying that the professional consensus is always right? No. But when politicians pick and choose which experts — or, in many cases, “experts” — to believe, the odds are that they will choose badly. Moreover, experience shows that there is no accountability in such matters. Bear in mind that the American right is still taking its economic advice mainly from people who have spent many years wrongly predicting runaway inflation and a collapsing dollar.

All of which raises a troubling question: Are we as societies even capable of taking good policy advice?

Economists used to assert confidently that nothing like the Great Depression could happen again. After all, we know far more than our great-grandfathers did about the causes of and cures for slumps, so how could we fail to do better? When crises struck, however, much of what we’ve learned over the past 80 years was simply tossed aside.

The only piece of our system that seemed to have learned anything from history was the Federal Reserve, and the Fed’s actions under Ben Bernanke, continuing under Janet Yellen, are arguably the only reason we haven’t had a full replay of the Depression. (More recently, the European Central Bank under Mario Draghi, another place where expertise still retains a toehold, has pulled Europe back from the brink to which austerity brought it.) Sure enough, there are moves afoot in Congress to take away the Fed’s freedom of action. Not a single member of the Chicago experts panel thinks this would be a good idea, but we’ve seen how much that matters.

And macroeconomics, of course, isn’t the only challenge we face. In fact, it should be easy compared with many other issues that need to be addressed with specialized knowledge, above all climate change. So you really have to wonder whether and how we’ll avoid disaster.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers