Archive for the ‘Krugman’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

December 19, 2014

In “The Union Future” Bobo has the gall to ask a question:  Do the people who have marched over the Brown and Garner cases have the stamina to force change?  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “This is really quite an amazing column.  The title and first paragraph lead one to believe that Mr. Brooks, of all people, is intent on starting a serious conversation on how to address the horrific income and wealth inequality in the US, and the possible role of Labor Unions in that process.  But then, very quickly, Mr. Brooks reverts to character and concentrates on lambasting public sector unions, one of the favorite targets of some of the more odious GOP Governors. The little snipe, almost as an aside, at the Teachers Unions is just a warm up. He then has the audacity to blame the Police Unions for the racial tensions, which are really the remnants pervasive racism in the US in general.”  So it’s typical Bobo crap.  Prof. Krugman, in “Putin’s Bubble Bursts,” says the global plunge in oil prices and the falling ruble have wreaked havoc on the Russian economy. It’s been quite a comedown for the strongman.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decades, the case for enhancing union power has grown both stronger and weaker. On the one hand, as wages have stagnated while profits have soared, it does seem that there is something out of whack in the balance of power between labor and capital. Workers need some new way to collectively bargain for more money.

On the other hand, unions, and especially public-sector unions, have done a lot over the past decades to rigidify workplaces, especially government. Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform. Police unions have become an impediment to police reform.

If you look at all the proposals that have been discussed since the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, you find that somewhere or other around the country, police unions have opposed all of them:

GETTING RID OF BAD COPS A small percentage of cops commit most of the abuses. A study by WNYC News in New York found that, since 2009, 40 percent of the “resisting arrest” charges were filed by just 5 percent of New York Police Department officers. In other words, most officers rarely get in a confrontation that leads to that charge, but a few officers often get in violent confrontations.

But it’s very hard to remove the bad apples from the force. Trying to protect their members, unions have weakened accountability. The investigation process is softer on police than it would be on anyone else. In parts of the country, contract rules stipulate that officers get a 48-hour cooling-off period before having to respond to questions. They have access to the names and testimony of their accusers. They can be questioned only by one person at a time. They can’t be threatened with disciplinary action during questioning.

More seriously, cops who are punished can be reinstated through a secretive appeals process that favors job retention over public safety. In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a riveting piece with egregious stories of cops who have returned to the force after clear incompetence. Hector Jimenez was an Oakland, Calif., cop who shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man in 2007. Seven months later, he killed another unarmed man, shooting him in the back three times while he ran away. The city paid damages. Jimenez was fired. But he appealed through his union and was reinstated with back pay.

CAMERAS There’s long been talk about equipping cops with wearable cameras. In Miami, Boston, and Wichita, Kan., city officials bandied about such plans, but the local unions moved to thwart them, arguing, in one case, that wearing cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations.”

DEMILITARIZATION After riots in Ferguson, there was basically a national consensus that police don’t need mine-resistant, ambush-protected monster vehicles and military-style grenade launchers. But there’s support for the program in Washington among the defense industry and the unions. A union executive told Bloomberg News earlier this month that representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police reached out to “maybe 80 percent of senators and half the House” to defend the program. A representative of the International Union of Police Associations wrote in August after the shooting death of Brown, “I believe that law enforcement officers should have available to them any and all tools necessary to do their job and protect their community.”

STOP-AND-FRISK In New York, a court order mandated that there be federal oversight of the New York Police Department to monitor stop-and-frisk practices, a procedure that disproportionately affects minority men. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association moved to stall the ruling and questioned its impact. “We continue to have serious concerns about how these remedies will impact our members and the ability to do their jobs,” the president of the association said.

COMMUNITY RELATIONS In Philadelphia, a civilian oversight commission suggested that police officers apologize to citizens who complain of being mistreated. The local chief of the Fraternal Order of Police responded with a hysterical letter in March 2012 claiming that the commission was trying “to further weaken and demoralize the Philadelphia Police Department in a time of crisis with a significantly growing crime problem in this city. … Your group poses a direct threat to public safety in this city. A threat which should no longer be tolerated by our citizens or their government.”

We get mad at racism, but most government outrages have structural roots. The left doesn’t want to go after police unions because they’re unions. The right doesn’t want to because they represent law and order. Politicians of all stripes shy away because they are powerful.

Now we have a test case to see if the people who march about the Garner case have the stamina to force change. Legitimate union advocacy has become extreme because it has gone unchecked. Most cops do hard jobs well, but right now there’s a crisis of accountability.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.

But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?

Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.

In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.

Except for one thing. Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

How does it end? The standard response of a country in Russia’s situation is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own, among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone.

It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies.

Blow and Krugman

December 15, 2014

In “America, Who Are We?” Mr. Blow says we can shout and protest, but we must vote, too.  Prof. Krugman considers “Wall Street’s Revenge” and explains how the Masters of the Universe got politicians to bring back moral hazard.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week I spoke at a seminary and graduate school in New York about the protests following the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.

It was invigorating and inspiring to be among so many young people with so much passion about social justice, young people beginning to feel their power as change agents and brimming to exercise it by disrupting the status quo.

However, I couldn’t help noticing a disturbing sentiment echoed in a few of the questions about the value of voting. One gentleman even said something to this effect: “It doesn’t make a difference whom you put in office because the office is corrupt.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Voting is not some fruitless, patrician artifact from a bygone era. It is not for those devoid of consciousness and deprived of truth. It is an incredibly important part of civic engagement. No politicians are perfect, but neither are they all the same. The sameness argument is an instrument of deceit employed by the puppet masters to drive down the electoral participation of young idealists.

We don’t vote for people because they are the exact embodiment of our values, but because they are likely to be the most responsive to them.

Also, there has been too much blood spilled, too many bodies buried in the struggle to expand the franchise of voting in America for us to cavalierly shrug it off. And the effort to constrict the pool of eligible voters is too well organized and too well financed for anyone to see his or her vote as lacking value.

And yet, I do understand the bulging frustration that the political system can foster.

I understand the feelings of these young protesters who are chafing at our current representative democracy and yearning for — yelling for — more direct democracy in which “the people” make direct demands and direct decisions, possibly circumventing an admittedly polarized-to-the-point-of-paralysis federal legislative system.

Protests are a form of direct democracy.

But direct democracy works best at the local level, like town hall meetings. It is far more challenging and unwieldy when national policy changes are sought.

I understand the fundamental questions being raised in these protests and others. There is an emotional declaration: The system is broken. There is also a moral, philosophical question: Who are we?

Are we — or better yet, should we be — a nation that tortures detainees, or targets and kills American citizens with drones, or has broad discretion to spy on the American public? Should we be a country hamstrung over how to deal with millions of undocumented immigrants, or our gun violence epidemic, or our growing income inequality? Should we be a country that accepts bias in its criminal justice system, a country of mass incarceration and a country where so many young black men can be killed by the police?

Who are we?

That is a very real question. Who are we now and who do we aspire to be? Do we aspire to the ideas enshrined in our founding documents? Do we truly believe the Declaration of Independence?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

If so, then we must do as the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. exhorted this nation to do in his Mountaintop speech: “Be true to what you said on paper.”

King continued: “somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”

He read those things in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

America is still straining, against corporatist, elitist, exclusionary forces, to be true in practice to what is clearly written on paper. Representative democracy is not a perfect form of government. It can be fragile and subject to corruption, the only guard against which is unwavering vigilance. But it is a grand idea, exquisite because of its fragility, and deserving of every effort to make it more perfect.

Who are we? We are America — impossibly strong, illogically optimistic, eternally hopeful. This is a laboratory in which one of the greatest experiments in human history is still underway. We can be whoever we want to be, dare to be, dream of being.

We are the young people in the streets, who shout out and die-in for the right to be treated equally and to live freely. We are people who must know that the voice and the vote are mutual amplifiers, not mutually exclusive.

I wish I could be optimistic about the future of the country, but at this point I’m not.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wall Street, 2010 was the year of “Obama rage,” in which financial tycoons went ballistic over the president’s suggestion that some bankers helped cause the financial crisis. They were also, of course, angry about the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which placed some limits on their wheeling and dealing.

The Masters of the Universe, it turns out, are a bunch of whiners. But they’re whiners with war chests, and now they’ve bought themselves a Congress.

Before I get to specifics, a word about the changing politics of high finance.

Most interest groups have stable political loyalties. For example, the coal industry always gives the vast bulk of its political contributions to Republicans, while teachers’ unions do the same for Democrats. You might have expected Wall Street to favor the G.O.P., which is always eager to cut taxes on the rich. In fact, however, the securities and investment industry — perhaps affected by New York’s social liberalism, perhaps recognizing the tendency of stocks to do much better when Democrats hold the White House — has historically split its support more or less equally between the two parties.

But that all changed with the onset of Obama rage. Wall Street overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and invested heavily in Republicans once again this year. And the first payoff to that investment has already been realized. Last week Congress passed a bill to maintain funding for the U.S. government into next year, and included in that bill was a rollback of one provision of the 2010 financial reform.

In itself, this rollback is significant but not a fatal blow to reform. But it’s utterly indefensible. The incoming congressional majority has revealed its agenda — and it’s all about rewarding bad actors.

So, about that provision. One of the goals of financial reform was to stop banks from taking big risks with depositors’ money. Why? Well, bank deposits are insured against loss, and this creates a well-known problem of “moral hazard”: If banks are free to gamble, they can play a game of heads we win, tails the taxpayers lose. That’s what happened after savings-and-loan institutions were deregulated in the 1980s, and promptly ran wild.

Dodd-Frank tried to limit this kind of moral hazard in various ways, including a rule barring insured institutions from dealing in exotic securities, the kind that played such a big role in the financial crisis. And that’s the rule that has just been rolled back.

Now, this isn’t the death of financial reform. In fact, I’d argue that regulating insured banks is something of a sideshow, since the 2008 crisis was brought on mainly by uninsured institutions like Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. The really important parts of reform involve consumer protection and the enhanced ability of regulators both to police the actions of “systemically important” financial institutions (which needn’t be conventional banks) and to take such institutions into receivership at times of crisis.

But what Congress did is still outrageous — and both sides of the ideological divide should agree. After all, even if you believe (in defiance of the lessons of history) that financial institutions can be trusted to police themselves, even if you believe the grotesquely false narrative that bleeding-heart liberals caused the financial crisis by pressuring banks to lend to poor people, especially minority borrowers, you should be against letting Wall Street play games with government-guaranteed funds. What just went down isn’t about free-market economics; it’s pure crony capitalism.

And sure enough, Citigroup literally wrote the deregulation language that was inserted into the funding bill.

Again, in itself last week’s action wasn’t decisive. But it was clearly the first skirmish in a war to roll back much if not all of the financial reform. And if you want to know who stands where in this coming war, follow the money: Wall Street is giving mainly to Republicans for a reason.

It’s true that most of the political headlines these past few days have been about Democratic division, with Senator Elizabeth Warren urging rejection of a funding bill the White House wanted passed. But this was mainly a divide about tactics, with few Democrats actually believing that undoing Dodd-Frank is a good idea.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to find Republicans expressing major reservations about undoing reform. You sometimes hear claims that the Tea Party is as opposed to bailing out bankers as it is to aiding the poor, but there’s no sign that this alleged hostility to Wall Street is having any influence at all on Republican priorities.

So the people who brought the economy to its knees are seeking the chance to do it all over again. And they have powerful allies, who are doing all they can to make Wall Street’s dream come true.

Brooks and Krugman

December 12, 2014

In “In Praise of Small Miracles” Bobo says behavioral economics has given us amazing new policy options to solve local and international problems.  It’s his usual crap, but the comments were so wonderful I couldn’t decide between “mike vogel” of NY, who said “David, there is much proof that yelling at someone has zero affect on his or her behavior. For example, did you ever read your column’s comments section?” and “Bob” from SE PA who said “Instead of writing the thoughtful and critical replies posted here, can we instead come to The New York Times and scream our criticism of David’s work from the hallway just outside his office? Under David’s theory, the quality of his work would then improve.”  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Mad as Hellas.”  He says Greece appears to be in crisis again. Will we learn the right lessons this time?  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us don’t save enough. When governments try to encourage saving, they usually enact big policies to increase the incentives. But, in Kenya, people were given a lockable metal box — a simple place to put their money. After one year, the people with metal boxes increased savings by so much that they had 66 percent more money available to pay for health emergencies. It would have taken a giant tax reform to produce a shift in behavior that large.

Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.

The heckling discouraged dangerous driving by an awesome amount. Insurance claims involving injury or death fell to half of their previous levels.

These are examples of a new kind of policy-making that is sweeping the world. The old style was based on the notion that human beings are rational actors who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. The new style, which supplements but does not replace the old style, is based on the obvious point that human beings are not always rational actors. Sometimes we’re mentally lazy, or stressed, or we’re influenced by social pressure and unconscious biases. It’s possible to take advantage of these features to enact change.

For example, people hate losing things more than they like getting things, a phenomenon known as loss aversion. In some schools, teachers were offered a bonus at the end of their year if they could improve student performance. This kind of merit pay didn’t improve test scores. But, in other schools, teachers were given a bonus at the beginning of the year, which would effectively be taken away if their students didn’t improve. This loss-framed bonus had a big effect.

People are also guided by decision-making formats. The people who administer the ACT college admissions test used to allow students to send free score reports to three colleges. Many people thus applied to three colleges. But then the ACT folks changed the form so there were four lines where you could write down prospective colleges. That tiny change meant that many people applied to four colleges instead of three. Some got into more prestigious schools they wouldn’t have otherwise. This improved the expected earnings of low-income students by about $10,000.

The World Bank has just issued an amazingly good report called “Mind, Society and Behavior” on how the insights of behavioral economics can be applied to global development and global health. The report, written by a team led by Karla Hoff and Varun Gauri, lists many policies that have already been tried and points the way to many more.

Sugar cane farmers in India receive most of their income once a year, at harvest time. In the weeks before harvest, when they are poor and stressed, they score 10 points lower on I.Q. tests than in the weeks after. If you schedule fertilizer purchase decisions and their children’s school enrollment decisions during the weeks after harvest, they will make more farsighted choices than at other times of the year. This simple policy change is based on an understanding of how poverty depletes mental resources.

In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.

The policies informed by behavioral economics are delicious because they show how cheap changes can produce big effects. Policy makers in this mode focus on discrete opportunities to exploit, not vast problems to solve.

This corrects for a bias in the way governments often work. They tend to gravitate toward the grand and the abstract. For example the United Nations is now replacing the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, with the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Millennium Development Goals are concrete, measurable and have an end-date, so they could serve as a rallying point,” says Suprotik Basu, the chief executive of the MDG Health Alliance. “One good thing about the Sustainable Development Goals is that they’re being written through a bottom-up consensus process. But sometimes the search for consensus leads you higher and higher into the clouds. The jury is out on whether we will wind up with goals concrete enough to help ministers make decisions and decide priorities.”

Behavioral economics policies are beautiful because they are small and concrete but powerful. They remind us that when policies are rooted in actual human behavior and specific day-to-day circumstances, even governments can produce small miracles.

I want Bobo to start screaming at bad drivers.  As a Republican he’s sure to approve of gun possession, so when he gets shot he’ll be understanding.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Greek fiscal crisis erupted five years ago, and its side effects continue to inflict immense damage on Europe and the world. But I’m not talking about the side effects you may have in mind — spillovers from Greece’s Great Depression-level slump, or financial contagion to other debtors. No, the truly disastrous effect of the Greek crisis was the way it distorted economic policy, as supposedly serious people around the world rushed to learn the wrong lessons.

Now Greece appears to be in crisis again. Will we learn the right lessons this time?

What happened last time, you may recall, was the exploitation of Greece’s woes to change the economic subject. Suddenly, we were supposed to obsess over budget deficits, even if borrowing costs were at historic lows, and slash government spending, even in the face of mass unemployment. Because if we didn’t, you see, we could turn into Greece any day now. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility,” intoned David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, as he announced austerity policies in 2010. “We are on the same path as Greece,” declared Representative Paul Ryan, who was soon to become the chairman of the House Budget Committee, that same year.

In reality, Britain and the United States, which borrow in their own currencies, were and are nothing like Greece. If you thought otherwise in 2010, by now year after year of incredibly low interest rates and low inflation should have convinced you. And the experience of Greece and other European countries that were forced into harsh austerity measures should also have convinced you that slashing spending in a depressed economy is a really bad idea if you can avoid it. This is true even in the supposed success stories — Ireland, for example, is finally growing again, but it still has almost 11 percent unemployment, and twice that rate among young people.

And the devastation in Greece is awesome to behold. Some press reports I’ve seen seem to suggest that the country has been a malingerer, balking at the harsh measures its situation demands. In reality, it has made huge adjustments — slashing public employment and compensation, cutting back social programs, raising taxes. If you want a sense of the scale of austerity, it would be as if the United States had introduced spending cuts and tax increases amounting to more than $1 trillion a year. Meanwhile, wages in the private sector have plunged. Yet a quarter of the Greek labor force, and half its young, remain unemployed.

Meanwhile, the debt situation has if anything gotten worse, with the ratio of public debt to G.D.P. at a record high — mainly because of falling G.D.P., not rising debt — and with the emergence of a big private debt problem, thanks to deflation and depression. There are some positives; the economy is growing a bit, finally, largely thanks to a revival of tourism. But, over all, it has been many years of suffering for very little reward.

The remarkable thing, given all that, has been the willingness of the Greek public to take it, to accept the claims of the political establishment that the pain is necessary and will eventually lead to recovery. And the news that has roiled Europe these past few days is that the Greeks may have reached their limit. The details are complex, but basically the current government is trying a fairly desperate political maneuver to put off a general election. And, if it fails, the likely winner in that election is Syriza, a party of the left that has demanded a renegotiation of the austerity program, which could lead to a confrontation with Germany and exit from the euro.

The important point here is that it’s not just the Greeks who are mad as Hellas (their own name for their country) and aren’t going to take it anymore. Look at France, where Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, outpolls mainstream candidates of both right and left. Look at Italy, where about half of voters support radical parties like the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement. Look at Britain, where both anti-immigrant politicians and Scottish separatists are threatening the political order.

It would be a terrible thing if any of these groups — with the exception, surprisingly, of Syriza, which seems relatively benign — were to come to power. But there’s a reason they’re on the rise. This is what happens when an elite claims the right to rule based on its supposed expertise, its understanding of what must be done — then demonstrates both that it does not, in fact, know what it is doing, and that it is too ideologically rigid to learn from its mistakes.

I have no idea how events in Greece are about to turn out. But there’s a real lesson in its political turmoil that’s much more important than the false lesson too many took from its special fiscal woes.

Blow and Krugman

December 8, 2014

In “A New Age of Activism” Mr. Blow says the energy pouring into the streets is diffuse and organic, but powerful.  Prof. Krugman explains why we had to wait so long for some decent job numbers in “Recovery at Last?”.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There seems to be a new age of activism rising. From Occupy Wall Street, to the “Stop Watching Us” march against government surveillance, to the Moral Monday protests, to the People’s Climate March, to the recent nationwide protests over the killings of men and boys of color by police, there is obviously a discontent in this country that is pouring into the streets.

And yet much of it confounds and frustrates existing concepts of what movements should look like. Much does not fit neatly into the confines of conventional politics or the structures of traditional power.

It’s often diffuse. It’s often organic and largely leaderless. It’s often about a primary event but also myriad secondary ones. It is, in a way, a social network approach to social justice, not so much captain-orchestrated as crowd-sourced, people sharing, following and liking their way to consensus and collective consciousness.

If there is a unifying theme, it is at least in part that more people are frustrated, aching for a better America and a better world, waking to the reality of the incredible fragility of our freedoms, our democracy and our planet. It is a chafing at grinding political intransigence and growing political corporatism. It is a rejection of the obscenity of economic inequality. And it is a collective expression of moral outrage over systemic bias.

The suspicion of bias, in particular, is what the most recent protests have been about. They are about a most basic question concerning the nature of humanity itself: If we are all created equal, shouldn’t we all be treated equally? Anything less is an affront to our ideals.

Bias in the system often feels like fog in the morning: enveloping, amorphous and immeasurable. But individual cases, like the recent ones, hit us as discrete and concrete, about particular unarmed black men killed by particular policemen — although those particular policemen are representative of structures of power.

These cases make easy focal points for rallying cries, and force us to ask tough questions about the very nature of policing, force and justice:

When is the line crossed from protecting and serving to occupying and suppressing? When do officers stop seeing their role as working for and with a community and start seeing that role as working against and in spite of it? If bias exists in society at large, how do we keep it out of, or at least mitigate the effect of it on, every level of the criminal justice system, from police interactions to prison sentences?

There is a thin line between high-pressure policing and oppressive policing. Heavy hands leave bruised spirits, and occasionally buried bodies.

It cannot be said often enough that most police officers are not bad actors, but neither are most citizens.

Yet prejudice is a societal poison; each of us is in danger of ingesting it, and many of us do. We are constantly making judgments, but most of us are not wearing a holster with a gun. That is when the ante is upped about the nature and quality of those judgments: Did they unfairly weigh against any particular groups? How much force was used and how quickly?

This is why the people are in the streets. There are too many nagging questions, not enough satisfying answers. The people want their pain and anger registered.

But in a way, this is the part that can drive longtime activists to distraction: that this kind of people power doesn’t neatly translate into political power. Why not follow the recent examples of activists for gay rights and immigrant rights, who pressured politicians and worked through the political and judicial systems to achieve specific policy objectives?

But maybe in this moment the exhaling of pain must come before the shaping of policy.

Indeed some activists have already moved beyond chants for “change” and begun to develop sophisticated answers to the retort, “change what?”. The trick is to redirect the passions before they dissipate, to maintain momentum when the media attention fades, and to amplify raised voices with votes cast.

I believe — because the optimist in me must — that votes will soon, somehow, follow the passion, that people will come to see marching not as a substitute for voting but a supplement to it, that more people will work to effect change inside the system as well as outside it.

One of the people’s greatest strengths in a democracy is the flexing of political muscle and the exercising of political power, through ballots and boot leather. This new activism has the potential to create a new political reality. And it will. Eventually. I hope.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week we got an actually good employment report — arguably the first truly good report in a long time. The U.S. economy added well over 300,000 jobs; wages, which have been stagnant for far too long, picked up a bit. Other indicators, like the rate at which workers are quitting (a sign that they expect to find new jobs), continue to improve. We’re still nowhere near full employment, but getting there no longer seems like an impossible dream.

And there are some important lessons from this belated good news. It doesn’t vindicate policies that permitted seven years and counting of depressed incomes and employment. But it does put the lie to some of the nonsense you hear about why the economy has lagged.

Let’s talk first about reasons not to celebrate.

Things are finally looking better for American workers, but this improvement comes after years of suffering, with long-term unemployment in particular lingering at levels not seen since the 1930s. Millions of families lost their homes, their savings, or both. Many young Americans graduated into a labor market that didn’t want their skills, and will never get back onto the career tracks they should have had.

And the long slump hasn’t just scarred families; it has done immense damage to our long-run prospects. Estimates of the economy’s potential — the amount it can produce if and when it finally reaches full employment — have been steadily marked down in recent years, and many researchers now believe that the slump itself damaged future potential.

So it has been a terrible seven years, and even a string of good job reports won’t undo the damage. Why was it so bad?

You often hear claims, sometimes from pundits who should know better, that nobody predicted a sluggish recovery, and that this proves that mainstream macroeconomics is all wrong. The truth is that many economists, myself included, predicted a slow recovery from the very beginning. Why?

The answer, in brief, is that there are recessions and then there are recessions. Some recessions are deliberately engineered to cool off an overheated, inflating economy. For example, the Fed caused the 1981-82 recession with tight-money policies that temporarily sent interest rates to almost 20 percent. And ending that recession was easy: Once the Fed decided that we had suffered enough, it relented, interest rates tumbled, and it was morning in America.

But “postmodern” recessions, like the downturns of 2001 and 2007-9, reflect bursting bubbles rather than tight money, and they’re hard to end; even if the Fed cuts interest rates all the way to zero, it may find itself pushing on a string, unable to have much of a positive effect. As a result, you don’t expect to see V-shaped recoveries like 1982-84 — and sure enough, we didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that we were fated to experience a seven-year slump. We could have had a much faster recovery if the U.S. government had ramped up public investment and put more money in the hands of families likely to spend it. But the Obama stimulus was much too small and short-lived — as many of us warned, in advance, it would be — and since 2010 what we have actually seen, thanks to scorched-earth Republican opposition on all fronts, are unprecedented cutbacks in government spending, especially investment, and in government employment.

O.K., at this point I’m sure many readers are thinking that they’ve been hearing a very different story about what went wrong — the conservative story that attributes the sluggish recovery to the terrible, horrible, no-good attitude of the Obama administration. The president, we’re told, scared businesspeople by talking about “fat cats” on Wall Street and generally looking at them funny. Also, Obamacare has killed jobs, right?

Which is where the new job numbers come in. At this point we have enough data points to compare the job recovery under President Obama with the job recovery under former President George W. Bush, who also presided over a postmodern recession but certainly never insulted fat cats. And by any measure you might choose — but especially if you compare rates of job creation in the private sector — the Obama recovery has been stronger and faster. Oh, and its pace has picked up over the past year, as health reform has gone fully into effect.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling the Obama-era economy a success story. We needed faster job growth this time around than under Mr. Bush, because the recession was deeper, and unemployment stayed far too high for far too long. But we can now say with confidence that the recovery’s weakness had nothing to do with Mr. Obama’s (falsely) alleged anti-business slant. What it reflected, instead, was the damage done by government paralysis — paralysis that has, alas, richly rewarded the very politicians who caused it.

Brooks and Krugman

December 5, 2014

Bobo thinks he’s on to something.  He has a question in “Why Elders Smile:”  Why do studies suggest that the happiest age group is people ages 82 to 85?  If you’re thinking that this sounds suspiciously like Bobo’ian psychobabble you’re right.  In the comments “Jack Chicago” from Chicago lays it out for us:  “This column is just a blend of psychobabble, generalizations and unsupported assertions. Mr Brooks’ broad and shallow approach to these columns is pretty thin stuff.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Democrats Against Reform,” says no, Obamacare wasn’t a mistake. Democrats should be celebrating that they did the right thing.  Here’s Bobo:

A few months ago, Ezekiel Emanuel had an essay in The Atlantic saying that, all things considered, he’d prefer to die around age 75. He argued that he’d rather clock out with all his powers intact than endure a sad, feeble decline.

The problem is that if Zeke dies at 75, he’ll likely be missing his happiest years. When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.

Psychologists who study this now famous U-Curve tend to point out that old people are happier because of changes in the brain. For example, when you show people a crowd of faces, young people unconsciously tend to look at the threatening faces but older people’s attention gravitates toward the happy ones.

Older people are more relaxed, on average. They are spared some of the burden of thinking about the future. As a result, they get more pleasure out of present, ordinary activities.

My problem with a lot of the research on happiness in old age is that it is so deterministic. It treats the aging of the emotional life the way you might treat the aging of the body: as this biological, chemical and evolutionary process that happens to people.

I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.

Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well — being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend.

It’s easy to think of some of the skills that some people get better at over time.

First, there’s bifocalism, the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School once wrote, “Anyone who has worn bifocal lenses knows that it takes time to learn to shift smoothly between perspectives and to combine them in a single field of vision. The same is true of deliberation. It is difficult to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be detached, but what is most difficult of all is to be both at once.” Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.

Then there’s lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. In their book, “Lighter as We Go,” Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein (who is a friend from college) argue that while older people lose memory they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. Anxiety is the biggest waste in life. If you know that you’ll recover, you can save time and get on with it sooner.

“The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff,” Holland and Greenstein write, “learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes.”

Then there is the ability to balance tensions. In “Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that performing many social roles means balancing competing demands. A doctor has to be honest but also kind. A teacher has to instruct but also inspire. You can’t find the right balance in each context by memorizing a rule book. This form of wisdom can only be earned by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences.

Finally, experienced heads have intuitive awareness of the landscape of reality, a feel for what other people are thinking and feeling, an instinct for how events will flow. In “The Wisdom Paradox,” Elkhonon Goldberg details the many ways the brain deteriorates with age: brain cells die, mental operations slow. But a lifetime of intellectual effort can lead to empathy and pattern awareness. “What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work,” Goldberg writes, “I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.”

It’s comforting to know that, for many, life gets happier with age. But it’s more useful to know how individuals get better at doing the things they do. The point of culture is to spread that wisdom from old to young; to put that thousand-year-heart in a still young body.

I’m willing to bet that Bobo hasn’t spent much time in a nursing home lately.  You know, the kind that the less-than-fabulously-wealthy can afford.  Not a barrel of laughs…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s easy to understand why Republicans wish health reform had never happened, and are now hoping that the Supreme Court will abandon its principles and undermine the law. But it’s more puzzling — and disturbing — when Democrats like Charles Schumer, senator from New York, declare that the Obama administration’s signature achievement was a mistake.

In a minute I’ll take on Mr. Schumer’s recent remarks. But first, an update on Obamacare — not the politics, but the actual policy, which continues to rack up remarkable (and largely unreported) successes.

Earlier this week, the independent Urban Institute released new estimates of the number of Americans without health insurance, and the positive results of Obamacare’s first year are striking. Remember all those claims that more people would lose coverage than would gain it? Well, the institute finds a sharp drop in the number of uninsured adults, with more than 10 million people gaining coverage since last year. This is in line with what multiple other estimates show. The primary goal of health reform, to give Americans access to the health care they need, is very much on track.

And while some of the policies offered under Obamacare don’t offer as much protection as we might like, a huge majority of the newly insured are pleased with their coverage, according to a recent Gallup poll.

What about costs? There were many predictions of soaring premiums. But health reform’s efforts to create meaningful competition among insurers are working better than almost anyone (myself included) expected. Premiums for 2014 came in well below expectations, and independent estimates show a very modest increase — 4 percent or less — for average premiums in 2015.

In short, if you think of Obamacare as a policy intended to improve American lives, it’s going really well. Yet it has not, of course, been a political winner for Democrats. Which brings us to Mr. Schumer.

The Schumer critique — he certainly isn’t the first to say these things, but he is the most prominent Democrat to say them — calls health reform a mistake because it only benefits a minority of Americans, and that’s not enough to win elections. What President Obama should have done, claims Mr. Schumer, was focus on improving the economy as a whole.

This is deeply wrongheaded in at least three ways.

First, while it’s true that most Americans have insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, and employment-based coverage, that doesn’t mean that only the current uninsured benefit from a program that guarantees affordable care. Maybe you have good coverage now, but what happens if you’re fired, or your employer goes bust, or it cancels its insurance program? What if you want to change jobs for whatever reason, but can’t find a new job that comes with insurance?

The point is that the pre-Obamacare system put many Americans at the constant risk of going without insurance, many more than the number of uninsured at any given time, and limited freedom of employment for millions more. So health reform helps a much larger share of the population than those currently uninsured — and those beneficiaries have relatives and friends. This is not a policy targeted on a small minority.

Second, whenever someone says that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy, my question is, what do you mean by that? Should he have tried for a bigger stimulus? I’d say yes, but that fight took place in the very first months of his administration, before the push for health reform got underway. After that, and especially after 2010, scorched-earth Republican opposition killed just about every economic policy he proposed. Do you think this would have been different without health reform? Seriously?

Look, economic management is about substance, not theater. Having the president walk around muttering “I’m focused on the economy” wouldn’t have accomplished anything. And I’ve never seen any plausible explanation of how abandoning health reform would have made any difference at all to the political possibilities for economic policy.

Finally, we need to ask, what is the purpose of winning elections? The answer, I hope, is to do good — not simply to set yourself up to win the next election. In 2009-10, Democrats had their first chance in a generation to do what we should have done three generations ago, and ensure adequate health care for all of our citizens. It would have been incredibly cynical not to have seized that opportunity, and Democrats should be celebrating the fact that they did the right thing.

And one related observation: If more Democrats had been willing to defend the best thing they’ve done in decades, rather than run away from their own achievement and implicitly concede that the smears against health reform were right, the politics of the issue might look very different today.

Blow and Krugman

December 1, 2014

In “Crime and Punishment” Mr. Blow outlines how racial bias distorts the way we talk about justice.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Being Bad Europeans:”  Whose irresponsible behavior is at the core of the region’s slow-motion disaster?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

One thing the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., has sent back to the surface is just how difficult it is to have cross-racial discussions about crime and punishment in this country. That is largely because, perceptually and experientially, we live in vastly different worlds, worlds in which phrases like “bad choices,” “personal responsibility” and “tailspin of culture” must battle for primacy with “structural inequity,” “systemic bias” and “culture of oppression.”

Let’s begin to unpack this by pointing to what the data say about our distortions of perception when it comes to crime.

A September report by the Sentencing Project found that “white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality.” For some crimes, the overestimation was “by 20-30 percent.”

This is particularly significant in light of the fact that Americans overestimate the presence of crime in general. As a Gallup report pointed out recently: “For more than a decade, Gallup has found the majority of Americans believing crime is up, although actual crime statistics have largely shown the crime rate continuing to come down from the highs in the 1990s and earlier.”

If we continue to think that crime is up, data be damned, and we associate people of color with that crime, of course our concepts of guilt, innocence, veracity and compassion in encounters between police and people of color will be affected.

This is not to say that statistics don’t tell us that crime rates are disproportionately high in minority neighborhoods, but rather than ascribe that to some racial pathology — and doing so is racist on its face — we must consider the intersection of race and concentrated poverty, which is attended by everything from poorer-performing schools to fewer job opportunities.

And these areas of concentrated poverty are growing, according to a July Brookings report: “As poverty increased and spread during the 2000s, the number of distressed neighborhoods in the United States — defined as census tracts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more — climbed by nearly three-quarters.”

The report continued: “The population living in such neighborhoods grew by similar margins (76 percent, or 5 million people) to reach 11.6 million by 2008-2012.”

Are people of color simply choosing to live in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, or have these residential patterns been imposed by generations of discriminatory housing and employment practices, and been exacerbated by the Great Recession, which was disproportionately brutal for black people?

For instance, as a 2011 report of the Center for Responsible Lending said:

“African-American and Latino borrowers are almost twice as likely to have been impacted by the crisis. Approximately one-quarter of all Latino and African-American borrowers have lost their home to foreclosure or are seriously delinquent, compared to just under 12 percent for white borrowers.”

When the police and justice systems become involved, more bias is introduced.

First of all, as The Washington Post reported, “more than three-quarters of cities on which the Census Bureau has collected data have a police presence that’s disproportionately white relative to the local population.” This is the case even though 46 percent of whites and 56 percent of blacks in an August New York Times/CBS New poll thought that “the racial makeup of a community’s police department should be similar to the racial makeup of that community as a whole.”

This continues, in part, because of a cycle of mistrust and abuse of power. As the International Business Times put it in August: “Law enforcement agencies, therefore, are often hard pressed to find black applicants. Recruiters want to fill their ranks with officers of all backgrounds, experts say, but cultural biases put them at a disadvantage.”

Would you want to join a force that you saw as oppressive and discriminatory toward your community? For some, the answer may be yes, to effect change or just because they are so drawn to the profession. But obviously for many the answer is no.

The Times/CBS poll found that 45 percent of African-Americans, compared with just 7 percent of whites, believed they had experienced a specific instance of discrimination by the police because of their race. Thirty-one percent of whites even acknowledge that police in most neighborhoods are more likely to use deadly force against a black person.

This is not unfounded. Young blacks are significantly more likely than young whites to be arrested for things like drug usage although their usage is roughly the same as whites.

This conversation is hard because we are yelling across a canyon of disparity. Maybe the first thing to do is to work on filling the canyon, leveling the field — that will help bridge the gap.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The U.S. economy finally seems to be climbing out of the deep hole it entered during the global financial crisis. Unfortunately, Europe, the other epicenter of crisis, can’t say the same. Unemployment in the euro area is stalled at almost twice the U.S. level, while inflation is far below both the official target and outright deflation has become a looming risk.

Investors have taken notice: European interest rates have plunged, with German long-term bonds yielding just 0.7 percent. That’s the kind of yield we used to associate with Japanese deflation, and markets are indeed signaling that they expect Europe to experience its own lost decade.

Why is Europe in such dire straits? The conventional wisdom among European policy makers is that we’re looking at the price of irresponsibility: Some governments have failed to behave with the prudence a shared currency requires, choosing instead to pander to misguided voters and cling to failed economic doctrines. And if you ask me (and a number of other economists who have looked hard at the issue), this analysis is essentially right, except for one thing: They’ve got the identity of the bad actors wrong.

For the bad behavior at the core of Europe’s slow-motion disaster isn’t coming from Greece, or Italy, or France. It’s coming from Germany.

I’m not denying that the Greek government behaved irresponsibly before the crisis, or that Italy has a big problem with stagnating productivity. But Greece is a small country whose fiscal mess is unique, while Italy’s long-run problems aren’t the source of Europe’s deflationary downdraft. If you try to identify countries whose policies were way out of line before the crisis and have hurt Europe since the crisis, and that refuse to learn from experience, everything points to Germany as the worst actor.

Consider, in particular, the comparison between Germany and France.

France gets a lot of bad press, with much talk in particular about its supposed loss in competitiveness. Such talk greatly exaggerates the reality; you’d never know from most media reports that France runs only a small trade deficit. Still, to the extent that there is an issue here, where does it come from? Has French competitiveness been eroded by excessive growth in costs and prices?

No, not at all. Since the euro came into existence in 1999, France’s G.D.P. deflator (the average price of French-produced goods and services) has risen 1.7 percent per year, while its unit labor costs have risen 1.9 percent annually. Both numbers are right in line with the European Central Bank’s target of slightly under 2 percent inflation, and similar to what has happened in the United States. Germany, on the other hand, is way out of line, with price and labor-cost growth of 1 and 0.5 percent, respectively.

And it’s not just France whose costs are just about where they ought to be. Spain saw rising costs and prices during the housing bubble, but at this point all the excess has been eliminated through years of crushing unemployment and wage restraint. Italian cost growth has arguably been a bit too high, but it’s not nearly as far out of line as Germany is on the low side.

In other words, to the extent that there’s anything like a competitiveness problem in Europe, it’s overwhelmingly caused by Germany’s beggar-thy-neighbor policies, which are in effect exporting deflation to its neighbors.

But what about debt? Isn’t non-German Europe paying the price for past fiscal irresponsibility? Actually, that’s a story about Greece and nobody else. And it’s especially wrong in the case of France, which isn’t facing a fiscal crisis at all; France can currently borrow long-term at a record low interest rate of less than 1 percent, only slightly above the German rate.

Yet European policy makers seem determined to blame the wrong countries and the wrong policies for their plight. True, the European Commission has floated a plan to stimulate the economy with public investment — but the public outlay is so tiny compared with the problem that the plan is almost a joke. And meanwhile, the commission is warning France, which has the lowest borrowing costs in its history, that it may face fines for not cutting its budget deficit enough.

What about resolving the problem of too little inflation in Germany? Very aggressive monetary policy might do the trick (although I wouldn’t count on it), but German monetary officials are warning against such policies because they might let debtors off the hook.

What we’re seeing, then, is the immensely destructive power of bad ideas. It’s not entirely Germany’s fault — Germany is a big player in Europe, but it’s only able to impose deflationary policies because so much of the European elite has bought into the same false narrative. And you have to wonder what will cause reality to break in.

Brooks and Krugman

November 28, 2014

In “The Ambition Explosion” Bobo ‘splains to us that China’s future may be determined as much by its spiritual struggle as by its new capitalist ethos.  Prof. Krugman considers “Pollution and Politics” and says like Obamacare, Republicans went on the attack over the E.P.A.’s proposed regulations to curb emissions of ozone. And we know why.  Here’s Bobo:

In 1976, Daniel Bell published a book called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Bell argued that capitalism undermines itself because it nurtures a population of ever more self-gratifying consumers. These people may start out as industrious, but they soon get addicted to affluence, spending, credit and pleasure and stop being the sort of hard workers capitalism requires.

Bell was right that there’s a contradiction at the heart of capitalism, but he got its nature slightly wrong. Affluent, consumerist capitalists still work hard. Just look around.

The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.

Capitalism on its own breeds people who are vaguely aware that they are not living the spiritually richest life, who are ill-equipped to know how they might do so, who don’t have the time to do so, and who, when they go off to find fulfillment, end up devoting themselves to scattershot causes and light religions.

To survive, capitalism needs to be embedded in a moral culture that sits in tension with it, and provides a scale of values based on moral and not monetary grounds. Capitalism, though, is voracious. The personal ambition it arouses is always threatening to blot out the counterculture it requires.

Modern China is an extreme example of this phenomenon, as eloquently described by Evan Osnos in his book, “Age of Ambition,” which just won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

As Osnos describes it, the capitalist reforms of Deng Xiaoping raised the ambition levels of an entire society. A people that had been raised under Mao to be a “rustless screw in the revolutionary machine” had the chance, in the course of one generation, to achieve rags-to-riches wealth. This led, Osnos writes, to a hunger for new sensations, a ravenous desire to make new fortunes.

Osnos describes the “English fever” that swept some Chinese youth. Li Yang was a shy man who found that the louder he bellowed English phrases the bolder he felt as a human being. Li filled large arenas, charging more than a month’s wages for a single day of instruction. He had the crowds shouting English phrases en masse, like “I would like to take your temperature!” and repeating his patriotic slogans, “Conquer English to make China stronger!”

Osnos interviewed a member of the Li cult who called himself Michael and considered himself a “born-again English speaker.” For Michael, learning English was intermingled with the aspirational mantras he surrounded himself with: “The past does not equal the future. Believe in yourself. Create miracles.”

It was this ambition explosion as much as anything else that created China’s prosperity. One mother who called herself “Harvard Mom” had her daughter hold ice cubes in her hands for 15 minutes at a time to teach fortitude. Soon China was building the real estate equivalent of Rome every fortnight.

But the fever, like communism before it, stripped away the deep rich spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Taoism. Society hardened. Corruption became rampant. People came to believe that society was cruel and unforgiving. They hunkered down. One day, a little girl was hit by a bread truck in the city of Foshan. Seventeen people passed and did nothing as she lay bleeding on the ground. The security video of the incident played over and over again on TV, haunting the country.

Li Yang, the English teacher, turned out to be a notorious wife-beater. His disciple, Michael, became embittered. The optimistic slogans now on his wall had undertones of frustration: “I have to mentally change my whole life’s destiny!” and “I can’t stand it anymore!”

This led, as it must among human beings who are endowed with a moral imagination that can be suppressed but never destroyed, to a great spiritual searching. Osnos writes that many Chinese sensed that there was a spiritual void at the core of their society. They sought to fill it any way they could, with revived Confucianism, nationalism, lectures by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and Christianity.

Osnos writes that this spiritual searching is going out in all directions at once with no central melody. One gets the sense that the nation’s future will be determined as much by this quest as by political reform or capitalist innovation.

China is desperately searching for a spiritual and humanist nest to hold capitalist ambition. Those of us in the rest of the world are probably not searching as feverishly for a counterculture, but the essential challenge is the same. Capitalist ambition is an energizing gale force. If there’s not an equally fervent counterculture to direct it, the wind uproots the tender foliage that makes life sweet.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed regulations to curb emissions of ozone, which causes smog, not to mention asthma, heart disease and premature death. And you know what happened: Republicans went on the attack, claiming that the new rules would impose enormous costs.

There’s no reason to take these complaints seriously, at least in terms of substance. Polluters and their political friends have a track record of crying wolf. Again and again, they have insisted that American business — which they usually portray as endlessly innovative, able to overcome any obstacle — would curl into a quivering ball if asked to limit emissions. Again and again, the actual costs have been far lower than they predicted. In fact, almost always below the E.P.A.’s predictions.

So it’s the same old story. But why, exactly, does it always play this way? Of course, polluters will defend their right to pollute, but why can they count on Republican support? When and why did the Republican Party become the party of pollution?

For it wasn’t always thus. The Clean Air Act of 1970, the legal basis for the Obama administration’s environmental actions, passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 73 to 0, and was signed into law by Richard Nixon. (I’ve heard veterans of the E.P.A. describe the Nixon years as a golden age.) A major amendment of the law, which among other things made possible the cap-and-trade system that limits acid rain, was signed in 1990 by former President George H.W. Bush.

But that was then. Today’s Republican Party is putting a conspiracy theorist who views climate science as a “gigantic hoax” in charge of the Senate’s environment committee. And this isn’t an isolated case. Pollution has become a deeply divisive partisan issue.

And the reason pollution has become partisan is that Republicans have moved right. A generation ago, it turns out, environment wasn’t a partisan issue: according to Pew Research, in 1992 an overwhelming majority in both parties favored stricter laws and regulation. Since then, Democratic views haven’t changed, but Republican support for environmental protection has collapsed.

So what explains this anti-environmental shift?

You might be tempted simply to blame money in politics, and there’s no question that gushers of cash from polluters fuel the anti-environmental movement at all levels. But this doesn’t explain why money from the most environmentally damaging industries, which used to flow to both parties, now goes overwhelmingly in one direction. Take, for example, coal mining. In the early 1990s, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the industry favored Republicans by a modest margin, giving around 40 percent of its money to Democrats. Today that number is just 5 percent. Political spending by the oil and gas industry has followed a similar trajectory. Again, what changed?

One answer could be ideology. Textbook economics isn’t anti-environment; it says that pollution should be limited, albeit in market-friendly ways when possible. But the modern conservative movement insists that government is always the problem, never the solution, which creates the will to believe that environmental problems are fake and environmental policy will tank the economy.

My guess, however, is that ideology is only part of the story — or, more accurately, it’s a symptom of the underlying cause of the divide: rising inequality.

The basic story of political polarization over the past few decades is that, as a wealthy minority has pulled away economically from the rest of the country, it has pulled one major party along with it. True, Democrats often cater to the interests of the 1 percent, but Republicans always do. Any policy that benefits lower- and middle-income Americans at the expense of the elite — like health reform, which guarantees insurance to all and pays for that guarantee in part with taxes on higher incomes — will face bitter Republican opposition.

And environmental protection is, in part, a class issue, even if we don’t usually think of it that way. Everyone breathes the same air, so the benefits of pollution control are more or less evenly spread across the population. But ownership of, say, stock in coal companies is concentrated in a few, wealthy hands. Even if the costs of pollution control are passed on in the form of higher prices, the rich are different from you and me. They spend a lot more money, and, therefore, bear a higher share of the costs.

In the case of the new ozone plan, the E.P.A.’s analysis suggests that, for the average American, the benefits would be more than twice the costs. But that doesn’t necessarily matter to the nonaverage American driving one party’s priorities. On ozone, as with almost everything these days, it’s all about inequality.

Blow and Krugman

November 24, 2014

In “Bigger Than Immigration” Mr. Blow says that for conservatives, this debate is really about the fear of seeing traditional power slip away.  Prof. Krugman, in “Rock Bottom Economics,” says it’s amazing and depressing that we’ve spent six years at the big zero.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Don’t let yourself get lost in the weeds. Don’t allow yourself to believe that opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration is only about that issue, the president’s tactics, or his lack of obsequiousness to his detractors.

This hostility and animosity toward this president is, in fact, larger than this president. This is about systems of power and the power of symbols. Particularly, it is about preserving traditional power and destroying emerging symbols that threaten that power. This president is simply the embodiment of the threat, as far as his detractors are concerned, whether they are willing or able to articulate it as such.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week found that the public “wants immigration policy along the lines of what President Barack Obama seeks but is skeptical of the executive action.” When The Journal looked at some of the people who “say they want to see a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — which is beyond what Mr. Obama’s executive order would do — but say they disapprove of presidential executive action,” it found that the group was “overwhelmingly white and more likely to be Republican than not” and some said that they simply “don’t like anything associated with the president.”

Pay attention to the overall response from all sources, particularly the rhetoric in which it is wrapped.

Speaker John Boehner has accused Obama of acting like a “king” and an “emperor.” Representative Louie Gohmert referred to Obama’s “ new royal amnesty decree.”

Andrew C. McCarthy, in National Review, went further, suggesting that Obama’s legal justification was a slippery slope to all manner of crime and vice:

“Can the president make fraud and theft legal? How about assault? Cocaine use? Perjury? You’d have to conclude he can — and that we have supplanted the Constitution with a monarchy — if you buy President Obama’s warped notion of prosecutorial discretion.”

There is no denying the insinuations in such language: a fear of subjugation by people like this president, an “other” person, predisposed to lawlessness.

As usual, issue-oriented opposition overlaps with a historical undercurrent, one desperate for demonstration (of liberal folly) and preservation (of conservative principles and traditional power).

From this worldview, liberalism isn’t simply an alternate political sensibility, but a rot, an irreparable ruination, a violation of the laws of the land as the founding fathers (most of whom owned slaves at some point) envisioned, but also of the laws of nature, which they see as being directed by God. There are so many examples of this: opposition to L.G.B.T. rights, to the science undergirding climate change and efforts to arrest that change, and to allowing women a full range of reproductive options.

Maybe that’s why the president cited Scripture when laying out his immigration plan: “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

But that is surely to have fallen on deaf ears, if not hostile ones. Conservatives slammed the usage, and Mike Huckabee went so far as to accuse the president of trying to rewrite the Bible while bizarrely invoking the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations:

“I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is president, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby’s Wikipedia entry.”

How dare the president — seen by some as a threat to Christianity — invoke Christianity in his defense!

As Paul Ryan put it in 2012, the president’s policies put us on a “dangerous path,” one that “grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place.”

Senator Tom Coburn upped the rhetoric last week, suggesting to USA Today that there could be a violent reaction to the president’s actions:

“You’re going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy.”

He added, “You could see violence.”

This is not completely unlike the language used by Joni Ernst, just elected senator in Iowa, who spoke during a 2012 N.R.A. event of her gun and the “right to defend myself,” possibly “from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

Make no mistake: This debate is not just about this president, this executive order or immigration. This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Six years ago the Federal Reserve hit rock bottom. It had been cutting the federal funds rate, the interest rate it uses to steer the economy, more or less frantically in an unsuccessful attempt to get ahead of the recession and financial crisis. But it eventually reached the point where it could cut no more, because interest rates can’t go below zero. On Dec. 16, 2008, the Fed set its interest target between 0 and 0.25 percent, where it remains to this day.

The fact that we’ve spent six years at the so-called zero lower bound is amazing and depressing. What’s even more amazing and depressing, if you ask me, is how slow our economic discourse has been to catch up with the new reality. Everything changes when the economy is at rock bottom — or, to use the term of art, in a liquidity trap (don’t ask). But for the longest time, nobody with the power to shape policy would believe it.

What do I mean by saying that everything changes? As I wrote way back when, in a rock-bottom economy “the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly.” Government spending doesn’t compete with private investment — it actually promotes business spending. Central bankers, who normally cultivate an image as stern inflation-fighters, need to do the exact opposite, convincing markets and investors that they will push inflation up. “Structural reform,” which usually means making it easier to cut wages, is more likely to destroy jobs than create them.

This may all sound wild and radical, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s what mainstream economic analysis says will happen once interest rates hit zero. And it’s also what history tells us. If you paid attention to the lessons of post-bubble Japan, or for that matter the U.S. economy in the 1930s, you were more or less ready for the looking-glass world of economic policy we’ve lived in since 2008.

But as I said, nobody would believe it. By and large, policy makers and Very Serious People in general went with gut feelings rather than careful economic analysis. Yes, they sometimes found credentialed economists to back their positions, but they used these economists the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. And what the guts of these serious people have told them, year after year, is to fear — and do — exactly the wrong things.

Thus we were told again and again that budget deficits were our most pressing economic problem, that interest rates would soar any day now unless we imposed harsh fiscal austerity. I could have told you that this was foolish, and in fact I did, and sure enough, the predicted interest rate spike never happened — but demands that we cut government spending now, now, now have cost millions of jobs and deeply damaged our infrastructure.

We were also told repeatedly that printing money — not what the Fed was actually doing, but never mind — would lead to “currency debasement and inflation.” The Fed, to its credit, stood up to this pressure, but other central banks didn’t. The European Central Bank, in particular, raised rates in 2011 to head off a nonexistent inflationary threat. It eventually reversed course but has never gotten things back on track. At this point European inflation is far below the official target of 2 percent, and the Continent is flirting with outright deflation.

But are these bad calls just water under the bridge? Isn’t the era of rock-bottom economics just about over? Don’t count on it.

It’s true that with the U.S. unemployment rate dropping, most analysts expect the Fed to raise interest rates sometime next year. But inflation is low, wages are weak, and the Fed seems to realize that raising rates too soon would be disastrous. Meanwhile, Europe looks further than ever from economic liftoff, while Japan is still struggling to escape from deflation. Oh, and China, which is starting to remind some of us of Japan in the late 1980s, could join the rock-bottom club sooner than you think.

So the counterintuitive realities of economic policy at the zero lower bound are likely to remain relevant for a long time to come, which makes it crucial that influential people understand those realities. Unfortunately, too many still don’t; one of the most striking aspects of economic debate in recent years has been the extent to which those whose economic doctrines have failed the reality test refuse to admit error, let alone learn from it. The intellectual leaders of the new majority in Congress still insist that we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel; German officials still insist that the problem is that debtors haven’t suffered enough.

This bodes ill for the future. What people in power don’t know, or worse what they think they know but isn’t so, can very definitely hurt us.

Brooks and Krugman

November 21, 2014

Bobo has decided to channel MoDo with a movie review, while simultaneously exhibiting his complete lack of understanding of quantum physics.  In “Love and Gravity” he burbles that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” illustrates how modern science has changed the way we look at love, philosophy and religion.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston started out this way:  “This column takes us on a long, meandering journey through a couple of wormholes to arrive at a political singularity: social engineering projects (i.e., big government) = bad, while webs of loving and meaningful relationships (i.e., local volunteerism) = good.  Mr. Brooks has expressed this point in dozens of different ways over the years. It’s as though every one of his columns is entangled with every other one, both in the past and apparently in the future. But this one has a truly ethereal bent. Never has a wistful plea for states’ rights been so cosmic.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Suffer Little Children,” says today’s immigrants are the same as our parents and grandparents were. President Obama is doing the decent thing with his immigration initiative.  Here’s Bobo:

Most Hollywood movies are about romantic love, or at least sex. But Christopher Nolan’s epic movie “Interstellar” has almost no couples, so you don’t get the charged romance you have in normal movies where a man and a woman are off saving the world.

Instead, there are the slightly different kinds of love, from generation to generation, and across time and space.

The movie starts on a farm, and you see a grandfather’s love for his grandkids and the children’s love for their father. (Mom had died sometime earlier).

The planet is hit by an environmental catastrophe, and, in that crisis, lives are torn apart. The father, played by Matthew McConaughey, goes off into space to find a replacement planet where humanity might survive. The movie is propelled by the angry love of his abandoned daughter, who loves and rages at him for leaving, decade after decade.

On top of that, there is an even more attenuated love. It’s the love humans have for their ancestors and the love they have for the unborn. In the movie, 12 apostles go out alone into space to look for habitable planets. They are sacrificing their lives so that canisters of frozen embryos can be born again in some place far away.

Nolan wants us to see the magnetic force of these attachments: The way attachments can exert a gravitational pull on people who are separated by vast distances or even by death. Their attention is riveted by the beloved. They hunger for reunion.

When the McConaughey character goes into space he leaves behind the rules of everyday earthly life and enters the realm of quantum mechanics and relativity. Gravity becomes variable. It’s different on different planets. Space bends in on itself. The astronauts fly through a wormhole, a fold in the universe connecting one piece of space with another distant piece.

Most important, time changes speed. McConaughey is off to places where time is moving much more slowly than it is on Earth, so he ends up younger than his daughter. Once in the place of an ancestor, he becomes, effectively, her descendant.

These plotlines are generally based on real science. The physicist Kip Thorne has a book out, “The Science of Interstellar,” explaining it all. But what matters in the movie is the way science and emotion (and a really loud score) mingle to create a powerful mystical atmosphere.

Nolan introduces the concept of quantum entanglement. That’s when two particles that have interacted with each other behave as one even though they might be far apart. He then shows how people in love display some of those same features. They react in the same way at the same time to the same things.

The characters in the movie are frequently experiencing cross-cutting and mystical connections that transcend time and space. It’s like the kind of transcendent sensation you or I might have if we visited an old battlefield and felt connected by mystic chords of memory to the people who fought there long ago; or if we visited the house we grew up in and felt in deep communion with people who are now dead.

Bloggers have noticed the religious symbols in the movie. There are those 12 apostles, and there’s a Noah’s ark. There is a fallen angel named Dr. Mann who turns satanic in an inverse Garden of Eden. The space project is named Lazarus. The heroine saves the world at age 33. There’s an infinitely greater and incorporeal intelligence offering merciful salvation.

But this isn’t an explicitly religious movie. “Interstellar” is important because amid all the culture wars between science and faith and science and the humanities, the movie illustrates the real symbiosis between these realms.

More, it shows how modern science is influencing culture. People have always bent their worldviews around the latest scientific advances. After Newton, philosophers conceived a clockwork universe. Individuals were seen as cogs in a big machine and could be slotted into vast bureaucratic systems.

But in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity, everything looks emergent and interconnected. Life looks less like a machine and more like endlessly complex patterns of waves and particles. Vast social engineering projects look less promising, because of the complexity, but webs of loving and meaningful relationships can do amazing good.

As the poet Christian Wiman wrote in his masterpiece, “My Bright Abyss,” “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication. …”

I suspect “Interstellar” will leave many people with a radical openness to strange truth just below and above the realm of the everyday. That makes it something of a cultural event.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite places in New York City. It’s a Civil War-vintage building that housed successive waves of immigrants, and a number of apartments have been restored to look exactly as they did in various eras, from the 1860s to the 1930s (when the building was declared unfit for occupancy). When you tour the museum, you come away with a powerful sense of immigration as a human experience, which — despite plenty of bad times, despite a cultural climate in which Jews, Italians, and others were often portrayed as racially inferior — was overwhelmingly positive.

I get especially choked up about the Baldizzi apartment from 1934. When I described its layout to my parents, both declared, “I grew up in that apartment!” And today’s immigrants are the same, in aspiration and behavior, as my grandparents were — people seeking a better life, and by and large finding it.

That’s why I enthusiastically support President Obama’s new immigration initiative. It’s a simple matter of human decency.

That’s not to say that I, or most progressives, support open borders. You can see one important reason right there in the Baldizzi apartment: the photo of F.D.R. on the wall. The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America’s worst-paid workers weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.

So there are some difficult issues in immigration policy. I like to say that if you don’t feel conflicted about these issues, there’s something wrong with you. But one thing you shouldn’t feel conflicted about is the proposition that we should offer decent treatment to children who are already here — and are already Americans in every sense that matters. And that’s what Mr. Obama’s initiative is about.

Who are we talking about? First, there are more than a million young people in this country who came — yes, illegally — as children and have lived here ever since. Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here — which makes them U.S. citizens, with all the same rights you and I have — but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.

What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to bring out the iron fist — to seek out and deport young residents who weren’t born here but have never known another home, to seek out and deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.

But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel; partly because that kind of crackdown would require something approaching police-state rule; and, largely, I’m sorry to say, because Congress doesn’t want to spend the money that such a plan would require. In practice, undocumented children and the undocumented parents of legal children aren’t going anywhere.

The real question, then, is how we’re going to treat them. Will we continue our current regime of malign neglect, denying them ordinary rights and leaving them under the constant threat of deportation? Or will we treat them as the fellow Americans they already are?

The truth is that sheer self-interest says that we should do the humane thing. Today’s immigrant children are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors. Condemning them to life in the shadows means that they will have less stable home lives than they should, be denied the opportunity to acquire skills and education, contribute less to the economy, and play a less positive role in society. Failure to act is just self-destructive.

But speaking for myself, I don’t care that much about the money, or even the social aspects. What really matters, or should matter, is the humanity. My parents were able to have the lives they did because America, despite all the prejudices of the time, was willing to treat them as people. Offering the same kind of treatment to today’s immigrant children is the practical course of action, but it’s also, crucially, the right thing to do. So let’s applaud the president for doing it.

Blow and Krugman

November 17, 2014

In “Partisanship Breaks the Government” Mr. Blow says the Republicans’ goal is to have a destructive fight.  Prof. Krugman considers “When Government Succeeds” and tells us that there is a lot of good news that Republicans don’t want you to notice.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This could be a rather heated winter. All three branches of government are on course to collide over partisan politics, constitutional authority and scope of power, particularly as vested in the executive branch.

The president has wasted no time moving beyond the Democrats’ midterm defeats. He is setting about ensuring his legacy. His advisers say he feels liberated by not having to worry about any more congressional elections.

He has secured a historic climate change agreement with China that John Boehner called part of the president’s “job-crushing policies” and his “crusade against affordable, reliable energy.”

President Obama went further on Saturday, signaling that he will soon announce “that the United States will contribute $3 billion to a new international fund intended to help the world’s poorest countries address the effects of climate change,” according to The Times.

Obama has also called on the Federal Communications Commission to adopt net-neutrality rules that Ted Cruz called “Obamacare for the Internet.”

But the tipping point will likely come when the president takes executive action on immigration, which, according to reports, could protect up to five million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Republicans are beside themselves at the prospect.

Amnesty! Out-and-out lawlessness! Shredding the Constitution! No claim — and no recourse — is out of bounds, it seems.

Many conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh, are demanding another government shutdown to stop it. Others, like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested that Obama’s actions on immigration might be “an impeachable offense.”

The grown-ups on the right — to the degree such people exist — know full well that shutdowns and impeachment proceedings are suicidal, but such is the political blood lust on that end of the spectrum that one can’t be sure that cooler heads will prevail over hot ones.

Short of those two nearly nuclear options, John Boehner is reportedly considering suing the president over his planned action on immigration.

This is what the G.O.P. base wants: a fight. According to last week’s report from the Pew Research Center, Republicans, by a margin of more than two to one, want Republican leaders to “stand up to Obama, even if less gets done in Washington,” as if it were possible for this do-nothing Congress to do less.

Congressional Republicans have been sent to Washington with a mandate not so much to conduct business but rather to collect a bounty, to do what they promised and what their supporters expect: Stop Obama at any cost and at every turn, to erase his name or at least put an asterisk by it.

If the speaker should file such a suit, it could drag the Supreme Court into this partisan drama.

But it seems the court isn’t waiting for that. It has already thrust itself into the partisan fray by, to the surprise of many, taking up yet another challenge to the Affordable Care Act. This one, like the last, could prove fatal to the law.

It centers on the question of whether people who signed up through the federal exchanges are eligible for subsidies or if those subsidies are only available to people signing up through exchanges set up by states, something many Republican-led states refused to do.

Some have called this ambiguity little more than a typo in a voluminous bill. Linda Greenhouse, my Times colleague and expert interpreter of all things Supreme Court, called the decision to take the case “worse” than the court’s ruling on Bush v. Gore, as well as “profoundly depressing,” and suggested that the court is beginning to look evermore like “just a collection of politicians in robes.”

But the typo defense is complicated by the comments of an architect of the law, Jonathan Gruber, a health economist. In 2012, he said, “if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits.” This suggested that the clause was no accident, or at least one he and others found fortuitous.

While these battles may offer some ephemeral partisan gain — mostly for Republicans — they will suppress support for all three branches of government and further diminish public faith in the efficacy of government as a whole.

According to a June poll by Gallup, “Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the U.S. government has fallen, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30 percent) and Congress (7 percent), and a six-year low for the presidency (29 percent).” While the blood sport of these clashes is likely to enthrall pundits and policy wonks, I fear that it won’t be good for the republic — particularly Democrats.

Liberal ideology depends on a productive federal government; conservatism rises when that government is crippled.

Republicans, in all their cynicism, are increasing their efforts to break the government.

Isn’t America great?

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The great American Ebola freakout of 2014 seems to be over. The disease is still ravaging Africa, and as with any epidemic, there’s always a risk of a renewed outbreak. But there haven’t been any new U.S. cases for a while, and popular anxiety is fading fast.

Before we move on, however, let’s try to learn something from the panic.

When the freakout was at its peak, Ebola wasn’t just a disease — it was a political metaphor. It was, specifically, held up by America’s right wing as a symbol of government failure. The usual suspects claimed that the Obama administration was falling down on the job, but more than that, they insisted that conventional policy was incapable of dealing with the situation. Leading Republicans suggested ignoring everything we know about disease control and resorting to extreme measures like travel bans, while mocking claims that health officials knew what they were doing.

Guess what: Those officials actually did know what they were doing. The real lesson of the Ebola story is that sometimes public policy is succeeding even while partisans are screaming about failure. And it’s not the only recent story along those lines.

Here’s another: Remember Solyndra? It was a renewable-energy firm that borrowed money using Department of Energy guarantees, then went bust, costing the Treasury $528 million. And conservatives have pounded on that loss relentlessly, turning it into a symbol of what they claim is rampant crony capitalism and a huge waste of taxpayer money.

Defenders of the energy program tried in vain to point out that anyone who makes a lot of investments, whether it’s the government or a private venture capitalist, is going to see some of those investments go bad. For example, Warren Buffett is an investing legend, with good reason — but even he has had his share of lemons, like the $873 million loss he announced earlier this year on his investment in a Texas energy company. Yes, that’s half again as big as the federal loss on Solyndra.

The question is not whether the Department of Energy has made some bad loans — if it hasn’t, it’s not taking enough risks. It’s whether it has a pattern of bad loans. And the answer, it turns out, is no. Last week the department revealed that the program that included Solyndra is, in fact, on track to return profits of $5 billion or more.

Then there’s health reform. As usual, much of the national dialogue over the Affordable Care Act is being dominated by fake scandals drummed up by the enemies of reform. But if you look at the actual results so far, they’re remarkably good. The number of Americans without health insurance has dropped sharply, with around 10 million of the previously uninsured now covered; the program’s costs remain below expectations, with average premium rises for next year well below historical rates of increase; and a new Gallup survey finds that the newly insured are very satisfied with their coverage. By any normal standards, this is a dramatic example of policy success, verging on policy triumph.

One last item: Remember all the mockery of Obama administration assertions that budget deficits, which soared during the financial crisis, would come down as the economy recovered? Surely the exploding costs of Obamacare, combined with a stimulus program that would become a perpetual boondoggle, would lead to vast amounts of red ink, right? Well, no — the deficit has indeed come down rapidly, and as a share of G.D.P. it’s back down to pre-crisis levels.

The moral of these stories is not that the government is always right and always succeeds. Of course there are bad decisions and bad programs. But modern American political discourse is dominated by cheap cynicism about public policy, a free-floating contempt for any and all efforts to improve our lives. And this cheap cynicism is completely unjustified. It’s true that government-hating politicians can sometimes turn their predictions of failure into self-fulfilling prophecies, but when leaders want to make government work, they can.

And let’s be clear: The government policies we’re talking about here are hugely important. We need serious public health policy, not fear-mongering, to contain infectious disease. We need government action to promote renewable energy and fight climate change. Government programs are the only realistic answer for tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise be denied essential health care.

Conservatives want you to believe that while the goals of public programs on health, energy and more may be laudable, experience shows that such programs are doomed to failure. Don’t believe them. Yes, sometimes government officials, being human, get things wrong. But we’re actually surrounded by examples of government success, which they don’t want you to notice.

And of course the “liberal media” doesn’t seem to be saying a word, does it???


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