Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 21, 2014

Bobo thinks he’s going to tell us all about “The Quality of Fear.”  He babbles that the reaction nationally to Ebola is rooted in weaknesses in our cultural fabric.  I’m sure that the ginning up of pants-pissing terror by the media has nothing to do with anything…  Mr. Cohen, in “China Versus America,” ‘splains how Chinese “harmony” and American “freedom” produce the dangerous clash of two exceptionalisms.  Mr. Nocera, in “A World Without OPEC?”, thinks he knows how the shale revolution has weakened the power of the oil cartel.  In the comments “sdavidc9″ from Cornwall had this to say:  “To write an article on the future of oil without mentioning global warming is oh so Republican. We are fighting over seating arrangements on the Titanic.”  Here’s Bobo:

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.

The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death. Philip Roth once wrote: “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” In cultures where death is more present, or at least dealt with more commonly, people are more familiar with that second person, and people can think a bit more clearly about risks of death in any given moment.

In cultures where people deal with death by simply getting it out of their minds, the prospect of sudden savage death, even if extremely unlikely, can arouse a mental fog of fear, and an unmoored and utopian desire to want to reduce the risk of early death to zero, all other considerations be damned.

Given all these conditions, you wind up with an emotional spiral that develops its own momentum.

The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear. It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.

In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought. Fear is, in the novelist Yann Martel’s words, “a wordless darkness.”

Ebola is a treacherous adversary. It’s found a weakness in our bodies. Worse, it exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture.

Go change your underwear, Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Singapore:

Let us take it as a given that the post-1945 world order with the United States as dominant nation has begun to unravel, that China is rising to inherit the earth, that the unease of our times has much to do with that difficult transition, and that violent conflict is a normal accompaniment to the passing of the baton from one great power to the next. America stood tall at the end of World War II. It also stood on a vast field of corpses.

Let us further posit the far-fetched hypothesis that humankind has learned from history. It must then be determined to avoid another conflagration. Happy talk of hyper-connectivity is not enough. The dream of the victory of enlightened self-interest in the name of the collective good on a shrinking planet was an ephemeral late 20th-century illusion. What will matter above all is the capacity of the United States and China to avoid fatal misunderstanding. In a state of mutual incomprehension, clashing interests will escalate.

How far China and America are from understanding each other became clear to me the other day as I listened to George Yeo, the former Singaporean foreign minister. He set out his view of the United States as a “missionary” power filled with the righteous conviction that it must usher the earth to liberty and democracy, and of China as an anti-missionary power convinced by its own bitter experience of foreign domination that nonintervention in the affairs of other states is a necessary form of respect. Far from cynical exploitation, Yeo argued, China’s non-judgmental approach to other powers was above all a reflection of its own history, a form of moral rectitude. The West’s perception of Chinese bullying and ruthless mercantilism was just plain wrong.

Yeo is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man with a deep knowledge of China and considerable experience of life in America. I can’t help seeing cynicism in China’s readiness to extract resources from the realms of dictators or democrats and its unreadiness to do as much as America in stopping Ebola or the killers who call themselves Islamic State. I am sure that, for President Xi Jinping of China, the sight of America getting enmeshed in another Middle Eastern skirmish has its satisfactions. But Yeo made me wonder. Can the missionary mindset begin to comprehend the non-missionary worldview, or even accept such categorization?

The core problem is two forms of exceptionalism, the American and the Chinese. The United States is an idea as well as a nation. Americans, even in a battle-scarred inward-looking moment such as the present, are hard-wired to the notion of their country as a beacon to humanity. President Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular in part because he has interpreted a popular desire to regroup as license to be satisfied with hitting singles and avoiding strike-outs. That is the attitude of an unexceptional nation, which can never be America’s self-image.

But Chinese exceptionalism is no less powerful. It holds up China as a uniquely non-expansionist power over millennia of history, bringing harmony in a Confucian expression of its benevolence — a China standing in contrast to the predatory West. The Communist Party, with its mantra of “peaceful rise,” has fashioned an effective pillar of its ideology through the integration of Middle Kingdom thought. As Joe Studwell, the author of “How Asia Works,” put it to me in an e-mail, the party with “not much socialism to cling to, has reached into Middle Kingdom exceptionalism by resurrecting Confucius, starting Confucius Institutes all over the world.” The result, as Yuan-kang Wang, an associate professor at Western Michigan University, has written in Foreign Policy, is a widespread belief in “historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture.”

Exceptionalism, in all its forms, is tenacious. Tell Tibetans about China’s peace-loving culture. Tell Iraqis about America’s dedication to liberty. The contradictions, and failings, within the beliefs do not diminish them. I believe, still, in the overall beneficence of American power, the fundamental yearning of the human spirit for freedom, and the unique American identification with that desire. Xi’s clampdown on the Internet, his attempt to clean up corruption when corruption must be endemic to any one-party state, his expansionism in the South China Sea, and his difficulties with a stubborn pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong all strike me as demonstrating the internal contradictions of “harmony” and “peace” within a Chinese system that has generated prosperity but increasingly stifles the open debate more prosperous people want.

Europeans, with their experience of 20th-century devastation, would argue that all forms of exceptionalism are dangerous, the missionary and non-missionary equally so. They have settled for less in the interests of quiet. America and China will not do that in the foreseeable future, and so their relationship must be viewed with guarded pessimism. In war’s aftermath there are no exceptions to human suffering.

And now we get to Gunga Din:

Forty-one years ago this month, the Arab oil embargo began. The countries that were part of it belonged, of course, to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries — OPEC — which had banded together 13 years earlier to strengthen their ability to negotiate with international oil companies. The embargo led to widespread shortages in the United States, higher prices at the gas pump and long lines at gas stations. By the time it ended, the price of oil had risen to $12 a barrel from $3.

Perhaps more important than the price increases themselves was the new world order the embargo signaled. The embargo “set in motion geopolitical circumstances that eventually allowed [OPEC] to wrest control over global oil production and pricing from the giant international oil companies — ushering in an era of significantly higher oil prices,” as Amy Myers Jaffe and Ed Morse noted in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that was published last year at the 40th anniversary. Twice a year, OPEC’s oil ministers would meet in Vienna, where they would set oil policy — deciding to either hold back or increase oil production. There was always cheating among members, but there was usually enough discipline in the ranks to keep prices more or less where OPEC wanted them.

As it happens, the title of that Foreign Policy article was “The End of OPEC.” Jaffe and Morse are both global energy experts — she is the executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, and he is the global head of commodities research at Citigroup — who say that if America plays its cards right, OPEC’s dominance over the oil market could be over. I think that day may have already arrived.

“OPEC is not going to survive another 50 years,” Morse told me. “It probably won’t even survive another 10. It has become extremely difficult for them to forge an agreement.”

When Morse and Jaffe wrote their article last year, the price of oil was more than $100 a barrel. Today, the per-barrel price is in the low- to mid-$80s. It has dropped more than 25 percent since June. There was a time when $80 a barrel would have been more than satisfactory for OPEC members, but those days are long gone. Venezuela’s budgetary needs requires that it sell its oil at well above $100 a barrel. The Arab Spring prompted a number of important OPEC members — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to increase budgetary spending to keep their own populations quiescent. According to the International Monetary Fund, the United Arab Emirates needs a price of more than $80 to meet its budgetary obligations. That’s up from less than $25 a barrel in 2008.

Not long ago, Venezuela asked for an emergency OPEC meeting to discuss decreasing production. Iran has said that such a meeting is unnecessary. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is primarily concerned with not losing market share, so it will continue to pump out oil regardless of the needs of other OPEC members. This is not exactly cartel-like behavior. The next OPEC meeting is scheduled for late November, but there is little likelihood of an agreement.

And why does OPEC suddenly find itself in such disarray? Simply put, the supply of oil is greater than the demand, and OPEC has lost its ability to control the supply. Part of the reason is a slowdown in global demand. China’s economy has slowed, and so has its voracious appetite for oil. Japan, meanwhile, is increasingly turning to natural gas and nuclear power.

But an even bigger part of the reason is that the shale revolution in North America is utterly changing the supply-demand dynamic. Since 2008, says Bernard Weinstein, an energy expert at Southern Methodist University, oil production in the United States is up 60 percent. That’s an additional three million barrels a day. Within a few years, predicts Morse, America will overtake Russia and Saudi Arabia and become the world’s largest oil producer.

What’s more, according to another article Morse wrote, this one for Foreign Affairs magazine, “the costs of finding and producing oil and gas in shale and tight rock formations are steadily going down and will drop even more in the years to come.” In other words, the American energy industry might well be able to withstand further price drops easier than OPEC members.

When I got Jaffe on the phone, I asked her if she thought OPEC was a spent force. “You can never say never,” she replied, and then laid out a few dire scenarios — mostly revolving around oil fields being bombed or attacked — that might make supply scarce again. But barring that, this is a moment we’ve long been waiting for. Thanks to the shale revolution, OPEC has become a paper tiger.

Nocera, solo

October 18, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “Failures of Competence” he says the C.D.C. was supposed to be the federal agency that we could trust without fail.  Here he is:

Et tu, C.D.C.?

For years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been the most trusted agency in the federal government. In 2003, when Gallup did a survey to determine what the public thought of various federal agencies, the C.D.C. topped the list, with 66 percent of respondents describing it as “excellent” or “good.”

Last year, a similar Gallup poll showed that the C.D.C.’s approval rating had dropped to 60 percent, which was still better than any other agency. The C.D.C. has seen the country through SARS and the swine flu virus. The general perception was not only that it did important, apolitical work, but that it was highly competent. “I used to call the C.D.C. the shining star of federal agencies,” says Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health expert at Georgetown Law.

And then came Ebola.

The Ebola outbreak is not exactly enhancing the C.D.C.’s reputation for competence. At first, the agency reassured the public that American hospitals were ready to handle any Ebola cases that came their way. That has turned out not to be the case. When Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, the C.D.C. did not immediately fly in an expert team — something that the C.D.C. director, Tom Frieden, now says it should have done. Most recently, the C.D.C. appears to have allowed one of the Dallas nurses who helped Duncan to take a flight from Ohio to Texas even though she had a slightly raised temperature. When it became clear that she had contracted the virus — the second nurse to do so — Frieden was forced to admit that letting her on the plane was a mistake.

Meanwhile, Frieden, a highly respected public health expert, had to walk back some of his remarks. Congress — including Democrats — appears dismayed by the mistakes. Perhaps the biggest one the C.D.C. made was that its voluntary guidelines for treating Ebola patients were too lax. In The Times a few days ago, Donald G. McNeil quoted several experts saying the protocols established by the C.D.C. were, in the words of one, “absolutely irresponsible and dead wrong.” One important protocol is having a “site supervisor” watching for errors. The C.D.C. has now included that guideline.

Are there extenuating circumstances? To hear infectious disease specialists tell it, the answer is yes. Like all federal agencies, the C.D.C. saw significant cuts to its funding thanks to sequestration. Another expert, Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me in an email that because the chances of Ebola being imported to the U.S. were considered low, preparing for it was not considered a good use of scarce public money. “The budget cuts,” he wrote, “have directly reduced preparedness.”

In addition, the C.D.C., like many federal agencies, had its mission transformed after 9/11. Julie Gerberding, an appointee of the Bush administration, changed its emphasis to bioterrorism and other potential security threats. “She also brought in efficiency experts who were anathema to scientists,” says Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the seminal 1994 book, “The Coming Plague.” Morale plummeted, and many of its best scientists fled.

Fair enough. But it is also true that the C.D.C. was too hubristic in its approach to Ebola, and the consequence is that its staff now looks like bumblers. “They never challenged their own assumptions,” says Dr. Richard Wenzel, an infectious disease specialist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is an unforgiving virus,” he added, “about which there is a lot we don’t know.” The C.D.C.’s unfortunate habit of saying things as if they were certainties only to have to acknowledge that its judgment was questionable, says Wenzel, “can cause people to lose faith in the public health system.”

When you think about it, many of the Obama administration’s “scandals” have been failures of competence. The Secret Service let a man leap over the White House fence and get into the White House. The Veterans Health Administration covered up unconscionable delays in treating veterans. The error-ridden rollout of the Obamacare website was a nightmare for people trying to sign up for health insurance. The Republican right takes it as an article of faith that the national government can’t do anything right. Problems like these only help promote that idea.

And now comes the C.D.C. — the most trusted agency in government — thrust in a role for which it was designed: advising us and protecting us from a potential contagion. With every new mistake, it becomes, in the public eye, just another federal agency that can’t get it right.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 14, 2014

In “The Sorting Election” Bobo gurgles that American society is self-segregating, and it’s showing up everywhere — including in next month’s midterm elections.  In “The Instruction of Pestilence” Mr. Cohen says plague can remain dormant for years but its bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely.  Mr. Nocera says “Amazon Plays Rough.  So What?” and has a question:  While the debate rages on over monopoly status, is anyone really going to stop shopping at the website?  Here’s Bobo:

Everybody knows that Silicon Valley has become an economic powerhouse over the past quarter-century, but Houston’s boom is less appreciated. Joel Kotkin of Chapman University points out that over the past decade, Houston has outperformed every major metropolitan area in income growth, population growth and migration. Since 2000, the city’s employment figures have risen by 32 percent, ranking it No. 1 in percentage job growth. In August, Houston issued more single-family housing permits than all of California.

The Bay Area and Houston share a strategic asset: engineers. The two regions rank first and second in the country in engineers per capita. Beyond that, they are thriving on the basis of very different growth models.

Obviously, the Bay Area is driven by technology. Houston’s growth is driven by energy. More than 5,000 energy-related companies are located there. The Bay Area is a tightly regulated city. Houston has no formal zoning code, though, as the city gets more affluent, more rules are being written. The Bay Area is beautiful in the way urbanists like, while Houston is mostly ugly, in the way fast-food chains like. The Bay Area is densely populated and great for walking, while Houston is sprawling, though much of the development over the past few years has been high-density hipster infill.

The Bay Area is the hands-down winner when it comes to creativity and charm. But it’s a luxury region, unaffordable and wildly unequal. Houston wins when it comes to livability, especially for people who want to have children.

Kotkin, who has become an evangelist for the Houston model, points out that Houston is possibly the most ethnically diverse city in America. It’s more egalitarian than San Francisco. African-Americans and Hispanics there have high home ownership rates. Houstonians also enjoy a pretty high standard of living. If you take annual earnings per job and adjust it for the local cost of living, then Houston ranks top among major cities.

Over the past few years, liberals and conservatives have been arguing over which growth model is best. But, of course, there’s no need to choose. Both models are more or less working.

What we’re seeing, it seems to me, is a profusion of economic growth models in different parts of the country — a net increase in economic pluralism and diversity. Perhaps even more than in the past, cities are specializing, turning into global hubs for a specific economic sector.

This diversity is an enormous economic advantage for the country, and an enormous social and political challenge. As the country diversifies economically, it segments socially and politically. Each economic sector attracts different kinds of people and nurtures different kinds of values. The specialization of output means that every place becomes more like itself.

In addition, as society gets more educated, it segments further. Educated people are more polarized politically than less educated people. Educated people are also more likely to move around and tend to move in with people like themselves. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen increases in residential segregation along political, income and cultural lines.

As the years go by, politics more and more resembles these underlying divisions. I used to think that this was basically a centrist country and that political polarization was an elite phenomenon. But most of the recent evidence suggests that polarization is deeply rooted in the economic conditions and personal values of the country. Washington is not the cause of polarization; America is. The irony is that something good about America (economic pluralism) is contributing to something bad (segmentation and political trench warfare).

Which more or less explains the midterm elections. The 2014 campaign has been the most boring and uncreative campaign I can remember. Democrats cry, “My Republican opponent is an extremist loon!” Republicans cry, “My Democratic opponent once shook hands with President Obama!” There’s not even a Contract With America, nor many policy suggestions of any sort. Most campaigns just remind preconvinced voters how bad the other party is.

One result of the election is already clear. Political representation will more closely resemble the underlying social segmentation. Right now there are a lot of red states with Democratic senators. After this election, there will be fewer — probably between four and nine fewer. The election is about sorting people more tightly into their pre-existing boxes.

People often compare this era to the progressive era — a time of economic transition with wide inequality and political rot. But that was an era of centralizing economic forces. This is an era of economic pluralism and political segmentation.

People in San Francisco and Houston are achieving success while pursuing different economic models. It probably doesn’t make much sense to govern them intrusively from Washington as if they were engaged in the same project.

Of course gerrymandering has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING.  Nothing to see here, move along…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Webster’s Dictionary defines plague as “anything that afflicts or troubles; calamity; scourge.” Further definitions include “any contagious epidemic disease that is deadly; esp., bubonic plague” and, from the Bible, “any of various calamities sent down as divine punishment.” The verb form means “to vex; harass; trouble; torment.”

In Albert Camus’ novel, “The Plague,” written soon after the Nazi occupation of France, the first sign of the epidemic is rats dying in numbers: “They came up from basements and cubby-holes, cellars and drains, in long swaying lines; they staggered in the light, collapsed and died, right next to people. At night, in corridors and side-streets, one could clearly hear the tiny squeaks as they expired. In the morning, on the outskirts of town, you would find them stretched out in the gutter with a little floret of blood on their pointed muzzles, some blown up and rotting, other stiff, with their whiskers still standing up.”

The rats are messengers, but — human nature being what it is — their message is not immediately heeded. Life must go on. There are errands to run, money to be made. The novel is set in Oran, an Algerian coastal town of commerce and lassitude, where the heat rises steadily to the point that the sea changes color, deep blue turning to a “sheen of silver or iron, making it painful to look at.” Even when people start to die — their lymph nodes swollen, blackish patches spreading on their skin, vomiting bile, gasping for breath — the authorities’ response is hesitant. The word “plague” is almost unsayable. In exasperation, the doctor-protagonist tells a hastily convened health commission: “I don’t mind the form of words. Let’s just say that we should not act as though half the town were not threatened with death, because then it would be.”

The sequence of emotions feels familiar. Denial is followed by faint anxiety, which is followed by concern, which is followed by fear, which is followed by panic. The phobia is stoked by the sudden realization that there are uncontrollable dark forces, lurking in the drains and the sewers, just beneath life’s placid surface. The disease is a leveler, suddenly everyone is vulnerable, and the moral strength of each individual is tested. The plague is on everyone’s minds, when it’s not in their bodies. Questions multiply: What is the chain of transmission? How to isolate the victims?

Plague and epidemics are a thing of the past, of course they are. Physical contact has been cut to a minimum in developed societies. Devices and their digital messages direct our lives. It is not necessary to look into someone’s eyes let alone touch their skin in order to become, somehow, intimate. Food is hermetically sealed. Blood, secretions, saliva, pus, bodily fluids — these are things with which hospitals deal, not matters of daily concern.

A virus contracted in West Africa, perhaps by a man hunting fruit bats in a tropical forest to feed his family, and cutting the bat open, cannot affect a nurse in Dallas, Texas, who has been wearing protective clothing as she tended a patient who died. Except that it does. “Pestilence is in fact very common,” Camus observes, “but we find it hard to believe in a pestilence when it descends upon us.”

The scary thing is that the bat that carries the virus is not sick. It is simply capable of transmitting the virus in the right circumstances. In other words, the virus is always lurking even if invisible. It is easily ignored until it is too late.

Pestilence, of course, is a metaphor as well as a physical fact. It is not just blood oozing from gums and eyes, diarrhea and vomiting. A plague had descended on Europe as Camus wrote. The calamity and slaughter were spreading through the North Africa where he had passed his childhood. This virus hopping today from Africa to Europe to the United States has come in a time of beheadings and unease. People put the phenomena together as denial turns to anxiety and panic. They sense the stirring of uncontrollable forces. They want to be wrong but they are not sure they are.

At the end of the novel, the doctor contemplates a relieved throng that has survived: “He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

The most surprising word there is the most important: The epidemic may also serve for the “instruction” of a blithe humanity.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Is Amazon a monopoly?

That certainly is what Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, thinks. In the magazine’s current issue, he has written a lengthy polemic denouncing the company for all manner of sins. The headline reads: “Amazon Must Be Stopped.”

“Shopping on Amazon,” he writes, “has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly.”

Foer’s brief is that Amazon undercuts competitors so ruthlessly and squeezes suppliers so brutally — “in its pursuit of bigness” — that it has become “highly worrisome.” Its founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, “borrowed his personal style from the parsimonious Sam Walton,” the founder of (shudder) Walmart, and Foer notes that pushing suppliers has always been the key to Walmart’s low prices, just as it is for Amazon’s.

But, he says, when Amazon does it, the effect is somehow “darker.” Why? Because “without the constraints of brick and mortar, it considers nothing too remote from its core business, so it has grown to sell server space to the C.I.A., produce original television shows about bumbling congressmen, and engineer its own line of mobile phones.” What, precisely, is darker about making TV shows about bumbling congressmen is left unsaid.

And then, of course, there is the book business, which Amazon most certainly dominates, with 67 percent of the e-book market and 41 percent of the overall book market, by some estimates. Foer devotes a big chunk of his essay to Amazon’s ongoing efforts to “disintermediate” the book business, most vividly on display in its current battle over e-book pricing with Hachette, in which it is punishing Hachette by putting its books at a disadvantage on its website compared with other publishers’ books. Foer worries about what Amazon’s tactics will ultimately mean for book advances. And he fears that books will become commoditized — “deflating Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan novels to the price of a Diet Coke.”

What he doesn’t say — because he can’t — is that Amazon is in clear violation of the country’s antitrust laws. As Annie Lowrey and Matthew Yglesias both pointed out in blog posts (at New York magazine and Vox respectively), there is no possible way Amazon can legitimately be called a monopoly. Lowrey notes that Amazon’s sales amount to only “about 15 percent of total e-commerce sales.” Walmart’s e-commerce sales are growing at least as fast as Amazon’s. Meanwhile, as Yglesias points out, Amazon has to compete with far larger rivals, including not just Walmart, but Target and Home Depot in the brick-and-mortar world, and Google and Apple in the digital universe.

The truth is that American antitrust law is simply not very concerned with the fate of competitors. What it cares about is whether harm is being done to consumers. Walmart has squashed many more small competitors than Amazon ever will, with nary a peep from the antitrust police. Even in the one business Amazon does dominate — books — it earned its market share fair and square, by, among other things, inventing the first truly commercially successful e-reader. Even now, most people turn to Amazon for e-books not because there are no alternatives but because its service is superior.

“In confronting what to do about Amazon,” Foer writes as his essay nears its conclusion, “first we have to realize our own complicity. We’ve all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place.”

Our complicity? In fact, in its two decades of life, Amazon has redefined customer service in a way that has delighted people and caused them to return to the site again and again. Does Amazon have a dark side? Yes, it does — primarily in the way it has historically treated its warehouse workers. But to say that Amazon has to be stopped because it is giving people what they want is to misunderstand the nature of capitalism.

Let’s be honest here: The intelligentsia is focused on Amazon not because it sells pinto beans or toilets, but because it sells books. That’s their business. Amazon is changing the book industry in ways that threaten to diminish the role of publishers and traditional ways of publishing. Its battle with Hachette is a battle over control. It’s not terribly different from the forces that ultimately disintermediated the music business.

As an author, I’m rooting for Hachette. The old system — in which the writer gets an advance, and the publisher markets the final product — works for me, as it does for most writers of serious nonfiction.

But, am I going to stop using Amazon? No way. I’m betting you won’t either.

Cohen and Nocera

October 11, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “God Bless America” Mr. Cohen says a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, alliances still count.  Mr. Nocera, in “Putin Shows His Hand,” says the Western sanctions imposed on Russia may be generating some unintended consequences.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Berlin:

I went for a walk in Berlin. Fall leaves yellowing in allotments with their little wooden birdhouses. Streets with more space than people, belying that facile epithet, “capital of Europe.” I had just left a friend in Grunewald who told me his house was built in 1930 by a Jewish family who fled to Brazil in 1936. Once he showed the granddaughter of the first owner around, and then did the same for descendants of the British officer who lived in the requisitioned house after 1945. Life, as archaeologists know, recounts its story in layers, and nowhere more so than in this city. A German woman told me of stripping away the wallpaper in her new apartment and finding exultant newspaper headlines celebrating the Führer’s birthday in 1937. A better epithet might be “Berlin, capital of memory.”

How then to remember the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — the end of Germany’s division, and Europe’s, and the world’s. A quarter-century has gone by. The bloody 20th century has receded into the mist. The wall’s fall was not the end of history but the dawn of a different history. It did not usher in an era where enlightened self-interest would govern the conduct of affairs between nations united in liberal democracy. Forms of nationalism, far from dying, revived. Fanaticism found fertile ground in desert sand. Russia arose growling. Yet of course this was, in the words of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, the “most lucky moment in our history,” a near unimaginable re-encounter of Germany with itself. For millions of Central and Eastern Europeans it was also when liberation came from the Soviet clamp.

Germany now hums along like this city’s trams. Unification took a generation, was arduous, but happened. In an age of minute-to-minute political adjustment, this country is a reminder that it helps to set long-term objectives and stick to them. Federalism aided the process. So did the Constitution’s promise of roughly equable “Lebensverhältnisse,” or living conditions, for all Germans. The rich have gotten richer here, as everywhere, but with less obscenity. Social democracy is not an empty idea in a nation whose experience of depravity has taught an indelible lesson of the dangers of social fracture.

Outside Germany, the European story is unhappier. A quarter-century on, the questions posed by German unification and a Europe made whole have not been answered. Greece is broke, France sullen, the European Union stalled. Germany dominates Europe, a role it does not relish, even if it is not immune to the occasional frisson. With that dominance old intellectual temptations have revived: the notion of being a determining power equidistant from Russia and the United States. German adherence to the union and NATO is still sacrosanct. But Russia’s little war in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea have revealed Vladimir Putin’s sympathizers to the left and the right, buoyed by fashionable anti-American sentiment. As Ukrainians have, in the words of Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister, “died to be part of Europe,” Europe has appeared unworthy of the sacrifice, in thrall to Russian energy. What most Ukrainians want now is no different from what East Germans and Poles wanted in 1989.

Memories coming and going in no particular direction, like fall leaves skittering along the Hohenzollerndamm. I came in 1998 to a Berlin not yet reborn as the German capital, divided still in mind-set. The next year, on the 10th anniversary, I spoke to Harald Jaeger, the border guard who opened the gate and so ended Europe’s division on Nov. 9, 1989. I asked him how he felt: “Sweat was pouring down my neck and my legs were trembling. I knew what I had done. I knew immediately. That’s it, I thought, East Germany is finished.”

It would not have been finished without the resolve of America and its allies. Unflinching American support for German unification, and the diplomatic brilliance of James Baker, then the secretary of state, turned a breach in the wall into a new order that freed half of Europe and was accepted by Moscow. Such forceful, clearheaded diplomacy is much needed today from Ukraine to Iraq. A new generation is learning that to float along and hope for the best is not enough. Hope is not a policy. The world is dangerous. Alliances count, both their commitments and their red lines.

In a tribute to Baker, who received this year’s Kissinger Prize at the American Academy in Berlin, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister in 1989, told how as crowds surged through the wall, he placed a call from the ministry in Bonn to Baker. The telephone operator reached the secretary of state. Before Genscher could say anything, she blurted out, “Mr. Secretary, God bless America!”

Only the most insouciant Berliner could ever forget those words.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

A few days ago, The Financial Times published an interview with a Russian businessman named Sergei Pugachev. Once an ally of President Vladimir Putin, Pugachev owned shipbuilding and construction interests, as well as a bank. Indeed, he was once known as “the Kremlin’s banker.” But his bank collapsed a few years ago, and, in 2012, the government seized his two shipyards. Jointly valued at $3.5 billion by the accounting firm of BDO, they were sold to a competitor, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, for $422.5 million, according to the paper.

The chairman of United Shipbuilding at the time was Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest associates and the head of Rosneft, the state oil company. Russian businessmen, Pugachev complained to The Financial Times, had become nothing more than “serfs” in Russia. “Today in Russia, there is no private property,” he added. “There are only serfs who belong to Putin.”

And so it goes in Putin’s Russia.

I had been making inquiries, hoping to find out whether the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe in the wake of Russia’s takeover of Crimea were working. The answer, I believe, is yes, but not necessarily in the way you’d think.

The first point to make is that the Russian economy has been in a downturn ever since Putin returned to power in May 2012. In recent months, that slide accelerated. Economic growth has flat-lined. The ruble is in free fall. Inflation is rising. More than $100 billion of capital is expected to flee the country this year. Most ominous of all, the price of oil — Russia’s primary asset, upon which the government depends to finance itself — has been dropping.

Although the mounting problems have been coincident with the sanctions, it is impossible to say for sure whether there is a direct correlation. (One thing that is making a difference, I should note, is the boom in American oil and gas, which has produced a glut of fossil fuel and has helped depress prices.) The direct effect will more likely be felt in the near future, when, for instance, Russian companies have to refinance their debt despite being locked out of Western capital markets.

What the sanctions have done, though, is bring out the worst tendencies of Putin and his close associates, putting them on display for all to see. The rule of law has long been a fiction in Russia, but, for years, Western businessmen — and Russian businessmen as well — made excuses. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who spent 10 years in a Soviet penal colony, had foolishly decided to take Putin on politically, they would say.

But since the sanctions have been put in place, McDonald’s restaurants, which had never had any problems before in Russia, are suddenly being closely inspected and a handful shut down. Other Western companies are having similar troubles.

Or take the case of Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a Russian billionaire who ran Sistema, a big conglomerate. One of Sistema’s assets was Bashneft, Russia’s sixth-largest oil company by output. Last month, Yevtushenkov was placed under house arrest, accused of money laundering. After a court hearing, his shares in Bashneft were seized by the government.

Yevtushenkov was not politically active like Khodorkovsky. He was no threat to Putin. But it is widely believed that Bashneft’s assets will eventually find their way to Sechin and become part of Rosneft. Rosneft had asked the government for a $40 billion bailout to help it withstand Western sanctions; handing it cheap assets is certainly one way to help.

“Rule No. 1 for Putin is that his people will be protected, and he is signaling that,” said Karen Dawisha, a Russia expert at Miami University of Ohio and the author of a new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy.” “They have started to dip into the pension funds. There are double-digit cuts in the health budget. His people will always be served before the people.”

In imposing the sanctions, the Obama administration and its counterparts in Europe have targeted precisely the men and the companies that are closest to Putin. By reacting the way he has, Putin is scaring away not just foreign investors but Russian businessmen as well. Not that he seems to care.

Just a few days ago, the Russian Parliament began the process of passing a law that would allow the government to seize assets owned by foreign companies — and use them to reimburse oligarchs and others who have been financially hurt by the sanctions. They are calling it the “Rotenberg villa law,” named for Arkady Rotenberg, an oligarch who had four luxury villas in Italy frozen because of the sanctions. This is such a foolishly counterproductive measure that even some inside the government protested it. Nonetheless, it will almost surely pass.

Thus, in the face of sanctions, does Russia cut off its nose to spite its face.

Cohen and Nocera

October 7, 2014

Bobo is off today, so God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world.  In “The Community of Expulsion” Mr. Cohen says slaughter in the Middle East cannot be an alibi for Israel to avoid self-scrutiny.  Mr. Nocera, in ” ‘Moment of Truth’ on Emissions,” says President Obama’s self-imposed deadline for dealing with fracking’s Achilles’ heel is here.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Attending services at a Reform synagogue during the High Holy Days in London I heard sermons of great worthiness from British rabbis. One was about Alzheimer’s and dementia among the elderly and the need to honor the “fragment of the divine in everyone.” Another was about changes to the prayer book, including the dropping of the term “Lord,” with its male overtones.

I listened with interest but without feeling challenged. The one subject not addressed was the one most on the minds of congregants: Israel and its recent war in Gaza, with the deaths of more than 70 Israelis and more than 2,100 Palestinians, including about 500 children. Surely I was not alone in hearing words like “fragment” and finding my mind turn to the moral dilemmas of the modern Israeli condition with its power and precariousness, its prosperity and violence, its uncertainty and contaminating dominion. The divine was in those dead Palestinian children, too. They just happened to have lived their brief lives in the hell of encircled Gaza with its tunnels and terrorists and Hamas operatives bent on the destruction of Israel.

Every human instinct recoils from the killing of children. It recoils even as Israel’s right to defend itself from rockets is clear; and the excruciating difficulty of waging war against an enemy deployed among civilians is acknowledged; and the readiness of Israel’s foes to kill any Jew is confronted. However framed, the death of a single child to an Israeli bullet seems to betoken some failure in the longed-for Jewish state, to say nothing of several hundred. The slaughter elsewhere in the Middle East cannot be an alibi for Jews to avoid this self-scrutiny.

Throughout the Diaspora, the millennia of being strangers in strange lands, Jews’ restless search in the scriptures for the ethics contained in sacred words formed a transmission belt of Judaism. For as long as the shared humanity of the other is perceived and felt, such questioning is unavoidable. The terrible thing about the Holy Land today is the denial of this humanity to the stranger. When that goes, so does essential self-interrogation. As mingling has died, separation has bred denial and contempt.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the anodyne sermons in London. I had read my colleague Laurie Goodstein’s recent account of the incendiary sensitivity of Israel as subject matter, of the reticence of rabbis, of some feeling “muzzled,” and of the difficulties faced by one New York rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, when she read the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children, alike, killed in Gaza. She was accused of spreading Hamas propaganda. No, she was trying, in a small brave way, to keep hearts and minds open.

That is the only way out of the impasse; neither people is going away. It is 67 years since the United Nations called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish, one Arab, in Mandate Palestine; 47 years since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began; 42 days since the Gaza war ended. Palestinians have made a profession of failure. But to deny Israel’s share is to opt for delusion.

Of course, sermons are only part of the story. The High Holy Days are days to look inward, to be still. I found my eyes straying to a passage from Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday” reprinted in the prayer book. It read:

“Only now, since they were swept up like dirt in the streets and heaped together, the bankers from their Berlin palaces and sextons from the synagogues of Orthodox congregations, the philosophy professors from Paris, and Romanian cabbies, the undertaker’s helpers and Nobel prize winners, the concert singers, and hired mourners, the authors and distillers, the haves and the have-nots, the great and the small, the devout and the liberals, the usurers and the sages, the Zionists and the assimilated, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the just and the unjust besides which the confused horde who thought that they had long since eluded the curse, the baptized and the semi-Jews — only now, for the first time in hundreds of years, the Jews were forced into a community of interest to which they had long ceased to be sensitive, the ever-recurring — since Egypt — community of expulsion. But why this fate for them and always for them alone? What was the reason, the sense, the aim of this senseless persecution? They were driven out of lands but without a land to go to.”

Two phrases leapt out: “community of expulsion,” and “driven out of lands but without a land to go to.” The second embodied the necessity of the Jewish state of Israel. But it was inconceivable, at least to me, without awareness of the first. Palestinians have joined the ever-recurring “community of expulsion.” The words of Leviticus are worth repeating for any Jew in or concerned by Israel today: Treat the stranger as yourself, for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

In March, the Obama administration issued a white paper as part of its Climate Action Plan entitled “Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.” A big part of the strategy was built around cutting down on the methane emissions that result from oil and gas production, particularly the hydraulic fracturing method of extracting natural gas from the ground — a.k.a., fracking. In the white paper, the administration said that the Environmental Protection Agency would decide by the fall how best to go about it.

Fall is now here. More to the point, the word is that the E.P.A. and the White House are in the process of deciding what tack to take in reducing methane emissions (though any announcement will probably have to wait until after the November elections). If the administration takes the right course, methane emissions could likely be reduced by 40 percent or 50 percent over the next five years — enough to make natural gas a genuinely cleaner alternative to coal and a critical component in reducing greenhouse gasses. But if it doesn’t — if the government decides to back away from regulation, or allow industry to reduce emissions voluntarily — then the promise of natural gas as a cleaner fuel could well go unrealized.

“It’s the moment of truth,” says Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund and a strong proponent of regulating emissions.

Methane emissions, as I’ve written before, are fracking’s Achilles’ heel. Methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas, and, when it is burned, it is considerably less dirty than coal. The problem is that methane too often leaks at various points in the production and distribution process. And when methane gets into the atmosphere, it is 84 to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span. (After two decades, its potency is greatly reduced.) Not surprisingly, anti-fracking environmentalists have put methane leakage near the top of the list of their reasons that fracking should be banned altogether.

That, to be blunt, is never going to happen. The natural gas boom that has resulted from fracking has become hugely important to the American economy, providing jobs and a plentiful supply of a low-cost fuel. President Obama himself is on record as being pro-natural gas.

It also turns out that lowering methane emissions does not require enormously expensive new technology. It can be done with technology that already exists and at fairly minimal cost. I’ve seen estimates that it would add a penny to the current price of natural gas. What’s more, a 50 percent reduction in methane emissions is the equivalent to closing 90 coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

In February, Colorado became the first state in the nation to impose regulations on the natural gas industry aimed at reducing methane emissions. The regulations included using valves that don’t allow methane to leak, regular checks and repairs of leaks and a variety of other rules. Four of the largest natural gas developers in the state supported the regulations — in part because they saw the public relations value in it, but also because the regulations Colorado imposed made sense. “What we were looking for were rules that wouldn’t just add paperwork or documentation but would make a quantifiable difference,” said Doug Hock, a spokesman for the Encana Corporation, one of the companies that supported the regulations. He noted that the company was already using, in Wyoming, a special infrared camera that detects methane leaks — which is now required by Colorado — and “we could see the benefit of the rules.” He added, “It really puts a very disciplined process around regular maintenance.”

The problem, however, is that while fracking is currently regulated by the states, not every state is rushing to follow Colorado’s lead. What’s more, there are an enormous number of companies in the fracking business — literally thousands. Fracking practically screams out for federal regulation.

Which brings me back to the White House. President Obama has said that he wants to put in place policies that will lower greenhouse gasses by 17 percent by the year 2020. To that end, in 2012, he set fuel mileage standards that will increase fuel economy to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. More recently, the E.P.A. announced rules that would reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent by the year 2030. The environmentalists I spoke with say that these moves, while significant, won’t get the president — or the nation — to that 17 percent goal. But adding methane emission regulation could well get us over the goal line.

Is industry pushing back? Of course. But oil and gas companies should be welcoming sensible regulation. There is so much mistrust of fracking in the country that rules that made the process demonstrably safer could well have the effect of ameliorating some of that mistrust.

Smart regulation to reduce methane emissions could help industry — and help the planet as well.

Nocera and Collins

October 4, 2014

In “Apple’s Irish Luck” Mr. Nocera tells us that it seems all a big company has to do is present its tax-break wish list.  In “The Walrus and the Politicians” Ms. Collins says you’d think that lawmakers in places where ice is melting and the sea levels are rising, like Alaska and Louisiana and Florida, would be on the forefront of climate science, right?  Gee, Ms. Collins, are they Republicans?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

A few weeks ago, the governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, signed into law a tax “incentive package” that his administration had negotiated with Tesla, the electric car company. Tesla is planning to build a giant factory to manufacture the batteries that power its cars, and Nevada was one of five states that were competing fiercely to land the plant.

It ultimately offered a staggering $1.25 billion package of tax breaks that includes sales tax abatements for the next two decades, 10 years of property tax abatements and nearly $200 million in transferable tax credits that Tesla could sell to Nevada companies that wanted to lower their own tax bills. Although Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, insisted that at least one of the other states had offered an even richer tax package, it is clear that the tax breaks Nevada came up with played an important role in landing the Tesla factory.

In reading this week about Apple’s tax dealings in Ireland, I found myself reflecting on the tax deals that American states cut all the time with companies they are trying to lure. It’s not all that different. In a sense, what Ireland has been doing is the global equivalent of what the states do to attract business. And that is especially true in the case of Apple.

Ireland has long had one of the lowest corporate tax rates in Europe; it’s currently 12.5 percent. That low rate, the Irish believe, helped attract industry and create the country’s boom in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

But it did a lot more than simply offer a low corporate tax rate. It set itself up as a kind of European tax haven, so that companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others could, in effect, buy an Irish address to which they could transfer a great deal of their intellectual property and route profits accrued elsewhere through the Irish subsidiary. This is called transfer pricing. Companies could also take advantage of other loopholes in the Irish tax code to get their tax bill considerably lower than 12.5 percent.

As The New York Times reported in a groundbreaking article two years ago — and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations confirmed last year — Apple takes advantage of every tax break Ireland offers. But according to the European Union’s competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, in a letter released this week, the company went a step further in its dealings with the Irish tax authorities.

In 1991, Apple essentially negotiated how much tax the company would pay. It did so after it had explicitly “mentioned by way of background information that Apple was now the largest employer in the Cork area with 1,000 direct employees and 500 persons engaged on a sub-contract basis,” again according to Almunia’s letter. Apple also acknowledged that it had “no scientific basis” for the amount of tax it was willing to pay. The deal was then “reverse engineered” so that Apple’s profits would wind up in the range that would yield the suggested taxes. (Apple now has 4,000 people working in its Cork manufacturing plant, the only Apple-owned factory in Europe; its tax deal with Ireland was reworked in 2007.)

With the recent outcry over corporate tax loopholes, the E.U. decided to take a closer look at some of its members’ tax dealings that had been flagged in the media. In addition to Apple and Ireland, it is looking at Fiat in Luxembourg and Starbucks in the Netherlands. And while the Apple case is far from over — indeed, both Apple and Ireland insist they did nothing wrong — Almunia, at least, has concluded that Apple’s tax deal with Ireland amounts to “state aid.” Under European Commission rules, countries are not allowed to subsidize companies in ways that give them advantages over others in the country.

Here then is one difference between what transpires in the U.S. and what transpires in Europe: The E.U. has rules intended to prevent nations from giving unjustified tax breaks to companies. “In Europe there is now a mechanism to prevent the most harmful abuses” of the tax code, said Matthew Gardner, the executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It has taken a while — and required an outraged public to spur it on — but the E.U. finally seems intent on curbing excesses like Apple’s tax deal in Ireland.

In truth, most tax subsidies don’t make much sense — not for countries and certainly not for states. “There is a lot of work that shows that tax subsidies vastly overpay for the jobs they create,” said Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California and the author of the recent book “We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money.”

It’s a good thing that the E.U. is trying to curb unjustified tax breaks. Maybe it’s time to do the same here.

Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s consider the walrus crisis.

They’re piling up in Alaska. About 35,000 walruses have formed what looks to be a humongous brown ball along the northern coast. A mass of critters, some weighing 4,000 pounds, are pressed shoulder to shoulder — or flipper to flipper.

Normally, they’d be sitting on chunks of ice, periodically flopping into the water to hunt for snails and clams. But the ice has melted away, and now they’re stuck on land.

On the plus side, walruses are gregarious creatures who like to snuggle. The situation is, therefore, less dire than it would be if you had 35,000 extremely large human beings squashed together on a beach, competing for food. But they’re nervous. “A Russian friend of mine said he saw a rabbit — or a tiny lemming — come near and it caused a stampede,” said Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund.

“Then the little calves get squished. It’s just so unnatural for them to be so close to one another.”

I believe we all would rather see the baby walruses in happier circumstances. Also, this is obviously the sign of worse things to come: melting ice, higher sea levels, warmer oceans, screwed-up weather patterns.

How should we react? Several options:

A) Adopt a walrus family! If every town pitches in, we’ll have this solved in a minute. They can eat 6,000 clams in a single meal, so be sure to stock up.

B) Take this as a signal to get really serious about global warming.

C) Let’s not get carried away. But maybe we could try to cut back on forest fires. Forest fires definitely make things hotter.

The last one is a somewhat snarky adaptation of the climate-change portion of an energy plan recently unveiled by Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, one of the Republican Party’s many, many current presidential hopefuls. Louisiana does not suffer from a walrus problem. However, part of the state is sinking into the sea at a rather rapid rate and you’d think he’d have some strong feelings about global warming.

No sirree. Jindal thinks climate change is just a “Trojan horse” for leftists who want to mess with freedom of choice. But there is, you know, the forest fire idea.

You’d think that the people in charge of the states where climate change was wreaking the most havoc would be in the forefront of the battle to push it back. But no.

In Alaska, entire towns are beginning to disappear under the rising seas. Roads are buckling as the permafrost starts to melt. Polar bears, which used to like to hang out on those ice floes themselves, are land bound, hungry and on the prowl.

Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, has been forthright about the terrible impact climate change has had, while slightly dodgy about exactly what he wants to do to about it. His opponent, Dan (“the jury’s out”) Sullivan isn’t sure exactly what the heck is going on. He assured one Alaska newspaper that “there is no concrete scientific consensus on the extent to which humans contribute to climate change.”

Actually, there’s a pretty good consensus. A vast, vast majority of climate scientists say that human beings are causing all or part of the changes in climate that are making life miserable for the walrus and destroying the bayou country in Louisiana.

Also, causing the drains in Miami Beach to back up with saltwater, sending the ocean running down the streets. Florida has its own Republican presidential hopeful in Senator Marco Rubio. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he told ABC News.

(Jeb Bush is from Florida, too. For the record, Bush’s opinion on global warming is that it “may be real.”)

There was a time when Republicans were leaders in the fight to slow climate change — particularly for the concept called “cap and trade,” which had a marketplace-friendly tilt. Among the co-sponsors of a cap-and-trade bill in 2007 was Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska. Murkoswki had to run for re-election as an independent in 2010, having lost her party’s nomination to a Tea Party favorite who complains about “climate-change alarmists.”

These days, it takes courage for a Republican to acknowledge that human beings have anything to do with climate change at all.

“If you felt that was a big problem, you would think everybody in the world would be interested in going down this path, but I don’t see any evidence of it so far,” said the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, helpfully.

Pressed on the issue during a recent interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, the man who hopes to become majority leader of the Senate next year said staunchly: “I’m not a scientist.”

Also on the record as not being a scientist: Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, and Marco Rubio. Florida is absolutely awash in backed-up ocean water and elected officials who are not scientists. Louisiana has a rapidly receding coastline and a governor who’s afraid of the energy industry. Alaska has drowning villages and a political establishment in denial.

We are the walrus.

Cohen and Nocera

September 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nocera and Collins

September 27, 2014

In “Paralysis Isn’t Inevitable” Mr. Nocera says solutions to “intractable” problems could be closer than we think.  In “Not For the Faint of Heart” Ms. Collins addresses real fear and loathing on the campaign trail.  Gee, I wonder what Hunter Thompson would have had to say about the current crop of Republicans…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

One of the hardest things for us to do is to envision a future that is different from the present. For instance, we live in an age of paralyzed politics, so it is hard, in the here and now, to imagine what could change that. A second example: It is difficult to think of a scenario where federal gun legislation could be passed over the objections of the National Rifle Association. And a third: Income inequality has been the trend for some three decades; doesn’t it look as if it will always be that way?

What prompts these thoughts are two papers that landed on my desk recently. Although they tackle very different issues, they have one thing in common: They imagine a future that breaks from the present path.

The first is a draft of a speech given earlier this month at TEDMED by Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. (TEDMED is associated with TED Talks.) The second is an article in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review by Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Webster’s speech lays out an agenda that he predicts will reduce the murder rate by 30 to 50 percent within 20 years. “I don’t think that our current level of gun violence is here to stay,” he declares in the draft of the speech. Martin’s article is about how the rise of the “talent economy,” as he calls it, has helped further income inequality. But he doesn’t believe a high level of income inequality is an inevitable part of our future.

Let’s tackle Webster first. Politically, he told me, “It’s a loser to call for a gun ban.” Instead, his reforms would make it more difficult for criminals to get their hands on guns. Using background checks, he would keep guns away from people who have a history of violence. He would raise the age of gun ownership to 21. (Webster notes that homicides peak between the ages of 18 and 20.) He would pass laws that make gun dealers more accountable, including “requiring business practices that prevent guns being diverted to criminals.” And he would mandate something called microstamping, “which would make it possible to trace a gun used in a crime to its first purchaser.”

When I asked him why he thought these changes would eventually take place, given the inability of the Senate to pass a background check bill after Newtown, he pointed to polls that show the vast majority of gun owners favor such changes.

“The N.R.A. has been very successful in controlling the conversation and making it about a cultural war,” he told me. “But I believe that narrative won’t persist.” The key, he says, is to change the conversation so that it is about pro- and anti-crime instead of pro- and anti-gun. Once that happens, “gun owners will start to demand changes.” He added, “I think that ultimately that idea will prevail, and it will be a pretty mainstream idea.”

Now to Roger Martin. His essay traces the way “talent” came to replace labor and capital as the most important factor in the economy, so much so that those who were part of the talent economy could become billionaires even as the median income stalled and then slipped back. Chief executives, who have gorged on stock options, are part of the talent economy, and so are hedge fund managers, who charge the infamous “2 and 20” (meaning a 2 percent management fee and 20 percent of the profits), which ensures their wealth no matter how poorly their investors do. The interests of such talent, in his view, simply don’t align with the interests of the rest of us.

Like Webster, Martin also proposed a series of changes to “correct the imbalance,” as he puts it. He suggests that pension funds should see that they are best served when they do not hand capital to hedge funds, for instance. And he wants talent to show “self-restraint.”

When I told him that seemed unlikely, he told me he thought we were approaching a moment like 1935, when, after years of letting labor fend for itself, the government passed laws that protected labor and helped bring about the rise of the labor movement.

If talent doesn’t start taking the rest of the country into account, he said, he feared that the government would once again take significant action to level the playing field.

Given the current political paralysis, I asked, what might bring that about? “Another boom and crash,” he said.

Martin clearly sees his article as a warning to corporate executives and others who are part of the 1 percent. And maybe, just maybe, it will take hold. After all, not long after his article was published, Calpers, the huge California pension fund, announced that it was going to eliminate hedge funds from its portfolio. There’s hope yet.

There will be pie in the sky when we die by and by, and if wishes were horses beggars would ride, and if my grandmother had wheels she’d have been a buggy…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

In an ideal world, ads for congressional candidates would not look like promos for “Homeland.”

But there they are! Grainy shots of barbed-wire, terrorist training camps and men in Arab garb firing large weapons, overlaid with scary sound clips from cable news. (“Are they coming for us?”)

O.K., we’re scared enough. We already had the Iraqi prime minister free-associating about terrorists in the subways this week. We don’t need to be told that if we vote for the wrong candidate in November, it’s curtains.

In an election year, there’s certainly a lot of foreign policy to debate. Should Congress be voting on whether we’re going to war? Which of the candidates think we should send American troops? Should we really be arming Syrian rebels?

You will be stunned to hear that none of these issues are the subject of campaign ads. What we’re getting is stuff like:

“Staci Appel — Passports for Terrorists” (Iowa)

“Dan Maffei Puts Us at Risk” (New York)

“Michelle Nunn’s own plan says she funded organizations linked to terrorists.” (Georgia)

That last one comes from Republican Senate candidate David Perdue. We don’t have time here to follow the intricate, pothole-paved path that led the Perdue camp to that conclusion. But to get there you have to be prepared to believe that Points of Light, a charity founded by George H. W. Bush, has been assisting Hamas.

The Republican fear-mongering has several aims. One is to remind voters that the Democratic candidate in question belongs to the same party as Barack Obama. This is totally fair. It may get boring, but it is not against the rules.

Theme 2 is that Candidate X is making it easier for Americans who trained as terrorists overseas to get back into the country and blow something up.

Staci Appel, a candidate for Congress in Des Moines, fell into a deep hole during a debate when her Republican opponent said that if he were in office, he’d “be urging our State Department” to revoke the passports of people who have admitted they belong to terrorist organizations.

Since “urging” is pretty much all members of Congress do these days, it sounds like a relatively harmless way to pass the time. However, Appel demurred, and said “we need to make sure that we work through the system.”

Perhaps she misunderstood what he was saying. But you know what happened next. The poor woman was eventually forced to run her own ad announcing that she “Supports Revoking Passports for Terrorists.”

Meanwhile, up in New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown has been bragging that when he was last in office — during a previous incarnation as the senator from Massachusetts — he sponsored a bill to revoke the citizenship of anyone who gives aid to a terrorist group.

That’s a lot different from passports. You can certainly try somebody for treason, but there’s no way to just decree that an American is no longer an American. The founding fathers were very clear on that point. If you resurrected James Madison and showed him Obamacare and citizenship-stripping, I can guarantee you which one would freak him out.

The most popular terrorism-connected campaign theme is overall border security, since it allows conservative candidates to roll up ISIS terrorists with illegal Hispanic immigrants. “She’s for amnesty, while terrorism experts say our border breakdown could provide an entry for groups like ISIS!” announced that David Perdue ad against Michelle Nunn in Georgia. Some experts believe that even at this early hour, Perdue has wrapped up the title of Worst Commercial of the Campaign.

The “terrorism experts,” by the way, are actually the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Brown took up the same theme this week, lacing into both President Obama and his opponent, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, for a “passive, pathetic attitude” on protecting the borders.

This was during his first foreign affairs speech as a candidate in New Hampshire. Shaheen’s campaign took the occasion to remind the world that when he was representing Massachusetts, Brown had boasted about his “secret meetings with kings and queens,” which appear to have all been fictional.

Except for citizenship-revoking, Brown’s speech was general in the extreme. It would be great to hear some specifics.

Right now the United States spends more on border security than on all the rest of its criminal law enforcement agencies combined. Under President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security has constructed nearly 650 miles of fences. The number of border patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000. They patrol every mile of the border every day, aided by 10 drones.

When candidates announce they want to beef up border security, how much more do you think they want to spend? Should there be an agent every 500 feet? A line of officers holding hands from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico? Inquiring minds want to know.

Maybe they could put it in an ad.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gazed at her, a little incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen, Nocera and Collins

September 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Congress is gone. But not forgotten.

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

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

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

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

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

We were all actually aware of that.

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

“The bill before us is an imperfect bill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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