Both Ms. Collins and Mr. Kristof are off today. There’s nothing to see here — move along…
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Mr. Kristof is off today. The Pasty Little Putz has taken a leaf out of MoDo’s book. In “I Love Lena” he ‘splains to us that there is a reason cultural conservatives like “Girls” and its critique of modern liberal life. MoDo has a question in “Too Many Secrets, Not Enough Service:” Did gender play a role in Julia Pierson losing her job as the chief executive of the Secret Service? In “ISIS, Boko Haram and Batman” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that a bit of dialogue from “The Dark Knight” rings relevant in today’s world of disorder. Is everyone taking a leaf out of MoDo’s book today? Mr. Bruni addresses “The Church’s Gay Obsession” and says a rash of cruel firings shows how selectively Catholic leaders enforce their laws. Here’s The Putz:
Here are some things you may know about Lena Dunham, if you happen to have opened the pages of any New York periodical at any point in the last few years. She is the youthful impresario behind HBO’s series “Girls,” which has launched at least one think piece for every viewer in its audience; she is also the show’s star, in which capacity she frequently disrobes; and she is the author of a memoir-ish new book, which debuted to much attention last week. She is also a frequent agitator for liberal causes, most famously in the ad she cut for President Obama in 2012, which compared the experience of casting one’s first vote to, well, a different sort of magical first time.
Here is something you might not know about her: She has a number of reactionary admirers.
I’m using “reactionary” rather than “Republican” advisedly: I don’t mean to imply that Tea Party activists are lining up to buy “Not That Kind of Girl,” Dunham’s comic (sort of) foray into non-fictionalized self-exposure, or that there’s a Fox News talk show waiting in her future.
But within the small (but fun!) world of cultural conservatives who watch too much HBO, Dunham has a fan base. Let me explain why.
Like most television shows about young urbanites making their way in the world, “Girls” is a depiction of a culture whose controlling philosophy is what the late Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism” — the view that the key to the good life lies almost exclusively in self-discovery, self-actualization, the cultivation of the unique and holy You.
This is a perspective with religious and political corollaries: It implies a God-as-life-coach theology, the kind that pulses through Oprah Winfrey’s current revival tour, and a politics in which the state is effectively a therapeutic agent, protecting the questing self from shocks and deprivation.
And to be a cultural conservative today means, above all, regarding expressive individualism as an idea desperately in need of correction and critique.
Often the roots of this kind of conservatism are religious, since biblical faith takes a rather dimmer view of human nature’s inner workings, a rather darker view of the unfettered self. But the conservative argument is also a practical one: We don’t think expressive individualism actually makes people very happy.
We have some sociological evidence for this contention, in the disintegration that has proceeded apace in poorer communities as American society has become more individualistic. But further up the income and education ladder, life is much more prosperous and stable, which means that the case against expressive individualism rests on impressions and experiences — on hard-to-prove generalizations about narcissism, anomie and quiet desperation among the young and well-to-do.
Those impressions, those generalizations, are rarely reflected in pop culture. The best of contemporary TV is dark dark dark, but it’s the darkness of exotic realms — Westeros or Walter White’s meth lab, mob life or deep Louisiana. The defining portraits of younger, well-educated blue-state life, from “Friends” to “Sex and the City” to their imitators, are essentially propaganda for expressive individualism, sometimes allowing room for nuance but never for a real critique.
Except for “Girls.” The thing that makes Dunham’s show so interesting, the reason it inspired a certain unsettlement among some of its early fans, is that it often portrays young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it: as a collision of narcissists educated mostly in self-love, a sexual landscape distinguished by serial humiliations — a realm at once manic and medicated, privileged and bereft of higher purpose.
Now there is plenty of charm and fun and human interest on the show as well, and I’m quite sure that Dunham does not intend the reading I’ve just offered. More likely she agrees with Elaine Blair, whose New York Review of Books article chided the show’s “nervous” liberal critics, and praised “Girls” for depicting the ways in which, thanks to the sexual revolution, “all of us can know more people in more ways than was ever previously allowed,” with “the ultimate prize to be wrung from all of these baffling sexual predicaments” being “a deeper understanding of oneself.”
This is Expressive Individualism 101. But the show is observant enough, artistic enough, to allow room for contrary interpretations. There are scenes — an extremely dark sexual encounter involving an otherwise likable male character near the end of season two — that make Blair’s sexual happy-talk seem frankly absurd. There are moments — a messed-up daughter’s encounter with her feckless dad, a character’s rant against her close friends’ self-absorption — that are almost puritanical (in a good way!) in their moral perspective.
Any reactionary affection for her work is doubtless unrequited. But it’s merited, because Dunham is doing a rare thing: She’s making a show for liberals that, merely by being realistic, sharp-edge, complicated, almost gives cultural conservatism its due.
He really is a consummate horse’s ass. (With apologies to horses. Their asses are lovely.) Here’s MoDo:
Did Julia Pierson get pushed off the glass cliff?
Writing in The New Republic, Bryce Covert suggests that Pierson’s gender — she was the first woman to run the Secret Service in its 149-year-history — played a role in her demise.
“Time and again,” Covert wrote, “women are put in charge only when there’s a mess, and if they can’t engineer a quick cleanup, they’re shoved out the door.”
She added: “As with Pierson, women are often put in these positions because rough patches make people think they need to shake things up and try something new — like putting a woman in charge. When it’s smooth sailing, on the other hand, men get to maintain control of the steering wheel. Women are also thought to have qualities associated with cleaning up messes.”
Other feminists also debated if top women have a shorter leash than men.
In this case, though, the shorter leash was on the White House guard dogs. It is hard to believe, but the officers in charge two weeks ago when an Iraq veteran named Omar Gonzalez clambered over the White House gate and ran, with a limp because of a partially amputated foot, past an unlocked door into the East Room did not unmuzzle the Belgian Malinois.
It seems as though they weren’t sure if the dogs would get confused by the chaos and tackle the intruder or the officers converging to chase the intruder.
If you can’t let the dogs out, why count on them at all?
Pierson should have given canine duty to Cairo, the Belgian Malinois that went on the Osama bin Laden raid. The cool Navy SEAL dogs can parachute and sometimes have a titanium bite.
It is true that women often get top jobs, like evening news anchor or Hollywood studio chief, after the institutions have lost their luster. But, in Pierson’s case, she earned her abrupt exit fair and square. It’s no blot on the copybook of women. She withheld crucial information and helped paper over fiascos at an agency where mismanagement and denial put the president’s life (and his family’s lives) in jeopardy.
Presidents are hesitant to ride herd on the agency because, as one White House insider noted, “these people know everything about him, his wife, his kids, his in-laws, all of his secrets. You feel a little vulnerable when people know things about you.”
Pierson, 55, benefited from her gender in getting the powerful post. The White House thought it would be good optics — that most egregious word — after a dozen Secret Service agents, including two supervisors, were caught cavorting with hookers in Cartagena, Colombia.
It is often assumed that women bring a certain set of skills to the workplace, like consensus-building, forthrightness, a resistance to gratuitous belligerence and inclusivity. But that doesn’t always hold true. Hillary Clinton scuttled her dream of health care for all by taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach and supported gratuitous belligerence by backing W.’s vanity invasion of Iraq.
Pierson, a 30-year veteran of the agency, was anything but forthright on the botched response to Gonzalez, who easily penetrated what is supposed to be one of the most secure places on earth.
A gang of Secret Service hotshots couldn’t bring down a guy sprinting across the White House lawn? The agency made a risibly disingenuous statement saying that the intruder was caught “after entering the White House North Portico doors” and that the officers had shown “tremendous restraint and discipline in dealing with this subject.”
Pierson was anything but inclusive with the president when she failed to notify him that his agents had let an armed private contractor with a troubling record, acting in a troubling way, into the elevator with him during his visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. This, even though they had a meeting in the Oval Office eight days later. She also did not reveal it during the congressional hearing where she accomplished the impossible, uniting the parties in outrage against her robotic testimony full of excuses and bureaucratese about “the totality of the circumstances.”
The White House only found out about the elevator incident minutes before The Washington Examiner broke the story.
That’s nuts. The president shouldn’t have to worry about being in danger when getting into an elevator.
The Washington Post reported that Pierson got angry in the spring at stringent security measures her team was planning for the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit meeting held by the president.
She told some startled supervisors that the White House needed to be more like the place she worked, in costume, when she was in high school. “We need to be more like Disney World,” she said. “We need to be more friendly, inviting.”
When not bungled, secure and inviting are not mutually exclusive.
Pierson shattered the glass ceiling, but she also helped shatter the concept of an invulnerable Praetorian Guard — a lapse that puts the president in greater danger from all America’s crazed enemies.
Two women reacted like champs, as the elite guards focused more on protecting their reputation than their charges’ lives. Michelle Obama was rightfully livid about the lapses and presumably had a hand in the shake-up. And, in a 2011 incident in which a man shot at the White House, shattering a window on the Truman Balcony while Sasha and her grandmother were inside, Secret Service Officer Carrie Johnson was a heroine.
The Washington Post reported that, unlike some of her colleagues who ludicrously thought the shots were coming from a gang fight even though gang fights near the White House are hardly a regular occurrence, Johnson realized they were under attack and broke into a gun box to pull out a shotgun. But the agency’s culture was so warped that she did not challenge her dunderheaded superiors about their gang-fight conclusion “for fear of being criticized.”
It shouldn’t be that hard to protect the White House with a $1.6 billion budget. The agency says there’s a manpower shortage. But the problem really is that it’s another bloated, mismanaged bureaucracy full of favoritism, bickering and leaks. It’s terrifying how poorly conceived the security for the president is. There’s nothing creative or modern or smart about it.
After 9/11, the government was revamped and departments and czars were created to make sure we would never fall asleep at the switch again. But it keeps happening, with everything from ISIS to the Secret Service. The Secret Service these days is performing about as well as the Iraqi security forces have been against ISIS. On both fronts, the White House is saying that this time it will work better. But nothing has really changed.
In the movie, “In the Line of Fire,” John Malkovich’s ex-C.I.A. psychopath muses to Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent: “You have such a strange job. I can’t decide if it’s heroic or absurd.”
Can we have more heroic and less absurd?
Let’s see what we can think of about this president that’s different than any other presidents before him… Not that it would make ANY difference, of course… Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
What’s the right strategy for dealing with a world increasingly divided between zones of order and disorder? For starters, you’d better understand the forces of disorder, like Boko Haram or the Islamic State. These are gangs of young men who are telling us in every way possible that our rules no longer apply. Reason cannot touch them, because rationalism never drove them. Their barbarism comes from a dark place, where radical Islam gives a sense of community to humiliated, drifting young men, who have never held a job or a girl’s hand. That’s a toxic mix.
It’s why Orit Perlov, an Israeli expert on Arab social networks, keeps telling me that since I can’t visit the Islamic State, which is known as ISIS, and interview its leaders, the next best thing would be to see “Batman: The Dark Knight.” In particular, she drew my attention to this dialogue between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth:
Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”
Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”
Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”
Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”
Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”
Bruce Wayne: “How?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”
We can’t just burn down Syria or Iraq or Nigeria. But there is a strategy for dealing with the world of disorder that I’d summarize with this progression:
Where there is disorder — think Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Chad, Somalia — collaborate with every source of local, regional and international order to contain the virus until the barbarism burns itself out. These groups can’t govern, so ultimately locals will seek alternatives.
Where there is top-down order — think Egypt or Saudi Arabia — try to make it more decent and inclusive.
Where there is order plus decency — think Jordan, Morocco, Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates — try to make it more consensual and effective, again to make it more sustainable.
Where there is order plus democracy — think Tunisia — do all you can to preserve and strengthen it with financial and security assistance, so it can become a model for emulation by the states and peoples around it.
And be humble. We don’t have the wisdom, resources or staying power to do anything more than contain these organisms, until the natural antibodies from within emerge.
In the Arab world, it may take longer for those natural antibodies to coalesce, and that is worrying, argues Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford political scientist whose new, widely discussed book, “Political Order and Political Decay,” is a historical study of how decent states emerge. What they all have in common is a strong and effective state bureaucracy that can deliver governance, the rule of law and regular rotations in power.
Because our founding fathers were escaping from tyranny, they were focused “on how power can be constrained,” Fukuyama explained to me in an interview. “But before power can be constrained, it has to be produced. … Government is not just about constraints. It’s about providing security, infrastructure, health and rule of law. And anyone who can deliver all of that” — including China — “wins the game whether they are democratic or not. … ISIS got so big because of the failure of governance in Syria and Iraq to deliver the most basic services. ISIS is not strong. Everything around it was just so weak,” riddled with corruption and sectarianism.
There is so much state failure in the Arab world, argues Fukuyama, because of the persistence there of kinship/tribal loyalties — “meaning that you can only trust that narrow group of people in your tribe.” You can’t build a strong, impersonal, merit-based state when the only ties that bind are shared kin, not shared values. It took China and Europe centuries to make that transition, but they did. If the Arab world can’t overcome its tribalism and sectarianism in the face of ISIS barbarism, “then there is nothing we can do,” said Fukuyama. And theirs will be a future of many dark nights.
And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
Repeatedly over the last year and a half, I’ve written about teachers in Catholic schools and leaders in Catholic parishes who were dismissed from their posts because they were in same-sex relationships and — in many cases — had decided to marry.
Every time, more than a few readers weighed in to tell me that these people had it coming. If you join a club, they argued, you play by its rules or you suffer the consequences.
The rules of this particular club prohibit divorce, yet the pews of many of the Catholic churches I’ve visited are populous with worshipers on their second and even third marriages. They walk merrily to the altar to receive communion, not a peep of protest from a soul around them. They participate fully in the rituals of the church, their membership in the club uncontested.
The rules prohibit artificial birth control, and yet most of the Catholic families I know have no more than three children, which is either a miracle of naturally capped fecundity or a sign that someone’s been at the pharmacy. I’m not aware of any church office that monitors such matters, poring over drugstore receipts. And I haven’t heard of any teachers fired or parishioners denied communion on the grounds of insufficiently brimming broods.
About teachers: When gay or lesbian ones are let go, the explanation typically cites their contractual obligations, as employees of Catholic schools, not to defy the church’s strictures, which forbid sexual activity between two men or two women.
But there are many employees of Catholic schools nationwide who aren’t even Catholic, who defy the church by never having subscribed to it in the first place. There are Protestant teachers. Jewish ones. Teachers who are agnostic and, quite likely, teachers who are atheists and simply don’t advertise it. There are parish employees in these same categories, and some remain snug in their jobs.
“Is it more important to believe in the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage than to believe in the Resurrection — or even that God exists?” asked the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the author of the 2014 best seller “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” “I don’t hear anyone calling for the firing of the agnostic parish business manager.”
The blunt truth of the matter is that during a period when the legalization of gay marriage has spread rapidly in this country, from just six states in 2011 to more than three times that number today, Catholic officials here have elected to focus on this one issue and on a given group of people: gays and lesbians.
Their moralizing is selective, bigoted and very sad. It’s also self-defeating, because it’s souring many American Catholics, a majority of whom approve of same-sex marriage, and because the workers who’ve been exiled were often exemplars of charity, mercy and other virtues as central to Catholicism as any guidelines for sex. But their hearts didn’t matter. It was all about their loins. Will the church ever get away from that?
Pope Francis seems inclined to do so, and is nudging other Catholic leaders with his carefully chosen words and artfully orchestrated symbols. He’s probably not telegraphing any major shift in church teaching — which, by the way, changes plenty over time — but he’s signaling that Catholics who run afoul of it needn’t be vilified.
Just three weeks ago, he presided over the marriages of 20 couples from the Diocese of Rome, including brides and grooms who had already been living together or been married before. One bride had a grown child conceived out of wedlock.
The pope’s actions don’t jibe with the way many Catholic leaders in the United States are treating gays and lesbians. The National Catholic Reporter said recently that it could find, since 2008, about 40 public cases of employees’ losing jobs at Catholic institutions in this country because of issues connected with homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Seventeen of these occurred just this year.
When I discussed the issue with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, she wondered aloud if Catholic superiors would dismiss someone or deny him or her communion for supporting the death penalty, which is against Catholic teaching. She and I alike marveled at how little we heard from American church leaders during all the news months ago about botched executions.
“The bishops have picked up gay marriage ever since the 2004 presidential election as a special cause that they are against,” Cahill noted. She said that they were “staking out a countercultural Catholic identity” that doesn’t focus on “social justice and economic issues.”
“It’s about sex and gender issues,” she said, adding that it might be connected to the disgrace that church leaders brought upon themselves with their disastrous handling of child sexual abuse by priests. Perhaps, she said, they’re determined to find some sexual terrain on which they can strike a position of stern rectitude.
“They’re trying to regain the moral high ground, no matter how sure it is to backfire,” she said. Having turned a blind eye to nonconsensual sex that ravaged young lives, they’re holding the line against consensual sex that wounds no one.
It’s crucial to remember that in many cases in which the church has punished same-sex couples, their homosexuality and even their same-sex partnerships were widely known and tacitly condoned for some time beforehand. What changed was their interest in a civil marriage, suddenly made possible by laws that are evolving more humanely than the church is. The couples in question stepped up and made loving commitments of a kind that the church celebrates in other circumstances. For this they were spurned. It’s shameful.
And it contradicts Catholic principles apart from those governing same-sex relations, as Martin observed in a column in the Catholic magazine America earlier this year. Catholic teaching, he wrote, “also says that gay and lesbian people must be treated with ‘respect, sensitivity and compassion.’ ”
Some American church leaders indeed question what’s going on. Asked by a reporter recently about the banishment of gay workers, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said that the situation “needs to be rectified.” No time like the present.
What’s happening amounts to persecution. And it’s occurring not because the workers in these situations called any special attention to themselves or made any political fuss. No, they just loved in a fashion displeasing to many church officials, whose concerns with purity are spasmodic and capricious.
Martin said that those officials weren’t ferreting out and flogging people who fail to pay fair wages to their employees or to be charitable to the poor, which are mandates of Catholic social teaching.
“If you’re going to apply these litmus tests, apply them across the board,” he said, not recommending as much but making the point that if that happened, “We would empty out Catholic institutions of all of their employees, and no one would be able to present themselves in the communion line.”
There was one post yesterday, “Conservative Canadian Cockroach:”
Oh, my. Josh Barro tells us that conservatives are once again touting Canada as a role model, in particular using its experience in the 90s to claim that austerity is expansionary after all.
I think this qualifies as a cockroach idea (zombies just keep shambling along, whereas sometimes you think you’ve gotten rid of cockroaches, but they keep coming back.) I thought we had disposed of all this four years ago. But nooooo.
Barro hits the main points. Canadian austerity in the 1990s was offset by a huge positive movement in the trade balance, due to a falling Canadian dollar and raw material exports:
Since we can’t all devalue and move into trade surplus, this meant that the Canadian story in the 1990s had no relevance at all to the austerity debate of 2010.
Also, the whole debate about austerity versus stimulus was driven by the problem that interest rates were at the zero lower bound, so that there wasn’t any easy way to offset the effects of austerity. Canada in the 1990s? Not so much:
However, Josh misses a trick. When dealing with right-wing claims about economic data, you should never forget Moore’s Law: not only shouldn’t you accept their assertions, you should assume that what they say is probably wrong. Barro:
Squeezed by high interest rates, a left-of-center government instituted big spending cuts in the 1990s; as a result, Canada’s level of public expenditure as a share of its economy has fallen to match America’s.
From the IMF database:
The gap between Canadian and US spending narrowed during the recession, because the recession was far worse in the US. This meant that any given level of spending was larger as a share of GDP, and it also led to a temporary spike in US spending, mainly on unemployment insurance and other safety net programs, but also briefly on stimulus. But that’s all in the past, and we are once again back to the normal situation in which Canadian spending as a share of GDP is quite a lot higher than ours — including much more spending on poverty reduction.
So conservatives have fallen in love with an imaginary Canada, whose history and current reality is nothing like the real place. Are you surprised?
God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. There is nothing to torture ourselves with this morning. Both MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off. Happy days are here again…
There were two posts yesterday. The first was “The Loneliness of the Non-Crazy Republican:”
Hank Paulson has a very sad opinion piece about climate change in today’s Times. We must act, he declares, in the same way we acted to contain the financial crisis.
It’s a dubious analogy: the 2008 crisis was fast-moving, and people like Paulson could credibly warn that unless we acted the whole world economy would fall apart in a matter of days. Meanwhile, climate change is slow but inexorable, with enormous momentum; by the time it becomes undeniable that there’s a crisis, it will be too late to avoid catastrophe.
But that’s not the sad part about Paulson’s piece; no, what’s sad is that he imagines that anyone in the party he still claims as his own is listening. Earth to Paulson: the GOP you imagine, which respects science and is willing to consider even market-friendly government interventions like carbon taxes, no longer exists. The reins of power now rest firmly, irreversibly, in the hands of men who believe that climate change is a hoax concocted by liberal scientists to justify Big Government, who refuse to acknowledge that government intervention to correct market failures can ever be justified.
Given the state of U.S. politics today, climate action is entirely dependent on Democrats, With a Democrat in the White House, we got some movement through executive action; if Democrats eventually regain the House, there could be more. If Paulson believes that he can support Republicans while still pushing for climate action, he’s just delusional.
Yesterday’s second post was “The Damage Done:”
A note to myself, mainly. Look at the Spring 2008 World Economic Outlook of the IMF, which projected real GDP (pdf) for advanced countries, and compare it with the actual path:
That’s a huge shortfall. Yet the IMF believes that the output gap is only a couple of percentage points. If so, either there was a huge coincidence — a sudden, unanticipated drop off in potential growth that just happened to coincide with the financial crisis — or the crisis, and the poor macroeconomic management that followed, have done incredible damage.
On Tuesday there were two posts, and none yesterday. The first post on 4/22 was “Inequality 1992:”
I happened to notice Greg Mankiw citing some bogus claims that the one percent is an ever-changing group, not a persistent elite, and I thought “Wait — didn’t we deal with that one long ago?” And that brought to mind the piece I wrote for the American Prospect 22 years ago, “The rich, the right, and the facts.” (It doesn’t say this on the Prospect site, but it was indeed published in 1992). See the section on income mobility.
The truth is that inequality denial is largely a crusade of cockroaches — the same bad arguments just keep coming back.
Oh, and I do think that my old piece looks surprisingly contemporary. In particular, I was focused on the one percent even then.
The second post on Tuesday was “Class-Ridden America:”
Via Mark Thoma, Larry Bartels produces the ultimate anti-Santorum argument. Santorum, you may recall, declared that we have no classes in America — even the term middle class, he says, is “Marxism talk“. The usual response is to point to the data and say that objectively we are indeed a class society.
But there’s more: Bartels shows that we are also subjectively a class society: that policy views are much more differentiated by income than in other advanced countries:
Bartels offers several hypotheses about why this may be true. But the main point to understand here is that we now know what it means when people urge us to stop talking about class, or denounce class warfare: it is essentially a demand that lower-income Americans and those upper-income Americans who care about them shut up, and stop messing with the elite desire for smaller government.
It appears it all comes down to FYIGM…
In “Obamacare Bashing or Bust” Mr. Blow says regardless of whether you agree with the Democrats or Republicans on health reform, it could have profound implications on the midterm elections. Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Greed and the Wright Brothers” and says in the years that followed that famed first flight, their failure as businessmen offers lessons for today. In “And the Race Is Off” Ms. Collins says Kathleen Sebelius may be saying that she is not going to enter the Kansas race, but she is still adding to this year’s saga of women running for the U.S. Senate. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Thursday, President Obama delivered a compendium of positive news about the Affordable Care Act:
■ Eight million people have signed up for private health insurance.
■ Thirty-five percent of those signing up are under 35 years old.
■ The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the cost of the law will be $100 billion lower than expected and will significantly shrink the deficit over the next 10 years.
“This thing is working,” the president said. But it rang more as a lamentation than a proclamation. The health care law is a staggering achievement by this president and the Democrats and is likely to be viewed by history as such, but Republican opposition to it has been so vociferous and unrelenting that the president has been hard pressed to find a message that can overcome it.
Republicans repeat the same complaints, regardless of their veracity: Obamacare is bad for the economy and bad for Americans; it’s an unwelcome expansion of government by an overreaching president; it’s failing and will never work.
As Obama said Thursday:
“I find it strange that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been. They still can’t bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working. They said nobody would sign up; they were wrong about that. They said it would be unaffordable for the country; they were wrong about that.”
“I know every American isn’t going to agree with this law, but I think we can agree that it’s well past time to move on as a country. …”
But the president knows well that Republicans have no interest whatsoever in moving on. They’ve hitched their wagons to stop-Obama stallions and their plan is to race forward to Election Day.
The president smartly articulated the frustration that much of the opposition to the law in public opinion polls is “attached to general opinions about me or about Democrats and partisanship in the country generally.”
The president’s poll numbers took a hit during the health care rollout and have never fully recovered. The law also caused Democrats in general to lose their advantage in voters’ preference for control of Congress, according to a CNN/ORC poll conducted in December. Furthermore, most Americans disapprove of the health care law.
The Republican plan is simply to hold tight to last year’s disapproval and drag it forward to this year’s election. And that just might work. Democrats have so fumbled the selling of the health care law’s advantages, both moral and economic — faltering and stammering when they should have been steadfast and resolute — that they have acquiesced the debate to Republican opposition.
Rather than fight back with facts, too many Democratic politicians tucked their tails and ran away from the law, or, worse yet, joined the attack.
In addition to the effectiveness of Republican attacks and the anemia of Democratic support for the law, the demographics of midterm voters also bode well for Republicans.
Midterm elections generally skew older and whiter, and Republicans are counting on this skew to give them an electoral advantage. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll released at the end of last month, whites and elderly people are the least likely to support federal changes to the health care system, yet most elderly people are beneficiaries of another, quite successful government health care program: Medicare. And 77 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are white.
Even if Obamacare were not a factor, history suggests that this midterm election would still be a tough one for Democrats. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out in February:
“The party of a re-elected president tends to get walloped in the following midterm election. Since 1912 (that’s when the House expanded to 435 seats), the president’s party has lost an average of 29 House seats in the following midterm election.”
The health care law is working, insuring millions of Americans at far less a cost than what was previously estimated. But this civic victory may well contribute to a political defeat in November, unless Democrats can upend historical precedent and change the profile of the people who vote in off-year elections.
Our elections have been severely altered by a corporatist Supreme Court, maleficent voter ID laws and gerrymandering run amok. In the face of it all, can Democrats gather the gumption to say, “Enough”?
Next up we have Mr. Nocera:
Lawrence Goldstone’s new book, “Birdmen,” is about the origins of the airplane, from the early experiments with gliders in the 1890s, to the famous first powered flight by the Wright brothers in December 1903, to the wild next decade — a decade of daring by the early pilots eager to show off both their airplanes and their skill. A good part of the story Goldstone tells is about the rise of airshow exhibitions that swept America — exhibitions in which flamboyant pilots performed death-defying stunts before tens of thousands of spectators. Although, as the author points out, many of those pilots did not, in the end, defy death. On the contrary, death is a constant theme of the early years of flight.
“Birdmen” has a second narrative as well. It tells the story of three entrepreneurs: Wilbur and Orville Wright, on the one hand, and Glenn Curtiss, who quickly became their fiercest business rival, on the other. The Wright brothers had every advantage. Not only were they first, but their renown allowed them to form a well-capitalized company, with a distinguished board or directors, that aimed to take full advantage of their early patents, while selling airplanes to people we would now call early adopters. Yet as an innovator — indeed, as a businessman — Curtiss ran rings around the Wrights. Well before Orville Wright exited the business in 1915 — his brother had died of typhoid fever three years earlier — Curtiss was producing clearly superior airplanes.
The Wright brothers’ critical insight was the importance of “lateral stability” — that is, wingtip-to-wingtip stability — to flight. And their great innovation was something they called “wing warping,” in which they used a series of pulleys that caused the wingtips on one side of the airplane to go up when the wingtips on the other side were pulled down. That allowed the Wrights’ airplane to make banked turns and to correct itself when it flew into a gust of wind.
But when the Wrights applied for a patent, they didn’t seek one that just covered wing warping; their patent covered any means to achieve lateral stability. There is no question what the Wrights sought: nothing less than a monopoly on the airplane business — every airplane ever manufactured, they believed, owed them a royalty. As Wilbur Wright, who was both the more domineering and the more inventive of the two brothers, put it in a letter: “It is our view that morally the world owes its almost universal system of lateral control entirely to us. It is also our opinion that legally it owes it to us.”
What was Curtiss doing in the meantime? In addition to coming up with the idea of adding wheels for easier takeoffs and landings, he invented an entirely different system for dealing with lateral stability, a system of flaps that went up and down and controlled the wings. (Airplane manufacturers today still use that basic insight.) The Wrights responded by filing a lawsuit, claiming that Curtiss was violating their patents. The litigation would consume them literally until the day Wilbur Wright died.
Indeed, so caught up in the litigation did Wilbur Wright become that he simply stopped innovating. The board of his company made it clear that it wanted him to get back to the business of making better airplanes. But he just couldn’t. Meanwhile, the Wright Company had trouble holding onto professional managers because the Wrights — Wilbur especially — treated them so poorly. They woefully underpaid the pilots who flew for them in exhibitions, hoarding most of the money for themselves. Quite simply, the Wright brothers were greedy. And it ultimately hurt both them and America’s new airplane industry.
As it turns out, the Wright brothers won their lawsuit against Curtiss. But instead of accepting that judgment, Curtiss kept innovating, forcing Orville Wright back into court to stop him. What finally ended the patent wars was World War I; the government insisted that airplane manufacturers cross-license their patents so that the industry could move forward without the impediment of litigation. Yet, Goldstone adds, “the battle between the Wrights and Curtiss had taken a toll”: no American airplane was viewed as good enough to go into combat.
“By attempting to neuter Curtiss,” Goldstone writes, “the Wrights stifled the development of American aviation.”
He adds: “That is, of course, the irony of the patent system. Without patent protection, a competitor can simply replicate an invention and undercut the inventor’s price — which necessarily includes all the time and expense of research and development — so the incentive to experiment and create is severely inhibited. But if innovators such as Glenn Curtiss cannot build on the progress of others without paying exorbitantly for the privilege, the incentive to continue to experiment and create is similarly inhibited.”
Thus, in the story of the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss, is a lesson for our age as well.
And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:
Maybe Kathleen Sebelius should reconsider that Senate thing.
The woman who gave us the Obamacare rollout says she is not going to go home to Kansas and take on Senator Pat Roberts. Even though Roberts is a former friend who threw her under the bus because he’s afraid of a challenge from a loopy Tea Party radiologist.
Actually, she didn’t say all that. What she said, through a spokeswoman, was: “Secretary Sebelius is continuing her important work at H.H.S. and is not considering a run for the Senate.”
Some Democrats had told The Times’s Jeremy Peters that they wanted to see her give the race a try. At first, the idea seemed a little otherworldly, what with the way the health care website opened with a crash and all.
Still, we live in an age of hope. Fox says it has a new variation on “The Bachelor” in which 12 American women believe they are competing for the hand of England’s Prince Harry. If you can swallow that, you can certainly have faith that any secretary of health and human services can grow up to be the United States senator from Kansas.
The Democrats have found it difficult to recruit a high-profile candidate to run in Kansas. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since George McGill, who filled the seat after Charles Curtis resigned to become vice president under Herbert Hoover. Curtis, by the way, was the first member of Congress descended from American Indians. He led the floor fight for women’s suffrage and brought the Equal Rights Amendment up before the Senate for the first time. Also, he was a former jockey. I think I speak for us all when I say that Charles Curtis deserves more attention.
But about Kathleen Sebelius. Running a hopeless race for the Senate would be better than, say, spending the next year working on a memoir entitled “It Wasn’t Really My Fault.” And we have to keep stressing that, despite its awful start, the Affordable Care Act is working out fine. You could argue that Sebelius is a competent public servant who just ran into a really bad patch. Like Charles Curtis and the Herbert Hoover era.
Plus, she would have been an interesting addition to this year’s saga of women running for the U.S. Senate. Which is already turning into a thrill a minute. Just consider New Hampshire, where the incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, is being challenged by Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator whose entire political career has involved running for the Senate against Democratic women. To qualify for this race, Brown moved into his New Hampshire vacation home. If he loses, I am thinking his next stop will be a California trailer park and Barbara Boxer.
The Kansas race wouldn’t have been in that fun-filled category. But you could understand the Democrats feeling as if there might be a little window of opportunity. The incumbent, Pat Roberts, is facing any establishment Republican’s worst nightmare: a Tea Party primary challenger, plus the lack of a home in his home state.
Earlier this year, Roberts acknowledged to The Times’s Jonathan Martin that the place in Dodge City that he claims as his voting address is actually a house on a country club golf course that belongs to two longtime supporters. “I have full access to the recliner,” he joked. The part about this that’s really troubling is that Roberts picked a pretend address at a country club. If a politician is going to make believe he lives somewhere, shouldn’t he go for a cottage in the country or a midpriced condo near the shopping center?
Roberts was also stressed by a Tea Party challenge from Milton Wolf, a radiologist who, strangely enough, is a very distant cousin of President Obama. Wolf has compared the Affordable Care Act to “Stalin’s iron-fisted gulags.” Roberts, racing to the right in terror, demanded Sebelius’s resignation for “gross incompetence.” Obamacare haranguing is certainly standard fare under these circumstances, but you can see why Sebelius took it badly. Roberts, after all, was an old family friend who had bragged about their “special relationship” after she was nominated for secretary.
And it wasn’t even necessary. A Kansas reporter discovered that Wolf had a habit of posting X-rays of his patients on his Facebook page, and making fun of their injuries. So far, the radiologist’s most compelling excuse appears to be that he was trying “to educate people about what happens.” This is the kind of threat from the right that a Republican incumbent should be able to survive without turning a sweat, let alone turning on an old pal.
“It isn’t personal,” said Roberts after he’d called for Sebelius’s resignation. Well, sort of.
So there you are. If Kathleen Sebelius had traded the cabinet for the campaign trail, she very probably would have been defeated. But it still might have been fun to spend the summer discussing that recliner at the country club.
He didn’t post to his blog yesterday, but he’s already put up a post this morning. In case you’re following his course, here you go. It’s “Eco 348, The Great Recession: Inflation or Deflation?”:
Slides here (pdf).
This controversy is one for the the textbooks, in a couple of ways. First, the complete starkness of the division, with some of us dismissing inflation worries and warning that deflation might happen, while others warned about “debasement” and runaway inflation; second, the almost complete unwillingness of one side of the debate to revise views at all despite being wrong for five years in succession.
In “Wealth Over Work” Prof. Krugman considers how we are making America safe for oligarchy. Here he is:
It seems safe to say that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade. Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.
To be sure, Mr. Piketty concedes that we aren’t there yet. So far, the rise of America’s 1 percent has mainly been driven by executive salaries and bonuses rather than income from investments, let alone inherited wealth. But six of the 10 wealthiest Americans are already heirs rather than self-made entrepreneurs, and the children of today’s economic elite start from a position of immense privilege. As Mr. Piketty notes, “the risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism.”
Indeed. And if you want to feel even less optimistic, consider what many U.S. politicians are up to. America’s nascent oligarchy may not yet be fully formed — but one of our two main political parties already seems committed to defending the oligarchy’s interests.
Despite the frantic efforts of some Republicans to pretend otherwise, most people realize that today’s G.O.P. favors the interests of the rich over those of ordinary families. I suspect, however, that fewer people realize the extent to which the party favors returns on wealth over wages and salaries. And the dominance of income from capital, which can be inherited, over wages — the dominance of wealth over work — is what patrimonial capitalism is all about.
To see what I’m talking about, start with actual policies and policy proposals. It’s generally understood that George W. Bush did all he could to cut taxes on the very affluent, that the middle-class cuts he included were essentially political loss leaders. It’s less well understood that the biggest breaks went not to people paid high salaries but to coupon-clippers and heirs to large estates. True, the top tax bracket on earned income fell from 39.6 to 35 percent. But the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent — and the estate tax was completely eliminated.
Some of these cuts were reversed under President Obama, but the point is that the great tax-cut push of the Bush years was mainly about reducing taxes on unearned income. And when Republicans retook one house of Congress, they promptly came up with a plan — Representative Paul Ryan’s “road map” — calling for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all.
This tilt of policy toward the interests of wealth has been mirrored by a tilt in rhetoric; Republicans often seem so intent on exalting “job creators” that they forget to mention American workers. In 2012 Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, famously commemorated Labor Day with a Twitter post honoring business owners. More recently, Mr. Cantor reportedly reminded colleagues at a G.O.P. retreat that most Americans work for other people, which is at least one reason attempts to make a big issue out of Mr. Obama’s supposed denigration of businesspeople fell flat. (Another reason was that Mr. Obama did no such thing.)
In fact, not only don’t most Americans own businesses, but business income, and income from capital in general, is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. In 1979 the top 1 percent of households accounted for 17 percent of business income; by 2007 the same group was getting 43 percent of business income, and 75 percent of capital gains. Yet this small elite gets all of the G.O.P.’s love, and most of its policy attention.
Why is this happening? Well, bear in mind that both Koch brothers are numbered among the 10 wealthiest Americans, and so are four Walmart heirs. Great wealth buys great political influence — and not just through campaign contributions. Many conservatives live inside an intellectual bubble of think tanks and captive media that is ultimately financed by a handful of megadonors. Not surprisingly, those inside the bubble tend to assume, instinctively, that what is good for oligarchs is good for America.
As I’ve already suggested, the results can sometimes seem comical. The important point to remember, however, is that the people inside the bubble have a lot of power, which they wield on behalf of their patrons. And the drift toward oligarchy continues.
Nocera is on book leave, and apparently Ms. Collins will show up tomorrow. In “Paul Ryan, Culture and Poverty” Mr. Blow says whatever the congressman meant by men “in inner cities,” there is danger where cover is given for corrosive ideas. Mr. Blow, I think we all know what he meant. That wasn’t a dog whistle, it was a train whistle. And hoo boy, are TPTB in the media working to rehabilitate ZEGS… “Liam Jumper” from South Carolina had this to say in the comments: “My son’s university economics courses touched on urban and rural economics. When I told him Ryan’s remarks, his immediate response was, ‘I’ll bet he didn’t say anything about all the rural people in poverty. They’re mostly white and that would insult his Republican voters.’ ” Here’s Mr. Blow:
Paul Ryan continues to be flogged for disturbing comments he made last week about men “in our inner cities” and their “culture” of not working.
In a radio interview with Bill Bennett, Ryan said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
Reactions to the comment were swift and brutal.
Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said in a statement, “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’ ”
Ryan has agreed to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Lee’s a member and which found his remarks “highly offensive.”
But at a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Ryan was rebuked by one of his own constituents, a black man from Mount Pleasant, Wis., named Alfonso Gardner.
Gardner told Ryan, “The bottom line is this: Your statement was not true.” He continued, “That’s a code word for ‘black.’ ”
But instead of cushioning his comments, Ryan shot back, “There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all — it had nothing to do with race.”
That would have been more believable if Ryan hadn’t prefaced his original comments by citing Charles Murray, who has essentially argued that blacks are genetically inferior to whites and whom the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a “white nationalist.” (The center’s definition: “White nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhites.”)
Whatever Ryan meant by men “in our inner cities” and their culture, the comment obscures the vast dimension of poverty in America and seeks an easy scapegoat for it.
According to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (in Ryan’s home state), the gap between the poverty rate in inner cities and that in rural areas and small towns is not as great as one might suspect. The inner city poverty rate is 19.7 percent, and the poverty rate in rural areas and small towns is 16.5 percent.
Furthermore, as Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, argued several months ago in The New York Times:
“Few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty, misconceptions that distort both our politics and our domestic policy making. They include the notion that poverty affects a relatively small number of Americans, that the poor are impoverished for years at a time, that most of those in poverty live in inner cities, that too much welfare assistance is provided and that poverty is ultimately a result of not working hard enough. Although pervasive, each assumption is flat-out wrong.”
His research, he noted, indicates that “40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the official poverty line during that period” and “54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty.” Rank concluded, “Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans.”
By suggesting that laziness is more concentrated among the poor, inner city or not, we shift our moral obligation to deal forthrightly with poverty. When we insinuate that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, that it is almost always invited and never inflicted, we avert the gaze from the structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty — discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequities — while simultaneously degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.
Other parts of Ryan’s original interview were on target, when he talked about the value and dignity of work and the way that work builds character. Work doesn’t always alleviate poverty, in part because some people are forced to work for less than a living wage, though work does bring dignity.
But this is in part the problem, and danger, of people like Ryan: There is an ever-swirling mix of inspiration and insult, where the borders between the factual and the fudged are intentionally blurred and cover is given for corrosive ideas.
Ryan is “one of the good guys,” a prominent Republican operative explained to me last week. Maybe so, but even good people are capable of saying and believing bad things, and what Ryan said was horrific.