Krugman’s blog, 8/21/14

August 22, 2014

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Hawks Crying Wolf:”

Binyamin Appelbaum:

An increasingly vocal minority of Federal Reserve officials want the central bank to retreat more quickly from its stimulus campaign, arguing that the bank has largely exhausted its ability to improve economic conditions.

Is this really true? Of course, they are being very vocal — but when didn’t they call for monetary tightening?

The article highlights Charles Plosser of the Philadephia Fed; if you’ve been following these things, you know that Plosser has been warning about imminent inflation since the beginning of the crisis. He did it in 2008; he did it in 2009; he did it in 2010; he did it in 2011; I’m getting tired here, but you can easily find him doing the same in 2012 and 2013. And he has of course been wrong all the way — but he’s doing it again. This is news?

The real story here is the remarkable resilience of inflation panic: people who worry about inflation never seem daunted in the least by the repeated failure of their predictions. It’s an interesting question why.

Yesterday’s second post was “The Euro Catastrophe:”

Matt O’Brien points out that Europe really is doing worse than it did in the Great Depression. Meanwhile, Francois Hollande — whose spinelessness and willingness to buy into austerity doomed his presidency and quite possibly the European project — is finally, tentatively, suggesting that maybe further austerity isn’t the answer.

Simon Wren-Lewis thinks that the European embrace of austerity was a historical contingency; basically, the Greek crisis strengthened the hand of the austerians at a critical moment. I don’t think it’s that easy to explain; my sense was that there was powerful anti-Keynesian sentiment in Europe even before the Greek crisis, that macroeconomics as Anglo-Saxon economists understand it never had a real constituency in Europe’s corridors of power.

Whatever the explanation, we are now, as O’Brien says, looking at one of the great catastrophes of economic history.

Cohen and Krugman

August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krugman’s blog, 8/20/14

August 21, 2014

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Inequality Delusions:”

Via the FT, a new study compares perceptions of inequality across advanced nations. The big takeaway here is that Americans are more likely than Europeans to believe that they live in a middle-class society, even though income is really much less equally distributed here than in Europe. I’ve truncated the table to show the comparison between the U.S. and France: the French think they live in a hierarchical pyramid when they are in reality mostly middle-class, Americans are the opposite.

As the paper says, other evidence also says that Americans vastly underestimate inequality in their own society – and when asked to choose an ideal wealth distribution, say that they like Sweden.

Why the difference? American exceptionalism when it comes to income distribution – our unique suspicion of and hostility to social insurance and anti-poverty programs – is, I and many others would argue, very much tied to our racial history. This does not, however, explain in any direct way why we should misperceive real inequality: people could oppose aid to Those People while understanding how rich the rich are. There may, however, be an indirect effect, because the racial divide empowers right-wing groups of all kinds, which in turn issue a lot of propaganda dismissing and minimizing inequality.

Interesting stuff.

Yesterday’s second post was “Ancient Atlases:”

Several commenters on my Roman Empire post mentioned the Colin McEvedy historical atlas of the ancient world. Indeed, a great favorite of mine. And it fed right into my Asimov-psychohistory obsession with its declaration, early on, that

History being a branch of the biological sciences its ultimate expression must be mathematical.

One thing, though: there’s a clarity and sweep to the ancient history atlas that isn’t matched by the later atlases — and I suspect that ignorance is the main reason. That is, we tend to impose more order and simplicity on the distant past, not because it was actually any less messy and complicated than later eras, but because we don’t have all the details and fill in with bold colors and straight lines. As I’ve noted in the past, this is why goldbugs and others who believe that they have access to truths ignored by modern economists tend to draw on supposed events in the distant past, where they can project what they think should have happened onto a mostly blank slate.

So I love my ancient history, but I do think it’s important to realize that the world has always been characterized by buzzing complexity in which causes and effects can be hard to disentangle. Same as it ever was.

Blow and Collins

August 21, 2014

Today we have just Mr. Blow and Ms. Collins, since Mr. Kristof is off.  In “Constructing a Conversation on Race” Mr. Blow says true racial dialogue is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional.  In “Tell It to the Camera,” Ms. Collins says let’s hear it for the long-shot candidates this year. Like the high school math teacher running for the U.S. Senate in Montana.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The killing of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer, Darren Wilson, and the protests that have followed have brought about calls for the much-ballyhooed — or bemoaned, depending on your perspective — conversation about race.

I wish these calls were not so episodic and tied to tragedies. I also wish this call for a conversation wasn’t tied to protests. Protests have life cycles. They explode into existence, but they all eventually die. They build like pressure in the volcano until they erupt. Then there is quiet until the next eruption. The cycle is untenable and nearly devoid of aim and the possibility of resolution.

What we must discuss is best discussed during the dormancy.

The discussion just needs some guidance.

Let’s start with understanding what a racial conversation shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t be an insulated, circular, intra-racial dialogue only among people who feel aggrieved.

A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional. Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined. Personal — as well as societal and cultural — responsibility must be taken.

And privileges and oppressions must be acknowledged. We must acknowledge how each of us is, in myriad ways, materially and spiritually affected by a society in which bias has been widely documented to exist and in which individuals also acknowledge that it exists.

Take the results of a CBS News poll released in July. While three-fourths of respondents believe, rightly, that progress has been made to get rid of racial discrimination, most Americans acknowledge that discrimination against blacks still exists today.

It may come as little surprise that 88 percent of blacks gauged that level of discrimination as “a lot” or “some” as opposed to “only a little” or “none at all,” but 65 percent of whites agree the level of discrimination against blacks rises to “a lot” or “some.”

Yet when asked whether whites or blacks have a better chance of getting ahead today, 63 percent of whites and 43 percent of blacks said that the chances were equal. (By comparison, 28 percent of whites and 46 percent of blacks said whites had a better chance of getting ahead, and only 5 percent of whites and 4 percent of black said blacks had a better chance.)

We have to stop here and really process what we are saying: that even though we acknowledge the existence of discrimination, we still expect those who are the focus of it to succeed, or “get ahead,” at the same rate as those who aren’t. In effect, we are expecting black people to simply shoulder the extra burden that society puts on their shoulders — oppression — while others are free to rise, or even fall, without such a burden — privilege.

Understanding this fundamental inequality, one that trails each of us from cradle to grave, is one of the first steps to genuine, honest dialogue, because in that context we can better understand the choice that people make and the degree to which personal responsibility should be taken or the degree to which it is causative or curative.

And while acknowledging the inequality, and hopefully working to remedy it, we have to find ways to encourage and fortify its targets. I often tell people that while I know well that things aren’t fair or equal, we still have to decide how we are going to deal with that reality, today. The clock on life is ticking. If you wait for life to be fair you may be waiting until life is over. I urge people to fight on two fronts: Work to dismantle as much systematic bias as you can, as much for posterity as for the present, and make the best choice you can under the circumstances to counteract the effects of these injustices on your life right now.

Next, understand that race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.

According to a policy statement on race by the American Anthropological Association, “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups” and “there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

The statement continues:

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.”

It ends:

“We conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.”

And yet, we have tuned our minds to register this difference above all others, in the blink of an eye. As National Geographic reported in October, “A study of brain activity at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that subjects register race in about one-tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.” This means that racial registration — and responses to any subconscious bias we may have attached to race — are most likely happening ahead of any deliberative efforts on our part to be egalitarian.

Another step is that we must understand that race is not an isolated construct or consideration. Race and class, education and economics, crime and justice, and family and culture all overlap and intersect. We can’t treat the organ as if it is separate from the organism.

Lastly, some immunity must be granted. Assuming that the conversational engagement is honest and earnest, we must be able to hear and say things that some might find offensive as we stumble toward interpersonal empathy and understanding.

We can talk this through. We can have this conversation. We must. Hopefully this provides a little nudge and a few parameters.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Amanda Curtis, a 34-year-old high school math teacher, is now the Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate in Montana. Finally, a strategy for bringing down the average age of a senator, which is around 62.

Plus, a math teacher would come in handy. “Elect somebody who knows how to count” would be an awesome campaign ad. If Curtis had the money to pay for any ads, which currently does not seem all that likely.

“I told my husband: ‘Kevin, I’m really sorry I got us into this,’ ” she recalled in a phone interview. “And he said: ‘Why do you have to be so blanking awesome?’ He’s very supportive.”

I believe I speak for all Americans when I say that we are totally in favor of Kevin Curtis as a senatorial spouse.

It’s doubtful that we’ll be seeing any Curtis in Washington anytime soon. But in a week of so much dreadful news from every corner of the world, let’s take an opportunity to sing a happy chorus to this season’s super-long-shot candidates. Really, where would we be without them? Staring at a ballot full of pre-elected public officials, that’s where.

Montana Democrats have been going through what you might call a rough patch. First, Senator Max Baucus announced that he was not going to run again for his seat. Baucus gave out the news early so he could concentrate on “serving Montana.”

Then President Obama offered him an ambassadorship to China and Baucus flat-out quit.

John Walsh, the Democratic lieutenant governor, was appointed to take his place. Then The Times’s Jonathan Martin reported that Walsh had plagiarized a lot of his final paper as a master’s candidate at the Army War College. The senator of six months announced that he was not going to run for a full term against the wealthy congressman Republicans had nominated, because he wanted to devote all his time to his “fight for Montana.”

None of the well-known Democratic names in the state were interested in taking Walsh’s place. Or the somewhat-known names.

“I was scraping and glazing and puttying my storm windows,” said Curtis, who was chosen last weekend by a party convention. “And the phone rang. It was a reporter saying: ‘John Walsh dropped out and they can’t find any other politician to run.’ The storm windows are still leaning against my house.”

Montana has only sent one woman to Congress: Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist and pacifist who was elected in 1916. She was sworn in the same day that Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Rankin voted no and was decried by a Helena newspaper as “a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.” That was pretty much that. Rankin ran again more than two decades later and was elected just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, giving her the opportunity to cast the only vote against entering World War II. “Montana is 100 percent against you,” her brother wired encouragingly. That was the end of her congressional career. But she held up the torch, and in 1968, at 87, went back to Washington to lead 5,000 demonstrators in a women’s march against the war in Vietnam.

Always happy to have a chance to mention Jeannette Rankin, who teaches us that fighting for a losing cause most definitely does not make you a losing person.

Amanda Curtis grew up in a family rocked by divorce, alcoholism, financial struggles and violence. She fought her way through college and into a teaching career. Her experience with students, she said, taught her that what she thought was a uniquely terrible childhood was actually not all that unusual in Montana. She began to get involved in community groups, and, in 2012, she was elected to the State House of Representatives.

Once in the office, Curtis began posting videos at the end of every day in the Legislature in which she stood in her office or kitchen, sometimes looking perky, sometimes looking exhausted, and talked into the camera. (“Day 73 and wait until you hear this …”) Her mission was part educational, with heavy emphasis on the workings of the Business and Labor Committee.

On the other hand, it was partly pure venting. “It was so hard to … not to walk across the floor and punch him,” she said, in a rant that Montana Republicans have already included in a mash-up of video highlights. Their collection does not note that Curtis was talking about a debate over gay rights in which another lawmaker insinuated that homosexuals lacked moral character.

Imagine what it would be like if our senators all came home every night and posted their real thoughts. When they were too tired to self-censor. Maybe we should make that a requirement.

Krugman’s blog, 8/19/14

August 20, 2014

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Beyond the Lies:”

Greg Sargent notes that the midterm election, which was supposed to be a referendum on Obamacare, isn’t looking at all like that in practice; Republican ads denouncing health reform have been dwindling month by month.

The reason is fairly obvious, although it’s not considered nice to state it bluntly: the attack on Obamacare depended almost entirely on lies, and those lies are becoming unsustainable now that the law is actually working. No, there aren’t any death panels; no, huge numbers of Americans aren’t losing coverage or finding their health costs soaring; no, jobs aren’t being killed in vast numbers. A few relatively affluent, healthy people are paying more for coverage; a few high-income taxpayers are paying more in taxes; a much larger number of Americans are getting coverage that was previously unavailable and/or unaffordable; and most people are seeing no difference at all, except that they no longer have to fear what happens if they lose their current coverage.

In other words, reform is working more or less the way it was supposed to (except for the Medicaid expansion in non-cooperating states).

Many of us argued all along that the right’s chance to kill reform would vanish once the program was actually in place; the horror stories only worked as long as the truth wasn’t visible. And that’s what seems to be happening.

Yesterday’s second post was “Veni Vidi Wiki:”

Vox has a great explanation of the Roman Empire in 40 maps (not all of them maps, really, but close enough); I love this sort of stuff.

A small niggle: nobody now thinks that quinqueremes had five banks of oars, which would be unwieldy to say the least; even rowing a trireme is really hard. Probably there were only one or two banks, with multiple rowers per oar.

Anyway, great stuff; I really liked map 2, which gave me a much better appreciation for how big the empire was. While I’m at it, let me put in a plug for Peter Temin’s lovely book on the Roman economy. Much more fun than thinking about European stagnation.

Dowd and Friedman

August 20, 2014

We’ve got another screed from MoDo.  In “Alone Again, Naturally” she snarls that the rock-star candidate who got elected on his electrifying promise has become a bored bird in a gilded cage.  It’s more of her typical crap.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Will the Ends, Will the Means,” says some important questions have gone unanswered in the Syria blame game.   Here’s MoDo:

Affectations can be dangerous, as Gertrude Stein said.

When Barack Obama first ran for president, he theatrically cast himself as the man alone on the stage. From his address in Berlin to his acceptance speech in Chicago, he eschewed ornaments and other politicians, conveying the sense that he was above the grubby political scene, unearthly and apart.

He began “Dreams From My Father” with a description of his time living on the Upper East Side while he was a student at Columbia, savoring his lone-wolf existence. He was, he wrote, “prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions.” When neighbors began to “cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew.”

His only “kindred spirit” was a silent old man who lived alone in the apartment next door. Obama carried groceries for him but never asked his name. When the old man died, Obama briefly regretted not knowing his name, then swiftly regretted his regret.

But what started as an affectation has turned into an affliction.

A front-page article in The Times by Carl Hulse, Jeremy Peters and Michael Shear chronicled how the president’s disdain for politics has alienated many of his most stalwart Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill.

His bored-bird-in-a-gilded-cage attitude, the article said, “has left him with few loyalists to effectively manage the issues erupting abroad and at home and could imperil his efforts to leave a legacy in his final stretch in office.”

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an early Obama backer, noted that “for him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials.”

First the president couldn’t work with Republicans because they were too obdurate. Then he tried to chase down reporters with subpoenas. Now he finds members of his own party an unnecessary distraction.

His circle keeps getting more inner. He golfs with aides and jocks, and he spent his one evening back in Washington from Martha’s Vineyard at a nearly five-hour dinner at the home of a nutritional adviser and former White House assistant chef, Sam Kass.

The president who was elected because he was a hot commodity is now a wet blanket.

The extraordinary candidate turns out to be the most ordinary of men, frittering away precious time on the links. Unlike L.B.J., who devoured problems as though he were being chased by demons, Obama’s main galvanizing impulse was to get himself elected.

Almost everything else — from an all-out push on gun control after the Newtown massacre to going to see firsthand the Hispanic children thronging at the border to using his special status to defuse racial tensions in Ferguson — just seems like too much trouble.

The 2004 speech that vaulted Obama into the White House soon after he breezed into town turned out to be wrong. He misdescribed the country he wanted to lead. There is a liberal America and a conservative America. And the red-blue divide has only gotten worse in the last six years.

The man whose singular qualification was as a uniter turns out to be singularly unequipped to operate in a polarized environment.

His boosters argue that we spurned his gift of healing, so healing is the one thing that must not be expected of him. We ingrates won’t let him be the redeemer he could have been.

As Ezra Klein wrote in Vox: “If Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better.”

He concluded: “There probably won’t be another Race Speech because the White House doesn’t believe there can be another Race Speech. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.”

So The One who got elected as the most exciting politician in American history is The One from whom we must never again expect excitement?

Do White House officials fear that Fox News could somehow get worse to them?

Sure, the president has enemies. Sure, there are racists out there. Sure, he’s going to get criticized for politicizing something. But as F.D.R. said of his moneyed foes, “I welcome their hatred.”

Why should the president neutralize himself? Why doesn’t he do something bold and thrilling? Get his hands dirty? Stop going to Beverly Hills to raise money and go to St. Louis to raise consciousness? Talk to someone besides Valerie Jarrett?

The Constitution was premised on a system full of factions and polarization. If you’re a fastidious pol who deigns to heal and deal only in a holistic, romantic, unified utopia, the Oval Office is the wrong job for you. The sad part is that this is an ugly, confusing and frightening time at home and abroad, and the country needs its president to illuminate and lead, not sink into some petulant expression of his aloofness, where he regards himself as a party of his own and a victim of petty, needy, bickering egomaniacs.

Once Obama thought his isolation was splendid. But it turned out to be unsplendid.

You’d think she’d get tired…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Hillary Clinton recently reignited the who-lost-Syria debate when she suggested that President Obama made a mistake in not intervening more forcefully early in the Syrian civil war by arming the pro-democracy rebels. I’ve been skeptical about such an intervention — skeptical that there were enough of these “mainstream insurgents,” skeptical that they could ever defeat President Bashar al-Assad’s army and the Islamists and govern Syria. So if people try to sell you on it, ask them these questions before you decide if you are with Clinton or Obama:

1. Can they name the current leader of the Syrian National Coalition, the secular, moderate opposition, and the first three principles of its political platform? Extra credit if they can name the last year that the leader of the S.N.C. resided in Syria. Hint: It’s several decades ago.

2. Can they explain why Israel — a country next door to Syria that has better intelligence on Syria than anyone and could be as affected by the outcome there as anyone — has chosen not to bet on the secular, moderate Syrian rebels or arm them enough to topple Assad?

3. The United States invaded Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, replaced its government with a new one, suppressed its Islamist extremists and trained a “moderate” Iraqi army, but, the minute we left, Iraq’s “moderate” prime minister turned sectarian. Yet, in Syria, Iraq’s twin, we’re supposed to believe that the moderate insurgents could have toppled Assad and governed Syria without any American boots on the ground, only arming the good rebels. Really?

4. How could the good Syrian rebels have triumphed in Syria when the main funders of so many rebel groups there — Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are Sunni fundamentalist monarchies that oppose the very sort of democratic, pluralistic politics in their own countries that the decent Syrian rebels aspire to build in Syria?

5. Even if we had armed Syrian moderates, how could they have defeated a coalition of the Syrian Alawite army and gangs, backed by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah — all of whom play by “Hama Rules,” which are no rules at all — without the U.S. having to get involved?

6. How is it that some 15,000 Muslim men from across the Muslim world have traveled to Syria to fight for jihadism and none have walked there to fight for pluralism, yet the Syrian moderates would not only have been able to defeat the Assad regime — had we only armed them properly — but also this entire jihadist foreign legion?

The notion that the only reason that the Islamist militias emerged in Syria is because we created a vacuum by not adequately arming the secular rebels is laughable nonsense. Syria has long had its own Sunni fundamentalist underground. In 1982, when then President Hafez al-Assad perpetrated the Hama massacre, it was in an effort to wipe out those Syrian Islamists. So, yes, there are cultural roots for pluralism in Syria — a country with many Christians and secular Muslims — but there’s also the opposite. Do not kid yourself.

That is why on a brief visit to Darkush, Syria, in December 2012, I was told by the local Free Syrian Army commander, Muatasim Bila Abul Fida, that even after Assad’s regime is toppled there would be another war in Syria: “It will take five or six years,” he added, because the Islamist parties “want Shariah, and we want democracy.” There were always going to be two civil wars there: The liberals and jihadists against Assad and the liberals and jihadists against each other.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with the brave Syrian liberals who dared to take to the streets and demand regime change — unarmed. These are decent, good people, the kind you would like to see running Syria. But it would take a lot more than better arms for them to defeat Assad and the jihadists.

Here Iraq is instructive. You need to go back to the 2010 elections there when Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, who ran with Sunnis, Shiites and Christians on a moderate, pluralistic platform — like Syria’s moderates — actually won more seats than his main competitor, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

What enabled that? I’ll tell you: The U.S. decapitated Saddam’s regime, then helped to midwife an Iraqi Constitution and elections, while U.S. (and Iraqi) special forces either arrested or killed the worst Sunni and Shiite extremists. We took out both extremes without reading them their Miranda rights. That is what gave Iraq’s moderate center the space, confidence and ability to back multisectarian parties, which is what many Iraqis wanted. When our troops left, though, that center couldn’t hold.

I don’t want U.S. troops in Syria any more than anyone else, but I have no respect for the argument that just arming some pro-democracy rebels would have gotten the job done. Yes, there has been a price for Obama’s inaction. But there is a price for effective action as well, which the critics have to be honest about. It’s called an international force. We are dealing not only with states that have disintegrated, but whole societies — and rebuilding them is the mother of all nation-building projects. Will the ends, will the means. Otherwise, you’re not being serious.

And why, pray tell, is it OUR job to rebuild their societies?

Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

August 19, 2014

In “Ambivalence About America” Mr. Cohen tells us that even as Europeans rage at the United States, they love its products.  Mr. Nocera tells us about “The Man Who Blew the Whistle.”  He says when the S.E.C. announced last month that it was awarding $400,000 to a whistle-blower, it didn’t name the recipient per the Dodd-Frank law. His name is Bill Lloyd, and Mr. Nocera gives us his story.  Mr. Bruni tells us all about “The Trouble With Tenure” and says teacher job protections are being challenged, and a lawmaker and former school principal explains why that’s good.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Attitudes in Europe toward an America that is regrouping are marked today by extreme ambivalence. Europeans have long been known for finishing their diatribes about the United States by asking how they can get their child into Stanford. These days, European after-dinner conversation tends to be dominated by discussion of the latest episode of “House of Cards” or “Homeland” or “Mad Men.” A French diplomat told me that every meeting he attended at the White House during his tour in Washington ended with one of his party asking if it might be possible to see the West Wing. He found it embarrassing.

Europeans complain of the personal data stored or the tax loopholes exploited by the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks, Google and Twitter, but they are hooked on them all. Google, as recently reported by my colleague Mark Scott, now has an 85 percent share of search in Europe’s largest economies, including Germany, Britain and France, whereas its share of the American market is about 67 percent. American tech companies operate seven of the 10 most visited websites in Europe. Rage at the practices of the National Security Agency is outweighed by addiction to a cyberuniverse dominated by American brands.

The magnetism of Silicon Valley may suggest that the United States, a young nation still, is Rome at the height of its power. American soft power is alive and well. America’s capacity for reinvention, its looming self-sufficiency in energy, its good demographics and, not least, its hold on the world’s imagination, all suggest vigor.

But geostrategic shifts over the past year indicate the contrary: that the United States is Imperial Rome, A.D. 376, with various violent enemies playing the role of the Visigoths, Huns, Vandals et al.; the loss at home of what Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome’s fall, called “civic virtue,” as narrow interests paralyze politics; the partial handover of American security to private military contractors (just as a declining Rome increasingly entrusted its defense to mercenaries); the place of plunder rather than productiveness in the economy; and the apparent powerlessness of a leader given to talk of the limits of what the United States can do. There is no record of the Emperor Valens’s saying, as Obama did, “You hit singles, you hit doubles,” but perhaps he thought it.

Ambivalence is not peculiar to Europe, of course. To heck with the world’s problems, many Americans now say, we have done our share over all these decades of Pax Americana. If China and India are really rising, let them take responsibility for global security, as America took the mantle from Britain in 1945.

Barack Obama — professional, practical and prudent — would appear to suit this American zeitgeist. He may not be managing decline but he is certainly resisting overreach. He is not the decider. He is the restrainer.

Why, then, is Obama’s no-stupid-stuff approach to the globe so unpopular? Fifty-eight percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, the highest of his presidency. A strange duality seems to be at work. Americans want the troops to come home. They want investment to prioritize domestic jobs, education, health care and infrastructure.

Yet many seem to feel Obama is selling the nation short. They want a president to lead, not be a mere conduit for their sentiments. Americans, as citizens of a nation that represents an idea, are optimistic by nature. It may be true that there is no good outcome in Syria, and certainly no easy one. It may be that Egyptian democracy had to be stillborn. It may be that Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea because he can. Still, Americans do not like the message that it makes sense to pull back and let the world do its worst. America’s bipolarity sees recent bitter experience vying with the country’s innermost nature, its can-do aspiration to be a “city upon a hill.”

It is not easy to read this world of bipolarity (both European and American), Jihadi Springs and Chinese assertiveness. It is too simple, and probably wrong, to say that the United States is in decline.

But Pax Americana is in decline. America’s readiness to use its power to stabilize the world — the current bombing of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria notwithstanding — is fading. For that reason, the world is more dangerous than it has been in a long time. The waning under Obama of the credibility of American power has created a vacuum no magnetic soft power fills.

The pendulum always swings too far. Obama the restrainer has been the great corrective to Bush the decider. Far from the magician imagined back in 2008, Obama has been the professional moderator. But the president has gone too far; and in so doing has undersold the nation, encouraged foes, disappointed allies, and created doubts over American power that have proved easy to exploit.

Immediately after this was a notation that Bobo was off today, so I guess Mr. Cohen had to send in his screed and do the saber-rattling and dick swinging instead.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Late last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an oblique press release announcing that it was awarding an unnamed whistle-blower $400,000 for helping expose a financial fraud at an unnamed company. The money was the latest whistle-blower award — there have been 13 so far — paid as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which includes both protections for whistle-blowers and financial awards when their information leads to fines of more than $1 million.

The law also prevents the S.E.C. from doing anything to publicly identify the whistle-blowers — hence, the circumspect press release. But through a mutual friend, I discovered the identity of this particular whistle-blower, who, it turned out, was willing to tell his story.

His name is Bill Lloyd. He is 56 years old, and he spent 22 years as an agent for MassMutual Financial Group, the insurance company based in Springfield, Mass. Although companies often label whistle-blowers as disgruntled employees, Lloyd didn’t fit that category. On the contrary, he liked working for MassMutual, and he was a high performer. He also is a straight arrow — “a square,” said the mutual friend who introduced us — who cares about his customers; when faced with a situation where his customers were likely to get ripped off, he couldn’t look the other way.

In September 2007, at a time when money was gushing into variable annuities, MassMutual added two income guarantees to make a few of its annuity products especially attractive to investors. Called Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 6 and Guaranteed Income Benefit Plus 5, they guaranteed that the annuity income stream would grow to a predetermined cap regardless of how the investment itself performed.

Then, upon retirement, the investors had the right to take 6 percent (or 5 percent, depending on the product) of the cap for as long as they wanted or until it ran out of money, and still be able, at some point, to annuitize it. It is complicated, but the point is that thanks to the guarantee, the money was never supposed to run out. That is what the prospectus said, and it is what those in the sales force, made up of people like Lloyd, were taught to sell to customers. It wasn’t long before investors had put $2.5 billion into the products.

The following July, Lloyd — and a handful of others in the sales force — discovered, to their horror, that the guarantee didn’t work as advertised. In fact, because of the market’s fall, it was a near-certainty that thousands of customers were going to run through the income stream within seven or eight years of withdrawing money.

Lloyd did not immediately run to the S.E.C. Rather, he dug in at MassMutual and, as the S.E.C. press release put it, did “everything feasible to correct the issue internally.” For a while, he thought he was going to have success, but, at a certain point, someone stole the files he had put together on the matter and turned them over to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which is the industry’s self-regulatory body. It was only when the regulatory authority failed to act that his lawyer told him about the whistle-blower provisions in Dodd-Frank and he went to the S.E.C., which began its own investigation.

The Dodd-Frank law has provisions intended to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, but there are certain aspects of being a whistle-blower that it can’t do anything about. “People started treating me like a leper,” recalls Lloyd. “They would see me coming and turn around and walk in the other direction.” Convinced that the company was laying the groundwork to fire him, he quit in April 2011, a move that cost him both clients and money. (Lloyd has since found employment with another financial institution. For its part, MassMutual says only that “we are pleased to have resolved this matter with the S.E.C.”)

In November 2012, MassMutual agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine; Lloyd’s $400,000 award is 25 percent of that. It was a slap on the wrist, but more important, the company agreed to lift the cap. This will cost MassMutual a lot more, but it will protect the investors who put their money — and their retirement hopes — on MassMutual’s guarantees. Thanks to Lloyd, the company has fixed the defect without a single investor losing a penny.

Ever since the passage of Dodd-Frank reform, the financial industry has been none too happy about the whistle-blower provisions, and there have been rumblings that congressional Republicans might try to roll back some of it. The S.E.C. now has an Office of the Whistleblower, and a website where potential whistle-blowers can report fraud. It has given out $16 million in whistle-blower awards.

There are, without question, parts of the Dodd-Frank law that are problematic, not least the provisions dealing with the Too Big to Fail institutions.

But the whistle-blower provisions? They are working as intended. That is the moral of Bill Lloyd’s story.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Denver:

Mike Johnston’s mother was a public-school teacher. So were her mother and father. And his godfather taught in both public and private schools.

So when he expresses the concern that we’re not getting the best teachers into classrooms or weeding out the worst performers, it’s not as someone who sees the profession from a cold, cynical distance.

What I hear in his voice when he talks about teaching is reverence, along with something else that public education could use more of: optimism.

He rightly calls teachers “the single most transformative force in education.”

But the current system doesn’t enable as many of them as possible to rise to that role, he says. And a prime culprit is tenure, at least as it still exists in most states.

“It provides no incentive for someone to improve their practice,” he told me last week. “It provides no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

I sat down with Johnston, a Democrat who represents a racially diverse chunk of this city in the State Senate, because he was the leading proponent of a 2010 law that essentially abolished tenure in Colorado. To earn what is now called “non-probationary status,” a new teacher must demonstrate student progress three years in a row, and any teacher whose students show no progress for two consecutive years loses his or her job protection.

The law is still being disputed and has not been fully implemented. But since its enactment, a growing number of states have chipped away at traditional tenure or forged stronger links between student performance and teacher evaluations. And the challenges to tenure have gathered considerable force, with many Democrats defying teachers unions and joining the movement.

After a California judge’s recent ruling that the state’s tenure protections violated the civil rights of children by trapping them with ineffective educators in a manner that “shocks the conscience,” Arne Duncan, the education secretary, praised the decision. Tenure even drew scrutiny from Whoopi Goldberg on the TV talk show “The View.” She repeatedly questioned the way it sometimes shielded bad teachers.

“Parents are not going to stand for it anymore,” she said. “And you teachers, in your union, you need to say, ‘These bad teachers are making us look bad.’ ”

Johnston spent two years with Teach for America in Mississippi in the late 1990s. Then, after getting a master’s in education from Harvard, he worked for six years as a principal in public schools in the Denver area, including one whose success drew so much attention that President Obama gave a major education speech there during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Johnston said that traditional tenure deprived principals of the team-building discretion they needed.

“Do you have people who all share the same vision and are willing to walk through the fire together?” he said. Principals with control over that coax better outcomes from students, he said, citing not only his own experience but also the test scores of kids in Harlem who attend the Success Academy Charter Schools.

“You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.”

When job protections are based disproportionately on time served, he said, they don’t adequately inspire and motivate. Referring to himself and other tenure critics, he said, “We want a tenure system that actually means something, that’s a badge of honor you wear as one of the best practitioners in the field and not just because you’re breathing.”

There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.

But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.

We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.

Johnston frames it well.

“Our focus is not on teachers because they are the problem,” he said. “Our focus is on teachers because they are the solution.”

Blow and Krugman

August 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krugman’s blog, 8/16/14

August 17, 2014

There was one post yesterday, “Steps and the City (Fairly Trivial):”

Emily Badger tells us that sprawl is bad for your health; so are movie theater concession counters, reports Sarah Kliff, which is why Tom Harkin and Rosa DeLauro want to include popcorn under the rules requiring calorie disclosure. (At the risk of sounding whiny, they aren’t exactly “coming after” your popcorn; you’d be free to buy it, it’s just that the cinema would have to tell you how many calories you’re about to consume.)

In other words, neoclassical economics is all wrong.

OK, an overstatement. But both concerns about the health effects of urban layout and attempts to deter certain kinds of consumption are basically about the failings of rationality as a model of human behavior. People should get enough exercise — they will, in general, be happier if they do — but they tend not to get exercise if they live in an environment where it’s easy to drive everywhere and not as easy to walk. People should limit their caloric intake — again, they’ll be happier if they do — but have a hard time resisting those giant tubs of popcorn.

I can personally attest to the importance of these environmental effects. These days, I walk around with a pedometer on my wrist — hey, I’m 61, and it’s now or never — and it’s obvious just how much more natural it is to get exercise when I’m in New York than when I’m in Princeton; just a few choices to walk rather than take the subway fairly easily gets me to 15,000 steps in the city, while even with a morning run it can be hard to break 10,000 in the suburbs. Also, the Bloomberg nanny-state legacy, with calories displayed on practically everything, does help curb my vices (greasy breakfast sandwiches!).

The interesting and difficult question is how, and whether, these kinds of behavioral issues should be reflected in policy. There are some conventional externality arguments for promoting walkable development — less pollution, etc.. But can we, should we, also favor walkability and density because it promotes good habits? How far should regulation of fast food go? Etc., etc.

Also, isn’t it kind of interesting that these days big-city residents on average lead more “natural” lives, being outside and getting around on their own two feet, than “real Americans” who live in small cities and towns?

Now, time to finish my Mark Bittman-approved unsweetened oatmeal and not, repeat not, get a breakfast sandwich.

He’s absolutely right.  In the area where I live it’s almost impossible to even take a walk safely since on most streets there are no sidewalks so you have to walk in the road.  And down here they drive STOOPID.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

August 17, 2014

In “Playing Soldier in the Suburbs” The Putz actually thinks he can explain how warrior policing found its way to Ferguson, Mo.  (Hint — it all started with the SLA…)  In the comments “mancuroc” from Rochester, NY had this to say:  “…while you and Senator Paul are outspoken about the militarized police, you are silent about the other side of the arms race, a populace that is totally free to arm itself to the teeth.  Until you admit that it’s time to also address the grotesque level of individual armament, I’ll take what you say with a ton of salt. ”  MoDo has a question:  “Where’s the Justice at Justice?”, and also asks why do the president and the attorney general praise the First Amendment while they push to imprison truth?  Mr. Kristof considers “Sister Acts” and says instead of investigating and mocking nuns, we’d be better off if we spent more time emulating them.   In “A Battleground and Bellwether” Mr. Bruni says with several tight, emblematic races, Colorado is a major 2014 player.   Here’s The Putz:

To understand what’s been happening in Ferguson, Mo., where protests and violence following a cop’s shooting of an unarmed teenager summoned up a police response that looked more like a military invasion, it helps to flash back to the heyday of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The S.L.A., one of the loopiest and most dangerous of the homegrown terrorist groups that flourished in the madhouse of the early 1970s, was already famous for kidnapping and “converting” Patty Hearst when its members engaged in a nationally televised shootout in Los Angeles in the spring of 1974.

The firefight, in which six terrorists died without injury to police or bystanders, helped publicize the innovations of a small group of Angeleno police officers. Eight years earlier, after the Watts riots, they began to develop the combat-ready police unit that played a central role in taking down the S.L.A. That unit was America’s first special weapons and tactics team, or SWAT.

In an era of riots and hijackings, the SWAT model understandably spread nationwide. But as the riots died away and the threat of domestic terror receded, SWAT tactics — helicopters, heavy weaponry, the works — became increasingly integrated into normal crime-fighting, and especially into the war on drugs.

This was phase one in the militarization of America’s police forces, as described in Radley Balko’s essential 2013 book on the subject, “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.” Phase two, in which the federal government began supplying local police with military hardware, began in the 1990s and accelerated after 9/11, under the theory that Islamic terrorists could strike anywhere, and that it might take a cop with a grenade launcher to stop them.

In the name of local preparedness, Washington has been bestowing antiterror grants and Pentagon surplus on communities barely touched by major crime, let alone by terrorism. Tanks and aircraft, helmets and armor, guns and grenade launchers have flowed to police departments from Des Moines (home of two $180,000 bomb-disarming robots) to Keene, N.H. (population 23,000, murder rate infinitesimal and the proud custodian of an armored BearCat).

Last week, The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis ran the numbers for Missouri and found that the state’s Department of Public Safety received about $69 million from the Department of Homeland Security in the past five years alone. Which helps explain why the streets of a St. Louis suburb flooded so quickly with cops in gas masks and camouflage, driving armored cars and brandishing rifles like an occupying army. It’s our antiterror policies made manifest, our tax dollars at work.

And it’s a path to potential disaster, for cops and citizens alike. The “S” in SWAT was there for a reason: Militarized tactics that are potentially useful in specialized circumstances — like firefights with suicidal terrorist groups — can be counterproductive when employed for crowd-control purposes by rank-and-file cops. (The only recent calm on Ferguson’s streets came after state cops started walking through the crowds in blue uniforms, behaving like police instead of storm troopers.)

To many critics of police militarization, of course, the helmets and heavy weaponry are just symptoms. The disease is the entire range of aggressive police tactics (from no-knock raids to stop-and-frisk), the racial disparities they help perpetuate and our society’s drug laws and extraordinary incarceration rate.

Well before Ferguson, this broad critique — long pressed by a mix of libertarians like Balko and left-wingers — was gaining traction in the political mainstream. This is why sentencing reform has a growing number of Republican champions, and why Rand Paul’s critique of the Ferguson police was more pointed and sweeping than President Obama’s.

The argument for broad reform is appealing; it might also be overly optimistic. To be clear: I cheered Paul’s comments, I support most of the reforms under consideration, I want lower incarceration rates and fewer people dying when a no-knock raid goes wrong. But there may be trade-offs here: In an era of atomization, distrust and economic stress, our punitive system may be a big part of what’s keeping crime rates as low as they are now, making criminal justice reform more complicated than a simple pro-liberty free lunch.

But the military hardware issue, the BearCats and grenade launchers and what we’ve seen unfold in Ferguson — that does seem easy, uncomplicated, clear. Crime rates rise and fall, but crime-fighting is a constant for police; dealing with terrorism and insurrection, however, decidedly is not. Yet for decades we’ve been equipping our cops as though the Symbionese Liberation Army were about to come out of retirement, as if every burst of opportunistic lawlessness could become another Watts, as though the Qaeda sleeper cells we feared after 9/11 were as pervasive in life as they are on “24” or “Homeland.”

And this is where it’s ended: with a bunch of tomfool police playing soldier, tear-gassing protesters, arresting journalists and turning Ferguson into a watchword for policing at its worst.

Time to take their toys away.

Correction: August 16, 2014 An earlier version of this column misstated the name of an antiterrorism vehicle.  As correctly mentioned earlier in the piece, it is the BearCat, not the Bobcat.

And the Times’ fact checkers cover themselves with glory yet again.  Here’s MoDo:

Jim Risen is gruff.

The tall slab of a reporter looks like someone who could have played an Irish Marine sergeant in an old World War II movie.

“Editors think I’m a curmudgeon,” the 59-year-old admits, laughing.

Eric Lichtblau, the reporter who sits next to Risen in The Times’s Washington bureau and who won a Pulitzer with him for their remarkable stories about the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping, says Risen revels in his prickly, old-school style, acting contrary on everything from newfangled computers to the Bush crew’s fictions about Saddam and W.M.D. to cautious editors.

“He’s pushed to go places that often editors are unwilling to go,” Lichtblau said. “He’s never taken the safe route.”

Once Lichtblau took him to a pick-up basketball game and, naturally, Risen got in a fight with a lobbyist about the rules for being out of bounds.

As Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, wryly puts it: “Whether it’s editors or government officials, Jim definitely won’t take no for an answer, but he will certainly give it.”

Over lunch near the White House on Friday, Risen, dressed in his Men’s Wearhouse shirt and khakis and his brown Ecco walking shoes, talked about having the sword of Damocles over his head, as the reluctant star of a searing media-government showdown that could end with him behind bars.

“It’s surreal to be caught up in a news story instead of writing about one,” he said, in his soft voice.

He said he was inspired by the Watergate hearings to get into journalism and that he inherited his skepticism about government from his mom, who grew up in Indiana during the Depression, the daughter of an Irish railway machinist who was often out of work. Every time she saw the pyramids on TV, she would say, “I wonder how many slaves died building that?”

Risen said he’s not afraid that F.B.I. agents will show up one day at the suburban Maryland home he shares with his wife, Penny. (His three sons are grown, and one is a reporter.) But he has exhausted all his legal challenges, including at the Supreme Court, against the Obama administration.

“I was nervous for a long time, but they’ve been after me for six years so now I try to ignore it,” he said, musing that he’s already decided what he’ll take to prison: Civil War books and World War II histories.

The Justice Department is trying to scuttle the reporters’ privilege — ignoring the chilling effect that is having on truth emerging in a jittery post-9/11 world prone to egregious government excesses.

Attorney General Eric Holder wants to force Risen to testify and reveal the identity of his confidential source on a story he had in his 2006 book concerning a bungled C.I.A. operation during the Clinton administration in which agents might have inadvertently helped Iran develop its nuclear weapon program. The tale made the C.I.A. look silly, which may have been more of a sore point than a threat to national security.

But Bush officials, no doubt still smarting from Risen’s revelation of their illegal wiretapping, zeroed in on a disillusioned former C.I.A. agent named Jeffrey Sterling as the source of the Iran story.

The subpoena forcing Risen’s testimony expired in 2009, and to the surprise of just about everybody, the constitutional law professor’s administration renewed it — kicking off its strange and awful aggression against reporters and whistle-blowers.

Holder said in May that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” trying to show some leg and signal that his intention is benign, merely to put pressure on Sterling so that he will plead guilty before his trial.

The president and the attorney general both spoke nobly about the First Amendment after two reporters were arrested in Ferguson, Mo., while covering the racial protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

Obama said that “here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Holder seconded the sentiment, saying that “journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told.”

So why don’t they back off Risen? It’s hard to fathom how the president who started with the press fluffing his pillows has ended up trying to suffocate the press with those pillows.

How can he use the Espionage Act to throw reporters and whistle-blowers in jail even as he defends the intelligence operatives who “tortured some folks,” and coddles his C.I.A. chief, John Brennan, who spied on the Senate and then lied to the senators he spied on about it?

“It’s hypocritical,” Risen said. “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Risen points to recent stories about the administration pressing an unprecedented initiative known as the Insider Threat Program, which McClatchy described as “a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”

Risen may be trapped in Ibsen, but Obama is channeling Orwell.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes. And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.

“I may not believe in God, but I do believe in nuns,” writes Jo Piazza, in her forthcoming book, “If Nuns Ruled the World.” Piazza is an agnostic living in New York City who began interviewing nuns and found herself utterly charmed and inspired.

“They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor,” Piazza writes. “They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit, or a sermon. I have never met a nun who rides a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac. They walk a lot; they ride bikes.”

One of the most erroneous caricatures of nuns is that they are prim, Victorian figures cloistered in convents. On the contrary, I’ve become a huge fan of nuns because I see them so often risking their lives around the world, confronting warlords, pimps and thugs, while speaking the local languages fluently. In a selfish world, they epitomize selflessness and compassion.

There are also plenty of formidable nuns whom even warlords don’t want to mess with, who combine reverence with ferocity, who defy the Roman Catholic Church by handing out condoms to prostitutes to protect them from H.I.V. (They surely don’t mention that to the bishops.)

One of the nuns whom Piazza profiles is Sister Megan Rice. She earned a graduate degree at Boston College and then moved to Nigeria in 1962 to run a school for girls she had helped establish in a remote area with no electricity or running water. After eventually returning to the United States, she began campaigning against nuclear weapons.

In 2012, at the age of 82, she masterminded a break-in of a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to call attention to the nuclear threat. As she was handcuffed by armed security guards, she sang “This Little Light of Mine.” She is now serving a prison sentence of almost three years.

I don’t approve of breaking into national security compounds, and I think nuclear doctrine is more complex than Sister Megan probably does. Nonetheless, I admire someone with such guts and commitment to principles.

Another remarkable nun is Sister Jeannine Gramick, who, while working toward a doctorate in mathematics, met a gay Catholic man who asked for religious help. She organized a home service for him that grew into a regular liturgy for gay Catholics in private homes.

In 1977, she helped found New Ways Ministry to support gay and lesbian Catholics. The Vatican tried to suppress her, and her order, the Loretto Sisters, was instructed at least nine times to dismiss her. It passively resisted.

“The Vatican tried to silence me,” Sister Jeannine told Piazza, “and it just didn’t work.”

At a time when much of Christianity denounced gays and lesbians, Sister Jeannine was a beacon of compassion and struggled to educate the church she loved.

“People always emphasize sex, sex, sex,” Sister Jeannine told Piazza. “And it isn’t about sex. It is about love. It is who you fall in love with that makes you lesbian and gay. Love is the important thing here, not sex.”

All this has led the Vatican to investigate and clamp down on American nuns in a harsh crackdown that has been referred to as the Great Nunquisition. In 2012, the Vatican reprimanded a group of American nuns for promoting “radical feminist themes.”

Piazza quotes a nun who said a friend put it to her this way: “Let me get this straight. Some priests committed sex abuse. Bishops covered it up. And so they’re investigating nuns?”

Pope Francis, so far, has continued the crackdown, but he seems more enlightened than his predecessors and maybe he’ll understand that battling nuns is hopeless. Nuns are iron women — and sometimes that’s more than a metaphor.

Sister Madonna Buder, nicknamed “the iron nun,” took up running at age 47 and has completed 366 triathlons. She set her personal best at age 62, and, at age 82, she became the oldest person, male or female, to complete an Ironman triathlon.

In the course of her races, she has broken her arms eight times, her hip twice, her ribs countless times. She runs five miles to and from church, in long pants suitable for Mass, and foregoes a coach. “My coach,” she explains, “is the Man Upstairs.”

Forgive us for having sinned and thought of nuns as backward, when, in fact, they were among the first feminists. And, in a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk.

So a suggestion: How about if the Vatican spends less time investigating nuns and the public spends less time mocking nuns — and we all spend more time emulating nuns?

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

Given all of the smoky talk about Colorado and marijuana, you arrive here with the feeling that you’re stepping into some freaky, one-of-a-kind laboratory.

And you are.

But the experiment goes well beyond the responsible legalization and regulation of pot. It extends to questions of whether drillers and environmentalists can peacefully coexist, whether a country bloodied by gunfire can muster any sane response, whether Democrats can use demographic trends and certain social issues to establish a durable advantage, and whether Republicans can summon the specter of an unwieldy government to prevent that. Colorado is where all of this is being hashed out.

“It’s a test tube, and people keep shaking it,” the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, said when I remarked that seemingly every big issue finds vivid expression here, and that Colorado has become the nation’s mirror, rocky and stoned. It’s in the news much more often than its size — it’s the 22nd most populous state — gives it any right to be.

It’s pivotal in the battle for control of the United States Senate. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is up for re-election in November. Republicans smell blood. And the forces shaping the race between him and his opponent, Cory Gardner, are the same ones that are shaping the parties’ national fortunes.

Will President Obama’s dismal approval ratings doom Democrats? Will Republicans’ habit of nominating social conservatives — Gardner fits the bill — alienate so many women, independents and millennials that the party defeats itself? Right now the Senate contest here is a tossup.

In many ways, Colorado is the new Ohio, a political bellwether. The percentage of its voters who chose Barack Obama in each of the last two presidential elections almost precisely matched the percentage of voters who did so nationwide. And nearly all the currents that buffet national politics swirl around the Rockies, which run like a ragged spine through a state that’s both very flat and very tall, bursting with agriculture and booming with high tech, outdoorsy and urbane, a stronghold of the religious right (Colorado Springs) and a liberal utopia (Boulder).

In other ways, “Colorado is the new California,” in Hickenlooper’s words. It floats trial balloons — marijuana being one example, education reforms being another — while other states watch to see which take flight and which wheeze and crumple to earth.

That’s partly because it’s a place without foregone conclusions. The Colorado electorate is divided almost exactly into one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third neither of the above. So conservative and liberal proposals alike are pushed in the Legislature and put before voters; discussion isn’t proscribed by the one-party dominance that you find in a red or blue state.

“We really duke things out,” said Chris Onan, a co-founder of Galvanize, a firm here that provides seed funds, office space and other support for tech start-ups. “There’s never just one position.”

Even the state’s weather is in flux and in extremis. Colorado is a meteorological drama queen, and the sorts of cataclysms that climate change could bring — raging wildfires, biblical flooding — have recurred here with scary frequency.

“It’s almost Old Testament,” said Hickenlooper. “We had 13 federal declarations of disaster in four years. I think that’s more than any other state in the history of the country.”

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also up for re-election. And his race, against Bob Beauprez, a former Congressman, has been tighter than political analysts had initially expected it to be.

But an even more interesting contest is the one in the state’s Sixth Congressional District, where the efforts of a three-term Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, to fend off a fierce Democratic challenge will hinge largely on his ability to woo Latino voters. Their share of the electorate here, as in the nation, has risen significantly, and they now represent roughly 20 percent of the state’s population. In recent Colorado elections, they have heavily favored Democrats.

“For its predictive value in seeing where the Hispanic vote nationally is going to go, the Sixth District could be key,” Eric Anderson, a political analyst here, told me. It’s “a petri dish inside the petri dish” of the state, he added.

Although Coffman previously supported measures to declare English the official U.S. language and to deny automatic citizenship to babies born in this country, he’s not singing those songs anymore. No, he’s practicing his Spanish, in weekly sessions with a tutor. His Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff, is fluent.

Money from outside the state is pouring into the Coffman-Romanoff battle, as it is into the one between Udall and Gardner, which is clearly going to be the most expensive Senate race in Colorado’s history. And the Latino vote could give Udall the edge he needs.

But the Udall campaign’s emphasis until this point is in line with a Democratic strategy nationwide for the midterm elections. In three of the six TV commercials that it has released, the focus is on Gardner’s anti-abortion record, and the hope is to cast him as a dutiful and menacing foot soldier in the “war on women” that Democrats decry.

Udall’s campaign also reflects the Democratic dread of Obama’s unpopularity. When the president traveled to Colorado recently for a fund-raiser for Udall, there was no hug or handshake between the two men, and a photo of both of them would have required a very wide-angle lens. Udall stayed far outside the state.

Gardner’s strategy, evident in his constant invocations of Obamacare, is to lash Udall to the president and to tar the Obama administration as a force for ever bigger government.

WHEN I asked Udall’s campaign spokesman, Chris Harris, how much of a handicap Obama posed, he didn’t defend the president’s record but instead stressed Udall’s independence and dissents.

“If any Democrat has been a pain in the White House’s you-know-what lately, it has been Mark,” he said, making clear that Udall “follows his own compass” and had held the administration’s “feet to the fire over the N.S.A.” That detail suggested Democrats’ worry that the National Security Agency’s privacy infringements are especially repellent to the party’s young voters.

It’s surprising that Udall and Hickenlooper aren’t in better shape, given that Colorado’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 percent from over 9 in late 2010. Business Insider just ranked Colorado’s economy the best among the 50 states.

But Colorado distills the national mood in the following sense, too: While raw numbers have improved, reality hasn’t caught up, and people feel a pessimism that transcends the day’s statistics. In a statewide poll in late June, only 27 percent of Coloradans said the country was on the right track, while 65 percent said it was on the wrong one.

Colorado has shown us the horror of gun violence: the blood bath at Columbine High School in 1999, the massacre in Aurora in 2012. And in their aftermath, it demonstrated the push for — and perverse resistance to — better gun control. Its legislature enacted new firearms restrictions in early 2013, only to see the National Rifle Association lead successful recall efforts against two of the Democrats who voted for them.

Because Colorado is a mecca for both energy companies and wilderness lovers, it’s been engaged in an impassioned debate over fracking that’s both echo and preview of standoffs elsewhere.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist trying to walk a fine line between the camps, once exhibited his conviction in the safety of fracking by drinking fracking fluid. Colorado likes unstuffy politicians who break the mold, which is something candidates with national ambitions increasingly try to do.

Over the last month, Hickenlooper has taken the stage at Red Rocks to play banjo with the Old Crow Medicine Show and has released a video of his attempt to sing a duet of “Counting Stars” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. It was offbeat and off key.

And Udall gazed longingly at the peaks, hoping to find time for an ascent. “He’s climbed 99 of the tallest 100 mountains in Colorado,” said Harris. “That’s who he is.” Harris made him sound like a man eager to get far away from the political muck.

It’s an impulse that most Americans can appreciate. And that they share.


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