Cohen and Bruni

August 26, 2014

Bobo and Nocera are off today, so all we have are Cohen and Bruni.  In “The Making of a Disaster” Mr. Cohen mansplains to us that a long list of American missteps paved the way to ISIS.  Mr. Bruni is feeling “Lost in America,” and moans that we’ve gone from gumption to gloom, with political implications that are impossible to foretell.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Almost 13 years after 9/11, a jihadi organization with a murderous anti-Western ideology controls territory in Iraq and Syria, which are closer to Europe and the United States than Afghanistan is. It commands resources and camps and even a Syrian military base. It spreads its propaganda through social media. It has set the West on edge through the recorded beheading of the American journalist James Foley — with the promise of more to come.

What went wrong? The United States and its allies did not go to war to eradicate Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan only to face — after the expenditure of so much blood and treasure — a more proximate terrorist threat with a Qaeda-like ideology. The “war on terror,” it seems, produced only a metastasized variety of terror.

More than 500, and perhaps as many as 800, British Muslims have headed for Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadi ranks. In France, that number stands at about 900. Two adolescent girls, 15 and 17, were detained last week in Paris and face charges of conspiring with a terrorist organization. The ideological appeal of the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is intact. It may be increasing, despite efforts to build an interfaith dialogue, reach out to moderate Islam, and pre-empt radicalization.

“One minute you are trying to pay bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun,” said Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism. “Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and they buy into a narrow framework that can explain events. Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”

A large part of Western failure has been the inability to counter the attraction of such extremism. Perhaps racked with historical guilt, European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Meanwhile, in the Arab world the central hope of the Arab Spring has been dashed: that more open and representative societies would reduce the frustration that leads to extremism.

President Obama shunned the phrase “war on terror” to distance himself from the policies of President George W. Bush. But in reality he chose to pursue the struggle by other military means. He stepped up drone attacks on several fronts. His most conspicuous success was the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

The curtain, it seemed, had fallen on America’s post-9/11 trauma. Then, a little over three years after Bin Laden’s death, ISIS overran the Iraqi city of Mosul and the world woke up to the radicalization through the festering Syrian war of another generation of Muslims; youths drawn to the slaughter of infidels (as well as Shiite Muslims) and the far-fetched notion of recreating an Islamic caliphate under Shariah law. When a hooded ISIS henchman with a British accent beheaded Foley last week, the new threat acquired urgency at last.

The list of American errors is long: Bush’s ill-conceived and bungled war in Iraq; a failure to deal with the fact that two allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been major sources and funders of violent Sunni extremism; an inability to seize opportunity in Egypt, home to nearly a quarter of the world’s Arabs, and so demonstrate that Arab societies can evolve out of the radicalizing confrontation of dictatorship and Islamism; a prolonged spate of dithering over the Syrian war during which Obama declared three years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” without having any plan to achieve that; a lack of resolve in Syria that saw Obama set a red line on the use of chemical weapons only to back away from military force when chemical weapons were used; an inability to see that no one loves an Arab vacuum like jihadi extremists, and a bloody vacuum was precisely what Obama allowed Syria to become; and inattention, until it was too late, to festering sectarian conflict in a broken Iraqi society left to its fate by a complete American withdrawal.

The chicken that came home to roost from the Syrian debacle is called ISIS. It is not Al Qaeda. But, as the journalist Patrick Cockburn has noted, Al Qaeda “is an idea rather than an organization, and this has long been the case.”

ISIS grew through American weakness — the setting of objectives and red lines in Syria that proved vacuous. But the deepest American and Western defeat has been ideological. As Hussain said, “If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.”

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention.

It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

The poll also showed that 71 percent thought that the country was on the wrong track. While that represents a spike, it also affirms a negative mind-set that’s been fixed for a scarily long time. As the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has repeatedly noted, more Americans have been saying “wrong track” than “right track” for at least a decade now, and something’s got to give.

But to what or whom can Americans turn?

In the most recent of Sosnik’s periodic assessments of the electorate, published in Politico last month, he wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward the federal government.” He cited a Gallup poll in late June that showed that Americans’ faith in each of the three branches had dropped to what he called “near record lows,” with only 30 percent expressing confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency and 7 percent in Congress.

The intensity of Americans’ disgust with Congress came through in another recent poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post. Typically, Americans lambaste the institution as a whole but make an exception for the politician representing their district. But in this poll, for the first time in the 25 years that ABC and The Post had been asking the question, a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that they disapproved even of the job that their own House member was doing.

So we can expect to see a huge turnover in Congress after the midterms, right?

That’s a rhetorical question, and a joke. Congress wasn’t in any great favor in 2012, and 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who sought re-election won it. The tyranny of money, patronage, name recognition and gerrymandering in American politics guaranteed as much. Small wonder that 79 percent of Americans indicated dissatisfaction with the system in the Journal/NBC poll.

Conventional wisdom says that President Obama’s anemic approval ratings will haunt Democrats. But it doesn’t take into account how effectively some Republicans continue to sully their party’s image. It doesn’t factor in how broadly Americans’ disapproval spreads out.

Conventional wisdom says that better unemployment and job-creation numbers could save Democrats. But many Americans aren’t feeling those improvements. When asked in the Journal/NBC poll if the country was in a recession — which it’s not — 49 percent of respondents said yes, while 46 percent said no.

The new jobs don’t feel as sturdy as the old ones. It takes more hours to make the same money or support the same lifestyle. Students amass debt. Upward mobility increasingly seems a mirage, a myth.

“People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.

And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.

In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.

Well, you can drown all the Republicans…

Blow and Krugman

August 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

No one should know what that feels like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that grief can last for a very long time.

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krugman’s blog, 8/23/14

August 24, 2014

There were three posts yesterday.  The first was “Another Night in Brooklyn:”

Will Butler of Arcade Fire and some guy wearing funny clothes

Will Butler of Arcade Fire and some guy wearing funny clothes

Arcade Fire at Barclays Center. I’ve been following their music more or less obsessively for years, but this was my first live concert. It’s quite an experience — watching the videos doesn’t give you anything like the feel for the sheer energy and joy, both of the band and the audience. I have to admit that the sound in a big arena is a bit murky — the bass was too loud — so it helped if you already knew and loved all the songs, which I did. Wake Up was a stunning climax, as always.

Really fantastic. Oh, and let’s hear it for the great city of New York, where the subways run all night, and a guy taking the 2 train at midnight in a monkey suit attracts no attention at all.

Yesterday’s second post was “Draghi at Deflation Gulch:”

Full disclosure: I know Mario Draghi, a bit, since we overlapped in grad school, and I both like and admire him; he did a fantastic job of containing the euro crisis of 2012. And I like to imagine that he knows and understands more than he can say in his position. Still, I don’t think I’m projecting too much in reading his Jackson Hole speech as the words of a man who knows perfectly well how dire the situation is, and is sailing as close to the wind as he can, but is all too aware of how inadequate that’s likely to be.

Although he gives a nod to structural factors, he effectively declared that people in Europe are exaggerating the problem:

Research by the European Commission suggests that estimates of the Non-Accelerating Wage Rate of Unemployment (NAWRU) in the current situation are likely to overstate the magnitude of unemployment linked to structural factors, notably in the countries most severely hit by the crisis

and he basically says that the problem with the euro is inadequate demand:

The most recent GDP data confirm that the recovery in the euro area remains uniformly weak, with subdued wage growth even in non-stressed countries suggesting lacklustre demand. In these circumstances, it seems likely that uncertainty over the strength of the recovery is weighing on business investment and slowing the rate at which workers are being rehired.

So he’s effectively saying the same thing as Janet Yellen: if unemployment is structural, where are the wage gains?

Also, the confidence fairy has vanished from official ECB rhetoric. So has the ECB’s trigger-happiness when it comes to any hint of inflation:

The risks of “doing too little” – i.e. that cyclical unemployment becomes structural – outweigh those of “doing too much” – that is, excessive upward wage and price pressures.

The trouble is, what can he do about it? He appeals for a consideration of euro-wide measures of fiscal stance, which is basically urging Germany to run bigger deficits, but the Germans aren’t interested. He says that the ECB will do more, but doesn’t promise massive QE, probably because he knows he can’t.

The point is that even if Draghi is, as I believe he is, a good man and a good economist who gets the situation, the combination of the euro’s structure and the intransigence of the austerians means that the situation remains very grim.

Yesterday’s last post was “Attack of the Crazy Centrists:”

I’m by no means the only person, or even pundit, who sometimes (often) feels that centrists are the craziest people in our political life. Liberals these days rarely stake out really extreme positions (more on that in a minute); conservatives may denounce Obama as a Muslim atheist communist, but at least they know what they want. The really strange people are those who insist that there is symmetry between left and right, that both are equally far out and equally at fault for polarization, and make up all kinds of strange stories to justify this claim.

Barack Obama is, of course, the biggest target of these delusions; it’s really amazing to see pundits accuse him of being chiefly to blame for Republican scorched-earth opposition — you see, he should have used his mystic powers of persuasion to bring them into the tent. But liberal commentators also get hit — usually via gross misrepresentations of what we said. And of course I get this most of all.

Today Jonathan Bernstein leads me to Andrew Gelman, who catches an assertion that I’m all wrong about the difference in conspiracy theorizing between left and right.

What I said was that conspiracy theories are supported by a lot of influential people on the right, but not on the left. They misrepresent this as a claim that most conspiracy theorists are on the right, and point to evidence that “motivated reasoning” is equally common on left and right as proof that I’m wrong.

This is doubly wrong. For one thing — Gelman doesn’t say this as clearly as I’d like — motivated reasoning isn’t the same thing as conspiracy theorizing. Believing that official inflation numbers understate true inflation, based not on understanding the data but on political leanings, is motivated reasoning. Believing that the BLS is deliberately understating inflation and unemployment as a political favor to the White House is a conspiracy theory.

And there’s a big difference even when it comes to conspiracy theorizing between having something believed by some, maybe even a lot, of people and having it stated by influential politicians and other members of the elite.

So how did my claim about elites and conspiracy theories — which I think is very defensible, even obvious — turn into a supposed claim that isn’t defensible, and can be dismissed as foolish? Well, you know the answer: centrists want to believe that liberals are just as bad as conservatives, so they see shrill partisanship even when it’s not really there.

It is, in short, a classic illustration of politically motivated reasoning.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

August 24, 2014

Mr. Kristof is off today.  The Putz is now an authority on ISIS.  In “Our Thoroughly Modern Enemies” he putz-splains to us why radical Islam isn’t just a medieval throwback.   This thing deserves “gemli” from Boston’s entire comment:

“A regular reader of Ross Douthat will know why he was moved to write this hair-splitting denunciation of Islamic terrorism. For one thing, it manages to find something to complain about in Obama’s condemnation of ISIS. No conservative worth his salt can ever completely approve of anything the president does. It also takes a swipe at “liberal” democracy, as if liberalism is inherently toxic, and brutal attacks against it are to be expected.  But the more disturbing reason is that Mr. Douthat has vigorously promoted some views that also have “no place in the 21st century.” These would include most of the tedious conservative dogma that says the poor deserve their fate, or that marriage and childbirth should be “encouraged” by governmental inducements, or that reform conservatism is an actual thing, and not merely the latest shade of lipstick on the proverbial pig. And we shouldn’t overlook Douthat’s writings that accused the pope of not being Catholic enough, when he dared to suggest that the rules might be relaxed regarding Catholics re-marrying and receiving communion.  ISIS is a conservative movement, energized by religious fundamentalism. Their views are extreme, but their warmongering, their embrace of dogma, their attitudes towards women, and their dismissal of education and science are not unknown to us. Sometimes these things are just a matter of degree.”

Amen.  MoDo has taken another cheap shot in “The Golf Address,” giving us from the great battlefield of Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, a few words of national import.  In the comments “rik” from Chappaqua, NY had this to say:  “Satire devolved to insult is not satire…it is snark. Lincoln deserves much better. And so does Obama. The Gettysburg address should never, never be used in this matter. Think of the context, then rethink your words.”  That will never happen, Rik.  The Moustache of Wisdom has sent in “Order Vs. Disorder, Part 3″ in which he says the inequality of freedom is causing instability and chaos as it expands around the world.  In “Black, White and Baseball” Mr. Bruni says the man who coached Mo’ne Davis sees the promise of inner-city kids.  Here, saints preserve us, is the Putz:

In his remarks on the murder of James Foley, the American journalist decapitated by the terrorists of ISIS, President Obama condemned Foley’s killers, appropriately, as a “cancer” on the Middle East and the world. But he also found room for the most Obama-ish of condemnations: “One thing we can all agree on,” he insisted, is that the would-be caliphate’s murderous vision has “no place in the 21st century.”

The idea that America’s foes and rivals are not merely morally but chronologically deficient, confused time travelers who need to turn their DeLorean around, has long been a staple of this administration’s rhetoric. Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and tyrants in general have been condemned, in varying contexts, for being on the dreaded “wrong side of history.” Earlier this year, John Kerry dismissed Putin’s Crimea adventure in the same language Obama used last week: “19th-century behavior in the 21st century,” foredoomed by its own anachronism.

These tropes contain a lot of foolishness. Where ISIS is concerned, though, they also include a small but crucial grain of truth.

The foolishness starts with the fact that the history of liberal democracy is actually inseparable, as Abram Shulsky writes in The American Interest, from “the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it.” Whether reactionary or utopian, secular or religious, these counter-ideologies are as modern, in their way, as the Emancipation Proclamation or the United Nations Charter. Both illiberal nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are younger than the United States. They aren’t just throwbacks or relics; they’re counterforces that liberal modernity seems to inevitably conjure up.

So writing off the West’s challengers as purely atavistic is a good way to misunderstand them — and to miss the persistent features of human nature that they exploit, appeal to and reward.

These features include not only the lust for violence and the will to power, but also a yearning for a transcendent cause that liberal societies can have trouble satisfying.

As The Week’s Michael Brendan Dougherty argues, discussing the Europeans who have joined up with ISIS, liberalism’s “all-too-human order” — which privileges the sober, industrious and slightly boring — is simply “not for everyone.” Nor, most likely, will it ever be: in this century, the 22nd, or beyond.

Which is why liberalism’s current dominance is contingent rather than necessary, and why its past victories have often been rather near-run things. The arc of history, another favored Obama phrase, has at times bent toward pogroms and chattel slavery, totalitarianism and genocide, nuclear annihilation. (For the Middle East’s persecuted Christians and Yazidis, it bends toward annihilation even now.) The ideals of democracy and human rights are ascendant in our age, but their advance still depends on agency, strategy and self-sacrifice, no matter what date the calendar displays.

And yet: Despite perpetuating various comforting fallacies, the White House’s talk of history’s favorites does hint at an important point about the key weakness of the enemies we face right now.

That’s because even if history doesn’t actually take sides, many people the world over share President Obama’s impulses: They want to feel that it sides with them. So the most successful counterideologies, the most threatening of liberalism’s rivals, have always managed to give the impression that their ideas are on the winning side of history, and that it is the poor milquetoast liberal democrats who are antique and out of date.

This was obviously true of Marxist-Leninism, but it was true of fascism as well. The fascists were reactionaries, to a point, in their appeals to mythic Roman and Teutonic pasts. But they offered far more than nostalgia: What the late Christopher Hitchens called “the mobilizing energy of fascism” was inseparable from a vision of efficiency, technology and development, one that helped persuade many Europeans (and some Americans) that Mussolini and then even Hitler stood at history’s vanguard, that the future was being forged in Rome and Berlin.

Fortunately for us, that kind of energy is mostly absent from today’s counterideologies, and particularly from the self-styled caliphate whose brutality was on display last week. The term “Islamofascist,” popularized after 9/11, was imprecise because it gave groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS too much credit: They may know how to use the Internet to propagandize, but they otherwise lack even a hint of the reactionary futurism, the marriage of romanticism to industrial efficiency, that made the original fascism appealing to so many.

That doesn’t mean their ideas are destined to disappear. Their place in our century, our era, is secure. We may crush them militarily, kill and scatter their adherents, but variations on Al Qaeda and ISIS will probably persist as long as liberalism does.

But to contend for mastery, to threaten us the way Nazis and Communists once did, they would need to do more than demonstrate, by their continued depredations, that history doesn’t have necessary destinations. They would need to somehow persuade the world that history’s arc might actually be about to bend toward them.

From one POS to the next POS, here’s MoDo:

FORE! Score? And seven trillion rounds ago, our forecaddies brought forth on this continent a new playground, conceived by Robert Trent Jones, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal when it comes to spending as much time on the links as possible — even when it seems totally inappropriate, like moments after making a solemn statement condemning the grisly murder of a 40-year-old American journalist beheaded by ISIL.

I know reporters didn’t get a chance to ask questions, but I had to bounce. I had a 1 p.m. tee time at Vineyard Golf Club with Alonzo Mourning and a part-owner of the Boston Celtics. Hillary and I agreed when we partied with Vernon Jordan up here, hanging out with celebrities and rich folks is fun.

Now we are engaged in a great civil divide in Ferguson, which does not even have a golf course, and that’s why I had a “logistical” issue with going there. We are testing whether that community, or any community so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure when the nation’s leader wants nothing more than to sink a birdie putt.

We are met on a great field of that battle, not Augusta, not Pebble Beach, not Bethpage Black, not Burning Tree, but Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha’s Vineyard, which we can’t get enough of — me, Alonzo, Ray Allen and Marvin Nicholson, my trip director and favorite golfing partner who has played 134 rounds and counting with me.

We have to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for my presidency, if I keep swinging from behind.

Yet it is altogether fitting and proper that I should get to play as much golf as I want, despite all the lame jokes about how golf is turning into “a real handicap” for my presidency and how I have to “stay the course” with ISIL. I’ve heard all the carping that I should be in the Situation Room droning and plinking the bad folks. I know some people think I should go to Ferguson. Don’t they understand that I’ve delegated the Martin Luther King Jr. thing to Eric Holder? Plus, Valerie Jarrett and Al Sharpton have it under control.

I know it doesn’t look good to have pictures of me grinning in a golf cart juxtaposed with ones of James Foley’s parents crying, and a distraught David Cameron rushing back from his vacation after only one day, and the Pentagon news conference with Chuck Hagel and General Dempsey on the failed mission to rescue the hostages in Syria.

We’re stuck in the rough, going to war all over again in Iraq and maybe striking Syria, too. Every time Chuck says ISIL is “beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” I sprout seven more gray hairs. But my cool golf caps cover them. If only I could just play through the rest of my presidency.

ISIL brutally killing hostages because we won’t pay ransoms, rumbles of coups with our puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan, the racial caldron in Ferguson, the Ebola outbreak, the Putin freakout — there’s enough awful stuff going on to give anyone the yips.

So how can you blame me for wanting to unwind on the course or for five hours at dinner with my former assistant chef? He’s a great organic cook, and he’s got a gluten-free backyard putting green.

But, in a larger sense, we can dedicate, we can consecrate, we can hallow this ground where I can get away from my wife, my mother-in-law, Uncle Joe, Congress and all the other hazards in my life.

The brave foursomes, living and dead, who struggled here in the sand, in the trees, in the water, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or subtract a few strokes to improve our score. Bill Clinton was Mr. Mulligan, and he is twice at popular as I am.

The world will little note, nor long remember, what we shot here, or why I haven’t invited a bunch of tiresome congressmen to tee it up. I’m trying to relax, guys. So I’d much rather stay in the bunker with my usual bros.

Why don’t you play 18 with Mitch McConnell? And John Boehner is a lot better than me, so I don’t want to play with him.

It is for us, the duffers, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who played here have thus far so nobly advanced to get young folks to stop spurning a game they find slow and boring.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us of getting rid of our slice on the public’s dime — that from this honored green we take increased devotion to that cause for which Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy gave their last full measure of devotion — and divots.

We here highly resolve that these golfing greats shall not have competed in vain, especially poor Tiger, and that this nation, under par, shall have a new birth of freedom to play the game that I have become unnaturally obsessed with, and that golf of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

So help me Golf.

She should be horsewhipped.  Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The United States is swamped by refugee children from collapsing Central American countries; efforts to contain the major Ebola outbreak in West Africa are straining governments there; jihadists have carved out a bloodthirsty caliphate inside Iraq and Syria; after having already eaten Crimea, Russia keeps taking more bites out of Ukraine; and the U.N.’s refugee agency just announced that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” If it feels as though the world of disorder is expanding against the world of order, it’s not your imagination. There’s an unfortunate logic to it.

Three big trends are converging. The first is what one of my teachers Dov Seidman calls the growing number of  “un-free” people in the world — the millions who “have secured a certain kind of freedom but yet feel un-free because they’re now aware that they don’t have the kind of freedom that matters most.”

Seidman, author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, which advises global businesses on governance, points out that while there’s been a lot of warranted focus on the destabilizing effects of income inequality, there is another equally destabilizing inequality emerging at the same time: “It is the inequality of freedom, and it is even more disordering.”

That may sound odd. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of dictators in the Arab awakening, how could more people be feeling “un-free”?

Seidman looks at the world through the framework of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In recent years, he argues, “more people than ever have secured their ‘freedom from’ different autocrats in different countries.” Ukrainians, Tunisians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis to name a few. “But so few are getting the freedom we truly cherish,” he adds. “And that is not just ‘freedom from.’ It is ‘freedom to.’ ”

“Freedom to” is the freedom to live your life, speak your mind, start your own political party, build your own business, vote for any candidate, pursue happiness, and be yourself, whatever your sexual, religious or political orientation.

“Protecting and enabling all of those freedoms,” says Seidman, “requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together.”

Such values-based legal systems and institutions are just what so many societies have failed to build after overthrowing their autocrats. That’s why the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces: countries with what Seidman calls “sustainable order,” or order based on shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics; countries with imposed order — or order based on an iron-fisted, top-down leadership, or propped-up by oil money, or combinations of both, but no real shared values or institutions; and, finally, whole regions of disorder, such as Iraq, Syria, Central America and growing swaths of Central and North Africa, where there is neither an iron fist from above nor shared values from below to hold states together anymore.

Imposed order, says Seidman, “depends on having power over people and formal authority to coerce allegiance and compel obedience,” but both are much harder to sustain today in an age of increasingly empowered, informed and connected citizens and employees who can easily connect and collaborate to cast off authority they deem illegitimate.

“Exerting formal power over people,” he adds, “is getting more and more elusive and expensive” — either in the number of people you have to kill or jail or the amount of money you have to spend to anesthetize your people into submission or indifference — “and ultimately it is not sustainable.” The only power that will be sustainable in a world where more people have “freedom from,” argues Seidman, “is power based on leading in a two-way conversation with people, power that is built on moral authority that inspires constructive citizenship and creates the context for ‘freedom to.’ ”

But because generating such sustainable leadership and institutions is hard and takes time, we have a lot more disorderly vacuums in the world today — where people have won “freedom from” without building “freedom to.”

The biggest challenge for the world of order today is collaborating to contain these vacuums and fill them with order. That is what President Obama is trying to do in Iraq, by demanding Iraqis build a sustainable inclusive government in tandem with any U.S. military action against the jihadists there. Otherwise, there will never be self-sustaining order there, and they will never be truly free.

But containing and shrinking the world of disorder is a huge task, precisely because it involves so much nation-building — beyond the capacity of any one country. Which leads to the second disturbing trend today: how weak or disjointed the whole world of order is. The European Union is mired in an economic/unemployment slump. China behaves like it’s on another planet, content to be a free-rider on the international system. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is playing out some paranoid czarist fantasy in Ukraine, while the jihadist world of disorder encroaches from the south.

Now add a third trend, and you can really get worried: America is the tent pole holding up the whole world of order. But our inability to agree on policies that would ensure our long-term economic vitality — an immigration bill that would ease the way for energetic and talented immigrants; a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would replace income and corporate taxes; and government borrowing at these low rates to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs, while gradually phasing in long-term fiscal rebalancing — is the definition of shortsighted.

“If we can’t do the hard work of building alliances at home,” says David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming book “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” “we are never going to have the strength or ability to build them around the world.”

 The Cold War involved two competing visions of order. That is, both sides were in the world of order, and all we in the West needed to do was collaborate enough to contain the East/Communism. Today is different. It is a world of order versus a world of disorder — and that disorder can only be contained by the world of order collaborating with itself and with the people in disorder to build their “freedom to.” But “building” is so much harder than “containing.” It takes so much more energy and resources. We’ve got to stop messing around at home as if this moment is just the same-old, same-old — and our real and tacit allies had better wake up, too. Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from South Williamsport, PA:

If you were looking last week for a thread of hope amid all the hurt in America and savagery abroad, for something to thrill to and cheer about, this is where you found it, on a baseball diamond in central Pennsylvania that really did amount to a field of dreams.

It was here, at the Little League World Series, that Mo’ne Davis captured the country’s hearts. A 13-year-old wunderkind from Philadelphia, she was believed to be the first black girl to play in the series. She was definitely the first girl ever to pitch a shutout. She landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, exploded stereotypes about women and sports and did it with a poise and grace that most people twice or even four times her age struggle to muster.

She was some story. So is a lanky white man who watched her from a seat behind home plate, gripped by nervousness, pride and a gnawing regret.

“What haunts me is that for every success we have, there are probably 100 other kids who could be successes but just never had the opportunity,” he told me. “I hope this opened people’s eyes: Kids, given the chance, will excel, whatever their economic background, whatever their race.”

His name is Steve Bandura. He brought Davis into baseball and for many years has coached her, as he has hundreds and hundreds of other inner-city Philadelphia kids going back to the 1990s, when he chucked a well-paying job in marketing to establish a baseball, basketball and soccer league for them.

“These kids had nothing,” Bandura, now 53, told me. “And you’re going to criticize them for getting into trouble when they have nothing to do?”

He was trying to give them focus, purpose, a point of entry to top high schools and colleges and a purchase on bigger, brighter futures. And he accomplished just that. Davis is an example: She’s now an honors student on a scholarship at a private school in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood. “And it’s not just her,” Mark Williams, her stepfather, told me. “Steve’s done this for so many inner-city kids. He wants to prove that they can go anywhere. I’ve never met a better person, and when I say that, I mean it.”

Recent events in Ferguson, Mo., were a reminder of how heartbreakingly far apart black and white can be. Bandura and his players provide a glimpse of a different, better possibility.

“The guy is a Disney movie,” said Maximillian Potter, a Denver-based writer who grew up with him in a white working-class area of Philadelphia where racism was prevalent.

Bandura vividly remembers a conversation he once overheard between his father, a machinist, and a landlord in the neighborhood who said that he’d had to throw out a stack of applications from prospective renters. All of the applicants were black.

Bandura’s father didn’t talk or think like that.

“He would go to whatever lengths were necessary to help anyone,” Bandura said. Noting that he and his two sisters were adopted, he told me, “I always felt like the luckiest kid alive. I felt like I won the lottery.”

Sometimes gratitude begets generosity. When Bandura started the inner-city sports league, which was initially for kids ages 5 to 8, he wasn’t even paid. The work remains a considerable financial sacrifice, although he now runs the program as an employee of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, out of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philly.

Soon after the league was born, he extended its age range and began taking the best of the older kids and putting them on a traveling baseball team called the Anderson Monarchs, with which Davis and six of the other 11 players on the squad at the Little League World Series are affiliated.

And he turned the Monarchs into more than just a team.

It was a finishing school. He’d bark at the kids about manners, posture, tucking in their shirts, chewing with their mouths closed.

It was a history lesson. He made them read up on Jackie Robinson, the Negro Leagues, civil rights.

It was a home away from home. For many Monarchs, Bandura was a second father. For some, he was the only one.

“It’s bigger than baseball,” said Bandura’s wife, Robin, who is black. “It’s a culture. It’s about discipline and self-respect and camaraderie: things that don’t really get taught a lot of places.”

IN 1997, which was exactly 50 years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Bandura and supporters of the Monarchs raised money so that the players at that time could replicate the kind of “barnstorming” tour that Negro Leagues teams once did, traveling the country to strut their stuff. It was both homage and act of remembrance.

He was able to pull that off again for the Monarchs of 2004 and of 2012. All three times, the tour included a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and all three times, it began or ended with a visit to Robinson’s grave in Brooklyn.

Bandura said that his journeys with the Monarchs have shown him how unaware of their own bigotry people can be: “I’ve been told a hundred times over the years, ‘Your kids are so well-behaved, Coach.’ Do you say that about white teams that you play against? They think they’re giving you a compliment, but they’re just showing their preconceived notions.”

And yet, he said, “With each generation of Monarchs through the years, it gets better.” Touring the Midwest in 1997, the players were treated suspiciously in restaurants. Touring the same region in 2012, they were treated like celebrities.

He used to worry that he was too tough on them with his incessant talk of professionalism and sportsmanship. “I thought they’d hate me,” he said.

But four of the Monarchs from the 1997 team showed up here on Wednesday night, to root for Davis and to see Bandura. They’d all graduated from college.

Bandura told me that he still has the book reports that he made them do decades ago on “Jackie Robinson and the Story of All-Black Baseball.” He required it of them and of many of their successors because, he said, “If you don’t know where you came from, you have no idea where you’re going.” And because he wanted them to have as many role models as possible.

Few can match Robinson. And, Bandura said, there aren’t many messages better than the one on Robinson’s tombstone, a photograph of which appears on the team’s Facebook page.

“A life is not important,” it reads, “except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Krugman’s blog, 8/22/14

August 23, 2014

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Core Success:”

In popular perception, the era since 2008 has been one of massive failure for economic analysis. The truth, as I’ve often tried to explain, is nearly the opposite — at least for those of us who didn’t forget Keynes, and took a more or less IS-LM-is model seriously. We’ve actually had a very good run, successfully predicting the quiescence of interest rates despite huge budget dheficits, the quiescence of inflation despite huge increases in the monetary base, and the adverse effects of harsh austerity policies.

A new post by Cecchetti and Schoenholtz on core inflation reminds me that this concept, too, has been a huge success.

Actually, I don’t think C&S get the argument for using some kind of core measure quite right, although their actual data analysis is fine. They simply assume that there is a problem of distinguishing between the signal and the noise, that for some reason there is an underlying trend that is imperfectly measured by the headline inflation rate. I prefer to think of it in terms of an underlying economic model, in which many but not all prices are temporarily sticky; as I explained some time ago, this implies that there is at any point in time a sort of “embedded” rate of inflation, and this — rather than short-term fluctuations — is what we’re trying to measure.

In any case, those of us who looked at core inflation came in for a lot of abuse during the “debasing the dollar” period of 2010-2011, when right-wingers were writing to Ben Bernanke to attack his policies and Paul Ryan was warning that rising commodity prices were the harbinger of runaway inflation. Assertions that fundamental inflation hadn’t gone up were met with ridicule and insults.

But sure enough, the commodity price effect on inflation was a blip, and went away. And the inflation hawks learned their lesson, and revised their models. Hahahaha — just kidding.

The second post yesterday was “Friday Not Music: Cats of the Great War:”

Not feeling inspired today — maybe because I’m focused on tonight’s concert. So how about cats instead — it turns out that a lot of them actually did serve in World War I.

Great!  Moar kittehs, please, Prof.

Nocera and Collins

August 23, 2014

In “Lessons Not Learned” Mr. Nocera says the S.&L. crisis could have helped us avoid the financial crisis.  File this under “No shit, Sherlock.”  He also managed to write the history without the name “McCain,” one of the Keating 5.  Ms. Collins looks at “Gift Horses Gone Wild” and has a question:  Who’s been following the trial of Bob McDonnell in Virginia and knows what FLOVA means?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The death of Fernand St Germain last week, at the age of 86, got me thinking about the financial calamity that he was long associated with: the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. There are things it could have — and should have — taught us as we spiraled toward the financial crisis less than two decades later.

“Freddie” St Germain was the sort of congressman you don’t see much anymore: the lovable rogue, a backslapping, deal-making legislator who saw nothing particularly wrong with taking advantage of his position to feather his own nest. As The Times pointed out in its obituary, he liked to joke that he didn’t put a period after “St” because he was hardly a saint. Entering Congress in 1961, when he was 32 years old, he steadily climbed the seniority ladder until he was the chairman of the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs in 1981.

It was a terrible time for the nation’s 4,600 or so S.&L.’s. Inflation was raging, and interest rates spiked as high as 21.5 percent. But the interest rate that S.&L.’s could offer their depositors was fixed at 5.25 percent, an amount established by government regulation. As consumers realized that the value of their deposits was being eroded by inflation, they began to move their money to a newfangled financial device being offered by mutual fund companies: the money market fund, which paid competitive rates of interest.

It was Congress’s view — and it was certainly St Germain’s view — that the S.&L. industry was vital to the American dream of homeownership. Indeed, back then, the only loans the industry was allowed to make were mortgages. Thus, in 1982, Congress passed the Garn-St Germain Depository Institutions Act — which St Germain wrote with Edwin “Jake” Garn, the Republican senator from Utah — which essentially deregulated the industry, allowing S.&L.’s not only to pay market interest rates, but to make loans far afield from home mortgages.

The idea was that S.&L.’s needed to be able to make more profitable loans since they were going to be paying much higher interest rates to gain deposits. What nobody seemed to realize was that financial deregulation was bound to have unintended consequences. S.&L.’s went from being the most cautious of financial institutions to the most heedless. S.&L. operators dove into all kinds of exotic areas. By the late 1980s, it had all come a cropper; ultimately more than 1,000 S.&L.’s — one out of every three still operating in 1988 — went under. The industry’s collapse cost the taxpayers nearly $125 billion.

In some ways, the legislators who deregulated the S.&L. industry felt that they had no choice — if they didn’t act, the S.&L.’s would have been in terrible trouble, just of a different kind. Seventeen years later, when Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act — thus deregulating the entire financial services industry — it didn’t have that excuse. The drive to abolish Glass-Steagall was ideologically inspired, the core belief being that the market would keep the industry honest. But the S.&L. crisis had proved that wasn’t true.

Rather, bankers were only too happy to privatize profits and socialize losses. During the S.&L. crisis, bankers fueled an unsustainable commercial real estate bubble, sold bonds to customers that turned out to be worthless, and, generally, used shoddy business practices to enrich themselves. In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, bankers handed out mortgages to millions of people who lacked the ability to repay them, and then bundled those mortgages into toxic subprime mortgage bonds. It was just a variation on a theme.

There is another lesson from the S.&L. crisis. In its aftermath, there were somewhere around 1,100 prosecutions, the most famous of which was that of Charles Keating, the chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, an institution that cost the government $3.4 billion when it collapsed. A few years ago, I asked someone who had been involved in prosecuting S.&L. operators why the government had been so intent on putting them in prison. “Because the country demanded it,” he said.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Department of Justice also set up a task force to root out the wrongdoing that led to the financial crisis. But it has mostly been a joke. The prosecutions have been mostly small-time stuff: homeowners who lied on liar loans, for instance. Meanwhile, not one single employee of Countrywide Financial has been prosecuted, even though Countrywide loans were at the very heart of the financial crisis.

Earlier this week, Bank of America agreed to pay $16.65 billion to settle a handful of government investigations. Bank of America, of course, bought Countrywide in 2008, and the huge sum it was paying was the government’s way of showing that it was tough on financial crime after all.

But it’s not the same as prosecuting those responsible. After all, the country is still demanding it.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

It’s a tribute to the level of terrible news we’ve been inundated with this summer that the corruption trial of ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may qualify as a feel-good story. Unless, of course, you are McDonnell.

The former governor and his wife, Maureen, took about $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie Williams, the maker of Anatabloc, a dietary supplement that was recently withdrawn from the market under pressure from a deeply unenthusiastic Food and Drug Administration. But back at the time of the gift-giving, Williams, who touts Anatabloc as the best thing since penicillin, was hoping the McDonnells would help him promote it. (We are already feeling cheery, realizing that this is not going to be the sort of alleged misdeed that requires us to say: “There but for the grace of God …”)

McDonnell used to be regarded as a Republican rising star, and Mitt Romney invited the then-governor and his wife on a campaign bus ride during veep-hunting season. We learned during the trial that while they were driving around, Maureen McDonnell tried to convince Ann Romney that Anatabloc would be good for her multiple sclerosis.

Romney picked Paul Ryan. We do not know if there was any connection.

The McDonnells, who hosted a launch party for Anatabloc in the governor’s mansion, most definitely took a pile of presents from Williams. However, it turns out that’s totally legal in Virginia. As long as an elected official reports gifts and there’s no quid pro quo, he can accept a bar of gold from a lobbyist every day. Virginians have always believed that their political culture was too upright to require ethics laws. Because, you know, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

When it comes to lessons learned from the McDonnell debacle, No. 1 is: Do not work under the assumption that your officials will do the right thing because you live in a very honest state. This is probably not a problem you need to worry about if you are in, say, New York or Illinois.

Bob McDonnell has told the jury a lot about his firmness in rejecting some of the goodies that Maureen wanted — like a designer dress for the inaugural. However, he seems to have been far less resolute when Jonnie Williams was doling out things he liked: a luxury vacation, or the use of a private jet. McDonnell told his sons to give back expensive golf clubs (the sons ignored him), but then he accepted a custom golf bag for himself.

The defense is taking the interesting line that Williams could not have gotten any direct benefit from his largess because the McDonnell marriage was too much of a mess for the couple to deliver. They never talked. Maureen was a harridan who ranted at her staff. Plus, she had a crush on Jonnie Williams, to whom she texted after an earthquake: “I just felt the earth move and I wasn’t having sex!!!!”

Bob McDonnell, who turned down a prosecution offer to let him save his wife from trial by pleading guilty to one felony count, has moved out of the family house and is bunking in the rectory with his parish priest. He offered up an email he had sent Maureen describing his “great heartache” over their discord, although he did praise her for doing well on the “FLOVA job.”

FLOVA means First Lady of Virginia. It’s a take on FLOTUS, which is a term for Michelle Obama. It made me wonder if other states do that. Is the wife of the governor of Ohio FLOOH? New York’s would be FLONY, except, of course, we don’t have one since our governor is divorced and living with a celebrity cookbook writer.

Which seems, in this context, like a real selling point for Andrew Cuomo. Another lesson from the trial is that you should never vote for somebody because his family looks nice. When McDonnell ran for governor his campaign aired ads showing the candidate in front of his home, high-fiving the kids and hugging his wife. Now, Virginians could point out the sons who took the golf clubs, the daughter who got $15,000 for her wedding catering, and, of course, the wife who spent way, way more time on the phone with the diet supplement salesman than with her husband.

Both spouses agree that Bob McDonnell was almost never around. This was due, the governor said, both to the demands of his job and the fact that he was committed to raising $55 million for the Republican Governors Association.

I think I speak for many of us when I say that it would be one thing to have your husband absent for days on end because the state was in a budget crisis, and another to have him ditch you because he had to collect donations for the Republican governors.

Maybe our final lesson is: Do not marry a politician.

Or never consort with Republicans…

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.


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