Solo Bobo

April 25, 2017

In “The Jane Addams Model” Bobo gurgles that we should be learning to do good from the master.  And “gemli” from Boston will have something to say as well.  Here’s Bobo:

These days everything puts me in mind of Jane Addams. Many of the social problems we face today — the fraying social fabric, widening inequality, anxieties over immigration, concentrated poverty, the return of cartoonish hyper-masculinity — are the same problems she faced 130 years ago. And in many ways her responses were more sophisticated than ours.

Addams was born to an affluent family in Cedarville, Ill., in 1860. She was a morally ambitious young woman who dreamed of some epic life of service without much idea about how it might come about. In her teenage years, she earnestly set to reading — “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Plutarch’s “Lives,” “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” — but in her twenties she was one of those young people who don’t get to themselves quickly. They spend years in study and in acquiring degrees with a vague sense they are preparing for something, without actually leaping into what it is they might want to do.

Addams took a Grand Tour of Europe and found herself in a vegetable market as the leftovers were being tossed to a crowd of paupers, who stood with their grasping hands upraised. The image had a powerful effect on her. Forever after, the sight of hands raised up, even in dance and calisthenics, caused her to feel the pain of poverty and want.

In London, she visited a place called Toynbee Hall, a settlement house where rich university men organized social gatherings with the poor in the same way they would organize them with one another. Addams returned to Chicago and set up Hull House, an American version of the settlement idea.

As today, it was a time when the social fabric was being torn by technological change. Addams moved her family possessions, including the paintings, books and heirloom silver, into a large mansion in a blighted district. The idea was to give the dispossessed the same sort of refined and cultivated home environment that she had known, and thus create a network of family and neighborly bonds. Before long, 2,000 a day were streaming through the place, taking and teaching courses, offering and receiving day care, doing the housekeeping, conducting sociological research.

This was not rich serving the poor (Addams hated paternalism). It was rich and poor, immigrant and old stock, living and working in reciprocity, and as a byproduct bridging social chasms and coming to understand one another. For example, Addams thought it was especially important to put immigrant adults into the role of teachers, because it affords “a pleasant change from the tutelage in which all Americans, including their own children, are so apt to hold them.”

There were classes in acting, weaving, carpentry, but especially in art history, philosophy, and music. Addams was convinced that everyone longs for beauty and knowledge. Everyone longs to serve some high ideal. She believed in character before intellect, that spiritual support is as important as material support. And yet “the soul of man in the commercial and industrial struggle is under siege.”

High culture was her way to elevate the desires and tastes of all who passed through. Residents were surrounded with copies of Rembrandts and presented with Greek tragedies and classical concerts. One new immigrant walked in and Addams handed him an Atlantic Monthly and recommended an essay he could barely understand. But it was a sign of respect and equality, and access to a different world. Even poor kids, she believed, should “share in the common inheritance of life’s best goods.”

Our antipoverty efforts tend to be systematized and bureaucratized, but Hull House was intensely personalistic. She sought to change the world by planting herself deeply in a particular neighborhood. She treated each person as a unique soul.

Addams had amazing capacity to work from the specific case to the general philosophy, and had the ability to apply an overall strategy to the particular incident. There are many philanthropists and caregivers today who dislike theory and just want to get practical. It is this sort of doer’s arrogance and intellectual laziness that explains why so many charities do no good or do positive harm. Addams, by contrast, was both theorist and practitioner.

In her day, like our own, public life was dominated by manly men who saw politics as a competition between warriors and who sought change through partisan chest thumping and impersonal legislative action.

Addams was certainly political, but she defended the primacy of the “woman’s” sphere. People are really shaped by dense intimate connections. People thrive in “familied contexts.” As Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in her biography, “The world of women was, for her, a dense concoction of imperatives, yearnings, reflections, actions, joys, tragedies, laughter, tears — a complex way of knowing and being in the world.”

Tough, Addams believed that we only make our way in the world through discipline and self-control. Tender, she created an institution that was a lived-out version of humanist philosophy. In today’s terms, she was a moral and religious traditionalist and an economic leftist, and an incredible role model for our time.

Not surprisingly, “gemli” has some pointed things to say to Bobo:

“David Brooks is always looking for an excuse to let government off the hook when it comes to education and welfare. A while back he wrote an entire column on West Virginian volunteers who are taking care of the poor, and even providing amateur mental health counselling, dealing with childhood depression and unprocessed grief (“A Nation of Healers,” 6/21/2016).

Same column, different day. Once again, an individual stands up to take care of the poor, while the government is nowhere to be found. Brooks is enthralled by the idea that volunteers should be in the role of bringing education and culture to the masses. Addams gives the poverty-stricken respect and a moral grounding of religious traditionalism, while the government is busy doing other things.

Brooks says our antipoverty efforts tend to be systematized and bureaucratized. Duh. How else can we provide opportunity and financial support for the millions of people who fall through the large, engineered and ever-widening cracks that have been created by conservatives who are hostile to education, health care and a living wage?

This column is especially timely, given that our current president wants to cut funding for the arts and sciences, and when he’s put a complete inexperienced evangelical novice in charge of education. I don’t know Betsy DeVos personally, but I’ll wager she’s no Jane Addams. I suspect Morticia Addams knows more about education and moral philosophy.”

Blow and Krugman

April 24, 2017

In “Resiliance of the Resistance” Mr. Blow says not only is the movement against Trump still strong, but it appears to be getting stronger.  Prof. Krugman considers the “Zombies of Voodoo Economics” and says they’re still eating brains after all these years.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The resistance to the travesty of Donald Trump’s presidency is holding up just fine, thank you very much.

As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration, a tremendous amount of attention and coverage will be devoted to analyzing its impact and efficacy. But I would also like to take time to celebrate the impact and efficacy of the resistance.

I must say that the issue of resilience was one that I worried and wondered about from the beginning: For far too many Americans in this digital age, stamina is rare, attention spans are short and the urge for instant gratification, or at least for expedient resolution, is enormous.

I worried that modern shortsightedness would prevent resisters from seeing the long game, that the exhaustion of constant outrage would numb them to unrelenting assault.

But, to my great delight, my worry was unfounded. Not only is the movement still strong, it appears to be getting stronger. People have found a salve for their sadness: exuberant agitation. Far from growing limp, the Trump resistance is stiffening and strengthening.

As John Cassidy put it this month in a progress report on the resistance in The New Yorker: “Indeed, what is striking is how many people Trump has mobilized who previously didn’t pay very much attention to what happens in Washington. He has politicized many formerly apolitical people; ultimately, this may be among his biggest achievements as president.”

These comments came specifically in reference to the throngs of resisters showing up at lawmakers’ town hall events, sometimes in record numbers. They are passionate, vocal and confrontational. They are not bowing down; they are holding their representatives accountable and giving a very visual reinforcement to the threat that defending Trump or supporting his agenda will be punished at the ballot box.

The Republican House Oversight and Government Reform chairman, Jason Chaffetz, who made a surprise announcement last week that he would not seek re-election in 2018, found this out firsthand. As Mother Jones put it:

“The once-brash congressional inquisitor has twisted himself into a pretzel trying to explain why he hasn’t been investigating President Trump, the most conflict-ridden commander-in-chief in modern U.S. history. And the 50-year-old congressman has experienced an unexpected level of outrage in his own deep red district.”

In February, constituents swarmed Chaffetz’s town hall in efforts to (what he called) “yell and scream.” At the time he put on a defiant face: “I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate. But, the last four elections in Utah in a row I’ve won the widest margin of anybody playing at this level.”

Well, that’s over.

Not only are people showing up to town halls, they are clogging their lawmakers’ phone lines, which is surprisingly important.

As Kathryn Schulz pointed out last month in The New Yorker: “There are a great many ways to petition the government, including with actual petitions, but, short of showing up in person, the one reputed to be the most effective is picking up the phone and calling your congressional representatives.”

Schulz went on to explain: “For mass protests, such as those that have been happening recently, phone calls are a better way of contacting lawmakers, not because they get taken more seriously but because they take up more time — thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”

Furthermore, young people are particularly unhappy with Trump and turning against him. A Gallup poll released last week found that the percentage of respondents age 18-34 who believed Trump keeps his promises fell a whopping 22 points in the two months from early February to early April, from 56 percent to just 34 percent.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, young people aged 18-29 also give Trump his highest disapproval rating (63 percent) of any age group.

But these young people aren’t just stewing and complaining. They’re taking action.

As Time magazine reported earlier this month: “For more than 15,000 students across the country, Wednesday marked the first day of Resistance School — a program where the educational focus is mobilizing against President Donald Trump’s administration.”

As the magazine explained, the “school” was organized by “a group of Harvard graduate students” and offers “lessons on mobilizing activists and sustaining long-term resistance.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: money. Wired magazine reported this month that the resistance is “weaponizing data” with the emergence of a new nonprofit, crowdsourcing fund-raising tool called Flippable. It was founded by “three former Hillary Clinton campaign staffers” and pinpoints “which districts it believes are the most competitive for Democrats (the most ‘flippable’)” and allows donors to target those districts.

Taken together, all signs are looking up for the movement. The Trump administration, from pillar to post, is an unmitigated disaster, lumbering forward and crushing American ideas and conventions as it does. Damage is being done, there is no doubt, but Americans are not taking it lying down. They are standing in opposition. They are feeling their power. They are energized, and I’m very much encouraged.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

According to many reports, Donald Trump is getting frantic as his administration nears the 100-day mark. It’s an arbitrary line in the sand, but one he himself touted in many pre-inauguration boasts. And it will be an occasion for numerous articles detailing how little of substance he has actually accomplished.

Yet many of these reports will, I suspect, miss half the story. It’s important to note just how little the tweeter-in-chief has managed to achieve; but we also need to focus on what, exactly, it is that he hasn’t achieved.

For Mr. Trump sold himself to voters as unorthodox as well as effective. He was going to be a different kind of president, a consummate deal-maker who would transcend the usual ideological divide. His supporters should therefore be dismayed, not just by his failure to actually close any deals, but by the fact that he evidently has no new ideas to offer, just the same old snake oil the right has been peddling for decades.

We saw that on Trumpcare, where the administration outsourced its policy to Paul Ryan, who produced exactly the kind of plan you might have expected: take insurance away from millions, make it worse for the rest, and use the money to cut taxes on the wealthy. Populism!

And now we’re seeing it on taxes. Mr. Trump has promised to unveil a “massive” tax cut plan next week. This announcement apparently came as a surprise to his own Treasury officials, who obviously don’t have a plan ready. Still, one thing is clear: Whatever the details, Trumptax will be a big exercise in fantasy economics.

How do we know this? Last week Stephen Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told a financial industry audience that “the plan will pay for itself with growth.” And we all know what that means.

Back in 1980 George H. W. Bush famously described supply-side economics — the claim that cutting taxes on rich people will conjure up an economic miracle, so much so that revenues will actually rise — as “voodoo economic policy.” Yet it soon became the official doctrine of the Republican Party, and still is. That shows an impressive level of commitment. But what makes this commitment even more impressive is that it’s a doctrine that has been tested again and again — and has failed every time.

Yes, the U.S. economy rebounded quickly from the slump of 1979-82. But was that the result of the Reagan tax cuts, or was it, as most economists think, the result of interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve? Bill Clinton provided a clear test, by raising taxes on the rich. Republicans predicted disaster, but instead the economy boomed, creating more jobs than under Reagan.

Then George W. Bush cut taxes again, with the usual suspects predicting a “Bush boom”; what we actually got was lackluster growth followed by a severe financial crisis. Barack Obama reversed many of the Bush tax cuts and added new taxes to pay for Obamacare — and oversaw a far better jobs record, at least in the private sector, than his predecessor.

So history offers not a shred of support for faith in the pro-growth effects of tax cuts.

Oh, and let’s not forget recent experiences at the state level. Sam Brownback, governor of Kansas, slashed taxes in what he called a “real live experiment” in conservative fiscal policy. But the growth he promised never came, while a fiscal crisis did. At the same time, Jerry Brown’s California raised taxes, leading to proclamations from the right that the state was committing “economic suicide”; in fact, the state has experienced impressive employment and economic growth.

In other words, supply-side economics is a classic example of a zombie doctrine: a view that should have been killed by the evidence long ago, but just keeps shambling along, eating politicians’ brains. Why, then, does it persist? Because it offers a rationale for lower taxes on the wealthy — and as Upton Sinclair noted long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Still, Donald Trump was supposed to be different. Guess what: he isn’t.

To be fair, it’s not clear whether Mr. Trump really believes in right-wing economic orthodoxy. He may just be looking for something, anything, he can call a win — and it’s a lot easier to come up with a tax reform plan if you don’t try to make things add up, if you just assume that extra growth and the revenue it brings will materialize out of thin air.

We might also note that a man who insists that he won the popular vote he lost, who insists that crime is at a record high when it’s at a record low, doesn’t need a fancy doctrine to claim that his budget adds up when it doesn’t.

Still, the fact is that the Trump agenda so far is absolutely indistinguishable from what one might have expected from, say, Ted Cruz. It’s just voodoo with extra bad math. Was that what his supporters expected?

Brooks and Krugman

April 21, 2017

Bobo is wailing over “The Crisis of Western Civ.”  He moans that faith in the West has collapsed and, amazingly, people have been slow to rise to defend it.  There will be a response from “Dana” in Santa Monica.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Balloon, the Box, and Health Care,” says it’s not surprising Republican repeal-and-replace efforts keep getting nowhere.  Here’s Bobo:

Between 1935 and 1975, Will and Ariel Durant published a series of volumes that together were known as “The Story of Civilization.” They basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies.

That series encapsulated the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.

Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

The events last week in Turkey were just another part of the trend. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismantles democratic institutions and replaces them with majoritarian dictatorship. Turkey seems to have lost its desire to join the European idea, which no longer has magnetism and allure. Turkey seems to have lost its aspiration to join the community of democracies because that’s no longer the inevitable future.

More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous.

Then there has been the collapse of the center. For decades, center-left and center-right parties clustered around similar versions of democratic capitalism that Western civilization seemed to point to. But many of those centrist parties, like the British and Dutch Labour Parties, are in near collapse. Fringe parties rise.

In France, the hard-right Marine Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon could be the final two candidates in the presidential runoff. Le Pen has antiliberal views about national purity. Mélenchon is a supposedly democratic politician who models himself on Hugo Chávez.

If those two end up in the finals, then the European Union and NATO, the two great liberal institutions of modern Europe, will go into immediate crisis.

Finally, there has been the collapse of liberal values at home. On American campuses, fragile thugs who call themselves students shout down and abuse speakers on a weekly basis. To read Heather MacDonald’s account of being pilloried at Claremont McKenna College is to enter a world of chilling intolerance.

In America, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.

While running for office, Donald Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries, and it turned out many people didn’t notice or didn’t care.

The faith in the West collapsed from within. It’s amazing how slow people have been to rise to defend it.

There have been a few lonely voices. Andrew Michta laments the loss of Western confidence in an essay in The American Interest. Edward Luce offers a response in his forthcoming book “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” But liberalism has been docile in defense of itself.

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

And now here’s what “Dana” in Santa Monica has to say about that pile:

“So let me get this straight. Millions of Americans worship at the altar of Trump because of how they were taught western civilization? The premise is absurd. First – I doubt most trump voters could identify the “cradle of civilization” let alone tell you the two rivers that form it. Critical inquiry and a more broad historical analysis of western civilization are hardly to blame. The blames lies with decades of your fellow republicans gutting education so that most Americans have never taken a western civ class let alone a good old civics class. These same Americans love to shout how they are the true patriots without having a clue about how our democracy works. Just look no further than the current fool of a president. No – you own this Mr Brooks. Trump is in office due to the willful ignorance of the American populace. It’s precisely the outcome the GOP created from their decades long smear campaign against education, secularism, scientific inquiry and rational thinking.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Imagine a man who for some reason is determined to stuff a balloon into a box — a box that, aside from being the wrong shape, just isn’t big enough. He starts working at one corner, pushing the balloon into position. But then he realizes that the air he’s squeezed out at one end has caused the balloon to expand elsewhere. So he tries at the opposite corner, but this undoes his original work.

If he’s stupid or obsessive enough, he can spend a long time at this exercise, trying it from various different angles, and maybe even briefly convince himself that he’s making progress. But he’s kidding himself: No matter what he does, the balloon isn’t going to fit in that box.

Now you understand what’s happening to G.O.P. efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have spent many years denouncing Obamacare as a terrible, horrible, no good law and insisting that they can do much better. They successfully convinced many voters that they could preserve the good stuff — the dramatic expansion of coverage that has brought the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low — while reducing premiums, shrinking deductibles and, of course, doing away with the taxes on high incomes that pay for the program.

Those promises basically define the box into which they’re trying to stuff health care.

But health care costs money. In particular, if you want to make care available to Americans who have pre-existing medical conditions — including the condition of being not rich and being relatively old, but not yet eligible for Medicare — you have to find some way to subsidize them.

Obamacare provides those subsidies in part with direct public funding, in part with regulations that implicitly use premiums paid by the healthy to cover the cost of caring for the less healthy.

There are other possible ways to achieve the same goal, but the money has to come from somewhere. That basically says how much air there is in the balloon — and it makes the balloon too big for the box.

Now you understand why there’s a predictable, repetitive rhythm to the health care story.

Again and again, we read news reports to the effect that Republicans are closing in on a plan that will break the political deadlock. They’ll repeal the Obamacare taxes and block-grant Medicaid! No, they’ll make insurance cheaper by eliminating the coverage requirements! Or, the latest idea being floated, they’ll let insurance companies raise premiums on people with pre-existing conditions and compensate by creating special high-risk pools!

Blow, Kristof, and Collins

April 20, 2017

In “A Fake and a Fraud” Mr. Blow says Trump’s philosophy as president might best be described as clan over country.  In “The North Korea-Trump Nightmare” Mr. Kristof says it’s scary to consider what a frustrated president could do.  Ms. Collins is “Paging the Trump Armada” and says it’s not easy to misplace a flotilla.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Donald Trump’s mounting reversals, failures and betrayals make it increasingly clear that he is a fake and a fraud.

For many of us, this is affirmative reinforcement; for others, it is devastating revelation.

But it is those who believed — and cast supportive ballots — who should feel most cheated and also most contrite. You placed your faith in a phony. His promises are crashing to earth like a fleet of paper airplanes.

He oversold what he could deliver because he had no idea what would be required to deliver it, nor did he care. He told you what you wanted to hear so that he could get what he wanted to have. He played you for fools.

That wall will not be paid for by Mexico, if in fact it is ever built. If it is built, it will likely look nothing like what Trump said it would look like. His repeal and replace of Obamacare flopped. That failure endangers his ability to deliver on major tax reform and massive infrastructure spending. China is no longer in danger of being labeled a currency manipulator. The administration is now sending signals that ripping up the Iran nuclear deal isn’t a sure bet.

Trump has done a complete about-face on the Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen, and when was the last time you heard him threaten to lock up Hillary Clinton?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the positions he took for in-the-moment advantage that have been quickly converted into in-reality abandonment.

He isn’t cunningly unpredictable; he’s tragically unprepared and dangerously unprincipled.

No wonder then that a Gallup poll released Monday found:

“President Donald Trump’s image among Americans as someone who keeps his promises has faded in the first two months of his presidency, falling from 62 percent in February to 45 percent. The public is also less likely to see him as a ‘strong and decisive leader,’ as someone who ‘can bring about the changes this country needs’ or as ‘honest and trustworthy.’”

While the largest decline in the percentage of those who think Trump keeps his promises came among women, young people and Democrats, the number also dropped 11 percentage points among Republicans and nine percentage points among conservatives.

Even so, The Washington Post’s The Fix warned readers to beware “the myth of the disillusioned Trump voter,” citing a Pew Research Center poll released Monday “showing very little buyer’s remorse among Trump voters.”

As the newspaper pointed out: “The poll showed just 7 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump has performed worse than they expected him to. Fully 38 percent — five times as many — say he has performed better.”

This seems to me a fair point, but it requires us to have a better handle on the expectations for him in the first place. After all, the union has yet to crumble into ashes and his Twitter tirades have yet to push us into an impulse war.

Furthermore, the stubborn human resistance to admitting a mistake should never be underestimated. Admitting that Trump is failing, even when he is failing you and your family specifically, is an enormous pill to swallow. Acknowledging that your blindness, selfishness and fear compelled you to buy into a man who is selling you out may take more time.

But I think that time is coming, because Trump is an unabashed leech and an unrepentant liar.

Trump cares only about Trump, his brand and his image, his family and his fortune. Indeed, his personal philosophy as president might best be described as clan over country.

Instead of being a grenade-throwing iconoclast bent on blowing up the D.C. establishment and the big-money power structures, he has stocked his inner circle with billionaires and bankers, and he has bent to the establishment.

Trump sold himself as a populist only to line his own pockets. Trump built his entire reputation not as the champion of the common man, but by curating his image as a crude effigy of the cultural elite.

He accrued his wealth by selling hollow dreams of high society to people who wanted to flaunt their money or pretend that they had some.

Put another way, Trump’s brand is built on exclusivity, not inclusivity. It is about the separate, vaulted position of luxury, above and beyond the ability for it to be accessed by the common. It is all about the bourgeois and has absolutely nothing to do with the blue collar.

And yet somehow, it was the blue collar that bought his bill of goods. People saw uncouth and thought unconventional; they saw raffish and thought rebel.

They projected principle and commitment onto a person anathema to both. Now, we all have to pay a hefty toll as Trump’s legions cling to thinning hope.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof;

President Trump is scary in many ways, but perhaps the most frightening nightmare is of him blundering into a new Korean war.

It would begin because the present approach of leaning on China to pressure North Korea will likely fail. Trump will grow angry at public snickering at the emptiness of his threats.

At some point, U.S. intelligence will see a North Korean missile prepared for a test launch — and it may then be very tempting for a deeply frustrated rogue president to show his muscle. Foreign Affairs describes just such a scenario in an excellent new essay by Philip Gordon imagining how Trump might drift into war by accident:

“He could do nothing, but that would mean losing face and emboldening North Korea. Or he could destroy the test missile on its launchpad with a barrage of cruise missiles, blocking Pyongyang’s path to a nuclear deterrent, enforcing his red line, and sending a clear message to the rest of the world.”

Alas, no one has ever made money betting on North Korean restraint, and the country might respond by firing artillery at Seoul, a metropolitan area of 25 million people.

The upshot of a war would be that North Korea’s regime would be destroyed, but the country has the world’s fourth-largest army (soldiers are drafted for up to 12 years) with 21,000 artillery pieces, many of them aimed at Seoul. It also has thousands of tons of chemical weapons, and missiles that can reach Tokyo.

Gen. Gary Luck, a former commander of American forces in South Korea, estimates that a new Korean war could cause one million casualties and $1 trillion in damage.

Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and now chairman of the Asia Group in Washington, warns, “I do not believe there is any plausible military action that does not bring with it a possibility of a catastrophic conflict.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis knows all this, and he and other grown-ups in the Trump administration would resist any call for a pre-emptive strike. Concern about the North Korean response is what prevented Richard Nixon from a military strike in 1969 when the North shot down a U.S. plane, killing all 31 Americans on board. And it’s what has prevented presidents since from striking North Korea as it has crossed one red line after another, from counterfeiting U.S. hundred-dollar bills to expanding its nuclear program.

Yet I’m worried because the existing policy inherited from Barack Obama is running out of time, because all U.S. and South Korean policies toward North Korea have pretty much failed over the years, and because Trump seems temperamentally inclined to fire missiles.

When Vice President Mike Pence says of North Korea, “The era of strategic patience is over,” he has a point: Patience has failed. North Korea is the strangest place I’ve visited, but it has made progress as a military threat: When I started covering North Korea in the 1980s, it had zero nuclear weapons. It now has about 20 and is steadily churning out more.

Worse, North Korea is expected in the next few years to develop the capacity to attach a nuclear warhead to an intercontinental missile that could devastate Los Angeles. U.S. “left of launch” cyberwarfare may slow North Korean efforts, but the threat still looms.

If a military strike is unthinkable, and so is doing nothing, what about Trump’s plan of nudging China to apply pressure to North Korea?

It’s worth trying, but I don’t think it’ll work, either. China’s relations with North Korea aren’t nearly as close as Americans think. One North Korean once introduced me to another by saying, “The Chinese government doesn’t like Kristof,” and then beaming, making clear this was a high compliment.

President Xi Jinping of China will probably amp up the pressure somewhat, and that’s useful — North Korean missiles are built using some Chinese parts — but few expect Kim Jong-un to give up his nukes. In the 1990s, North Korea continued with its nuclear program even as a famine claimed the lives of perhaps 10 percent of the population, and it’s hard to see more modest sanctions succeeding now.

“North Korea will never, ever give up its nuclear weapons,” says Jieun Baek, author of a fascinating recent book, “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution.” Sanctions will squeeze the regime, she says, but not deter it. Instead, she urges greater measures to undermine the regime’s legitimacy at home by smuggling in information about it and the world (as some activists are already doing).

The only option left, I think, is to apply relentless pressure together with China, while pushing for a deal in which North Korea would verifiably freeze its nuclear and missile programs without actually giving up its nukes, in exchange for sanctions relief. This is a lousy option, possibly unattainable, and it isn’t a solution so much as a postponement of one. But all the alternatives are worse.

And if Trump tries to accelerate the process with a pre-emptive military strike? Then Heaven help us.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Let’s consider the case of the wrong-way warships.

Last week, North Korea was planning a big celebration in honor of its founder’s birthday. For North Koreans, holiday fun is short on barbecues and high on weaponry. The big parade in Pyongyang featured monster canisters that theoretically contained intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s possible they were actually empty and that right now, North Korea only has bragging rights in the big-container race.

But its intentions were definitely bad, and the United States was worried there might be a missile launch or an underground nuclear test.

What should Donald Trump do? “We’re sending an armada,” said the president. Possible confrontation? As a concerned citizen, you had to be very worried. North Korea is, in every way, a special and dangerous case. It has a leader who is narcissistic to the point of psychosis, with a celebrity fixation and a very strange haircut.

O.K., maybe not entirely unique.

Trump was talking about bringing in four warships, one of them an aircraft carrier. Was this going to mean real shooting? His critics back home had to decide whether to protest, wave the flag in support or simply stock the fallout shelter. (This would be the fallout shelter you repurposed a couple decades ago as a wine cellar, but lately you’ve been thinking it can work both ways.)

Everybody was talking about the dangers. If North Korea sent up a missile, would the U.S. retaliate? Then what would happen to South Korea and Japan? People debated all the variables. The only thing that did not come up was the possibility that the American flotilla was actually no place near the neighborhood.

Yet, as Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt reported in The Times, at the moment the president was announcing his armada, the warships in question were actually going in the opposite direction, en route to a destination 3,500 miles away, where they were to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy.

Whoops. The official response was that the administration was sending an armada eventually.

“We said that it was heading there. And it was heading there, it is heading there,” said press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday. Under this theory, the president could have responded to North Korea’s latest saber-rattling by announcing that he was going to China, since chances are he’ll get there someday. Sooner or later. Especially if the Chinese can come up with a gold coach like the queen of England’s.

Poor Sean Spicer. Every day a new official fantasy to defend. Tonight the president will go to bed and dream that he’s actually the true heir to the principality of Liechtenstein. Tomorrow Spicer will come into the pressroom on skis and announce we’re declaring war on Switzerland.

But about the missing warships. It’s possible Trump was bluffing, which certainly sounds like a bad idea. After all, if this administration has a strong card in foreign policy, it’s that the rest of the world thinks he’s so crazy he might do anything. It seems more likely that the administration just screwed up, and some people thought the warships had been rerouted when they really weren’t.

We’re really not asking for a lot, but can’t the president at least be clear about the direction our ships are headed? Concerned citizenry has already adapted to the idea that half the things Trump said during the campaign have now been retracted. NATO is great, the Chinese don’t manipulate their currency. And the Export-Import bank is, well .…

Pop Quiz: Which best describes your feelings about the president’s attitude toward the Export-Import Bank?

A) Happy when he denounced it during the campaign.

B) Glad when he said it was a good thing after all.

C) Worried when he nominated an Export-Import Bank head who seems to hate it.

D) I don’t care about the Export-Import Bank! What about all those bombs?

O.K., O.K. In the end, the North Koreans did test a missile but it exploded right after launch. It is possible this was due to a long-running American cybersabotage program. If so, Trump couldn’t have mentioned it as a matter of security. Otherwise he’d certainly have been out there expressing his gratitude to the Obama administration for having done so much work on it. Hehehehe.

When it comes to Trump and foreign affairs, the big problem is that you want to be fair, but you don’t want to encourage him. A lot of Americans liked the idea of responding to a chemical attack in Syria by bombing a Syrian air base. But if the president thought it was popular, wouldn’t he get carried away? It’s like praising a 4-year-old for coloring a picture, and the next thing you know he’s got his crayons out, heading for the white sofa.

What we want to do is take the crayons away and murmur: “Good boy. Now why don’t you go off and nominate some ambassadors for a change?”

And go find your boats.

Friedman, solo

April 19, 2017

In “Coal Museum Sees the Future; Trump Doesn’t” The Moustache of Wisdom says the president is focused on prolonging a dying industry rather than on renewable energy, which is making the country stronger without him.  Here he is:

Did you catch this gem on CNN.com from April 6? “The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, owned by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, is switching to solar power to save money. … Communications director Brandon Robinson told CNN affiliate WYMT that the project ‘will help save at least eight to ten thousand dollars, off the energy costs on this building alone.’”

Go figure. The coal mining museum is going solar, for solid economic reasons, and President Trump is reviving coal, with no economic logic at all. This bizarre contrast speaks to a deeper question of leadership and how we judge presidents.

Trump took two major national security decisions in the past few weeks. One was to strike Syria for using poison gas. Trump summoned his national security team, asked for options on Syria, chose the cruise-missile strike — which was right — and won praise for acting “presidential.”

The other decision you didn’t see. It was Trump dismantling budgets and regulations undergirding U.S. climate and environmental protection policies — in his nutty effort to revive U.S. coal-fired energy — while quietly announcing plans to withhold a promised $32.5 million U.S. contribution for the U.N. Population Fund, which supports family planning and maternal health.

Unlike the Syria decision, Trump made the second move without seeking a comprehensive briefing from experts — he controls the world’s greatest collection of climate scientists at NASA, NOAA, the E.P.A., the Pentagon and the C.I.A. — and without ever asking for an intelligence briefing on how the combination of climate change, environmental degradation, drought and population explosions helped trigger the civil war in Syria, spawn terrorist groups like Boko Haram around Africa’s central Lake Chad (which has lost 90 percent of its water mass since 1963) and become the main force pushing tens of thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa into Europe each year, and from Central America up to the U.S.

I promise you that Trump will spend the rest of his presidency dealing with the disruptions caused by this cocktail of population explosion and climate/environmental degradation — and his generals know it. But in today’s politics, bombing is considered presidential and ignoring science and defunding family planning, when populations are exploding and droughts expanding, are ho-hum back-page news.

Since Trump seems to be pivoting from some of his campaign nonsense, one can only hope he will do the same on these issues. If Trump is looking for a blueprint, he could not do better than to read a smart new book, “Climate of Hope,” by a most unlikely duo: former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope and billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

When Carl met Mike… It was 2011, Pope went to Bloomberg with a plan for generating bottom-up community activism to help shut down as many coal-fired power plants in America as possible, so another generation of American kids wouldn’t be afflicted with childhood asthma and another generation of coal workers wouldn’t have to make a living breathing coal dust.

Bloomberg put $50 million into the effort, and the rest is — helping to make coal — history, thanks to the Sierra Club mobilizing communities and technology making natural gas (when the methane leakage is controlled) a much cleaner, cheaper base-load power source for utilities, and wind and solar energy so much more cost-effective.

When the Sierra Club and Bloomberg started in 2011, there were 514 coal-fired power plants in America; since then, 254 have announced they will shut down. They expect that fully two-thirds will be phased out by 2022 — no matter what Trump says or does.

“Climate of Hope” is about how to build on this, by reframing the interrelated challenges of climate change, clean air, clean water and population “from questions of who is going to sacrifice to who is going to grab the profits,” Bloomberg explained in an interview. Each of these challenges, he said, can be met in ways that enable cities and countries to make themselves more prosperous, innovative, healthy and secure — if we just get the incentives right.

Imagine, added Pope, that every U.S. company joined Anheuser-Busch in committing to getting all of its electricity from renewable sources. Imagine that instead of subsidizing surplus cotton, destroying the livelihoods of small farmers in Africa, the U.S. government subsidized our farmers to grow crops that restore carbon and store water in their soils, thus drought-proofing Texas and California.

Imagine every U.S. city joining those already buying electric self-driving vehicles, thereby scaling a new auto-on-demand industry — while reducing the need for personal cars and the parking places and garages for them — thereby unlocking so much real estate for growth and easing urban housing prices. Imagine that instead of vowing to bring back coal mining jobs, our president offered to link West Virginia and the nation’s most prosperous metropolitan economy, Washington, D.C., with high-speed rail service.

Imagine … we could actually make America great again, not just prolong a dying coal industry! Now that would be presidential.

Yeah, Tommy, and if my granny had wheels she’d be a bus…

Solo Bobo

April 18, 2017

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “How to Leave a Mark on People.”  He ‘splains that some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory.  There will be a brief but pithy response from “Jim Wallace” in Seattle.  Here’s Bobo:

Joe Toscano and I worked at Incarnation summer camp in Connecticut a few decades ago. Joe went on to become an extremely loving father of five and a fireman in Watertown, Mass. Joe was a community-building guy — serving his town, organizing events like fishing derbies for bevies of kids, radiating infectious and neighborly joy.

Joe collapsed and died while fighting a two-alarm fire last month. When Joe died, the Incarnation community reached out with a fierce urgency to support his family and each other. One of our number served as a eulogist at the funeral. Everybody started posting old photos of Joe on Facebook. Somebody posted a picture of 250 Incarnation alumni at a reunion, with the caption, “My Family.”

Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. I haven’t worked at Incarnation for 30 years, but it remains one of the four or five thick institutions in my life, and in so many other lives.

Which raises two questions: What makes an institution thick? If you were setting out consciously to create a thick institution, what features would it include?

A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. So thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall.

Such institutions have a set of collective rituals — fasting or reciting or standing in formation. They have shared tasks, which often involve members closely watching one another, the way hockey teammates have to observe everybody else on the ice. In such institutions people occasionally sleep overnight in the same retreat center or facility, so that everybody can see each other’s real self, before makeup and after dinner.

Such organizations often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink. They incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung and danced with. They have a common ideal — encapsulated, for example, in the Semper Fi motto for the Marines.

It’s also important to have an idiosyncratic local culture. Too many colleges, for example, feel like one another. But the ones that really leave a mark on their students (St. John’s, Morehouse, Wheaton, the University of Chicago) have the courage to be distinct. You can love or hate such places. But when you meet a graduate you know it, and when they meet each other, even decades hence, they know they have something important in common.

As I was thinking about my list of traits, Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania shared with me a similar list, titled, “What causes individuals to adopt the identity of their microculture?” She had a lot of my items but more, such as a shared goal, like winning the Super Bowl or saving the environment; initiation rituals, especially those that are difficult; a sacred guidebook or object passed down from generation to generation; distinct jargon and phrases that are spoken inside the culture but misunderstood outside it; a label, like being a KIPPster for a KIPP school student; and finally uniforms or other emblems, such as flags, rings, bracelets or even secret underwear.

Thick institutions have a different moral ecology. People tend to like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places. James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson of the University of Virginia study thick and thin moral frameworks. They point to the fact that thin organizations look to take advantage of people’s strengths and treat people as resources to be marshaled. Thick organizations think in terms of virtue and vice. They take advantage of people’s desire to do good and arouse their higher longings.

In other words, thin institutions tend to see themselves horizontally. People are members for mutual benefit. Thick organizations often see themselves on a vertical axis. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.

In the former, there’s an ever-present utilitarian calculus — Is this working for me? Am I getting more out than I’m putting in? — that creates a distance between people and the organization. In the latter, there’s an intimacy and identity borne out of common love. Think of a bunch of teachers watching a student shine onstage or a bunch of engineers adoring the same elegant solution.

I never got to see Joey T. fight a fire. But I watched him run a bunch of the camp reunion fishing derbies. If you’d asked him, are you doing this for the kids or for yourself, I’m not sure the question would have made sense. In a thick organization selfishness and selflessness marry. It fulfills your purpose to help others have a good day.

Now here’s what “Jim Wallace” has to say about that:

“Today, Brooks veers off on another one of his pop sociology “mansplaining” pieces touting individuality mixed with higher purpose sounding like religion. Meanwhile, Rome burns while Trump plays golf. Are we tired of winning yet?”

Krugman’s blog, 4/14/17

April 17, 2017

There was one post on Friday, “In Praise Of Nursing:”

For some reason I’m suddenly getting a lot of mail about a sloppy and insensitive thing I did in passing in a blog post a while back. I was writing about what kind of work would survive digital technology, and described nursing among other things as “menial” work. What’s odd is that I have never imagined that; I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I may even have meant to say “manual” (which is also not right, however, since there’s a lot more than manual skill involved).

Anyway, apologies to nurses: If I insulted them, even inadvertently, that was badly done. I’m well aware how much training goes into their profession, and also just how hard it is — I would be terrified to deal, even once, with what they deal with every day. I won’t make that mistake again.

Blow and Krugman

April 17, 2017

In “100 Days of Horror” Mr. Blow says access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by Trump.  Prof. Krugman asks “Why Don’t All Jobs Matter?” and addresses economic pain, beyond coal and manufacturing.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

With Donald Trump’s 100th day in office fast approaching, White House staffers are reportedly trying desperately to “rebrand” the colossal failure of the first 100 days as some kind of success.

Trump’s legislative agenda has been stymied. The drip, drip, drip of negative news about connections between campaign associates and Russia — and Russia’s efforts to impact our election — continues unabated. He seems to have no real strategy for governance other than pouting and gloating. His advisers are at each other’s throats. And the public has soured on him to a historic degree.

His failures so far, I suppose, should bring resisters like me some modicum of joy, but I must confess that they don’t. Or, more precisely, if they do, that joy is outweighed by the rolling litany of daily horrors that Trump has inflicted.

The horrors are both consuming and exhausting. For me at this point they center on an erosion of equality. This by no means downplays Trump’s incessant lying, the outrage of him draining the Treasury for his personal junkets, or his disturbing turn toward war. But somewhat below the radar, or at least with less fanfare, our access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by a man who lied on the campaign trail promising to promote them.

As a candidate, Trump blasted Jeb Bush, who while answering a question about defunding Planned Parenthood suggested that the federal government had overfunded women’s health care.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump prattled to Mika Brzezinski: “The women’s health issue, which Jeb Bush so amazingly blew about four or five days ago when he said ‘no money going to women’s health issues’ or essentially that. With me, Mika, I would be the best for women, the best for women’s health issues.”

Well, last week that very same man quietly signed legislation “aimed at cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other groups that perform abortions,” according to The New York Times. As The Times explained, the bill would allow state and local governments to withhold “federal funding for family planning services related to contraception, sexually transmitted infections, fertility, pregnancy care, and breast and cervical cancer screening from qualified health providers — regardless of whether they also performed abortions.”

As a candidate, Trump claimed to be a better friend to the L.G.B.T. community than Hillary Clinton, tweeting of that community “I will fight for you,” and saying during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show that transgender people should “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate.”

As president, his administration rescinded Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that allowed them to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

As a candidate, Trump disparagingly chided black voters with the question, “What the hell do you have to lose?” and issued a “New Deal for Black America” in which he promised: “We will apply the law fairly, equally and without prejudice. There will be only one set of rules — not a two-tiered system of justice.”

As president, his Justice Department has dropped its objection to a racially discriminatory Texas voter ID law. Just last week Time reported: “A judge ruled for a second time Monday that Texas’ strict voter ID law was intentionally crafted to discriminate against minorities, which follows another court finding evidence of racial gerrymandering in how Republican lawmakers drew the state’s election maps.”

This Justice Department has also “rescinded a six-month-old Obama administration directive that sought to curtail the government’s use of private prisons,” as reported by NBC News, and “ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, an examination that reflects President Trump’s emphasis on law and order and could lead to a retreat on consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide,” as The Times reported.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday that consent decrees “can reduce morale of the police officers.”

Furthermore, The Washington Post reported last week that Sessions had appointed Steven H. Cook to be one of his top lieutenants, noting: “Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.”

The clock is being turned back. Vulnerable populations are under relentless attack by this administration. This is a war, and that is not hyperbole or exaggeration. While folks are hoping that some Russia-related revelation will emerge from the darkness to bring this administration to a calamitous conclusion, the administration is busy rebuilding and reinforcing the architecture of oppression in plain sight.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

President Trump is still promising to bring back coal jobs. But the underlying reasons for coal employment’s decline — automation, falling electricity demand, cheap natural gas, technological progress in wind and solar — won’t go away.

Meanwhile, last week the Treasury Department officially (and correctly) declined to name China as a currency manipulator, making nonsense of everything Mr. Trump has said about reviving manufacturing.

So will the Trump administration ever do anything substantive to bring back mining and manufacturing jobs? Probably not.

But let me ask a different question: Why does public discussion of job loss focus so intensely on mining and manufacturing, while virtually ignoring the big declines in some service sectors?

Over the weekend The Times Magazine published a photographic essay on the decline of traditional retailers in the face of internet competition. The pictures, contrasting “zombie malls” largely emptied of tenants with giant warehouses holding inventory for online sellers, were striking. The economic reality is pretty striking too.

Consider what has happened to department stores. Even as Mr. Trump was boasting about saving a few hundred jobs in manufacturing here and there, Macy’s announced plans to close 68 stores and lay off 10,000 workers. Sears, another iconic institution, has expressed “substantial doubt” about its ability to stay in business.

Overall, department stores employ a third fewer people now than they did in 2001. That’s half a million traditional jobs gone — about eighteen times as many jobs as were lost in coal mining over the same period.

And retailing isn’t the only service industry that has been hit hard by changing technology. Another prime example is newspaper publishing, where employment has declined by 270,000, almost two-thirds of the work force, since 2000.

So why aren’t promises to save service jobs as much a staple of political posturing as promises to save mining and manufacturing jobs?

One answer might be that mines and factories sometimes act as anchors of local economies, so that their closing can devastate a community in a way shutting a retail outlet won’t. And there’s something to that argument.

But it’s not the whole truth. Closing a factory is just one way to undermine a local community. Competition from superstores and shopping malls also devastated many small-city downtowns; now many small-town malls are failing too. And we shouldn’t minimize the extent to which the long decline of small newspapers has eroded the sense of local identity.

A different, less creditable reason mining and manufacturing have become political footballs, while services haven’t, involves the need for villains. Demagogues can tell coal miners that liberals took away their jobs with environmental regulations. They can tell industrial workers that their jobs were taken away by nasty foreigners. And they can promise to bring the jobs back by making America polluted again, by getting tough on trade, and so on. These are false promises, but they play well with some audiences.

By contrast, it’s really hard to blame either liberals or foreigners for, say, the decline of Sears. (The chain’s asset-stripping, Ayn Rand-loving owner is another story, but one that probably doesn’t resonate in the heartland.)

Finally, it’s hard to escape the sense that manufacturing and especially mining get special consideration because, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, their workers are a lot more likely to be male and significantly whiter than the work force as a whole.

Anyway, whatever the reasons that political narratives tend to privilege some jobs and some industries over others, it’s a tendency we should fight. Laid-off retail workers and local reporters are just as much victims of economic change as laid-off coal miners.

But, you ask, what can we do to stop service-sector job cuts? Not much — but that’s also true for mining and manufacturing, as working-class Trump voters will soon learn. In an ever-changing economy, jobs are always being lost: 75,000 Americans are fired or laid off every working day. And sometimes whole sectors go away as tastes or technology change.

While we can’t stop job losses from happening, however, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong — which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.

I don’t want to sound unsympathetic to miners and industrial workers. Yes, their jobs matter. But all jobs matter. And while we can’t ensure that any particular job endures, we can and should ensure that a decent life endures even when a job doesn’t.

Brooks and Krugman

April 14, 2017

Bobo is all up in arms over “The Cuomo College Fiasco.”  He snarls that New York’s “free” tuition program is a truly bad attempt at improving higher ed.  And “gemli” from Boston will explain what a putz Bobo is.  Prof. Krugman has a question:  “Can Trump Take Health Care Hostage?”  He says the president has adopted a bargaining tactic that’s both nasty and stupid.  Here’s Bobo:

Donald Trump sets the bar very high, but the award for the worst public policy idea of the year goes to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo presides over a state with a rich diversity of educational institutions. But he also presides over a state, like all states, where many students don’t complete college and where many are unprepared for the information economy. For example, fewer than half of the African-American and Hispanic students in New York public colleges graduate within six years.

Cuomo could have done many things to improve New York’s higher ed system. He could have poured all available money into the Tuition Assistance Program, which is directed at poorer students. He could have spent more to help students become academically ready for college, which is the biggest barrier to graduation. He could have done more to help students pay room and board expenses. He could have massively improved overstretched mental health services. He could have massively improved career counseling.

But in 2016 Bernie Sanders made a big splash on the campaign trail with a plan to make college “free.” So Cuomo proposed and on Wednesday signed legislation to make tuition free at New York public colleges for anybody coming from a family making no more than $100,000 a year, with the cap rising to $125,000 in 2019.

If he runs for president, this will be an outstanding talking point. Unfortunately, the law will hurt actual New Yorkers.

First, the law is regressive. It does nothing to help students from families earning less than $50,000 a year. Their tuition is already covered by other programs. But it does pay for tuition for New Yorkers who make double the state’s median income. The higher up the income scale you go, until the ceiling, the more you benefit.

Second, it doesn’t make a dent in reducing the nontuition fees, like living expenses, textbooks and travel, which for many students are far more onerous than tuition.

Third, it doesn’t cover students who don’t go to school full time and don’t complete in four years. In 2017 this is the vast, vast majority of all students, especially poorer students.

Fourth, it demotivates students. Research has shown that students who have to work to pay some college costs, even if only small expenses, are more spurred to work hard and graduate. As Northwestern researcher Chenny Ng put it in a Washington Post essay, “as the cost of attending college drops to zero, so does the perceived cost of dropping out.”

Fifth, Cuomo’s law threatens to destroy some of New York’s private colleges. Cuomo could have championed a Pell-like program that subsidizes attendance at any accredited school. Instead, he pays for tuition only at state schools.

This means that suddenly the state’s 150 private colleges have to compete with “free.” Many of these schools are already struggling to survive. If upper-middle-class students are drawn away to public colleges, private ones may close. That hurts the state’s educational diversity, it destroys jobs and it hurts the state.

These private colleges tend to have smaller classes, they tend to do a better job of graduating their students and they tend to spend heavily to subsidize poorer students.

Sixth, the law may widen the gap between rich and poor. When state schools are “free,” more people will apply. As more apply, selectivity will increase, as administrators chase higher U.S. News & World Report rankings. That will exclude students with lower credentials, who tend to be from more disadvantaged homes. Even Georgia’s successful Hope Scholarship program had this unintended consequence, widening the college attendance gap between white and black and rich and poor.

Seventh, over the long term the law could hurt the quality of New York’s state system. Right now those schools rely on tuition to help fund programs. If New York moves more toward a purely publicly funded model, it may suffer from the slow decay that has hurt many state systems. State budgets are perpetually challenged by rising entitlement spending. Education gets squeezed. The universities will try to claw back the private money with dorm fees, activities fees and other charges that don’t officially count as tuition, but still quality suffers.

Even in Germany, where a generous welfare state is valued, per-pupil spending has dropped by 10 percent since universities became free. Germany is an extremely successful country, but lecture classes are huge and the country’s universities are not generally ranked among the world’s best.

Finally, the law will hurt its recipients’ future earnings. Students who receive free tuition for four years have to remain in New York State for four years after graduating, or pay the money back. This means they won’t be able to seize out-of-state opportunities during the crucial years when their career track is being formed. They’ll be trapped in a state with one really expensive city, and other regions where good jobs are scarce.

This is a really counterproductive law. We’re all focused on Trump, but one of the reasons Trump was elected was that many of the people who try to use government to do good just haven’t thought things through.

Now here’s what “gemli” had to say about this:

“You know Cuomo is on the right track when David Brooks starts worrying about poor people. Not that he doesn’t like to talk about their plight. He takes every opportunity to promote the idea of leaving government out of the people-helping business. Volunteers are supposed to help at the community level, according to Brooks, which frees up the government to help the rich.

In this example, poor people, who may never have a chance to get a college education under any circumstances, are hit with an eight-point Brooksian fusillade of reasons why free college would be a huge burden to them, and ruin their lives, along with the great state of New York.

Looking back, my education in New Orleans in the late 1960s was nearly free. I paid for six years of college as a student worker, and earned a B.S. and an M.S. degree in the process. Looking back a bit further, the government paid returning G.I.s to go to school, and the result was the biggest social and economic upsurge in living memory.

Today, graduates are saddled with so much debt from usurious student loans that it’s a national disgrace. Nobody fixes the problem because the financial industry loves it. It’s a cash cow that never stops giving milk.

All of Brooks’ bogus complaints are aimed at making sure the status quo doesn’t change. And if anyone hadn’t already noticed, the status quo is a lousy place for the poor to be. The only door that leads out is one that opens into a classroom.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Three weeks have passed since the Trumpcare debacle. After eight years spent denouncing the Affordable Care Act, the G.O.P. finally found itself in a position to do what it had promised, and deliver something better. But it couldn’t.

And Republicans, President Trump very much included, had nobody but themselves to blame. Basically, the party has been lying all this time, and the lies finally caught up with the liars. Mr. Trump promised health care that would be “far less expensive and far better”; in the event, all he and his allies had to offer were surging premiums, higher out-of-pocket expenses and mass loss of coverage.

But Mr. Trump, as you may have noticed, isn’t big on accepting responsibility for his failures. Instead, he has decided to blame Democrats for not cooperating in the destruction of their proudest achievement in decades. And on Wednesday, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he openly threatened to sabotage health care for millions if the opposition party doesn’t give him what he wants.

In that interview, the president of the United States sounded just like a mobster trying to extort protection payments from a shopkeeper.

“Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” he declared, referring to cost-sharing subsidies that reduce out-of-pocket expenses for low-income families, and are crucial even to higher-income families, because they help keep insurance companies in the system. “I don’t want people to get hurt.” (Nice shop you’ve got here, shame if something were to happen to it.) “What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.” (I’m making them an offer they can’t refuse.)

It’s a nasty political tactic. It’s also remarkably stupid.

The nastiness should be obvious, but let’s spell it out. Mr. Trump is trying to bully Democrats by threatening to hurt millions of innocent bystanders — ordinary American families who have gained coverage thanks to health reform. True, Democrats care about these families — but Republicans at least pretend to care about them, too.

Why does Mr. Trump even imagine that this threat might work? Implicitly, he’s saying that hurting innocent people doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers his opponents. Actually, this is probably true — remember, we’re talking about a man who once cut off health benefits to his nephew’s seriously ill 18-month-old son to gain the upper hand in a family dispute. But it’s not the kind of thing one expects to hear from the occupant of the White House.

What makes Mr. Trump’s tactic stupid as well as nasty is the reality that Democrats have no incentive whatsoever to give in.

For one thing, what is he offering by way of a deal? Obamacare increased coverage two ways, via Medicaid expansion and subsidized private insurance. Mr. Trump might be able to undermine the private markets, but Medicaid wouldn’t be affected. Why would Democrats ever agree to Republican plans, which would basically kill both?

Then there’s the political reality that by sabotaging Obamacare, the Trump administration would be handing Democrats a huge electoral gift. Bear in mind that the places that are already poorly served by private insurers, and would therefore be most hurt, are relatively poor, rural areas — places that overwhelmingly voted Trump last year.

Maybe Mr. Trump believes that he could somehow shift the blame for the devastation he has threatened to wreak onto Democrats. “See, there’s the death spiral I predicted!” But that probably wouldn’t work even if he hadn’t effectively proclaimed his own guilt in advance. Voters tend to blame whoever holds the White House for bad things, and in this case they’d be right: If there is a death spiral, it will have Mr. Trump’s name on it, and deservedly so.

Put it this way: There’s a reason an open letter to Mr. Trump urging that the cost-sharing subsidies be maintained was signed by a wide array of lobbying organizations, including very conservative groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What they understand is that sabotaging Obamacare would be a disaster for their interests.

So the Trump health care threat is, as I said, stupid as well as nasty. And it’s hard to believe that it will be carried out.

But here’s the thing: Even if Mr. Trump wimps out, as he is doing on so many other issues, he may already have done much of the threatened damage. Insurers are deciding right now whether to participate in the 2018 Obamacare exchanges. Mr. Trump’s tough talk is creating a lot of uncertainty, which in itself may undermine coverage for many Americans.

There is, of course, a good chance that Mr. Trump doesn’t understand any of this. Unfortunately, when you’re in the White House, what you don’t know can hurt a lot of people.

Krugman’s blog, 4/12/17

April 13, 2017

There was one post yesterday, “The French, Ourselves:”

Still thinking about the upcoming French election. Will Le Pen be the next Trump? I have no idea. But I’ve been interested to note how little resemblance there is between the underlying economics in France and here, which in turn raises further doubts about how far “economic anxiety” goes toward explaining the faux-populist surge.

One thing you have to bear in mind is that the French economy gets terrible press — some combination of conservative bias (with such a generous welfare state they *should* be a disaster, dammit) and cultural envy/annoyance. A few years back Roger Cohen quoted himself about how there is a

pervasive sense that not only jobs — but also power, wealth, ideas and national identity itself — are migrating, permanently and at disarming speed, to leave a vapid grandeur on the banks of the Seine

then noted wryly that he wrote that in 1997; and somehow France is still there.

In fact, the 1990s were something of a low point; in a number of key ways France has done better since then, especially compared with the United States. Official unemployment is high, but that’s somewhat misleading. If you look at adults in their prime working years, they’re actually more likely to be employed in France than they are here:


OECD and BLS

French productivity has gone from slightly above to slightly below the US level, perhaps because more people are employed; but anyway, given the wiggle room in such numbers, we’re basically looking at a country that is at the technological frontier:


OECD

And France has, so far at least, been spared the Case-Deaton epidemic of “deaths of despair”:

If very low inflation is any indicator, the French economy does appear to be operating somewhat below potential. But it’s not in macroeconomic crisis.

And as I wrote yesterday, France is not Greece: the euro was a bad idea, but France is not a nation currently suffering severely from lack of an independent currency, so there is no urgency about exit — and hence no obvious reason to incur the huge costs euro exit would impose.

So what’s it all about? Presumably it’s about identity politics, French style. But my point is that the economic anxiety trope works even worse for France than it does here.

Oh, and let me repeat: Le Pen does not offer any answer to the problems of the EU.