Mr. Bruni, in “Harry, I Hardly Knew Ye,” says with Harry Potter, as with every other mass-market cultural phenomenon, we face a choice: Are we in, or out? In “The Opposing Party” Mr. Kristof has a question: Confused about the position of Congressional Republicans on the economy? Good. You should be. Here’s Mr. Bruni:
For a while I half wondered if some swine flu had wrought epidermal havoc in barnyards near and far. Why all the chatter about Hogwarts?
And Muggles? I hadn’t a clue. Even when the knowledge caught up with me — it was bound to, because Harry Potter’s popularity rivaled God’s, and his merchandising was more aggressive — I put no stock in it. Having taken a pass on Potter, I was sticking to my guns, or perhaps I should say wands.
On Friday the final Potter movie, an adaptation of the final Potter book, opens. I’m guessing you’ve heard. It’s a big moment for the reverent, evangelical legions of his worshipers worldwide.
But it’s also a big moment for nonbelievers like me. With the Potter juggernaut finally grinding to a halt, we’re no longer left with the odd sensation — by turns isolating and liberating, stippled with doubt and suffused with defiance — of standing conspicuously apart from a cultural phenomenon that so many embrace. It’s the twilight of that particular tyranny.
All of you have been there, on the outside of some mass-market craze or niche obsession that seemingly two of every three people you know won’t shut up about, their exuberance a sort of reprimand for what you’re missing.
Maybe you never dipped into the “Star Wars” series, the “Star Trek” canon or anything galactic. Maybe you skipped “Seinfeld,” like the rebelling friend of mine who dismissed it as “the intelligent person’s ballpark wave,” or Jonathan Franzen, who demanded more patience than critics let on. Maybe you never bothered with Radiohead and then Vampire Weekend; in-line skates and then Uggs; Napster and then Facebook; the iPhone and then the iPad.
There are all these commitment crossroads, where you sign up or opt out, and in this marketing-saturated era of ours, they seem to arrive more frequently and noisily, a function of the velocity with which passions ping around a digital universe.
The fervor with which others latch onto a new enthusiasm makes you triply conscious of your own decision not to, so that even if your choice reflects only the limits of time, budget or energy, you treat it as a declaration of independence. You are what you’re not.
I’m not a Potter person. I flirted with becoming one, because the wee wizard presented an easy way to bond with my young nieces and nephews, but then I remembered that I had ice cream and iTunes gift certificates for that.
When I canvassed my intimates, I confirmed that each is also acutely aware of potential fixations unfed.
My friend T. is not a Stieg Larsson person, and insists that even a few months ago he still believed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was a neo-punk band, but I’m reasonably sure he’s just showing off.
My friend G. won’t try a Tweet, though it turns out that her position isn’t entirely principled. “I just can’t add any more performance anxiety to my life,” she said.
And my friend M. has not become an adherent of SoulCycle, the New York indoor cycling cult, a resistance that’s notable because she has tried every other group exercise known to womankind and falls squarely within the regimen’s target demographic (35 to 55, affluent, apoplectic about the advent of cellulite). At a certain point a girl simply doesn’t have another sweaty fad in her.
I predict she’ll cave, because just as grief has its Kübler-Ross progression, there can be stages of opting out:
Justification. “Without ‘The Wire’ in my life, I can organize my sock drawer.”
Sanctimony. “People are reading ‘Freedom’ only so they can say they did. I’m no literary lemming.”
Wavering. “My friend’s iPhone does have an app that can identify Orion in the night sky. …”
Boxed Set. “I give in. I’ve got no big plans for the Labor Day weekend. Might as well watch a few seasons of ‘The Wire.’ ”
That’s the thing: you can always wait out the phenomenon, see if it shows enduring merit, separate the wheat from the “Jersey Shore,” and opt in belatedly.
In the meantime, you can cheat. With the bombardment of references to the obsession du jour comes the ability to be fluent — should you care — in something you haven’t actually experienced.
My friend J. persuasively faked fandom of “Lost,” thus evading censure from genuinely addicted peers, and I have repeatedly passed myself off as a “Sopranos” savant, on the basis of only four episodes. I watched none of the finale, though I produced very strongly articulated opinions about it.
As for Potter, I saw 10 minutes of one of the movies, and can’t recall if it involved a goblet of fire, a deathly hallow or neither. Hogwarts was mentioned, so I’m now up to speed. It’s like Exeter, but with a different kind of spelling test.
Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Senator Mitch McConnell has a clever plan to resolve the federal debt impasse. Congressional Republicans would invite President Obama to raise the debt ceiling on his own, and then they would excoriate him for doing so.
Hm. Just a bit contradictory?
Meanwhile, the impasse arose because Congressional Republicans thunder against government red ink, yet refuse to raise revenue by ending tax breaks that help Warren Buffett pay a lower tax rate than his receptionist (which he agrees is preposterous).
Another contradiction? Of course.
Senator McConnell’s plan — a pragmatic way to avert a catastrophic default — may be torpedoed by more extremist House Republicans, like Michele Bachmann. They seem to fear that ending tax loopholes for billionaire fund managers would damage a fragile economy. Yet they seem to think that this invalid of an economy would be unperturbed by the risk of a default on our debts.
A contra- — yes, you got it!
What about this one? Republicans have historically been more focused on national security threats than Democrats. Yet what would do more damage to America’s national security than a possible default that might halt paychecks for American military families?
This game of “spot the contradiction” is just too easy with extremist Republicans; it’s like spotting snowflakes in a blizzard. Congressional Republicans have taken a sensible and important concern — alarm about long-term debt levels, a genuine problem — and turned it into a brittle and urgent ideology.
Politicians in both parties have historically been irresponsible with money, but President Bill Clinton changed that. He imposed a stunning fiscal discipline and set the United States on a course of budget surpluses, job growth and diminishing federal debt — until the Republicans took over in 2001.
In the Bush years, Republicans proved themselves reckless both on the spending side (unfunded wars and a prescription drug benefit) and on the revenue side (the Bush tax cuts). Their view then was, as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill quoted Vice President Dick Cheney as saying, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
It may seem odd that Republicans were so blithe about debt in the Bush years, yet now insist on addressing the problem in the middle of a downturn — even though basic economics dictates that a downturn is the one time when red ink is advisable. Well, just another of those contradictions.
Then there’s the rise of health care costs, a huge burden on our economy. The Congressional Budget Office foresees a rise in federal spending on health care from 5.5 percent of gross domestic product today to more than 12 percent in 2050 (at which point it will be double the share of spending on Social Security).
“The United States’ standing in the world depends on its success in constraining this health care cost explosion,” Peter Orszag, the former budget director, observes in Foreign Affairs. So how do we contain health care costs?
It’s pretty clear what doesn’t work — the existing, dysfunctional system. A forthcoming book on health care by Paul Starr, “Remedy and Reaction,” notes that in 1970 the United States spent a smaller fraction of income on health care than Denmark and the same share as Canada. Today, in dollar terms, we spend two and a half times the average per capita of other rich countries.
When Congressional Republicans do talk about health care, they have one useful suggestion — tort reform — and it was foolish for Democrats (in bed with trial lawyers) to stiff them on it. But research suggests that curbing malpractice suits, while helpful, would reduce health costs only modestly.
Beyond that, the serious Republican idea is to dismantle Medicare in its present form. That would indeed reduce government spending, but would increase private spending by even more, according to the C.B.O.
The Obama health care plan could have done better on cost control, but it does promote evidence-based medicine, so that less money is squandered on expensive procedures that don’t work. And a panel of medical experts, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, will recommend steps to curb excess spending in Medicare. These initiatives will help hold down health care costs, even if it’s difficult to know how much — and they are the only game in town.
Yet Congressional Republicans are trying to kill the Obama health plan. Yes, of course: another contradiction.
A final puzzle concerns not just the Republican Party but us as a nation. For all their flaws, Congressional Republicans have been stunningly successful in framing the national debate. Instead of discussing a jobs program to deal with the worst downturn in 70 years, we’re debating spending cuts — and most voters say in polls that they’re against raising the debt ceiling. I fear that instead of banishing contradictions, we as a nation may be embracing them.