Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo went scrounging in the British tabloids to come up with a failed analogy this time.  In “How People Change” he gurgles that one father’s harsh e-mail prompts some thoughts on what it really takes to change behavior in others.  Trying to equate family life and politics just doesn’t work, Bobo.  Mr. Cohen has secession on his mind.  In “Scottexalonia Rising” he says people are bored. They want to be cyberglobal and hyper-local, world citizens with the passports of microstates.  Mr. Nocera has ideas about “Obama’s New Cabinet.”  He says President Obama need not look further. He thinks he’s got the perfect lineup for a second-term dream team.  All I need to say about that is he proposes Petraeus for Sec. Def.  Mr. Bruni has a question:  “Is Grover Finally Over?”  He says Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has done wonders for Grover Norquist. But allegiance to it is blessedly waning.  Maybe.  I’ll believe it when I see some actual votes.  Here’s Bobo:

Nick Crews was, by his own admission, a middling father. He enjoyed cuddling with his three kids, but he was frequently away on naval deployments and didn’t stay in touch with them once they went off to boarding school.

Over the years, Crews has watched his children (the oldest is now 40) make a series of terrible decisions. “I bought into the fashionable philosophy of not interfering; letting the children find themselves,” he told Cristina Odone of The Telegraph of London.

Finally, in February, Crews decided he’d had enough. He sent his offspring an e-mail message, which is now known in Britain as the Crews Missile.

“Dear All Three,” he wrote. “With last evening’s crop of whinges and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother like a cess-pit, I feel it is time to come off my perch.

“It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us. We are seeing the miserable death throes of the fourth of your collective marriages at the same time we see the advent of a fifth.”

Crews continued: “I wonder if you realise how we feel — we have nothing to say which reflects any credit on you or us. Fulfilling careers based on your educations would have helped — but as yet none of you is what I would confidently term properly self-supporting.”

Then he turned to his grandchildren. “So we witness the introduction to this life of six beautiful children — soon to be seven — none of whose parents have had the maturity and sound judgment to make a reasonable fist at making essential threshold decisions. …

“The predictable result has been a decade of deep unhappiness over the fates of our grandchildren. If it wasn’t for them, Mum and I would not be too concerned, as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashes from one cock-up to the next. It makes us weak that so many of these events are copulation-driven, and then helplessly to see these lovely little people being woefully let down by you, their parents.”

Crews then finished his e-mail. “I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”

He signed the e-mail, “I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”

That e-mail, released by one of his daughters hoping to get publicity for a book she is translating, has made Crews a hugely popular folk hero in Britain. Many parents are apparently delighted that someone finally had the gumption to give at least one set of overprivileged slackers a well-deserved kick in the pants.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.

It’s foolish to imperiously withdraw and say, come back to me when you have a plan. It’s better to pick one area of life at a time (most people don’t have the willpower to change their whole lives all at once) and help a person lay down a pre-emptive set of concrete rules and rewards. Pick out a small goal and lay out measurable steps toward it.

It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.

I happen to cover a field — politics — in which people are perpetually bellowing at each other to be better. They’re always issuing the political version of the Crews Missile.

It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Banners at FC Barcelona’s Camp Nousoccer stadium have long declared: “Catalonia is not Spain.”

That notion got a boost this weekend as pro-independence parties won Catalonian elections and strengthened the region’s drive for a referendum on secession in defiance of the Spanish Constitution and of Mariano Rajoy, the embattled center-right prime minister.

Indeed, such is Spain’s economic crisis that Rajoy declared in June that “Spain is not Uganda,” prompting the Ugandan foreign minister to retort the next day that, “Uganda does not want to be Spain!”

So a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million citizens, it seems, no longer want to be in Spain — and a majority of Ugandans would rather be in Uganda. The crisis of the euro zone has accentuated longstanding Catalonian resentment over tax transfers to Madrid and sharpened the nationalism of the region with the biggest economy in Spain — larger than Greece’s, as Catalans like to point out.

(Elena Salgado, the former Spanish finance minister, noted in 2010 that, “Spain is not Greece.” Later that year, clearly irked, the then Greek finance minister declared that, “Greece is not Ireland.” The former Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, retorted that “Ireland is not in Greek territory.” Meanwhile, the secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development weighed in: “Neither Spain nor Portugal is Ireland.”)

The euro crisis is also a crisis of euro-geography. Scotland has scheduled for 2014 a referendum on independence, 307 years after the political union that created the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom mutters about withdrawal from the European Union.

So much for globalization, the disappearance of frontiers in Europe, borderless cyberworlds, hyperconnectivity and all the forces that seem to make a mockery of the nation-state and a case, at some point, for global governance.

People are bored and irked. They can’t get new jobs. They want new borders, especially as the likelihood of actually having to defend them in war has become infinitely remote.

They want to be cyberglobal and hyper-local, citizens of the world with the passports of microstates. The desires seem to balance each other.

Across the Atlantic there are similar trends. In Texas — where Mitt Romney won by nearly 1.3 million votes — secession chatter has increased. Larry Scott Kilgore, a Republican candidate, has announced he will run for governor in 2014 and legally change his name to Larry Secede Kilgore.

Texans, betraying an unlikely European itch, like to point out that the Texas economy is larger than Australia’s [pdf]. Australia, meanwhile, has many citizens of Greek descent but is definitely not Greece.

As Tom Wolfe writes in his new novel, “It’s back to blood! Religion is dying … but everybody still has to believe in something . It would be intolerable — you couldn’t stand it … to finally have to say to yourself, ‘Why keep pretending? I’m nothing but a random atom inside a supercollider known as the universe.”’

As economic difficulties increase so do tribal sentiments. Random-atom angst sends people scurrying for new flags even as 800 million borderless cyberfolk unite in watching “Gangnam Style” on YouTube.

Of course, immigration, lust and love have mixed the blood of the Scottish, Texan and Catalonian tribes (Call them “Scottexalonia” in their shared separation itch.) “I’m a mutt,” Barack Obama once said. So, increasingly, is a wired, remittance-linked world where many live with, say, one foot in Birmingham and another in Lahore.

Glasgow has a substantial Muslim population. Texas is more than a third Hispanic. Catalonia has many Spanish-only speaking immigrants. The urge to throw up new borders is in essence an anachronism.

Or is it? The euro crisis is perceived as a crisis of overreach for pooled sovereignty. Perhaps a reaction is rational (even if the Catalans and Scots say they would like to be in the E.U., once they run their own affairs.) Economic resentment translates into a resurgence of identity with national culture.

In Texas, where the terms of entry into the Union in 1845 are still debated, it is a little different. The main resentments are social not economic. Cohabiting with all the pointy-headed, Subaru-driving, pro-choice liberals who elected Obama is too much for some Texans.

In 1996, I began a piece called “Global forces batter politics” with these words: “Throughout much of the world today, politics lags behind economics, like a horse and buggy haplessly trailing a sports car. While politicians go through the motions of national elections — offering chimerical programs and slogans — world markets, the Internet and the furious pace of trade involve people in a global game in which elected representatives figure as little more than bit players.”

Extrapolate out 16 years from that. National politics, as President François Hollande of France is only the latest to discover, is often no more than tweaking at the margins in the exiguous political space left by markets and other global forces. And that is in France!

Secessionist urges resonate in troubled times. But they face the headwind of business, political and global logic. I suspect that — less Kosovo than Quebec — all of Scottexalonia will succumb eventually to the good sense of union.

Next up we have Mr. Nocera:

Elisse B. Walter?

Is that really whom President Obama named on Monday to be the new chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission? A woman who has been at the S.E.C. for the last four years? And, to boot, someone practically joined at the hip with her predecessor, Mary Schapiro? Say it ain’t so, Mr. President.

No doubt, Commissioner Walter is a fine public servant. What she is not, however, is a fresh face with new ideas. And isn’t that half the point of second-term appointments? They give a president a chance to name cabinet or agency directors who can breathe new life into their departments. Second-term appointments are presidential do-overs.

Take, for instance, Timothy Geithner, the soon-to-be-departing Treasury secretary. All things considered, Geithner wasn’t a bad secretary. In no small part because of him, America’s banks are far better capitalized — and hence safer — than their European counterparts. But you always had the sense that his heart lay more with the bankers he was overseeing than the homeowners who needed help.

That is why our nominee to replace Geithner is his bête noire, Sheila Bair. As the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a job she held until July 2011, she fought against bank bailouts while pushing for mortgage modifications. Her new book, “Bull By the Horns,” is mostly her inside account of the financial crisis. But she also offers a series of sensible policy suggestions. Wouldn’t you like a Treasury secretary who believes that interest on debt should not be tax deductible — whether for large financial institutions or home mortgages? I sure would.

Let’s move next to the State Department, where an exhausted Hillary Clinton is ready to step down. She has been, without question, Obama’s finest appointment. She was also his riskiest. The current favorite for the job, Susan Rice, the United Nations ambassador, is a safe choice, but she doesn’t have the breadth that the job requires. Who does? How about Bill Clinton? Seriously.

The president’s worst cabinet appointment, on the other hand, has been Eric Holder Jr. at the Department of Justice. Under him, the department got prosecutorial scalps by going after the small fry while letting big guys like Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, off the hook. Holder has also been tone-deaf in dealing with the Republicans in Congress. Our nominee is a man with a reputation for cleaning up messes: Ken Feinberg, a lawyer who now specializes in victim compensation programs. A former special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he knows the territory. A master negotiator, he knows how to bridge divides. And his sense of fair play is exactly what this Justice Department most needs.

Department of Defense? David Petraeus. After disclosing an affair with Paula Broadwell and resigning as C.I.A. chief, Petraeus is currently doing his stint in purgatory. The Defense Department in Obama’s second term is going to need someone who can cut its budget without hurting its mission — and who can reform the most entrenched bureaucracy in Washington. The military brass will run bureaucratic circles around any defense secretary who doesn’t know their tricks. Petraeus can stand up to them.

The current secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a scientist. A far better choice is a committed environmentalist who also understands the importance of making intelligent energy choices. We know just such a man: Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund. Unlike most environmental groups, the defense fund supports using hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to drill for natural gas. He is on record as saying that there are enormous climate benefits to using natural gas — so long as methane leakage can be minimized. At the Energy Department, Krupp would be in a position to help make sure that happens.

With rumors that Arne Duncan may step down as secretary of Education, we nominate Randi Weingarten to replace him. Risky? You bet. But as the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten has long claimed to support education reform, so long as it is done with the nation’s teachers instead of at their expense. Making Weingarten the next education secretary would give her the chance to put her money where her mouth is.

Which brings us back to the S.E.C. In The Times’s account of Walter’s promotion, it said that the White House might well offer up a new nominee in the future. We know the right man for the job: Sean Berkowitz. Berkowitz, who, in full disclosure, is a friend, led the Enron task force and prosecuted Enron’s top two executives, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay. So he knows how to nail the bad guys, which has been a problem for the current S.E.C.

Since 2007, he has been the global chairman of litigation for Latham & Watkins, one of the nation’s largest law firms. Oh, and one other thing, Mr. President.

He’s from Chicago.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I once took a long train ride with Grover Norquist. This wasn’t intentional. We found ourselves next to each other on the line to board an Acela from Washington, D.C., to New York, and we fell into a conversation, by which I mean that he did a great deal of talking, in that faintly maniacal way of his, while I presented a captive audience. He continued to talk as we walked along the platform and was still talking as we entered the train, so it was more or less unavoidable that we sit together. Besides which, I was genuinely fascinated, which is a very different adjective from amused.

This happened earlier this year, around the time that pundits galore were weighing in on whom Mitt Romney should choose as a running mate, and Norquist regaled me with the case for Luis Fortuño. You know, the governor of … Puerto Rico.

It was quite a case, replete with riffs on the importance of the Puerto Rican vote in Florida and references to Fortuño’s degrees from top-tier American universities. But the odds of Fortuño’s selection were somewhere between zilch and hell-freezing-over, and it occurred to me that Norquist’s railway soliloquy wasn’t supposed to be a plausible argument, merely an attention-getting one. It had less to do with serious policy or sensible politics than with sheer performance. Norquist in a nutshell.

Someday someone will write a dark history — a farce, really — of how he managed to bring nearly all of the Republican Party to heel, compelling legislator upon legislator to lash themselves to his no-new-taxes pledge. Until then we’ll have to content ourselves with his misfortune over the last few days. No sooner had a nation digested its turkey than his goose began to be cooked. The spreading rebellion in the Republican ranks was manifest on the post-Thanksgiving Sunday talk shows.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dissed Norquist on ABC’s “This Week,” saying that “when you’re $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Representative Peter King of New York also stressed that the country’s current fiscal woes trumped vows made in less debt-ridden times, and over on “Fox News Sunday,” Senator John McCain signaled a receptiveness to new revenue, another dagger to Norquist’s dark heart.

All three Republican lawmakers were echoing previous comments of their own and of a small but significant cluster of colleagues, whose numbers continued to grow on Monday, when Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, appearing on CBS’s “This Morning,” pronounced himself “not obligated on the pledge.” It’s as if some spell has at long last been broken, and the formerly bewitched villagers are rising up to defy their evil overlord and insist on the possibility of life and even mirth without a deduction for corporate jets.

I celebrate this not because I think tax increases are some budget panacea. They’re not even close. In fact there’s a serious risk of focusing too much on them and too little on entitlement reform and other potential savings, and one of the real values of the Republican Party has been its insistence, in theory if not always in practice, on careful attention to expenditures.

But over recent years the party lost much of its credibility in this discussion, by dint of the lavish spending and escalating debt under George W. Bush and because of a sophomoric, gimmicky purity that’s incarnate in Norquist, who has done his party real damage. He might as well have been onstage during that infamous Republican debate in August 2011 when all eight candidates for the party’s presidential nomination said that they wouldn’t accept even one dollar in tax increases for $10 in spending reductions. They had devolved into dummies, and Norquist was their ventriloquist.

There’s no place for absolutists and absolutism in a democracy, which is designed for give-and-take, for compromise. That’s one of the lessons of “Lincoln,” which moviegoers are thronging to and intellectuals are swooning for precisely because it illuminates and validates the intrinsic and purposeful messiness of our system. It exalts flexibility. It venerates pragmatism.

And I hope that Republicans and Democrats alike will keep those principles in mind as we approach the so-called fiscal cliff. Norquist certainly hasn’t, but then he bears no responsibility for governing and is concerned less with voters and their welfare than with those of us in the news media, who have been too quick to summon him, rewarding his staged and reliable vividness.

In a recent appearance on a Times webcast, he joked that government did need some funding, for “a military strong enough to keep the Canadians on their side of the border,” har-har. And he called taxes “thoroughly icky.” Then he winked, as if this were all just fun and games. To him, maybe. But the fun is fading fast.


One Response to “Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni”

  1. NickM Says:

    No, no — the Telegraph, however grisly, is not a tabloid! It’s an upmarket reactionary rag. The kind that gets weird letters from “Outraged in Tunbridge Wells” who says he’s a retired colonel and knows from personal experience that Fuzzy Wuzzies are unfit for self-government. Now the Mirror, the Sun … those are righteous tabloids. Bobo only reads the Sun to check out the babes with naked boobs.

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