Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

In “The Learning Virtues” Bobo says a book on education cultures finds that the Chinese tend to define learning morally while Westerns define it cognitively.  Mr. Cohen, in “Zero Dark Zero,” says most Israelis now feel their security is assured without giving up anything.  Prof. Krugman, in “Ben Bernanke, Hippie,” says that dismissive attitude toward anyone who spoke out against the Iraq war 10 years ago is back to disparage any critic of fiscal austerity.  Here’s Bobo:

Jin Li grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. When the madness was over, the Chinese awoke to discover that far from overleaping the West, they were “economically destitute and culturally barren.” This inspired an arduous catch-up campaign. Students were recruited to learn what the West had to offer.

Li was one of the students. In university, she abandoned Confucian values, which were then blamed for Chinese backwardness, and embraced German culture. In her book, “Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West,” she writes that Chinese students at that time were aflame — excited by the sudden openness and the desire to catch up.

Li wound up marrying an American, moved to the States and became a teacher. She was stunned. American high school students had great facilities but didn’t seem much interested in learning. They giggled in class and goofed around.

This contrast between the Chinese superstudent and the American slacker could be described with the usual tired stereotypes. The Chinese are robots who unimaginatively memorize facts to score well on tests. The Americans are spoiled brats who love TV but don’t know how to work. But Li wasn’t satisfied with those clichés. She has spent her career, first at Harvard and now at Brown, trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning.

The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

You can look at the slogans on university crests to get a glimpse of the difference. Western mottos emphasize knowledge acquisition. Harvard’s motto is “Truth.” Yale’s is “Light and truth.” The University of Chicago’s is “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

Chinese universities usually take Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. Tsinghua’s motto is “Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world.” Nanjing’s motto is “Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly.”

When Li asked Americans to randomly talk about learning they used words like: thinking, school, brain, discovery, understand and information. Chinese, on the other hand, tended to use phrases common in their culture: learn assiduously, study as if thirsting or hungering, be diligent in one’s learning.

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

In Chinese culture, the heroic scholar may possess less innate intelligence but triumphs over hardship. Li cites the story of the scholar who tied his hair to a ceiling beam so he could study through the night. Every time his head dropped from fatigue, the yank of his hair kept him awake.

Li argues that Westerners emphasize the Aha moment of sudden insight, while Chinese are more likely to emphasize the arduous accumulation of understanding. American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary. Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination. Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.

These cultures are surprisingly enduring, Li notes, even with all the cross-pollination that goes on in the world today. Each has its advantages. I’m mostly struck by the way the intellectual and moral impulses are fused in the Chinese culture and separated in the West.

It’s easy to see historically why this came about. Hellenic culture emphasized skeptical scientific inquiry. With us, religion and science have often been at odds. We’re a diverse society, so it’s easier to teach our common academic standards in the classroom and relegate our diverse moralities to the privacy of the home.

I’d just note that cultures that do fuse the academic and the moral, like Confucianism or Jewish Torah study, produce these awesome motivation explosions. It might be possible to champion other moral/academic codes to boost motivation in places where it is absent.

Next up is Mr. Cohen:

A minister in the outgoing Israeli government put it to me bluntly during a recent visit to Israel: “For the first time in these elections, the Palestinians did not come into it.”

Israelis for the most part are comfortable enough to ignore their neighbors. If they are on the Titanic they prefer not to think about it.

It has become the received wisdom, in the White House and beyond, to suggest the current situation is unsustainable — the 46-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the undefined borders, the simmering conflict, the oppression. This may be no more than wishful thinking.

Israel’s situation feels sustainable. The economic miracle that makes swathes of the country feel like southern California can go on: Israel’s diplomatic loneliness does not amount to commercial isolation. Military domination will grow with U.S. support. A strong Israeli nationalist current — we won all the land on the battlefield, so it’s ours! — will prevail over the peace-talk fatigue among Israeli liberals and a splintered Palestinian movement.

Stepping across the wall-fence into the West Bank already feels like time travel back 30 years. Soon, given current momentum, it will feel like 40 years. Perhaps half a million Israelis living beyond the Green Line hardly know what it is: The two-state solution based around the 1967 borders, give or take agreed land swaps, is then a diplomatic and intellectual fiction.

Yes, Israel on all the land of Eretz Israel (a biblical term widely used to refer to the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, encompassing all of the West Bank) is sustainable. The status quo is not static. On balance, despite demographic patterns that favor the Palestinians, power tilts Israel’s way. Vitality trumps demography.

“Many years will pass without anything,” Tom Segev, the distinguished Israeli historian, told me. “We will go on oppressing; they will go on trying to fight. Most Israelis now feel their security is assured without giving up anything. That is the problem. The oppression of Palestinians is appalling. But the situation is calm. So Israelis don’t realize this everyday oppression. Nobody believes in peace any more.”

On the Palestinian side, too, believers in a two-state peace agreement have become harder to find. Settlement expansion with U.S. acquiescence has led to the conviction that there will be no viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

“Israel is not interested in permitting one and the U.S., who is subsidizing this effort, is unable and unwilling to change that because of domestic politics,” Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Center wrote in an e-mail. He said Palestinians had lost faith in American mediation. Palestinians were likely to “re-strategize away from a state-based separatist struggle toward a rights-based struggle (already happening)” as “Israeli colonization” had “destroyed the territorial integrity of a would-be state.”

In other words, Palestinians will seek their rights — including that of return — within one state, rather than pursuing the establishment of their own national state. The only trouble is that, as the Israeli novelist Amos Oz told me recently, “The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.”

As Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, once put it: “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”

One state equals the end of Israel as a Jewish national state. It is not going to happen. It cannot be allowed to happen. Palestinian pursuit of that goal equals acceptance of eternal conflict. Jews, after the experience of the 20th century, are not going to give up the homeland they have battled so hard to build.

For any liberal Zionist — and I am one — convinced of the need for the two-state outcome envisaged in the United Nations resolution of 1947 establishing the modern state of Israel, both the religious-nationalist Israeli push to keep all the land and the Palestinian refusal to abandon the untenable, unacceptable “right of return” (there is no such right in history, just ask the Jews) are causes for deep despondency.

I said Israel’s situation is sustainable. It is in physical terms. It is not in ethical terms. This is a state whose Declaration of Independence in 1948 says it will “be founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace in the spirit of the visions of the Prophets of Israel; will implement equality of complete social and national rights for all her citizens without distinction between religion, race and gender; will promise freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The West Bank dominion over 2.6 million humiliated Palestinians runs counter to every word of this.

President Obama will soon visit Israel and the West Bank. He has zero cause for hope. Peace lies beyond the eye of a rusty needle. The limitlessness of Israeli strength and of Palestinian victimhood has narrowed the path to the well-known compromises needed to end the conflict.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 28, 2013

An earlier version of this column gave the wrong venue for a quote by Omar Barghouti. Mr Barghouti used these words at an appearance at the University of Ottawa. He says he was quoting a well-known position of Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.

And lastly we have Prof. Krugman:

We’re just a few weeks away from a milestone I suspect most of Washington would like to forget: the start of the Iraq war. What I remember from that time is the utter impenetrability of the elite prowar consensus. If you tried to point out that the Bush administration was obviously cooking up a bogus case for war, one that didn’t bear even casual scrutiny; if you pointed out that the risks and likely costs of war were huge; well, you were dismissed as ignorant and irresponsible.

It didn’t seem to matter what evidence critics of the rush to war presented: Anyone who opposed the war was, by definition, a foolish hippie. Remarkably, that judgment didn’t change even after everything the war’s critics predicted came true. Those who cheered on this disastrous venture continued to be regarded as “credible” on national security (why is John McCain still a fixture of the Sunday talk shows?), while those who opposed it remained suspect.

And, even more remarkably, a very similar story has played out over the past three years, this time about economic policy. Back then, all the important people decided that an unrelated war was an appropriate response to a terrorist attack; three years ago, they all decided that fiscal austerity was the appropriate response to an economic crisis caused by runaway bankers, with the supposedly imminent danger from budget deficits playing the role once played by Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Now, as then, this consensus has seemed impenetrable to counterarguments, no matter how well grounded in evidence. And now, as then, leaders of the consensus continue to be regarded as credible even though they’ve been wrong about everything (why do people keep treating Alan Simpson as a wise man?), while critics of the consensus are regarded as foolish hippies even though all their predictions — about interest rates, about inflation, about the dire effects of austerity — have come true.

So here’s my question: Will it make any difference that Ben Bernanke has now joined the ranks of the hippies?

Earlier this week, Mr. Bernanke delivered testimony that should have made everyone in Washington sit up and take notice. True, it wasn’t really a break with what he has said in the past or, for that matter, with what other Federal Reserve officials have been saying, but the Fed chairman spoke more clearly and forcefully on fiscal policy than ever before — and what he said, translated from Fedspeak into plain English, was that the Beltway obsession with deficits is a terrible mistake.

First of all, he pointed out that the budget picture just isn’t very scary, even over the medium run: “The federal debt held by the public (including that held by the Federal Reserve) is projected to remain roughly 75 percent of G.D.P. through much of the current decade.”

He then argued that given the state of the economy, we’re currently spending too little, not too much: “A substantial portion of the recent progress in lowering the deficit has been concentrated in near-term budget changes, which, taken together, could create a significant headwind for the economic recovery.”

Finally, he suggested that austerity in a depressed economy may well be self-defeating even in purely fiscal terms: “Besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run for any given set of fiscal actions.”

So the deficit is not a clear and present danger, spending cuts in a depressed economy are a terrible idea and premature austerity doesn’t make sense even in budgetary terms. Regular readers may find these propositions familiar, since they’re pretty much what I and other progressive economists have been saying all along. But we’re irresponsible hippies. Is Ben Bernanke? (Well, he has a beard.)

The point is not that Mr. Bernanke is an unimpeachable source of wisdom; one hopes that the collapse of Alan Greenspan’s reputation has put an end to the practice of deifying Fed chairmen. Mr. Bernanke is a fine economist, but no more so than, say, Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and legendary economic theorist whose vocal criticism of our deficit obsession has nonetheless been ignored. No, the point is that Mr. Bernanke’s apostasy may help undermine the argument from authority — nobody who matters disagrees! — that has made the elite obsession with deficits so hard to dislodge.

And an end to deficit obsession can’t come a moment too soon. Right now Washington is focused on the idiocy of the sequester, but this is only the latest episode in an unprecedented run of declines in public employment and government purchases that have crippled our economy’s recovery. A misguided elite consensus has led us into an economic quagmire, and it’s time for us to get out.

Contrast that with this headline from the lead article in this morning’s NYT on the web:  “Boehner Halts Talks on Cuts, and House G.O.P. Cheers.”  Welcome to Bedlam.


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