Blow, Cohen and Krugman

Sorry for the absence — I’ve had a bout of what we refer to as the “Savannah Crud.”  Not fun…  Mr. Blow, in “Of Museums and Racial Relics,” says the first lady draws fire from those employing wishful thinking about the state of cultural bias.  Mr. Cohen ponders “Italian Curves, Italian Cures” and says people return to Italy for its beauty, of course, but also for a refuge from relentlessness.  Prof. Krugman considers “Wall Street Vampires” and says the plot against financial reform continues, despite the fact that one important measure is actually working.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Recently, Rush Limbaugh lambasted the first lady, Michelle Obama, for bringing up the idea of diversity among museum visitors at the opening of the new Whitney Museum in New York.

According to Limbaugh, the first lady said: “Museums and concert halls just don’t welcome nonwhite visitors — especially children — the way they welcome white people.”

What the first lady actually said was:

“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.”

Then, she went on to laud the Whitney for its efforts at inclusion and diversity: “And with this inaugural exhibition, the Whitney is really sending the same message to young people and to people of every background across this country. You’re telling them that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here. You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.”

It was a rather mild, if not flattering way to acknowledge a disparity while also encouraging efforts to counter it.

And, the first lady was right. A 2010 report by the Center for the Future of Museums (an initiative of the American Association of Museums) found that:

“African-Americans and Latinos have notably lower rates of museum attendance than white Americans. Why is that so? In part, it is the legacy of historic discrimination. A summary study of S.P.P.A. [Survey of Public Participation in the Arts] data from the 1980s on white and black attendance at arts events concluded that the measurable difference in participation could be tied to ‘subtle forms of exclusion.’ ”

The report cited data that shows “historic patterns of segregation and exclusion as one reason that fewer African-American families instill museum-going habits in their young children. More recent studies have identified a distinct cultural psychology among African-Americans, rooted in historical and social experience, which has produced heightened sensitivity to stereotypes and real or perceived racism.”

But for Limbaugh, this wasn’t about museum attendance at all. It was simply another opportunity to excrete the tired banalities about the Obamas as failed racial messiahs at best, and active racial agitators at worst.

As Limbaugh put it:

“Everything has to be about race with these people! You know, we were supposed to be post-racial with the election of Obama. We’re supposed to have put all that behind us. His election was supposed to mean something. It was supposed to signify that we had overcome and gotten past the original sin of slavery. And instead, as I knew would be the case, it’s gotten worse by design. And this is one of the reasons why.

And this isn’t only Limbaugh’s view. This is the view of many Americans, whether they tune in to Limbaugh or not.

Obama’s sin, using this line of logic, is that he failed to undo the system of oppression that he had no hand in constructing. It is that 400 years of damage was not undone in two terms. It is that he didn’t encourage silence about inequity so that its benefactors could enjoy the cumulative fruit of centuries of racial graft without current-day guilt.

They wanted some mythical receipt of satisfaction of the debt. Let bygones be bygones. All is forgotten and forgiven. Clean slate. Fresh start.

If only it were that simple. But it’s not. This whole line of reasoning is racial claptrap.

Professorial provocateur Shelby Steele wrote in The Los Angeles Times the day after Obama was first elected in 2008: “Obama’s post-racial idealism told whites the one thing they most wanted to hear: America had essentially contained the evil of racism to the point at which it was no longer a serious barrier to black advancement.”

But, Steele countered:

“I don’t think whites really want change from Obama as much as they want documentation of change that has already occurred. They want him in the White House first of all as evidence, certification and recognition.”

And yet, all of America must face the reality that for as much progress as has been made, much remains to be made. America must face the fact that the electorate is an of-the-moment entity, but racial oppression is an of-the-ages monstrosity. It is a resilient relic. And it was never within Obama’s capacity to dismantle it. This structure must be demolished by its architects.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Milan:

I was talking to an Italian couple whose daughter had gone to live for a while in the United States before returning to run a restaurant on Lake Garda. They have a modest apartment in Santa Margherita on the coast of Liguria. The garden is bigger than the living quarters, filled with lemon trees (their fruit as big as baseballs), orange trees and orchids. The couple, now retired, has time to linger in the fragrant air of the dusk.

In the kitchen, it seemed to me, they have all they need: a machine to slice wafer-thin prosciutto, a toaster capacious enough for glistening focaccia, a scale to weigh out 200 grams of pasta. They prepared a rabbit simmered in an unctuous sauce of olives, pine nuts, sausage and rabbit liver, accompanied by perfect little cubes of sautéed potatoes that are time-consuming to prepare but worth every patient flip and stir.

Rabbit is underrated, a culinary victim of prejudice or misplaced affection, but not by Italians, who consume it often and with gusto.

In any event, my host, Sergio, was recalling visits to the United States to see their daughter. There were memorable renderings of “O Sole Mio” on gondolas in Las Vegas (beneath the Rialto Bridge on the “Grand Canal”), and then there was the time they were in New Mexico and “drove for 85 miles in a dead straight line.”

He looked me: “Not one curve. Can you believe it?”

I could — made me think of Highway 101 in California. He couldn’t. Life in Italy is a series of curves to which you adapt. There is zero scope for autopilot.

Adaptation and adjustment are the name of the game. This can be trying. On the other hand you can enjoy lemon zest from your own lemons, perhaps with salmon and those 200 grams of penne.

It was May 1, International Workers’ Day, a holiday. Yet, most people were working, a lot of stores open. I heard the following exchange:

“It’s the workers’ holiday and everyone is working!”

“Yes, I know, but of course they don’t work the rest of the time!”

“That’s true.”

There’s still a continuous banter in the streets of Italy, as when I lived here 30 years ago. Italy has cherry-picked modernity, taking only so much. Something in it has resisted the reduction of human interaction to the transactional minimum. Something in it has resisted the squeezing of the last cent of profit from every exchange. Something in it recognizes the human need for community and what a couple of sentences to a stranger can do. There are still innocent smiles in Italy, something you can only call humility. They don’t teach you that at marketing school. They don’t tell you how monotonous self-promotion can become, how tiresome, and finally inhuman. People return to Italy for its beauty, of course, but also for a refuge from relentlessness. Conversations veer here and there in the elasticity of Italian time, loosened from the constraints of time as a metric of productivity.

At the pharmacy, where it’s better to have a prescription but rules can be bent, I heard this:

“We don’t live in Italy.”

“Better that way!”

“Why?”

“Everything is difficult here.”

It is. Efficiency was not one of the cherry-picked items. Arriving at Milan Linate airport for the first time in decades, I found the same cumbersome buses from aircraft to terminal. The ATM machine was broken, the Information Desk unmanned. Strange, the Milan world’s fair, Expo 2015, has just opened — a time, if any, to spruce things up. The themes of the fair are guaranteeing food security; combating waste (Italy has much to do); improving nutrition (I can’t see that rabbit being beaten); and preserving the environment.

On opening day, May 1, a bunch of hooded anti-capitalist thugs calling themselves “Black bloc” smashed up the center of Milan in a mindless protest against Expo-as-capitalist-enterprise. Policemen were beaten, cars set on fire. Over the following weekend the people of Milan took to the streets armed with sponges, cloths, solvents and soap, determined to clean up their city. They did, in short order.

The state is still weak in Italy. But community — family, friends, city, region — is often powerful. Assessments of Italy’s condition tend to underestimate the effectiveness of these hardship-cushioning ties.

Matteo Renzi, the young prime minister, has just pushed through an important electoral reform law aimed at ending semi-chronic government instability. Broadly, it gives the winning party, provided it has 40 percent of the vote, a bonus that guarantees it 340 seats in the 630-seat chamber. (If no party has 40 percent, there is a runoff between the two largest parties).

Perhaps this will, as Renzi hopes, produce more straight lines — full five-year terms for governments. Italy could benefit from that. But there will still be plenty of curves.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Last year the vampires of finance bought themselves a Congress. I know it’s not nice to call them that, but I have my reasons, which I’ll explain in a bit. For now, however, let’s just note that these days Wall Street, which used to split its support between the parties, overwhelmingly favors the G.O.P. And the Republicans who came to power this year are returning the favor by trying to kill Dodd-Frank, the financial reform enacted in 2010.

And why must Dodd-Frank die? Because it’s working.

This statement may surprise progressives who believe that nothing significant has been done to rein in runaway bankers. And it’s true both that reform fell well short of what we really should have done and that it hasn’t yielded obvious, measurable triumphs like the gains in insurance thanks to Obamacare.

But Wall Street hates reform for a reason, and a closer look shows why.

For one thing, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the brainchild of Senator Elizabeth Warren — is, by all accounts, having a major chilling effect on abusive lending practices. And early indications are that enhanced regulation of financial derivatives — which played a major role in the 2008 crisis — is having similar effects, increasing transparency and reducing the profits of middlemen.

What about the problem of financial industry structure, sometimes oversimplified with the phrase “too big to fail”? There, too, Dodd-Frank seems to be yielding real results, in fact, more than many supporters expected.

As I’ve just suggested, too big to fail doesn’t quite get at the problem here. What was really lethal was the interaction between size and complexity. Financial institutions had become chimeras: part bank, part hedge fund, part insurance company, and so on. This complexity let them evade regulation, yet be rescued from the consequences when their bets went bad. And bankers’ ability to have it both ways helped set America up for disaster.

Dodd-Frank addressed this problem by letting regulators subject“systemically important” financial institutions to extra regulation, and seize control of such institutions at times of crisis, as opposed to simply bailing them out. And it required that financial institutions in general put up more capital, reducing both their incentive to take excessive risks and the chance that risk-taking would lead to bankruptcy.

All of this seems to be working: “Shadow banking,” which created bank-type risks while evading bank-type regulation, is in retreat. You can see this in cases like that of General Electric, a manufacturing firm that turned itself into a financial wheeler-dealer, but is now trying to return to its roots. You can also see it in the overall numbers, where conventional banking — which is to say, banking subject to relatively strong regulation — has made a comeback. Evading the rules, it seems, isn’t as appealing as it used to be.

But the vampires are fighting back.

O.K., why do I call them that? Not because they drain the economy of its lifeblood, although they do: there’s a lot of evidence that oversize, overpaid financial industries — like ours — hurt economic growth and stability. Even the International Monetary Fund agrees.

But what really makes the word apt in this context is that the enemies of reform can’t withstand sunlight. Open defenses of Wall Street’s right to go back to its old ways are hard to find. When right-wing think tanks do try to claim that regulation is a bad thing that will hurt the economy, their hearts don’t seem to be in it. For example, the latest such “study,” from theAmerican Action Forum, runs to all of four pages, and even its author, the economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, sounds embarrassed about his work.

What you mostly get, instead, is slavery-is-freedom claims that reform actually empowers the bad guys: for example, that regulating too-big-and-complex-to-fail institutions is somehow doing wheeler-dealers a favor, claims belied by the desperate efforts of such institutions to avoid the “systemically important” designation. The point is that almost nobody wants to be seen as a bought and paid-for servant of the financial industry, least of all those who really are exactly that.

And this in turn means that so far, at least, the vampires are getting a lot less than they expected for their money. Republicans would love to undo Dodd-Frank, but they are, rightly, afraid of the glare of publicity that defenders of reform like Senator Warren — who inspires a remarkable amount of fear in the unrighteous — would shine on their efforts.

Does this mean that all is well on the financial front? Of course not. Dodd-Frank is much better than nothing, but far from being all we need. And the vampires are still lurking in their coffins, waiting to strike again. But things could be worse.

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