Blow, Cohen and Krugman

In “‘Black Lives Matter’ and the G. O. P.” Mr. Blow says the  discussion should be about more than police conduct. Officers are simply the agents of policy instituted by society as a whole.  Mr. Cohen, in “Europe’s Deepest Debt,” says at this critical moment, it is essential to recall the road traveled since 1945. Germany’s debt to Europe can never be repaid.  Prof. Krugman, in “G. O. P. Candidates and Obama’s Failure to Fail,” says despite their overall condemnation of the Obama record, Republican candidates are oddly short on specifics.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Only one candidate in last week’s Republican presidential debate was asked to directly address the Black Lives Matter movement and that candidate was Gov. Scott Walker.

Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Walker:

“Governor Walker, many in the Black Lives Matter movement, and beyond, believe that overly-aggressive police officers targeting young African-Americans is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree? And if so, how do you plan to address it? If not, why not?”

Walker responded with an answer about sufficient training of officers “not only on the way into their positions but all the way through their time” and about “consequences” for those who don’t properly perform their duties.

Both the question and the answer focused an inordinate amount of attention on police conduct and not enough on revealing that they are simply the agents of policy instituted by officials at the behest of the body politic.

This deficit of examining systems exists all across this debate. It fails to indict society as a whole, as I firmly believe it should. It puts all the focus on the tip of the spear rather than on the spear itself.

Look at it this way: Many local municipalities experience budgetary pressure. Rather than raise taxes or cut services in response, things that are often politically unpalatable, they turn to law enforcement and courts to make up the difference in tickets and fines. Some can also increase the number of finable offenses and stiffen the penalties.

Officers, already disproportionately deployed and arrayed in so-called “high-crime” neighborhoods — invariably poor and minority neighborhoods — are then charged with doing the dirty work. The increase in sheer numbers of interactions creates friction with targeted populations and ups the odds that individual biases will be introduced.

Without fail, something eventually goes horribly wrong.

We look at the end interaction, examining the officers for bias and the suspect for threatening behavior, rather than looking at the systems that necessitated the interactions.

Society itself is to blame. There is blood on everyone’s hands, including the hands still clutching the tax revenue that those cities needed but refused to solicit, instead shifting the mission of entire police departments “from ‘protect and serve’ to ‘punish and profit,’ ” as Mother Jones magazine recently put it in a fascinating article on this subject.

Is it a coincidence that many of the recent cases involving black people killed by the police began with stops for minor offenses?

This “fiscal menace,” as the magazine called it, is added to a system often already addicted to ever-improving crime numbers — a statistically unsustainable condition — and a ballooning prison population. To maintain the momentum, cities needed to crack down on lower and lower-level crimes, sacrificing more and more lives — largely poor and minority ones — to feed the beast. Public safety gave cover for a perversion of justice.

In another moment during the debate, Kelly asked Ben Carson about race relations in America and “how divided we seem right now.” She continued: “And what, if anything, you can do — you would do as the next president to help heal that divide.”

First, before the answer, I have a nit to pick with the question. The framing of the state of race relations as a “divide,” to my mind, creates a false impression, an equivalency. It suggests a lateral-ness. But this discussion is about vertical-ness, about hierarchy. It is about whether state power is being used disproportionately as an oppressive and deadly force against minorities — particularly black people — in this country.

Carson responded with a prelude that seemed to label those demanding justice and equality “purveyors of hatred” seeking a “race war,” an outrageously exaggerated use of incendiary rhetoric.

Then he said:

“What we need to think about instead — you know, I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often. I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she thought that was a strange response. And you say — I said, you see, when I take someone to the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn’t make them who they are. And it’s time for us to move beyond that.”

This was an eloquent exposition of the absurdity of race as a biological construct, but also an absurdly elementary avoidance of racism as a very real social construct. I wish it were that people could all simply “move beyond that” at will, that they were able to simply choose to slough off the cumulative accrual of centuries of systematic anti-black negativity. But, that is not a power people possess.

That is why when people respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” it grates. All Lives Matter may be one’s personal position, but until this country values all lives equally, it is both reasonable and indeed necessary to specify the lives it seems to value less.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

From time to time I am reminded of all that Europe lost. It can happen in the most unlikely places, in San Diego for example.

I was sitting the other day with a friend named Bonnie Richins. She told me that, as children, she and her sister were not allowed to wear striped clothes. They reminded her father, Kurt Lorig, of the pajama-like attire the Nazis forced him to wear in Auschwitz.

Kurt was born a German Jew. Unlike most of his family, he survived the Holocaust, became an American, settled in California and built a business in outdoor furniture. He always drove an American car. In the 1950s he would sometimes amuse himself by trying to force German-made Volkswagen Beetles off the road — or almost.

Shortly after he arrived in the United States, Kurt and his girlfriend eloped to Tijuana. The marriage lasted over 50 years. It was punctuated by a separation. During that time Bonnie’s sister, who was bipolar, died on an L.A. freeway. She had pulled over. Her car was still running. She had wandered into the road.

Like many survivors, Kurt did not speak of what had happened in Europe. What had happened was unspeakable. Auschwitz left no words. It overwhelmed the lexicon of the hitherto.

About 36.5 million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war-related causes, over half of them civilians, some six million of them Jews targeted for extermination by the Third Reich and its accomplices from Vichy to Vilnius. As the late Tony Judt observed in “Postwar,” his magisterial history of Europe since 1945, “No other conflict in recorded history killed so many people in so short a time.”

This was the culmination of the 31-year European suicide that began in 1914. Europe lay in ruins. Millions of stunned refugees wandered among the charred vestiges of what had once been called European civilization. Borders were redrawn, whole populations moved like pawns on some diabolical chessboard, Germany cut in two and, at Yalta, Europe east of the Elbe ceded to Stalin’s totalitarian empire.

Europe had lost not only Kurt. It had lost almost everything. It had lost half itself. It had lost much of the mingling of which it was composed. In Germany at the end of the war, 21,450 of the country’s 600,000 Jews remained. This, for a long time, Europe chose not to recall in any detail. It had also lost its memory.

America, which had helped liberate Europe, inherited not only wounded young souls like Kurt who would live out their lives without ever quite being able to explain how they got to where they were. It had inherited the earth.

At this moment of European crisis, of European uncertainty, of potential European fracture, I always try to recall the road traveled since 1945. It is the least of considerations toward those 36.5 million dead of seven decades ago. It is the only way I know to assess the European achievement — the vast accumulation of interlinking accords the French call the European acquis — at its true value.

It also seems to me impossible to consider any of Europe’s current dilemmas — from the uses of German power, to Vladimir Putin’s new threat, to the fate of desperate refugees, to the survival of Europe’s common currency — without this reference point.

There is the euro. Then there is war and peace and that other kind of debt.

In “Reunion,” Fred Uhlman’s extraordinary novella exploring the Jewish loss of Germany, the teenage protagonist Hans Schwarz muses on his condition as Hitler rises to power: “All I knew then was that this was my country, my home, without a beginning and without an end, and that to be Jewish was fundamentally no more significant than to be born with dark hair and not with red. Foremost we were Swabians, then Germans and then Jews. How else could I feel?” His father, a doctor twice wounded in World War I, is convinced the rise of the Nazis “is a temporary illness.” The proud physician lambasts a Zionist who is trying to raise funds for a modern state of Israel: “Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish? How dare you insult the memory of twelve thousand Jews who died for our country? Für unsere Heimat?”

This book, with one of literature’s most shattering final sentences, is a reminder of the German Jewish devotion to the Heimat that was as fervent as it proved misplaced. Jews departed or went to their deaths. A few, like Kurt Lurig, came back from the camps.

In 2005, a decade after President Jacques Chirac broke a long taboo by acknowledging France’s role in the extermination of European Jews, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, then the French prime minister, declared on a visit to Israel that France was thereby “bound forever by the debt she has incurred.”

Germany’s debt to Europe can never be repaid. It is the real and deepest one.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

What did the men who would be president talk about during last week’s prime-time Republican debate? Well, there were 19 references to God, while the economy rated only 10 mentions. Republicans in Congress have voted dozens of times to repeal all or part of Obamacare, but the candidates only named President Obama’s signature policy nine times over the course of two hours. And energy, another erstwhile G.O.P. favorite, came up only four times.

Strange, isn’t it? The shared premise of everyone on the Republican side is that the Obama years have been a time of policy disaster on every front. Yet the candidates on that stage had almost nothing to say about any of the supposed disaster areas.

And there was a good reason they seemed so tongue-tied: Out there in the real world, none of the disasters their party predicted have actually come to pass. President Obama just keeps failing to fail. And that’s a big problem for the G.O.P. — even bigger than Donald Trump.

Start with health reform. Talk to right-wingers, and they will inevitably assert that it has been a disaster. But ask exactly what form this disaster has taken, and at best you get unverified anecdotes about rate hikes and declining quality.

Meanwhile, actual numbers show that the Affordable Care Act has sharply reduced the number of uninsured Americans — especially in blue states that have been willing to expand Medicaid — while costing substantially less than expected. The newly insured are, by and large, pleased with their coverage, and the law has clearly improved access to care.

Needless to say, right-wing think tanks are still cranking out “studies” purporting to show that health reform is a failure. But it’s a losing game, and judging from last week’s debate Republican politicians know it.

But what about side effects? Obamacare was supposed to be a job-killer — in fact, when Marco Rubio was asked how he would boost the economy, pretty much all he had to suggest was repealing health and financial reforms. But in the year and a half since Obamacare went fully into effect, the U.S. economy has added an average of 237,000 private-sector jobs per month. That’s pretty good. In fact, it’s better than anything we’ve seen since the 1990s.

Which brings us to the economy.

There was remarkably little economic discussion at the debate, although Jeb Bush is still boasting about his record in Florida — that is, his experience in presiding over a gigantic housing bubble, and providentially leaving office before the bubble burst. Why didn’t the other candidates say more? Probably because at this point the Obama economy doesn’t look too bad. Put it this way: if you compare unemployment rates over the course of the Obama administration with unemployment rates under Reagan, Mr. Obama ends up looking better – unemployment was higher when he took office, and it’s now lower than it was at this point under Reagan.

O.K., there are many reasons to qualify that assessment, notably the fact that measured unemployment is low in part because of a decline in the percentage of Americans in the labor force. Still, the Obama economy has utterly failed to deliver the disasters — hyperinflation! a plunging dollar! fiscal crisis! — that just about everyone on the right predicted. And this has evidently left the Republican presidential field with nothing much to say.

One last point: traditionally, Republicans love to talk about how liberals with their environmentalism and war on coal are standing in the way of America’s energy future. But there was only a bit of that last week — perhaps because domestic oil production has soared and oil imports have plunged since Mr. Obama took office.

What’s the common theme linking all the disasters that Republicans predicted, but which failed to materialize? If I had to summarize the G.O.P.’s attitude on domestic policy, it would be that no good deed goes unpunished. Try to help the unfortunate, support the economy in hard times, or limit pollution, and you will face the wrath of the invisible hand. The only way to thrive, the right insists, is to be nice to the rich and cruel to the poor, while letting corporations do as they please.

According to this worldview, a leader like President Obama who raises taxes on the 1 percent while subsidizing health care for lower-income families, who provides stimulus in a recession, who regulates banks and expands environmental protection, will surely preside over disaster in every direction.

But he hasn’t. I’m not saying that America is in great shape, because it isn’t. Economic recovery has come too slowly, and is still incomplete; Obamacare isn’t the system anyone would have designed from scratch; and we’re nowhere close to doing enough on climate change. But we’re doing far better than any of those guys in Cleveland will ever admit.


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