Archive for the ‘Another inspiration from Applebee’s salad bar’ Category

Bobo, solo

April 19, 2016

Bobo has decided to issue a stern warning about “The Danger of a Single Story.”  He gurgles that our politics and our humanity suffer when we only acknowledge one explanation for a person or phenomenon, especially on issues like criminal justice.  Here’s a longish comment from “C. Hofman” from the Netherlands:  “There is so much wrong in this piece, I don’t know where to start. The false equivalence between left and right, blaming Trump for the vilifications, simplifications and misappropriations that are long part and parcel of the Republican platform, and rehashing a whole lot of long debunked sloppy research to make a point against the (mostly correct!) narrative of the left. Yes, there are more sides to a lot of issues, but the problem is that most of the sides you mentioned aren’t true.  Let me take out one of these debunked stories: Less aggressive policing means more crime. It’s really not clear that crime rose at all, in fact, it didn’t. Crime perhaps rose in some places, in others it fell, that’s natural, because things always don’t stay exactly the same. Moreover, correlation does not mean causation. Especially in this case: the places where policing became less aggressive as a reaction to protests about far too aggressive policing were *not* the places where crime rose.  I can say similar things about your other “stories”.   Single viewpoint stories can indeed be wrong, but wrong stories are worse. And then there’s the hypocrisy: the single story is the domain of the party David Brooks belongs to, and it is also always the conclusion he comes to in his columns.”  Now that we’ve heard from someone with a few brains here’s Bobo:

In 2009 the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a fabulous TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” It was about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative: when Africans, for example, are treated solely as pitiable poor, starving victims with flies on their faces.

Her point was that each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity.

American politics has always been prone to single storyism — candidates reducing complex issues to simple fables. This year the problem is acute because Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the giants of Single Storyism. They reduce pretty much all issues to the same single story: the alien invader story.

Every problem can be solved by finding some corrupt or oppressive group to blame. If America is beset by wage stagnation it’s not because of intricate structural problems. It’s because of the criminal Mexicans sneaking across the border or it’s because of this evil entity called “the banks.”

Worse, the stories have become identity markers. This is a phenomenon borrowed from campus political correctness. In order to express your solidarity with the virtuous team, you have to embrace the socially approved story. If you differ from the official story — the way Bill Clinton differed from the official progressive crime story a few weeks ago — it is not so much a sign that you are wrong (truth is not the issue). It is a sign that you have false allegiances. You must embrace the approved story to show you are not complicit in a system of oppression.

Hillary Clinton is not naturally a single story person. But while she is controlling the delegate race this campaign, Sanders is controlling the conversation and she is gradually coming around to his version of everything. For example, last week she came closer to embracing a nationwide $15 minimum wage, though still with caveats.

One true minimum wage story is that corporations are reaping record profits while pushing down wages of the unskilled. But another true story, embodied in the vast trove of research, is that if you raise the minimum wage too high, you end up punishing less skilled workers. One study found the modest hike in the national minimum wage between 2006 and 2009 reduced employment among young people without a high school degree by almost 6 percent.

The key is to find a balance between those stories. Raising the minimum wage to $15 may make sense in rich areas, but in most of the country there will be horrendous consequences for less skilled workers trying to find jobs.

In the realm of criminal justice, one true story is that America’s criminal justice system was constructed within a system of slavery and racism. It enables police brutality, often of a racist sort. It has led to massive over-incarceration, which has devastated individuals, families and neighborhoods.

Yet there are other opposing stories, also true:

Incarceration reduces crime. Experts disagree wildly on how much, but most studies show a significant effect. That’s partly because most of the people who do serious crime are career criminals. Among inmates released from state prison in 2005, the average number of previous convictions was five and the average number of previous arrests was greater than 10.

Less aggressive policing means more crime. After the release of the horrific Laquan McDonald video — which showed a Chicago cop killing him in cold blood — there was a 69 percent drop in the nonfatal shooting arrest rate and a 48 percent drop in the homicide arrest rate. In the meantime, according to an analysis by Rob Arthur and Jeff Asher of FiveThirtyEight, nonfatal shootings rose by 73 percent and homicides rose by 48 percent.

While the overall system is steeped in structural racial inequality, parts of the system don’t seem that biased. As the criminologist Barry Latzer notes in his book “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,” there is not a wide disparity between whites and blacks in time served for various offenses.

Moderate, bipartisan efforts are reducing inequality. Decades ago, evangelicals like Chuck Colson joined with a swath of progressives to reduce incarceration rates. These efforts are having an effect. Total U.S. imprisonment has declined for the past seven years. The imprisonment rate among black women has dropped by 47 percent since 2000, while the rate of imprisonment among white women has risen by 56 percent. Male imprisonment trends are similar though less striking.

As in life generally, every policy has the vices of its virtues. Aggressive policing cuts crime but increases brutality. There is no escape from trade-offs and tragic situations. The only way forward is to elect people who are capable of holding opposing stories in their heads at the same time, and to reject those who can’t.

Brooks and Cohen

April 12, 2016

Oh, gawd…  Bobo has decided to tell us all what’s wrong with politics.  (Hint — it has nothing to do with Republicans.  Apparently it’s all due to sex, drugs and rock & roll… or something.)  The title alone is worthy of a spit take:  “How to Fix Politics.”  In this opus he babbles that we should shrink it, and surround it with other social bonds.  In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “False equivalence, thy name is Brooks.  The Democrats have never shut down the government but Viet Nam draft dodger Gingrich and Ayatollah Ted have, twice.  …  It is only the republicans who have the multi-billion dollar disinformation/ agitation propaganda operations of the continuing criminal enterprises of serial Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violator Faux Noise and the eco terrorists of Koch Sedition, Propaganda & Pollution, working 24/7/365 to subvert our democracy.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Islamic State of Molenbeek,” says a district of Brussels had in effect seceded from Belgium, and that Europe must fight an ideological battle against Wahhabi Islam.  In the comments “Roland Menestres” from Raleigh, NC had this to say:  “Roger Cohen fails to mention that those Wahhabi clerics who hijacked those lost young Muslims are all paid and supported by our “friend” Saudi Arabia. The same Saudi Arabia that produced the twin towers terrorists and financed Al Qaeda and ISIS. Maybe, instead of blaming Belgium, a tiny country that has gone out of its way to integrate economical and political Muslim refugees/immigrants, maybe, just maybe we should go to the source of that religious extremism and shut it down saving ourselves lots of future blood shedding.”  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

In the middle of this depressing presidential campaign I sometimes wonder, How could we make our politics better?

It’s possible to imagine an elite solution. The next president could get together with the leaders of both parties in Congress and say: “We’re going to change the way we do business in Washington. We’re going to deliberate and negotiate. We’ll disagree and wrangle, but we will not treat this as good-versus-evil blood sport.” That kind of leadership might trickle down.

But it’s increasingly clear that the roots of political dysfunction lie deep in society. If there’s truly going to be improvement, there has to be improvement in the social context politics is embedded in.

In healthy societies, people live their lives within a galaxy of warm places. They are members of a family, neighborhood, school, civic organization, hobby group, company, faith, regional culture, nation, continent and world. Each layer of life is nestled in the others to form a varied but coherent whole.

But starting just after World War II, America’s community/membership mind-set gave way to an individualistic/autonomy mind-set. The idea was that individuals should be liberated to live as they chose, so long as they didn’t interfere with the rights of others.

By 1981, the pollster Daniel Yankelovich noticed the effects: “Throughout most of this century Americans believed that self-denial made sense, sacrificing made sense, obeying the rules made sense, subordinating oneself to the institution made sense. But now doubts have set in, and Americans now believe that the old giving/getting compact needlessly restricts the individual while advancing the power of large institutions … who use the power to enhance their own interests at the expense of the public.”

The individualist turn had great effects but also accumulating downsides. By 2005, 47 percent of Americans reported that they knew none or just a few of their neighbors by name. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of people who report that they have no close friends to confide in.

Civic life has suffered. As Marc J. Dunkelman writes in his compelling book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” people are good at tending their inner-ring relationships — their family and friends. They’re pretty good at tending to outer-ring relationships — their hundreds of Facebook acquaintances, their fellow progressives, or their TED and Harley fans.

But Americans spend less time with middle-ring township relationships — the PTA, the neighborhood watch.

Middle-ring relationships, Dunkelman argues, help people become skilled at deliberation. The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent, but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.

Middle-ring relationships also diversify the sources of identity. You might be an O’Rourke, an Irish Catholic and a professor, but you are also a citizen, importantly of the Montrose neighborhood in Houston.

With middle-ring memberships deteriorating, Americans have become worse at public deliberation. People find it easier to ignore inconvenient viewpoints and facts. Partisanship becomes a preconscious lens through which people see the world.

They report being optimistic or pessimistic depending on whether their team is in power. They become unrealistic. Trump voters don’t seem to realize how unelectable their man is because they hang out with people like themselves.

We’re good at bonding with people like ourselves but worse at bridging with people unlike ourselves. (Have you noticed that most people who call themselves “connectors” are actually excluders because they create groups restricted to people with similar status levels?)

With fewer sources of ethnic and local identity, people ask politics to fill the void. Being a Democrat or a Republican becomes their ethnicity. People put politics at the center of their psychological, emotional and even spiritual life.

This is asking too much of politics. Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor. If you put politics at the center of identity, you end up asking the state to eclipse every social authority but itself. Presidential campaigns become these gargantuan two-year national rituals that swallow everything else in national life.

If we’re going to salvage our politics, we probably have to shrink politics, and nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within. We probably have to scale back the culture of autonomy that was appropriate for the 1960s but that has since gone too far.

If we make this cultural shift, we may even end up happier. For there is a paradox to longing. If each of us fulfill all of our discrete individual desires, we end up with a society that is not what we want at all.

The highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, is actually connected to the lowest level, group survival. People experience their highest joy in helping their neighbors make it through the day.

So he finds this presidential campaign depressing.  One wonders why.  It couldn’t POSSIBLY be because of the collection of buffoons and losers his party has vomited up, could it?  He is SUCH a foof.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Brussels:

There are military trucks parked in Molenbeek, and soldiers with submachine guns patrol the jittery streets of the Brussels district that has been the epicenter of European terrorism in recent months. On the Place Communale idle youths loiter, shooting glances at the police. This is where the Paris and Brussels attacks, with their 162 dead, overlap.

Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving direct participant in the Paris attacks, hid in Molenbeek before his arrest on March 18. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected chief planner of the Paris attacks, lived in Molenbeek. In all, at least 14 people tied to both attacks were either Belgian or lived in Brussels.

One of them is Mohamed Abrini, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who grew up in Molenbeek and was arrested in Brussels on Friday. He has told the police he is “the man in the hat” caught on surveillance cameras leaving Brussels airport after two accomplices blew themselves up on March 22. Cameras also placed him in Paris last November with the Paris attackers.

Sleepy Brussels: goodbye to that image. Yet even today there’s something soporific about this French-speaking city marooned within Flemish-speaking Flanders, beset by administrative and linguistic divisions and the lethargy that stems from them, home to a poorly integrated immigrant population of mainly Moroccan and Turkish descent (41 percent of the population of Molenbeek is Muslim), and housing the major institutions of a fraying European Union.

It is hard to resist the symbolism of the Islamic State establishing a base for its murderous designs in the so-called capital of Europe at a time when the European idea is weaker than at any time since the 1950s. A jihadi loves a vacuum, as Syria demonstrates. Belgium as a state, and Belgium as the heart of the European Union are as close to a vacuum as Europe offers these days.

Belgium — a hodgepodge of three regions (Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels), three linguistic communities (Flemish, French and German) and a weak federal government — is dysfunctional. That dysfunction finds its most powerful expression in the capital, where Flemish geography and French culture do not align. The administrative breakdown assumes critical proportions in Molenbeek, the second-poorest commune in the country, with 36 percent of people younger than 25 unemployed.

As Julia Lynch noted recently in The Washington Post, Molenbeek’s radicalism is not new. It was “home to one of the attackers in the 2004 commuter train bombings in Madrid and to the Frenchman who shot four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in August 2014. The Moroccan shooter on the Brussels-Paris Thalys train in August 2015 stayed with his sister there.”

This is an outrage. Splintered Belgium had lost control of Molenbeek. A heavily Muslim district of Brussels had in effect seceded. If this were the extent of the problem, it would be grave. But Molenbeek is just the most acute manifestation of a European failure.

The large-scale immigration from Turkey and North Africa that began a half-century ago at a time of economic boom has — at a time of economic stagnation — led to near-ghettos in or around many European cities where the jobless descendants of those migrants are sometimes radicalized by Wahhabi clerics. As the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, warned recently, an extremist minority is “winning the ideological and cultural battle” within French Islam.

The fact that the jihadis, often Syrian-trained, are a minority, and that many Muslims who immigrate to Europe are leading successful and integrated lives, is little consolation. After the carnage in Paris and Brussels, the laissez-faire approach that had allowed those clerics to proselytize, private Muslim schools to multiply in France, prisons to serve as incubators of jihadism, youths to drift to ISIS land in Syria and back, and districts like Molenbeek or Schaerbeek to drift into a void of negligence, has to cease. Improved intelligence is not enough. There is an ideological battle going on; it has to be waged on that level, where it has been lost up to now. The moderate Muslim communities of Europe need to do much more.

Europe, of which Brussels is a symbol, presents an alarming picture today. The Dutch, susceptible to propaganda from Russia, have just voted in a referendum against a trade agreement with Ukraine for which more than 100 Ukrainians died in an uprising in 2014. The British are set to vote in June on whether to leave the Union. The euro has sapped economies insufficiently integrated for a common currency. A huge refugee flow has raised questions about a borderless Europe. President Putin plots daily to do his worst for the European Union.

There is a vacuum. Vacuums are dangerous. The answer is a reformed, reinvigorated and stronger Europe, not the kind of division that produced Molenbeek — a microcosm of what fragmentation can bring.

My two older children were born in Schaerbeek. My daughter, now a doctor in New Mexico, took some of her first steps at Brussels airport. This is not the Europe I imagined for them.

Bobo, solo, and a long comment from “gemli.”

April 5, 2016

Oh, cripes.  Bobo has decided to ‘splain to us all about “How Covenants Make Us.”  He gurgles that the social fabric needs to be rewoven for the 21st century.  As usual, “gemli” from Boston had something to say, and his comment was too good to take a mere snip from.  His comment will follow Bobo’s babbling, which starts here:

When you think about it, there are four big forces coursing through modern societies. Global migration is leading to demographic diversity. Economic globalization is creating wider opportunity but also inequality. The Internet is giving people more choices over what to buy and pay attention to. A culture of autonomy valorizes individual choice and self-determination.

All of these forces have liberated the individual, or at least well-educated individuals, but they have been bad for national cohesion and the social fabric. Income inequality challenges economic cohesion as the classes divide. Demographic diversity challenges cultural cohesion as different ethnic groups rub against one another. The emphasis on individual choice challenges community cohesion and settled social bonds.

The weakening of the social fabric has created a range of problems. Alienated young men join ISIS so they can have a sense of belonging. Isolated teenagers shoot up schools. Many people grow up in fragmented, disorganized neighborhoods. Political polarization grows because people often don’t interact with those on the other side. Racial animosity stubbornly persists.

Odder still, people are often plagued by a sense of powerlessness, a loss of efficacy. The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are — when they have firm identities.

Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. They can come only when we have defined social roles — father, plumber, Little League coach. They can come only when we are seen and admired by our neighbors and loved ones in a certain way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.”

You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.

We’re not going to roll back the four big forces coursing through modern societies, so the question is how to reweave the social fabric in the face of them. In a globalizing, diversifying world, how do we preserve individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity?

In her new book “Commonwealth and Covenant,” Marcia Pally of N.Y.U. and Fordham offers a clarifying concept. What we want, she suggests, is “separability amid situatedness.” We want to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living. But we also want to be situated — embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.

Creating situatedness requires a different way of thinking. When we go out and do a deal, we make a contract. When we are situated within something it is because we have made a covenant. A contract protects interests, Pally notes, but a covenant protects relationships. A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.

People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts. Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.

The social fabric is thus rewoven in a romantic frame of mind. During another period of national fragmentation, Abraham Lincoln aroused a refreshed love of country. He played upon the mystic chords of memory andused the Declaration of Independence as a unifying scripture and guide.

These days the social fabric will be repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants — widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides. But it will probably also require leaders drawing upon American history to revive patriotism. They’ll tell a story that includes the old themes. That we’re a universal nation, the guarantor of stability and world order. But it will transcend the old narrative and offer an updated love of America.

In an interview with Bill Maher last month, Senator Cory Booker nicely defined patriotism by contrasting it with mere tolerance. Tolerance, he said, means, “I’m going to stomach your right to be different, but if you disappear off the face of the earth I’m no worse off.” Patriotism, on the other hand, means “love of country, which necessitates love of each other, that we have to be a nation that aspires for love, which recognizes that you have worth and dignity and I need you. You are part of my whole, part of the promise of this country.”

That emotion is what it means to be situated in a shared national life.

And now here’s “gemli” in full:

What a load of malarkey. Three hundred million individuals didn’t suddenly decide to rip apart the social fabric.

The wheels came off our experiment with democracy when a small number of conservatives (one percent?) decided that they wanted all the money. Money bought power, and power meant being able to rig the system to their advantage.

Conservative greed sent jobs overseas, stagnated the minimum wage, closed schools and attacked the social safety net. It starved neighborhoods, suppressed voters and gerrymandered partisan hacks into permanent positions of power. It found ways of avoiding taxes that were needed to build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure.

We’re expected to shut up and be polite to our conservative overlords as they starve us of options and economically abandon our cities. They demand social conformity, and use religion as a weapon to demonize gay people, marginalize women and cast suspicion on immigrants. They work tirelessly not to empower the people, but to eliminate rights that we thought we’d won.

Conservatives cultivated a crop of clueless voters, and now they’re reaping the result as voters rally behind a moron who will make conservative Republicans a laughing stock for years to come.

Only when they see their influence wane do conservatives worry about the weakening of the social fabric, and wonder how things could have gone so horribly wrong.

Conservative pundits need only look in the mirror to find the answer.

Amen, gemli.

Brooks and Nocera

November 3, 2015

Bobo is here to tell us all about “The Evolution of Simplicity.”  He coos that these are busy and complicated times, and today’s simplicity movements are different from those in the past.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “If only excessive materialism and manifold opportunities were the problem in this country. I think Mr. Brooks tends to project his own affluent angst on society at large. While he’s looking for some sort of Platonic transcendence, the rest of us wish we had the resources to wander lonely as a cloud and develop refined sensibilities.”  Mr. Nocera is moving on.  In “And That’s My Opinion!” he says before he heads to a new assignment, he has some final words on a few topics.  He’s apparently going to the sports desk.  I wonder how he’ll be able to carry water for Big Energy there?  Here’s Bobo:

In this country we’re raised to go for the gusto, to try new things and savor the smorgasbord of life’s possibilities. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “The chief work of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. That means more life. Life is an end to itself and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.”

This striving for fullness and variety has always sparked a counter-impulse toward simplicity and naturalness. Benjamin Franklin wore an old fur cap in Paris to exemplify a natural unaffected virtue.

Henry David Thoreau made a fervent protest out of simplicity. Most Americans lead lives of quiet desperation, he argued. The things they call good, like riches, are really bad. On the other hand, “as you simplify your life the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude; poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

Puritans, Quakers, Orthodox Jews and many other groups have always favored ascetic living and high thinking as a way to clear out those material things that might distract them from humility and grace, compassion and prayer, the spirit and the Lord.

Today’s simplicity movements are different from what they were in the past. Today’s most obvious simplicity impulse is the movement to declutter the home. Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” now ranks at No. 2 on Amazon among the best-selling books of 2015. There are thousands of members of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Magazines and websites are stuffed with tips on how to declutter your living areas. (Everything that can be folded should be folded! Open the mail while standing over the recycling bin!)

Cleaning out the closets and paring down the wardrobe has become a religious ritual for many — a search for serenity, a blow against stress, and a longing for a beauty that is found by pruning away what is not.

The second big tendency in today’s simplicity movement involves mental hygiene: techniques to clean out the email folder and reduce the incoming flow. For example, Mailwise is a mobile email product that cleans out repetitive phrases so you can read your emails more quickly. (Woe to the day they invent a version for newspaper columns.)

As my Times colleague April Lawson points out, many of us are on a wireless hamster wheel, running furiously to keep the inbox in the same place. Something special like a dinner party or a museum visit is hollowed out when your mind is on your screen or at five places at once. After a while there’s an ache from all the scattered shallowness.

So of course there’s a mass movement to combat mental harriedness, the epidemic of A.D.D. all around. Of course there’s a struggle to regain control of your own attention, to set priorities about what you will think about, to see fewer things but to see them more deeply.

One of the troublesome things about today’s simplicity movements is that they are often just alternate forms of consumption. Magazines like Real Simple are sometimes asking you to strip away your stuff so you can buy new, simpler stuff. There’s a whiff of the haute bourgeoisie ethos here — that simplification is not really spiritual or antimaterialism; just a more refined, organic, locally grown and morally status-building form of materialism.

Today’s simplicity movements are also not as philosophically explicit as older ones. The Puritans were stripping away the material for a closer contact with God. Thoreau was stripping away on behalf of a radical philosophy. It’s easy to see what today’s simplifiers are throwing away; it’s not always clear what they are for. It’s not always explicit what rightly directed life they envision.

Still, there’s clearly some process of discovery here. Early in life you choose your identity by getting things. But later in an affluent life you discover or update your identity by throwing away what is no longer useful, true and beautiful. One simplicity expert advised people to take all their books off their shelves and throw them on the floor. Only put back the books that you truly value.

That’s an exercise in identity discovery, an exercise in realizing and then prioritizing your current tastes and beliefs. People who do that may instinctively be seeking higher forms of pruning: being impeccable with your words, parsimonious but strong with your commitments, disciplined about your time, selective about your friendships, moving generally from fragmentation toward unity of purpose. There’s an enviable emotional tranquillity at the end of that road.

In a world of rampant materialism and manifold opportunities, many people these days are apparently learning who they are by choosing what they can do without.

He probably wrote that from one of his “vast spaces for entertaining…”  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Opinions.

That’s what we do in Op-Ed: We render informed opinions that we hope are smart and sometimes provocative, backed up by good, old-fashioned shoe leather. I’m heading off to a new assignment, and as I do, please indulge me as I toss off a few last opinions:

Few people are more anti-gun than Michael Bloomberg. And few people are wealthier. According to Forbes, Bloomberg is worth around $40 billion, some of which he spends backing anti-gun candidates and supporting the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. His success, though, has been limited.

How about another approach? I propose that he buy a gun company. Seriously. Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Company both have market capitalizations hovering around $1 billion. Buying one would barely dent Bloomberg’s wallet.

Owning a gun company would allow him to take a different kind of leadership role on issues like improving gun safety and imposing universal background checks. A Bloomberg-owned gun manufacturer could make a smart gun, for instance — that is, a gun that only its owner can use. Gun companies today won’t sell them for fear of retaliation by the National Rifle Association. A Bloomberg-owned gun company has more potential to effect change in the country’s gun culture than anything else I can think of.

I’ve written many columns about education, especially the effort, spearheaded by wealthy philanthropists, to “fix” public education by funding the charter school movement.

Paula McAvoy, the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and, I should note, my son Amato’s fiancée — recently suggested a different idea: “Why don’t they spend their money on infrastructure instead?”

Her point is that a broken-down school sends a powerful message to students: “Society doesn’t care about your education.” McAvoy added, “The place where you learn matters.”

A new school sends the opposite message: that the country does care and wants public school students to succeed. A new school is also a huge morale booster, for students and teachers alike. “If you want to fix American education,” McAvoy told me, aiming her remarks at education philanthropists, “how about setting a goal of putting every kid into a state-of-the-art school by the year 2025?”

Two of the best ideas I heard as an Op-Ed columnist:

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute believes that Supreme Court justices should serve one 18-year term, and those terms should be staggered so that one expires every other year. That way, every president would be able to nominate two justices during a four-year term. What difference would this make? Few things have more poisoned our politics than battles over Supreme Court nominees, precisely because they are lifetime appointments. With term limits, the stakes would be lower when a seat is vacated, and maybe, just maybe, our political culture could start to heal.

William Wachtel, a New York lawyer and co-founder of the group Why Tuesday?, believes that elections should be held on the weekend, when most people are not working, instead of Tuesdays, when they are. Tuesday voting, he likes to note, was originally built around farmers’ schedules; today, it is nothing less than a form of discrimination. As I quoted Chris Rock when I wrote about this in 2013, “They don’t want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn’t vote on a Tuesday.”

Why, oh, why won’t the Metropolitan Opera perform “Porgy and Bess”? As I once noted in Sunday Review, it is the greatest American opera ever written, with a half-dozen of the finest songs George Gershwin ever composed. Its mostly black cast would help bring in a more diverse audience, something the Met could use. Whenever I’ve inquired whether Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, is considering “Porgy and Bess,” I’m told that he is — “in the future.” The last time the Met performed it was a quarter-century ago. How much longer are we supposed to wait?

The late South African psychiatrist Mike Russell was among the first to note that smokers “smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar.” Meaning that while nicotine addicts smokers, it is the burning tobacco, with all of the carcinogens the smoke produces, that kills them. I’ve written a lotabout e-cigarettes — maybe excessively so — because I think this point is so important. In demonizing e-cigarettes, the public health community has created a false equivalency between cigarettes and e-cigarettes, a stance I believe is costing lives. E-cigarettes may not be completely safe, but there is no doubt they could save lives if adult smokers could be encouraged to make the switch. And with that, I’ve had my last word on the subject.

I’ve enjoyed writing this column and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. Thank you for your many thoughtful responses, both pro and con. I’m looking forward to engaging with you again soon … from the sports page.

Brooks and Nocera

May 26, 2015

In “Talent Loves English” Bobo babbles that as the world grows more prosperous, immigration is changing, and our ideas need to change with it.  In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “Finally David Brooks tells the truth.  “The republican party is insane…”  Not only on immigration, but taxes, man made climate change, perpetual war in the Middle East, the need for and sanity of universal healthcare, a woman’s right to choose, equal pay for equal work, marriage equality and our crumbling 20th century infrastructure.”  In “Smoking, Vaping and Nicotine” Mr. Nocera says the different ways of delivering nicotine come with different risks and need to be addressed.  Here’s Bobo:

Eight hundred years ago next month, English noblemen forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. It’s still having amazing effects on the world today. The Magna Carta helped usher in government with a separation of powers. It helped create conditions in which centralized authority could not totally control fiscal, political, religious or intellectual life. It helped usher in the modern Anglo-Saxon state model, with its relative emphasis on the open movement of people, ideas and things.

The Anglo-Saxon model has its plusses and minuses, but it is very attractive to people around the world. Today, as always, immigrants flock to nations with British political heritage. Forty-six million people in the United States are foreign born, almost 1 in 6. That’s by far the highest number of immigrants in any country in the world.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also immigrant magnets. The British political class was a set abuzz last week by a government reportshowing a 50 percent increase in net immigration in 2014 compared with 2013. The government has a goal of limiting immigration to 100,000 a year, but, in 2014, net inbound migration was estimated to be 318,000. Britain has the most diverse immigrant community of any nation on earth.

Some of the those people went to Britain from outside of Europe, but a great many flow from the sclerotic economies in the European Union: Italy, Spain and France. Compared with many other European countries, Britain is a job-creating paragon.

Across the English-speaking world, immigrants are drawn by the same things: relatively strong economies, good universities, open cultures and the world’s lingua franca.

The nature of global migration is slowly evolving, too. We have an image of immigrants as the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. According to this stereotype, immigrants are driven from their homes by poverty and move elsewhere to compete against the lowest-skilled workers.

But immigrants do not come from the poorest countries. Nations like Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger — some of the poorest countries in the world — have some of the lowest outmigration rates. Less than 3 percent of their populations live outside their borders. Their citizens don’t have the resources to move.

Instead, immigrants tend to come from middle-class countries, and they migrate to rich, open ones. You might have thought that as the world gets more middle class, global immigration would decline because of more opportunity at home. In fact, the reverse is happening. As the developing world gets more middle class, immigration has increased because educational and income gains have led to ever higher aspirations.

The situation is complex. Less than a decade ago, six Mexicans migrated to the United States for every Indian or Chinese. But as Mexico has prospered, immigration has dropped. Meanwhile, as India and China have gotten richer, the number of Indians and Chinese living abroad has doubled.

Some of the Asian immigrants are quite wealthy. According to the China International Immigration Report, among Chinese with assets of more than $16 million, 27 percent had emigrated abroad and an additional 47 percent were considering such a move. The real estate website Soufun.net surveyed 5,000 people and found that 41 percent of such people were drawn to move abroad for better living conditions, 35 percent for better educational opportunities for their children and 15 percent for better retirement conditions.

And this talent pool has barely been tapped. According to a Gallup surveyin 2012, 22 million Chinese wanted to move to the U.S., as did 10 million Indians, 3 million Vietnamese and a surprising 5 million Japanese.

In short, it might be time to revise our stereotypes about the immigration issue. A thousand years ago, a few English noblemen unwittingly heralded in a decentralized political and intellectual model. This model was deepened over the centuries by people ranging from Henry VIII to the American founding fathers. It’s a model that is relatively friendly to outsider talent. We didn’t earn this model; we’re the lucky inheritors.

Meanwhile, globalization, with all its stresses and strains, has created a large international class of middle-class dreamers: university graduates who can’t fulfill their aspirations at home and who would enrich whatever nation is lucky enough to have them.

In this context, Hillary Clinton’s daring approach to immigration, supporting a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, is clearly the right one. The Republican Party is insane if its conducts a 21st-century immigration policy based on stereotypes from the 1980s.

Bobo — letting his freak flag fly.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“We need a national debate on nicotine,” said Mitch Zeller.

Zeller is the director of the Center for Tobacco Products, a division of the Food and Drug Administration created in 2009 when Congress passed legislation giving the F.D.A. regulatory authority — at long last! — over cigarettes. In addition, the center will soon have regulatory authority over other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, which have become enormously controversial even as they have gained in use. Through something called a “deeming rule,” the center is in the process of asserting that oversight over e-cigarettes.

Opponents of electronic cigarettes, which include many public health officials, hope that the center will treat these new devices like it treats cigarettes: taking steps to discourage teenagers from “vaping,” for instance, and placing strict limits on the industry’s ability to market its products.

Proponents, meanwhile, hope that the center will view e-cigarettes as a “reduced harm” product that can save lives by offering a nicotine fix without the carcinogens that are ingested through a lit cigarette. In this scenario, e-cigarette manufacturers would be able to make health claims, and adult smokers might even be encouraged to switch from smoking to vaping as part of a reduced harm strategy.

When I requested an interview with Zeller, I didn’t expect him to tip his hat on which direction he wanted the center to go, and he didn’t. Indeed, one of the points he made was that the F.D.A. was conducting a great deal of scientific research — more than 50 studies in all, he said — aimed at generating the evidence needed to better understand where to place e-cigarettes along what he calls “the continuum of risk.”

Zeller is a veteran of the “tobacco wars” of the 1990s, working alongside then-F.D.A. Commissioner David Kessler, who had audaciously labeled cigarettes a “drug-delivery device” (the drug being nicotine) and had claimed regulatory authority. Zeller left the F.D.A. in 2000, after theSupreme Court ruled against Kessler’s interpretation, and joined the American Legacy Foundation, where he helped create its hard-hitting, anti-tobacco “Truth campaign.” After a stint with a consulting firm, Pinney Associates, he returned to the F.D.A. in early 2013 to lead the effort to finally regulate the tobacco industry.

“I am fond of quoting Michael Russell,” Zeller said, referring to an important South African tobacco scientist who died in 2009. In the early 1970s, Russell was among the first to recognize that nicotine was the reason people got addicted to cigarettes. “He used to say, ‘People smoke for the nicotine but die from the tar,’ ” Zeller recalled.

This is also why Zeller found e-cigarettes so “interesting,” as he put it, when they first came on the market. A cigarette gets nicotine to the brain in seven seconds, he said. Nicotine gum or patches can take up to 60 minutes or longer, which is far too slow for smokers who need a nicotine fix. But e-cigarettes can replicate the speed of cigarettes in delivering nicotine to the brain, thus creating real potential for them to become a serious smoking cessation device.

But there are still many questions about both their safety and their efficacy. For instance, are smokers using e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes, or they using them to get a nicotine hit at times when they can’t smoke cigarettes? And beyond that there are important questions about nicotine itself, and how it should be dealt with.

“When nicotine is attached to smoke particles, it will kill,” said Zeller. “But if you take that same drug and put it in a patch, it is such a safe medicine that it doesn’t even require a doctor’s prescription.” That paradox helps explain why he believes “there needs to be a rethink within society on nicotine.”

Within the F.D.A., Zeller has initiated discussions with “the other side of the house” — the part of the agency that regulates drugs — to come up with a comprehensive, agency-wide policy on nicotine. But the public health community — and the rest of us — needs to have a debate as well.

“One of the impediments to this debate,” Zeller said, is that the e-cigarette opponents are focused on all the flavors available in e-cigarettes — many of which would seem aimed directly at teenagers — as well as their marketing, which is often a throwback to the bad-old days of Big Tobacco. “The debate has become about these issues and has just hardened both sides,” Zeller told me.

It’s not that Zeller believes nicotine is perfectly safe (he doesn’t) or that we should shrug our shoulders if teenagers take up vaping. He believes strongly that kids should be discouraged from using e-cigarettes.

Rather, he thinks there should be a recognition that different ways of delivering nicotine also come with different risks. To acknowledge that, and to grapple with its implications, would be a step forward.

“This issue isn’t e-cigarettes,” said Mitch Zeller. “It’s nicotine.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 6, 2015

In “The Temptation of Hillary” Bobo gurgles that the shift on the left from human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism is potent, damaging and based on a misinterpretation of the data.  (He REALLY should take the time to read Krugman…)  In the comments “Reality Based” from “flyover country” summed it up pretty succinctly:  “Oh, yes, another Republican attack on “redistribution”, from the party that has been redistributing wealth and income ruthlessly upward since Reagan. … Stay out of economics, David. You have no idea what you are talking about.”  In “Netanyahu’s Iran Thing” Mr. Cohen says the prime minister’s obsessive Iran demonization runs on hyperbole and selective history.  Prof. Krugman says “Pepperoni Turns Partisan,” and points out that the politics of Big Pizza resemble those of Big Coal or Big Tobacco and tell you a lot about what is happening to American governance in general.  Here’s Bobo:

Hillary Clinton’s record is more moderate than the Democratic primary voter today. So it was always likely that she would move left as the primary season approached. It’s now becoming clearer how she might do it. She might make a shift from what you might call human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism.

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

The real problem, some of them say, is concentrated political power. The oligarchs have rigged the game so that workers get squeezed. Others say the problem is stagnation. It’s not that workers don’t have skills; the private economy isn’t generating jobs. Or it’s about corporate power. Without stronger unions shareholders reap all the gains.

People in this camp point out that inflation-adjusted wages for college grads have been flat for the past 14 years. Education apparently hasn’t lifted wages. The implication? Don’t focus on education for the bottom 99 percent. Focus on spreading wealth from the top. Don’t put human capital first. Put redistribution first.

Over the past few months a stream of Democratic thinkers and politicians, including natural Clinton allies, have moved from the human capital emphasis to the redistributionist emphasis. (It’s a matter of emphasis, not strictly either/or.) For Clinton herself, the appeal is obvious. The redistributionist agenda allows her to hit Wall Street and C.E.O.’s — all the targets that have become progressive bêtes noires.

Unfortunately, this rising theory is wrong on substance and damaging in its effects.

It is true that wages for college grads have been flat this century, and that is troubling. But this is not true of people with post-college degrees, who are doing nicely. Moreover, as Lawrence Katz of Harvard points out, the argument that college doesn’t pay is partly a product of a short-time horizon. Since 2000, the real incomes of the top 1 percent have declined slightly. If you limited your view to just those years, you’d conclude that there is no inequality problem, which is clearly not true.

On an individual level, getting more skills is the single best thing you can do to improve your wages. The economic rewards to education are at historic highs. Americans with a four-year college degree make 98 percent more per hour than people without one. The median college-educated worker will make half-a-million dollars more than a high-school-educated worker over a career after accounting for college costs. Research by Raj Chetty of Harvard and others suggests that having a really good teacher for only one year raises a child’s cumulative lifetime income by $80,000.

“What I find destructive,” says David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is the message that if you don’t get into the top 1 percent then you’re out of the game. That’s deeply, deeply incorrect.”

Autor’s own research shows that skills differences are four times more important than concentration of wealth in driving inequality. If we could magically confiscate and redistribute the above-average income gains that have gone to the top 1 percent since 1979, that would produce $7,000 more per household per year for the bottom 99 percent. But if we could close the gap so that high-school-educated people had the skills of college-educated people, that would increase household income by $28,000 per year.

Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

The redistributionists seem to believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken. That growth has permanently stagnated. That productivity should no longer be the focus because it doesn’t lead to shared prosperity.

But their view is biased by temporary evidence from the recession. Right now, jobs are being created, wages are showing signs of life. Those who get more skills earn more money. Today’s economy has challenges, but the traditional rules still apply. Increasing worker productivity is the key. Increasing incentives to risk and invest is essential. Shifting people into low-productivity government jobs is not the answer.

It’s clear why Clinton might want to talk redistribution. On substantive policy grounds, it would be destructive to do so. And, in the general election, voters respond to the uplifting and the unifying, not the combative and divisive.

Again, Bobo, go read some Krugman.  You might learn something.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Let’s begin with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran logic. He portrays a rampaging Islamic Republic that “now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana,” a nation “gobbling” other countries on a “march of conquest, subjugation and terror.” Then, in the same speech, he describes Iran as “a very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding.

Well, which is it?

The Israeli prime minister dismisses a possible nuclear accord, its details still unclear, as “a very bad deal” that “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” He says just maintain the pressure and, as if by magic, “a much better deal” will materialize (thereby showing immense condescension toward the ministers of the six major powers who have been working on a doable deal that ring-fences Iran’s nuclear capacity so that it is compatible only with civilian use). Yet Netanyahu knows the first thing that will happen if talks collapse is that Russia and China will undermine the solidarity behind effective Iran sanctions.

So, where is the leverage to secure that “much better deal”?

Netanyahu lambastes the notion of a nuclear deal lasting 10 years (President Obama has suggested this is a minimum). He portrays that decade as a period in which, inevitably, Iran’s “voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year.” He thereby dismisses the more plausible notion that greater economic contact with the world and the gradual emergence of a young generation of Iranians drawn to the West — as well as the inevitable dimming of the ardor of Iran’s revolution — will attenuate such aggression.

With similar sleight of hand, he dances over the fact that military action — the solution implicit in Netanyahu’s demands for Iranian nuclear capitulation — would likely set back the Iranian program by a couple of years at most, while guaranteeing that Iran races for a bomb in the aftermath.

What better assures Israel’s security, a decade of strict limitation and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program that prevents it making a bomb, or a war that delays the program a couple of years, locks in the most radical factions in Tehran, and intensifies Middle Eastern violence? It’s a no-brainer.

No wonder Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party’s House Leader, saw Netanyahu’s speech to Congress as an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” Netanyahu’s “profound obligation” to speak of the Iranian threat to the Jewish people proved to be a glib opportunity for fear-mongering and evasion above all.

Netanyahu’s credibility is low. In 1993, in an Op-Ed article in The Times headlined “Peace in Our Time?” he compared the late Yitzhak Rabin to Chamberlain for the Oslo Accords. Rabin’s widow never forgave him. For more than a decade now, he has said Iran was on the brink of a bomb and threatened Israeli military action — and hoped his hyperbole would be forgotten. He called the 2013 interim agreement with Iran a “historic mistake”; the accord has proved a historic achievement that reversed Iran’s nuclear momentum.

Invoking Munich and appeasement is, it seems, Netanyahu’s flip reaction to any attempt at Middle Eastern diplomacy. Here, once again, before the Congress, was the by-now familiar analogy drawn between Iran and the Nazis. Its implication, of course, is that Obama, like the great Rabin, is some latter-day Chamberlain.

The kindest thing that can be said of Netanyahu’s attempt to equate Iran with the medieval barbarians of Islamic State, and to dismiss the fact that Iranian help today furthers America’s strategic priority of defeating those knife-wielding slayers, is that it was an implausible stretch. Of course Netanyahu mentioned the Persian viceroy Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jews, but not Cyrus of Persia, who ended the Babylonian exile of the Jews. The prime minister’s obsessive Iran demonization runs on selective history.

The Islamic Republic is repressive. It is hostile to Israel, underwrites Hezbollah and has sponsored terrorism. Its human rights record is abject. The regime is wedded to anti-Americanism (unlike the 80 million people of Iran, many of whom are drawn to America). But the most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Given Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, there is no better outcome for Israel and the world than the successful conclusion of the tough deal sought by Obama; one involving the intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program that assures that Iran is kept at least one year away from any potential “breakout” to bomb manufacture.

One word did not appear in Netanyahu’s speech: Palestine. The statelessness of the Palestinians is the real long-term threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Iran has often been a cleverly manipulated distraction from this fact.

Among foreign leaders, nobody has been invited to address Congress more often than Netanyahu. He now stands equal at the top of the table along with Winston Churchill. Behind Netanyahu trail Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin. That’s a pretty devastating commentary on the state of contemporary American political culture and the very notion of leadership.

Discuss that with Orange John…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you want to know what a political party really stands for, follow the money. Pundits and the public are often deceived; remember when George W. Bush was a moderate, and Chris Christie a reasonable guy who could reach out to Democrats? Major donors, however, generally have a very good idea of what they are buying, so tracking their spending tells you a lot.

So what do contributions in the last election cycle say? The Democrats are, not too surprisingly, the party of Big Labor (or what’s left of it) and Big Law: unions and lawyers are the most pro-Democratic major interest groups. Republicans are the party of Big Energy and Big Food: they dominate contributions from extractive industries and agribusiness. And they are, in particular, the party of Big Pizza.

No, really. A recent Bloomberg report noted that major pizza companies have become intensely, aggressively partisan. Pizza Hut gives a remarkable 99 percent of its money to Republicans. Other industry players serve Democrats a somewhat larger slice of the pie (sorry, couldn’t help myself), but, over all, the politics of pizza these days resemble those of, say, coal or tobacco. And pizza partisanship tells you a lot about what is happening to American politics as a whole.

Why should pizza, of all things, be a divisive issue? The immediate answer is that it has been caught up in the nutrition wars. America’s body politic has gotten a lot heavier over the past half-century, and, while there is dispute about the causes, an unhealthy diet — fast food in particular — is surely a prime suspect. As Bloomberg notes, some parts of the food industry have responded to pressure from government agencies and food activists by trying to offer healthier options, but the pizza sector has chosen instead to take a stand for the right to add extra cheese.

The rhetoric of this fight is familiar. The pizza lobby portrays itself as the defender of personal choice and personal responsibility. It’s up to the consumer, so the argument goes, to decide what he or she wants to eat, and we don’t need a nanny state telling us what to do.

It’s an argument many people find persuasive, but it doesn’t hold up too well once you look at what’s actually at stake in the pizza disputes. Nobody is proposing a ban on pizza, or indeed any limitation on what informed adults should be allowed to eat. Instead, the fights involve things like labeling requirements — giving consumers the information to make informed choices — and the nutritional content of school lunches, that is, food decisions that aren’t made by responsible adults but are instead made on behalf of children.

Beyond that, anyone who has struggled with weight issues — which means, surely, the majority of American adults — knows that this is a domain where the easy rhetoric of “free to choose” rings hollow. Even if you know very well that you will soon regret that extra slice, it’s extremely hard to act on that knowledge. Nutrition, where increased choice can be a bad thing, because it all too often leads to bad choices despite the best of intentions, is one of those areas — like smoking — where there’s a lot to be said for a nanny state.

Oh, and diet isn’t purely a personal choice, either; obesity imposes large costs on the economy as a whole.

But you shouldn’t expect such arguments to gain much traction. For one thing, free-market fundamentalists don’t want to hear about qualifications to their doctrine. Also, with big corporations involved, the Upton Sinclair principle applies: It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. And beyond all that, it turns out that nutritional partisanship taps into deeper cultural issues.

At one level, there is a clear correlation between lifestyles and partisan orientation: heavier states tend to vote Republican, and the G.O.P. lean is especially pronounced in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the “diabetes belt” of counties, mostly in the South, that suffer most from that particular health problem. Not coincidentally, officials from that region have led the pushback against efforts to make school lunches healthier.

At a still deeper level, health experts may say that we need to change how we eat, pointing to scientific evidence, but the Republican base doesn’t much like experts, science, or evidence. Debates about nutrition policy bring out a kind of venomous anger — much of it now directed at Michelle Obama, who has been championing school lunch reforms — that is all too familiar if you’ve been following the debate over climate change.

Pizza partisanship, then, sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. It is, instead, a case study in the toxic mix of big money, blind ideology, and popular prejudices that is making America ever less governable.

Mass market pizza sucks.  All of it.  If you’re not eating pizza from a local shop, made to order, you’re eating crap.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 3, 2015

In “Leaving and Cleaving” Bobo gurgles that instant communications technology has changed the nature of parting: a new level of self-discipline and sacrifice is required for a graceful split.  In the comments “Mary Askew” from Springfield, MA had this to say:  “David Brooks may know people who stalk and harass ex-lovers, friends, mentors. I don’t. And, I haven’t heard those issues discussed among my friends.  If he thinks about it, Brooks will drop the “We all know….” formula. It is, at best, a lazy rationalization for this column.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Vast Realm of ‘If’,” says hypothetically speaking, one life is not enough. There is not enough time for all of our dreams.  In “How Warren Buffet Does It” Mr. Nocera tells us about going from “cigar butt” investing to the greatest conglomerate ever in 50 years.  Here’s Bobo:

So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.

In earlier times, leaving was defined by distance, but now it is defined by silence. Everybody everywhere is just a text away, a phone call away. Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people.

The person moving on and changing a relationship no longer makes a one-time choice to physically go to another town. He makes a series of minute-by-minute decisions to not text, to not email or call, to turn intense communication into sporadic conversation or no communication. His name was once constant on his friend’s phone screen, but now it is rare and the void is a wound.

If you are like me you know a lot of relationships in which people haven’t managed this sort of transition well. Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.

We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.

Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?

The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind. The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.

The person left behind also probably thinks that the leaver is making a big mistake. She probably thinks that it’s stupid to leave or change the bond; that the other person is driven by selfishness, shortsightedness or popularity.

Yet if the whole transition is going to be managed with any dignity, the person being left has to swallow the pain and accept the decision.

The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to (except in the most highly unusual circumstances). The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love that the leaver may not deserve and may never learn about.

That means not calling when you are not wanted. Not pleading for more intimacy or doing the other embarrassing things that wine, late nights and instant communications make possible.

Maybe that will mean the permanent end to what once was, in which case at least the one left behind has lost with grace. But maybe it will mean rebirth.

For example, to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood.

The mistakes usually begin early in adolescence. The parents don’t create a space where the child can establish independence. They don’t create a context in which the child can be honest about what’s actually happening in his life. The child is forced to deceive in order to both lead a semi-independent life and also maintain parental love.

By college, both sides are to be pitied. By hanging on too tight, the parents have created exactly the separation they sought to avoid. The student, meanwhile, does not know if he is worthy of being treated as a dignified adult because his parents haven’t treated him that way. They are heading for a life of miscommunication.

But if the parents lay down sacrificially, accept the relationship their child defines, then it can reboot on an adult-to-adult basis. The hiddenness and deception is no longer necessary. Texts and emails can flow, not as before, but fluidly and sweetly.

Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect (at the exact moments when those things are hardest to muster). So today a new kind of heroism is required. Feelings are hurt and angry words are at the ready. But they are held back. You can’t know the future, but at least you can walk into it as your best and highest self.

I wonder if Bobo is busy cyber-stalking his ex-wife, since he seems so sure that we ALL know someone who does that…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

What happens only just happens; then inevitability is conferred upon it. Between the lived and the not-quite-lived lies the little word “if.” It’s a two-letter invitation to the vast realm of the hypothetical, the counterfactual, and all the various paths not taken over the course of a life.

When I lived in Brazil in the 1980s I would run along the beach from Leblon to Ipanema and back. After the workout, I’d always pay a couple of cents for coconut water. I liked to watch the way the beach-shack dude cupped the coconut in one hand and then, with three or four languorous but unerring swipes of his machete, opened up the top. He’d insert a straw. The iced water was always perfect.

I’d count his fingers. The blade never slipped. There were always 10.

Of course, if I’d thought of putting the coconut water in a bottle 30 years ago, marketing its health benefits, and selling it worldwide, I would not be writing this column today. It was too simple to think of that.

When I lived in Rome, before Brazil, I liked to watch the barmen ratcheting ground coffee into a receptacle, tapping the grains down, twisting the container into a socket, placing cups on a metal ledge-cum-filter beneath the coffee-yielding spouts, pouring milk with the requested dose of foam, and placing the various coffees on the counter. The quicksilver movements seemed all part of a single pirouette.

My then wife and I would travel from Rome to the Midwest, where she is from, and remark on the fact that it was near impossible to get a good coffee. She liked the idea of opening a coffee shop in the Twin Cities that would serve coffee as good as we’d become accustomed to drinking in Italy. Perhaps we could even grow the business across the United States!

Of course, if we’d done that in 1983, coffee aficionados might be speaking of St. Paul today the way they speak of Seattle. We’d be visiting our coffee shops in Chengdu and Glasgow. But it was too simple to do that.

Before Rome, when I lived in Brussels, I’d watch the chocolatiers down near the Grand Place apply their tongs (most useful and underrated of culinary implements!) to the cocoa-dusted truffles and place them, one by one, in small white boxes until the chocolates were arrayed in many-layered order, one temptation nestling against another.

It would have been easy enough, in 1980, to make those chocolates more widely available, and it did occur to me that they should be, but of course I did nothing about the thought. If I had, who knows?

When I was in Afghanistan in 1973, before all the trouble started, or rather at the moment the trouble started with the overthrow of the king, I should have brought back all those Afghan rugs, and perhaps picked up a few in Iran (in that one could drive across the country then without any problem or mention of nukes); and certainly I should have hung onto our VW Kombi called Pigpen, after the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead who died that year, but I did not imagine then what a vehicle like that, adorned with Afghan paintings, might go for on eBay today, or how the VW bus would one day be prized from Hay-on-Wye to Haight-Ashbury. I don’t even recall where in England I left Pigpen to die.

Hypothetically speaking, we need countless lives. There is not enough time. Or so it may seem. In the next one I will be a baker or a jeweler or a winemaker. I will make things. I will stay in one place.

Absent what might have been, I went on writing. In “The Debt to Pleasure,” the English novelist John Lanchester has this to say about my profession: “‘Your precipitate social decline cannot fail to alarm your well-wishers,’ I told my brother. ‘You started as a painter, then you became a sculptor, now you’re basically a sort of gardener. What next, Barry? Street-cleaner? Lavatory attendant? Journalism?”’

That is a little harsh on what happened in the absence of what might have.

There is beauty in our dreams of change, our constant what ifs. Days begin in the realm of solemn undertakings — to eat less, to exercise more, to work harder, or to go gentler. They end with wobbles into compromise, or collapses into indulgence, with the perennial solace of the prospect of another day. The good-intentions dinner, a salad with a couple of slivers of chicken, turns into a Burrito with cheese and avocado and salsa and chicken. That’s human.

It’s an illusion to think it would have been simple to change. We live lives that reflect our natures. Memory grows, a refuge, a solace, a repository so vast that what happened and what almost did begin to blur.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Fifty years ago, a young investor named Warren Buffett took control of a failing textile company, Berkshire Hathaway. “I found myself … invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little,” Buffett relates in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend. “I became the dog who caught the car.”

Buffett describes his approach in those days as “cigar butt” investing; buying shares of troubled companies with underpriced stocks was “like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it,” he writes. “Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” He continues: “Most of my gains in those early years … came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices.”

But that approach had limits. It took Charlie Munger, the Los Angeles lawyer who has been his longtime sidekick, to show him that there was another way to win at the investing game: “Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices,” Munger told him. “Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” Which is what Buffett’s been doing ever since.

He has done it in two ways. First — and this is what he is renowned for — he has bought stock in some of the great American companies of our time, stock that he has held not just for years, but for decades. Second, he has turned Berkshire Hathaway into a true conglomerate, which owns not just stocks but entire companies. Although Berkshire’s front office employs only 25 people, its companies have, in total, some 340,500 employees.

How successful has the Buffett-Munger approach been? In the 50 years since Buffett took over Berkshire, its stock has appreciated by 1,826,163 percent. That is an astounding number.

You would think, given Buffett’s success, that more people would try to emulate his approach to investing. It is not as if he hasn’t tried to explain how he does it. Every year, you can find a Buffett tutorial in his annual letter that the rest of us would do well to absorb — and practice.

In the current letter, for instance, he makes the case — which has been made many times before — that a diversified portfolio of stocks “that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions” are less risky over the long term than other investment vehicles that are tied to the dollar. Clearly, that’s been his approach. He then goes on to bemoan the fact that too many investors — both little guys and investment professionals — do things that add risk: “Active trading, attempts to ‘time’ market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees … and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy.”

Another thing about Buffett is that he has never gotten caught up in fads. He only buys businesses that he understands and can predict where the business will be in a decade. He teaches this point in the current letter with a discussion of the conglomerates that sprung up in the 1960s and became the hot stocks of the moment. Jimmy Ling, who ran one such company, LTV, used to say that he looked for acquisitions where “2 plus 2 equals 5.”

LTV, as conceived by Ling, of course, ceased to exist decades ago (though the company would go through several transformations and bankruptcy court before shuttering its last vestige in 2002). “Never forget that 2 + 2 will always equal 4,” writes Buffett. “And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.”

If it’s really this simple, why don’t more people try to invest like Buffett? One reason, I think, is that sound investing — buying when others are selling, holding for the long term, avoiding the hot stocks — requires a stronger stomach than most people have. When a stock is plummeting, it takes a certain strength to buy even more instead of selling in a panic. Most of us lack the temperament required for smart investing. The fundamental equanimity required to be a great investor is a rare thing.

The second reason is that investing the Warren Buffett way is a lot more complicated than he makes it sound. Can you predict where a business will be in 10 years? Of course not. But he can — and does.

In a few months, the faithful will flock to Omaha to attend Berkshire’s annual meeting — “Woodstock for capitalists,” Buffett likes to call it. For six hours, Buffett and Munger will be on stage, before some 40,000 people, cracking wise, while making their investment decisions sound like simplicity itself.

But, in coming to pay their annual homage, the throngs will not be acknowledging the simplicity of Buffett’s approach, but the genius behind it.

Brooks and Krugman

February 20, 2015

Bobo has now decided that he’s the go-to expert on Islamic extremism.  He tells us that alienated young men will continue to be drawn to violent extremism unless and until we provide a compelling heroic alternative.  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY begins her comment with this:  “The only extremism we have to fear is that of the predatory ideologues who decided it would be a great idea to plunder and nation-build in Iraq and other middle Eastern regions. These same ideologues continue to roam free and grow rich, attaching themselves like leeches to such corrupt pols as Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. They want to keep the endless wars going, start new ones, and ensure that the most extreme wealth inequality in modern times continues.”  In “Cranking Up for 2016” Prof. Krugman tells us that as any ambitious Republican must do, the early contenders in the presidential race are courting the charlatan caucus.  Here’s Bobo:

The struggle against Islamic extremism has been crippled by a failure of historical awareness and cultural understanding. From the very beginning, we have treated the problem of terrorism through the prism of our own assumptions and our own values. We have solipsistically assumed that people turn to extremism because they can’t get what we want, and fail to realize that they don’t want what we want, but want something they think is higher.

The latest example of this is the speech President Obama gave at this week’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. It was a bad speech, but its badness is no reflection on President Obama, for it was the same sort of bad speech that all American presidents have been giving for the past generation.

Religious extremism exists on three levels. It grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fueled by perverted spiritual ardor. It is organized by theological conviction. American presidents focus almost exclusively on the economic and political level because that’s what polite people in Western capitals are comfortable talking about.

At the summit meeting, President Obama gave the conventional materialistic explanation for what turns people into terrorists. Terrorism spreads, he argued, where people lack economic opportunity and good schools. The way to fight terror, he concluded, is with better job-training programs, more shared wealth, more open political regimes, and a general message of tolerance and pluralism.

In short, the president took his secular domestic agenda and projected it as a way to prevent young men from joining ISIS and chopping off heads.

But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end.

They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.

On Thursday, Mona El-Naggar of The Times profiled a young Egyptian man, named Islam Yaken, who grew up in a private school but ended up fighting for the Islamic State and kneeling proudly by a beheaded corpse in Syria.

He was marginalized by society. He seems to have rejected the whole calculus of what we call self-interest for the sake of an electrifying apocalyptic worldview and what he imagines to be some illimitable heroic destiny.

People who live according to the pure code of honor are not governed by the profit motive; they are governed by the thymotic urge, the quest for recognition. They seek the sort of glory that can be won only by showing strength in confrontation with death.

This heroic urge is combined, by Islamist extremists, with a vision of End Times, a culmination to history brought about by a climactic battle and the purification of the earth.

Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.

In other times, nationalism has offered that compelling vision. We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be. But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.

Walt Whitman was inspired by the thought that his country was involved in a great project, “making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf … inaugurating largeness, culminating time.” Lincoln committed himself to the sacred truth that his country represented the “last best hope” of mankind. Millions have been inspired by an American creed that, the late great historian Sacvan Bercovitch wrote, “has succeeded in uniting nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, sacred and secular history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single transcendent ideal.”

Young Arab men are not going to walk away from extremism because they can suddenly afford a Slurpee. They will walk away when they can devote themselves to a revived Egyptian nationalism, Lebanese nationalism, Syrian nationalism, some call to serve a cause that connects nationalism to dignity and democracy and transcends a lifetime.

Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology. Muslim clerics can fix the theology. The rest of us can help redirect the spiritual ardor toward humane and productive ends.

It also might help if we stopped bombing the crap out of them, and droning various wedding parties…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is said to be a rising contender for the Republican presidential nomination. So, on Wednesday, he did what, these days, any ambitious Republican must, and pledged allegiance to charlatans and cranks.

For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “charlatans and cranks” is associated with N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor at Harvard who served for a time as George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser. In the first edition of his best-selling economics textbook, Mr. Mankiw used those words to ridicule “supply-siders” who promised that tax cuts would have such magic effects on the economy that deficits would go down, not up.

But, on Wednesday, Mr. Walker, in what was clearly a rite of passage into serious candidacy, spoke at a dinner at Manhattan’s “21” Club hosted by the three most prominent supply-siders: Art Laffer (he of the curve); Larry Kudlow of CNBC; and Stephen Moore, chief economist of the Heritage Foundation. Politico pointed out that Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, attended a similar event last month. Clearly, to be a Republican contender you have to court the powerful charlatan caucus.

So a doctrine that even Republican economists consider dangerous nonsense has become party orthodoxy. And what makes this political triumph especially remarkable is that it comes just as the doctrine’s high priests have been setting new standards for utter, epic predictive failure.

I’m not talking about the fact that supply-siders didn’t see the crisis coming, although they didn’t. Mr. Moore published a 2004 book titled “Bullish on Bush,” asserting that the Bush agenda was creating a permanently stronger economy. Mr. Kudlow sneered at the “bubbleheads” asserting that inflated home prices were due for a crash. Still, you could argue that few economists of any stripe fully foresaw the coming disaster.

You can’t say the same, however, about postcrisis developments, where the people Mr. Walker was courting have spent years warning about the wrong things. “Get ready for inflation and higher interest rates” was the title of a June 2009 op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal by Mr. Laffer; what followed were the lowest inflation in two generations and the lowest interest rates in history. Mr. Kudlow and Mr. Moore both predicted 1970s-style stagflation.

To be fair, Mr. Kudlow and Mr. Laffer eventually admitted that they had been wrong. Neither has, however, given any indication of reconsidering his views, let alone conceding the possibility that the much-hated Keynesians, who have gotten most things right even as the supply-siders were getting everything wrong, might be on to something. Mr. Kudlow describes the failure of runaway inflation to materialize — something he has been predicting since 2008 — as “miraculous.”

Something else worth noting: as befits his position at Heritage, Mr. Moore likes to publish articles filled with lots of numbers. But his numbers are consistently wrong; they’re for the wrong years, or just plain not what the original sources say. And somehow these errors always run in the direction he wants.

So what does it say about the current state of the G.O.P. that discussion of economic policy is now monopolized by people who have been wrong about everything, have learned nothing from the experience, and can’t even get their numbers straight?

The answer, I’d suggest, runs deeper than economic doctrine. Across the board, the modern American right seems to have abandoned the idea that there is an objective reality out there, even if it’s not what your prejudices say should be happening. What are you going to believe, right-wing doctrine or your own lying eyes? These days, the doctrine wins.

Look at another issue, health reform. Before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, conservatives predicted disaster: health costs would soar, the deficit would explode, more people would lose insurance than gain it. They were wrong on all counts. But, in their rhetoric, even in the alleged facts (none of them true) people like Mr. Moore put in their articles, they simply ignore this reality. Reading them, you’d think that the dismal failure they wrongly predicted had actually happened.

Then there’s foreign policy. This week Jeb Bush tried to demonstrate his chops in that area, unveiling his team of expert advisers — who are, sure enough, the very people who insisted that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators.

And don’t get me started on climate change.

Along with this denial of reality comes an absence of personal accountability. If anything, alleged experts seem to get points by showing that they’re willing to keep saying the same things no matter how embarrassingly wrong they’ve been in the past.

But let’s go back to those economic charlatans and cranks: Clearly, failure has only made them stronger, and now they are political kingmakers. Be very, very afraid.

Oh, I am…

Brooks and Krugman

December 19, 2014

In “The Union Future” Bobo has the gall to ask a question:  Do the people who have marched over the Brown and Garner cases have the stamina to force change?  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “This is really quite an amazing column.  The title and first paragraph lead one to believe that Mr. Brooks, of all people, is intent on starting a serious conversation on how to address the horrific income and wealth inequality in the US, and the possible role of Labor Unions in that process.  But then, very quickly, Mr. Brooks reverts to character and concentrates on lambasting public sector unions, one of the favorite targets of some of the more odious GOP Governors. The little snipe, almost as an aside, at the Teachers Unions is just a warm up. He then has the audacity to blame the Police Unions for the racial tensions, which are really the remnants pervasive racism in the US in general.”  So it’s typical Bobo crap.  Prof. Krugman, in “Putin’s Bubble Bursts,” says the global plunge in oil prices and the falling ruble have wreaked havoc on the Russian economy. It’s been quite a comedown for the strongman.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decades, the case for enhancing union power has grown both stronger and weaker. On the one hand, as wages have stagnated while profits have soared, it does seem that there is something out of whack in the balance of power between labor and capital. Workers need some new way to collectively bargain for more money.

On the other hand, unions, and especially public-sector unions, have done a lot over the past decades to rigidify workplaces, especially government. Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform. Police unions have become an impediment to police reform.

If you look at all the proposals that have been discussed since the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, you find that somewhere or other around the country, police unions have opposed all of them:

GETTING RID OF BAD COPS A small percentage of cops commit most of the abuses. A study by WNYC News in New York found that, since 2009, 40 percent of the “resisting arrest” charges were filed by just 5 percent of New York Police Department officers. In other words, most officers rarely get in a confrontation that leads to that charge, but a few officers often get in violent confrontations.

But it’s very hard to remove the bad apples from the force. Trying to protect their members, unions have weakened accountability. The investigation process is softer on police than it would be on anyone else. In parts of the country, contract rules stipulate that officers get a 48-hour cooling-off period before having to respond to questions. They have access to the names and testimony of their accusers. They can be questioned only by one person at a time. They can’t be threatened with disciplinary action during questioning.

More seriously, cops who are punished can be reinstated through a secretive appeals process that favors job retention over public safety. In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a riveting piece with egregious stories of cops who have returned to the force after clear incompetence. Hector Jimenez was an Oakland, Calif., cop who shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man in 2007. Seven months later, he killed another unarmed man, shooting him in the back three times while he ran away. The city paid damages. Jimenez was fired. But he appealed through his union and was reinstated with back pay.

CAMERAS There’s long been talk about equipping cops with wearable cameras. In Miami, Boston, and Wichita, Kan., city officials bandied about such plans, but the local unions moved to thwart them, arguing, in one case, that wearing cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations.”

DEMILITARIZATION After riots in Ferguson, there was basically a national consensus that police don’t need mine-resistant, ambush-protected monster vehicles and military-style grenade launchers. But there’s support for the program in Washington among the defense industry and the unions. A union executive told Bloomberg News earlier this month that representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police reached out to “maybe 80 percent of senators and half the House” to defend the program. A representative of the International Union of Police Associations wrote in August after the shooting death of Brown, “I believe that law enforcement officers should have available to them any and all tools necessary to do their job and protect their community.”

STOP-AND-FRISK In New York, a court order mandated that there be federal oversight of the New York Police Department to monitor stop-and-frisk practices, a procedure that disproportionately affects minority men. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association moved to stall the ruling and questioned its impact. “We continue to have serious concerns about how these remedies will impact our members and the ability to do their jobs,” the president of the association said.

COMMUNITY RELATIONS In Philadelphia, a civilian oversight commission suggested that police officers apologize to citizens who complain of being mistreated. The local chief of the Fraternal Order of Police responded with a hysterical letter in March 2012 claiming that the commission was trying “to further weaken and demoralize the Philadelphia Police Department in a time of crisis with a significantly growing crime problem in this city. … Your group poses a direct threat to public safety in this city. A threat which should no longer be tolerated by our citizens or their government.”

We get mad at racism, but most government outrages have structural roots. The left doesn’t want to go after police unions because they’re unions. The right doesn’t want to because they represent law and order. Politicians of all stripes shy away because they are powerful.

Now we have a test case to see if the people who march about the Garner case have the stamina to force change. Legitimate union advocacy has become extreme because it has gone unchecked. Most cops do hard jobs well, but right now there’s a crisis of accountability.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.

But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?

Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.

In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.

Except for one thing. Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

How does it end? The standard response of a country in Russia’s situation is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own, among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone.

It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies.

Brooks and Krugman

December 12, 2014

In “In Praise of Small Miracles” Bobo says behavioral economics has given us amazing new policy options to solve local and international problems.  It’s his usual crap, but the comments were so wonderful I couldn’t decide between “mike vogel” of NY, who said “David, there is much proof that yelling at someone has zero affect on his or her behavior. For example, did you ever read your column’s comments section?” and “Bob” from SE PA who said “Instead of writing the thoughtful and critical replies posted here, can we instead come to The New York Times and scream our criticism of David’s work from the hallway just outside his office? Under David’s theory, the quality of his work would then improve.”  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Mad as Hellas.”  He says Greece appears to be in crisis again. Will we learn the right lessons this time?  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us don’t save enough. When governments try to encourage saving, they usually enact big policies to increase the incentives. But, in Kenya, people were given a lockable metal box — a simple place to put their money. After one year, the people with metal boxes increased savings by so much that they had 66 percent more money available to pay for health emergencies. It would have taken a giant tax reform to produce a shift in behavior that large.

Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.

The heckling discouraged dangerous driving by an awesome amount. Insurance claims involving injury or death fell to half of their previous levels.

These are examples of a new kind of policy-making that is sweeping the world. The old style was based on the notion that human beings are rational actors who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. The new style, which supplements but does not replace the old style, is based on the obvious point that human beings are not always rational actors. Sometimes we’re mentally lazy, or stressed, or we’re influenced by social pressure and unconscious biases. It’s possible to take advantage of these features to enact change.

For example, people hate losing things more than they like getting things, a phenomenon known as loss aversion. In some schools, teachers were offered a bonus at the end of their year if they could improve student performance. This kind of merit pay didn’t improve test scores. But, in other schools, teachers were given a bonus at the beginning of the year, which would effectively be taken away if their students didn’t improve. This loss-framed bonus had a big effect.

People are also guided by decision-making formats. The people who administer the ACT college admissions test used to allow students to send free score reports to three colleges. Many people thus applied to three colleges. But then the ACT folks changed the form so there were four lines where you could write down prospective colleges. That tiny change meant that many people applied to four colleges instead of three. Some got into more prestigious schools they wouldn’t have otherwise. This improved the expected earnings of low-income students by about $10,000.

The World Bank has just issued an amazingly good report called “Mind, Society and Behavior” on how the insights of behavioral economics can be applied to global development and global health. The report, written by a team led by Karla Hoff and Varun Gauri, lists many policies that have already been tried and points the way to many more.

Sugar cane farmers in India receive most of their income once a year, at harvest time. In the weeks before harvest, when they are poor and stressed, they score 10 points lower on I.Q. tests than in the weeks after. If you schedule fertilizer purchase decisions and their children’s school enrollment decisions during the weeks after harvest, they will make more farsighted choices than at other times of the year. This simple policy change is based on an understanding of how poverty depletes mental resources.

In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.

The policies informed by behavioral economics are delicious because they show how cheap changes can produce big effects. Policy makers in this mode focus on discrete opportunities to exploit, not vast problems to solve.

This corrects for a bias in the way governments often work. They tend to gravitate toward the grand and the abstract. For example the United Nations is now replacing the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, with the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Millennium Development Goals are concrete, measurable and have an end-date, so they could serve as a rallying point,” says Suprotik Basu, the chief executive of the MDG Health Alliance. “One good thing about the Sustainable Development Goals is that they’re being written through a bottom-up consensus process. But sometimes the search for consensus leads you higher and higher into the clouds. The jury is out on whether we will wind up with goals concrete enough to help ministers make decisions and decide priorities.”

Behavioral economics policies are beautiful because they are small and concrete but powerful. They remind us that when policies are rooted in actual human behavior and specific day-to-day circumstances, even governments can produce small miracles.

I want Bobo to start screaming at bad drivers.  As a Republican he’s sure to approve of gun possession, so when he gets shot he’ll be understanding.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The Greek fiscal crisis erupted five years ago, and its side effects continue to inflict immense damage on Europe and the world. But I’m not talking about the side effects you may have in mind — spillovers from Greece’s Great Depression-level slump, or financial contagion to other debtors. No, the truly disastrous effect of the Greek crisis was the way it distorted economic policy, as supposedly serious people around the world rushed to learn the wrong lessons.

Now Greece appears to be in crisis again. Will we learn the right lessons this time?

What happened last time, you may recall, was the exploitation of Greece’s woes to change the economic subject. Suddenly, we were supposed to obsess over budget deficits, even if borrowing costs were at historic lows, and slash government spending, even in the face of mass unemployment. Because if we didn’t, you see, we could turn into Greece any day now. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility,” intoned David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, as he announced austerity policies in 2010. “We are on the same path as Greece,” declared Representative Paul Ryan, who was soon to become the chairman of the House Budget Committee, that same year.

In reality, Britain and the United States, which borrow in their own currencies, were and are nothing like Greece. If you thought otherwise in 2010, by now year after year of incredibly low interest rates and low inflation should have convinced you. And the experience of Greece and other European countries that were forced into harsh austerity measures should also have convinced you that slashing spending in a depressed economy is a really bad idea if you can avoid it. This is true even in the supposed success stories — Ireland, for example, is finally growing again, but it still has almost 11 percent unemployment, and twice that rate among young people.

And the devastation in Greece is awesome to behold. Some press reports I’ve seen seem to suggest that the country has been a malingerer, balking at the harsh measures its situation demands. In reality, it has made huge adjustments — slashing public employment and compensation, cutting back social programs, raising taxes. If you want a sense of the scale of austerity, it would be as if the United States had introduced spending cuts and tax increases amounting to more than $1 trillion a year. Meanwhile, wages in the private sector have plunged. Yet a quarter of the Greek labor force, and half its young, remain unemployed.

Meanwhile, the debt situation has if anything gotten worse, with the ratio of public debt to G.D.P. at a record high — mainly because of falling G.D.P., not rising debt — and with the emergence of a big private debt problem, thanks to deflation and depression. There are some positives; the economy is growing a bit, finally, largely thanks to a revival of tourism. But, over all, it has been many years of suffering for very little reward.

The remarkable thing, given all that, has been the willingness of the Greek public to take it, to accept the claims of the political establishment that the pain is necessary and will eventually lead to recovery. And the news that has roiled Europe these past few days is that the Greeks may have reached their limit. The details are complex, but basically the current government is trying a fairly desperate political maneuver to put off a general election. And, if it fails, the likely winner in that election is Syriza, a party of the left that has demanded a renegotiation of the austerity program, which could lead to a confrontation with Germany and exit from the euro.

The important point here is that it’s not just the Greeks who are mad as Hellas (their own name for their country) and aren’t going to take it anymore. Look at France, where Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, outpolls mainstream candidates of both right and left. Look at Italy, where about half of voters support radical parties like the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement. Look at Britain, where both anti-immigrant politicians and Scottish separatists are threatening the political order.

It would be a terrible thing if any of these groups — with the exception, surprisingly, of Syriza, which seems relatively benign — were to come to power. But there’s a reason they’re on the rise. This is what happens when an elite claims the right to rule based on its supposed expertise, its understanding of what must be done — then demonstrates both that it does not, in fact, know what it is doing, and that it is too ideologically rigid to learn from its mistakes.

I have no idea how events in Greece are about to turn out. But there’s a real lesson in its political turmoil that’s much more important than the false lesson too many took from its special fiscal woes.


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