Archive for the ‘Another pile of crap’ Category

Bobo, driveling solo

March 31, 2015

Bobo is flying driveling solo this morning.  In “Religious Liberty and Equality” he has the cojones to gurgle that the gay rights movement is at risk of losing its moral high ground by misusing its newfound political clout.  As usual, “gemli” from Boston sums it all up for us very succinctly.  He says “I’ve never read a more eloquent and heartfelt defense of homophobia.”  Here’s Bobo (and the Times should really explain to us why he still gets paid for his crap):

Over the past few decades the United States has engaged in a great struggle to balance civil rights and religious liberty.

On the one hand, there is a growing consensus that straight, gay and lesbian people deserve full equality with each other. We are to be judged by how we love, not by whom we love. If denying gays and lesbians their full civil rights and dignity is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. Gays and lesbians should not only be permitted to marry and live as they want, but be honored for doing so.

On the other hand, this was a nation founded on religious tolerance. The ways of the Lord are mysterious and are understood differently by different traditions. At their best, Americans have always believed that people should have the widest possible latitude to exercise their faith as they see fit or not exercise any faith. While there are many bigots, there are also many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage. These people are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion.

At its best, the gay rights movement has promoted its cause while carefully respecting religious liberty and the traditional pillars of American society. The cause has focused on marriage and military service. It has not staged a frontal assault on the exercise of faith.

The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was supported by Senator Ted Kennedy and a wide posse of progressives, sidestepped the abstract and polarizing theological argument. It focused on the concrete facts of specific cases. The act basically holds that government sometimes has to infringe on religious freedom in order to pursue equality and other goods, but, when it does, it should have a compelling reason and should infringe in the least intrusive way possible.

This moderate, grounded, incremental strategy has produced amazing results. Fewer people have to face the horror of bigotry, isolation, marginalization and prejudice.

Yet I wonder if this phenomenal achievement is going off the rails. Indiana has passed a state law like the 1993 federal act, and sparked an incredible firestorm.

If the opponents of that law were arguing that the Indiana statute tightens the federal standards a notch too far, that would be compelling. But that’s not the argument the opponents are making.

Instead, the argument seems to be that the federal act’s concrete case-by-case approach is wrong. The opponents seem to be saying there is no valid tension between religious pluralism and equality. Claims of religious liberty are covers for anti-gay bigotry.

This deviation seems unwise both as a matter of pragmatics and as a matter of principle. In the first place, if there is no attempt to balance religious liberty and civil rights, the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation. Some people have lost their jobs for expressing opposition to gay marriage. There are too many stories like the Oregon bakery that may have to pay a $150,000 fine because it preferred not to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. A movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side of a government that compels a photographer who is an evangelical Christian to shoot a same-sex wedding that he would rather avoid.

Furthermore, the evangelical movement is evolving. Many young evangelicals understand that their faith should not be defined by this issue. If orthodox Christians are suddenly written out of polite society as modern-day Bull Connors, this would only halt progress, polarize the debate and lead to a bloody war of all against all.

As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage.

Morality is a politeness of the soul. Deep politeness means we make accommodations. Certain basic truths are inalienable. Discrimination is always wrong. In cases of actual bigotry, the hammer comes down. But as neighbors in a pluralistic society we try to turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems in which different people are given space to have different lanes to lead lives. In cases where people with different values disagree, we seek a creative accommodation.

In the Jewish community, conservative Jews are generally polite toward Orthodox Jews who wouldn’t use their cutlery. Men are generally polite to Orthodox women who would prefer not to shake their hands. In the larger community, this respectful politeness works best.

The movement to champion gay rights is now in a position where it can afford to offer this respect, at a point where steady pressure works better than compulsion.

It’s always easier to take an absolutist position. But, in a clash of values like the one between religious pluralism and equality, that absolutism is neither pragmatic, virtuous nor true.

Perhaps God will forgive Bobo when he finally meets Her…

Brooks and Krugman

March 20, 2015

In “The Zero-Sum Moment” Bobo gurgles that we are living through a global era characterized by doubt and fear; it may be the single biggest driver of politics, from Israel to Europe to here at home.  Cripes…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston (who really should have Bobo’s job) had this to say:  “At a time when Republicans are merely signing letters that undermine our faith in democracy, David Brooks is writing one. Its message is one of fear, of suspicion, of arming ourselves, barring the door and drawing the wagons into a circle. It’s practically the clinical definition of the conservative pathology. If there is any doubt, it concludes by conflating F.D.R. and Reagan in a near black hole of false equivalence, comparing the man who stood against the social and economic destroyers with the man who paved the way for their return.  … Conservatives are slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, and Brooks is in the delivery room, pacing like a nervous father.”  Prof. Krugman takes a look at “Trillion Dollar Fraudsters” and says the modern Republican Party’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics.  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

National elections take place within a specific global moment. In the 1990s, there was a presumption that we were living in an age of rapid progress. Democracy was spreading. Tyranny was receding. Asia was booming. The European Union was building. Conflict in the Middle East was lessening. The world was cumulatively heading toward greater pluralism, individualism, prosperity and freedom.

Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating.

In this climate, the tone and focus of politics change. Politics is less about win-win situations and more about zero-sum situations. It is less about reforms that will improve all lives and more about unadorned struggles for power. Who will control the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria? Will Iran get the bomb? Will the White House or Congress grab power over treaties and immigration policy?

At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel. The pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is staging a comeback in France. Putin is in his element.

Barack Obama started out as a hope-and-change idealist, but he has had to toughen to fit the times. Angela Merkel is the paradigmatic leader of the age: shrewd, unemotional, nonidealistic, austere and interested in power. As the former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told George Packer of The New Yorker: “If you cross her you end up dead. … There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”

In these moments, right-leaning parties tend to do well and have a stronger story to tell on national security. They speak the language of nationalism and cultural cohesion. People who are economically insecure (and more likely to lean left) drop out of the political process.

Both parties, though, change shape to fit the zero-sum contours of the moment. Progressives emphasize compassion less and redistribution more. Conservatives emphasize entrepreneurial dynamism less and the threat of government elites more. Electorates get a little uglier when faith in progress declines. Voters across the spectrum get more cynical and distrustful. They are quicker to perceive threats from The Other.

For example, anti-Semitism is a good barometer of a worsening public mood. According to the Pew Research Center, acts of hostility toward Jews are now rampant in 39 percent of countries, up from 26 percent in 2007. The U.K. Community Security Trust registered 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2014, more than double the number from the previous year.

It’s rare to have major realignments at a moment like this. Everybody is hunkered down and risk averse. Voters in this battened-down frame of mind are willing to elect familiar faces (better the devil you know). The Israeli, American and European electorates have been remarkably stable over the past decade. In Israel, for example, the overall vote that went to right-wing parties was stable from this election to last; it’s just that the Likud Party grabbed a big share of the nationalist electorate.

Still, you do see some shifts. Extreme parties rise, especially the ones that repel supposed interlopers and oppose elite global projects. We’re seeing that across the globe with the Tea Party, UKIP in Britain, National Front on the right in France and Syriza on the left in Greece.

Extreme parties rarely take power, but they do influence politics because mainstream politicians have to co-opt them. Mainstream politicians have to fight two-front wars: the official one against their ideological opponents and the unofficial one to silence, co-opt and crush the extremists on their own side.

This is what Netanyahu did in Israel. He didn’t literally renounce the idea of a two-state solution forevermore. He just said that it would be too dangerous in the near term as long as Islamist-style radicalism is on the march. (A defensible proposition.) Still, these comments and the ones on Israeli Arabs were blatant panders. He took Knesset seats away from parties to his right by becoming more like them.

These conditions will influence the 2016 American election, too. I’d guess that the cultural moment favors Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who have records of confrontation, over Jeb Bush, who hasn’t won election in this era and has a softer mien. I’d also say they strengthen Hillary Clinton. She has a Merkel-like toughness and may actually benefit from the familiar-face phenomenon.

In general, the power of the cultural moment shapes the candidates. But occasionally there is a leader who can turn a negative popular mood into a positive one. F.D.R. and Reagan did this. But you have to be very, very good.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

You might be tempted to shrug this off, since these budgets will not, in fact, become law. Or you might say that this is what all politicians do. But it isn’t. The modern G.O.P.’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics. And that’s telling us something important about what has happened to half of our political spectrum.

So, about those budgets: both claim drastic reductions in federal spending. Some of those spending reductions are specified: There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.

Meanwhile, both budgets call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes that pay for the insurance subsidies. That’s $1 trillion of revenue. Yet both claim to have no effect on tax receipts; somehow, the federal government is supposed to make up for the lost Obamacare revenue. How, exactly? We are, again, given no hint.

And there’s more: The budgets also claim large reductions in spending on other programs. How would these be achieved? You know the answer.

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

O.K., I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

So, no, outrageous fiscal mendacity is neither historically normal nor bipartisan. It’s a modern Republican thing. And the question we should ask is why.

One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue, but they’re afraid that the public won’t find such claims credible. So magic asterisks are really stand-ins for their belief in the magic of supply-side economics, a belief that remains intact even though proponents in that doctrine have been wrong about everything for decades.

But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation. Think about what these budgets would do if you ignore the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements. What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.

But this is, of course, not a policy direction the public would support if it were clearly explained. So the budgets must be sold as courageous efforts to eliminate deficits and pay down debt — which means that they must include trillions in imaginary, unexplained savings.

Does this mean that all those politicians declaiming about the evils of budget deficits and their determination to end the scourge of debt were never sincere? Yes, it does.

Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry.

Brooks and Krugman

March 13, 2015

Welp, Bobo has gone back to writing about politics.  Not so sure that’s a good thing, come to think of it.  In “Hillary Clinton’s Big Test” he babbles that the all-but-declared presidential candidate needs to rise above the warring tactics that helped to shape her political career if she hopes to be successful in 2016.  Here’s “gemli” from Boston in the comments:  “It used to be that presidents weren’t called liars during national addresses and didn’t spend the first two years of their administration being asked to show their birth certificates. If Mr. Brooks wants to set the stage for this unprecedented chaos in Washington, he shouldn’t make it sound as though both sides are equally culpable.”  Yeah, Bobo just eats up the good old “but both sides do it” crap…  Prof. Krugman says “Strength Is Weakness,” and that the strong dollar is actually bad for America, giving Europe a way to export its troubles to the rest of the world.  Here’s Bobo:

The political world is stuck in the middle of an accelerating protocol crisis. All sorts of customary acts of self-restraint are being washed away. It used to be that senators didn’t go out campaigning against one another. It used to be they didn’t filibuster except in rare circumstances. It used to be they didn’t block presidential nominations routinely.

It used to be that presidents didn’t push the limits of executive authority by redefining the residency status of millions of people without congressional approval. It used to be that presidents didn’t go out negotiating arms control treaties in a way that doesn’t require Senate ratification. It used to be that senators didn’t write letters to hostile nations while their own president was negotiating with them.

All the informal self-restraints that softened the brutality of politics are being torn away. It’s like going to a dinner party where all the little customs of politeness are gone and everything is just grab what you can when you can.

Into this state of affairs walks Hillary Clinton. She has, maybe more than anybody else, been shaped by this sort of political warfare. Her career has been marked by a series of brutal confrontations: Whitewater, Travelgate, health care reform, cattle futures, Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi, the emails and so on.

Her manner amid these battles is well established. In normal times, she comes across as a warm, thoughtful, pragmatic and highly intelligent person. But she has been extremely quick to go into battle mode. When she is in that mode, the descriptions from people who know her are pretty much the same, crisis after crisis: hunkered down, steely, scornful and secretive. It is said that she demands extraordinary loyalty from her troops. In the 2008 campaign, she narrowed her circle of trust to a tiny and insular set of advisers. It is said that she assumes that the news media is operating in bad faith, that the press swarms are not there for information but just to tear people down.

So one big question this year is: What happens when Hillary Clinton’s battle mode temperament hits politics as it’s currently practiced?

Since Watergate, many scandal wars have been fought over access to information about the scandal rather than about the scandal itself. In the 1970s, a series of extremely stupid sunshine laws were put into place that semi-exposed the private deliberations of public figures, distorted internal debate and pushed real conversations deeper into the shadows. Now every hint of scandal is surrounded by an elaborate tussle over who gets to see what.

These struggles over information have brought out Clinton’s most aggressive and sometimes self-destructive instincts — even when the underlying scandal was not that bad. During Whitewater, she insisted that some of her law firm’s billing records could not be found (until they were discovered in the White House residence two years after being subpoenaed). Her health care reform effort was needlessly marred by her unwillingness to release the names of her consultants. The fallout from the attack of an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, was an overblown scandal, but the State Department still withheld emails from congressional investigators.

In these cases, Clinton’s admirable respect for privacy shifted into a generalized atmosphere of hostility. It will be interesting in the months ahead to see if she continues to react to political stress in the same way. More specifically, it will be interesting to see if goes strong or goes large.

If she goes strong, she will fight fire with fire. If she is hit, she’ll hit back. She’ll treat information as a source of power to be hoarded and controlled. She’ll strap on armor each morning and go into each day strictly disciplined — ready to prove that this woman is tough enough to be president.

If she goes large, she’ll resist the urge to fight scorn with scorn. Temperamentally, she’ll have to rise above the bitterness, as Reagan, F.D.R. and Lincoln did. She and her staff will recall that the primary mission is not to win the news cycle by hitting back at whatever loon is hitting her. It’s to craft a government agenda that can win the steady support of 61 senators. It’s to win a governing majority.

The only way to reverse the protocol crisis is to create policies that can win bipartisan support. If the next president gets the substance right, the manners will follow.

Can Hillary Clinton do this? Is she strong enough to rise above hostility, to instead reveal scary and vulnerable parts of herself so that voters feel as though they can trust and relate to her? We’ll see.

Frances Perkins, a hero of mine who was F.D.R.’s secretary of labor, was one of the nation’s great public servants. But she was too reticent, too closed in her attitude toward information. She shut down in the face of the media. This attitude did her enormous harm, regardless of her many other gifts.

What an egregious pile of shit.  Here’s what “TRP” from Crozet, VA had to say in the comments:  “There’s a far more recent example of a grace-under-fire president. Black guy? Big ears? Unpatriotic Muslim Kenyan lawless lying fascist tyrant appeaser? Must have slipped your mind.”  Cripes, I’d almost rather Bobo go back to trying to sound like a rabbi…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

We’ve been warned over and over that the Federal Reserve, in its effort to improve the economy, is “debasing” the dollar. The archaic word itself tells you a lot about where the people issuing such warnings are coming from. It’s an allusion to the ancient practice of replacing pure gold or silver coins with “debased” coins in which the precious-metal content was adulterated with cheaper stuff. Message to the gold bugs and Ayn Rand disciples who dominate the Republican Party: That’s not how modern money works. Still, the Fed’s critics keep insisting that easy-money policies will lead to a plunging dollar.

Reality, however, keeps declining to oblige. Far from heading downstairs to debasement, the dollar has soared through the roof. (Sorry.) Over the past year, it has risen 20 percent, on average, against other major currencies; it’s up 27 percent against the euro. Hooray for the strong dollar!

Or not. Actually, the strong dollar is bad for America. In an immediate sense, it will weaken our long-delayed economic recovery by widening the trade deficit. In a deeper sense, the message from the dollar’s surge is that we’re less insulated than many thought from problems overseas. In particular, you should think of the strong dollar/weak euro combination as the way Europe exports its troubles to the rest of the world, America very much included.

Some background: U.S. growth has improved lately, with employment rising at a pace not seen since the Clinton years. Yet the state of the economy still leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, the absence of much evidence for rising wages tells us that the job market is still weak despite the fall in the headline unemployment rate. Meanwhile, the returns America offers investors are ridiculously low by historical standards, with even long-term bonds paying only a bit more than 2 percent interest.

Currency markets, however, always grade countries on a curve. The United States isn’t exactly booming, but it looks great compared with Europe, where the present is bad and the future looks worse. Even before the new Greek crisis blew up, Europe was starting to resemble Japan without the social cohesion: within the eurozone, the working-age population is shrinking, investment is weak and much of the region is flirting with deflation. Markets have responded to those poor prospects by pushing interest rates incredibly low. In fact, many European bonds are now offering negative interest rates.

This remarkable situation makes even those low, low U.S. returns look attractive by comparison. So capital is heading our way, driving the euro down and the dollar up.

Who wins from this market move? Europe: a weaker euro makes European industry more competitive against rivals, boosting both exports and firms that compete with imports, and the effect is to mitigate the euroslump. Who loses? We do, as our industry loses competitiveness, not just in European markets, but in countries where our exports compete with theirs. America has been experiencing a modest manufacturing revival in recent years, but that revival will be cut short if the dollar stays this high for long.

In effect, then, Europe is managing to export some of its stagnation to the rest of us. We’re not talking about a nefarious plot, about so-called currency wars; it’s just the way things work in a global economy with highly mobile capital and market-determined exchange rates.

And the effects may be quite large. If markets believe that Europe’s weakness will last a long time, we would expect the euro to fall and the dollar to rise enough to eliminate much if not most of the difference in interest rates, which would mean severely crimping U.S. growth.

One thing that worries me is that I’m not at all sure that policy makers have fully taken the implications of a rising dollar into account. The Fed, still eager to raise interest rates despite low inflation and stagnant wages, seems to me to be too sanguine about the economic drag. And the most recent Fed minutes suggested that some members of the committee that governs monetary policy were thoroughly clueless, apparently believing that inflows of capital would make the U.S. economy stronger, not weaker.

Oh, and one more thing: a lot of businesses around the world have borrowed heavily in dollars, which means that a rising dollar may create a whole new set of debt crises. Just what the global economy needed.

Is there a policy moral to all this? One thing is that it’s really important for all of us that Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank and associates succeed in steering Europe away from a deflationary trap; the euro is their currency, but it turns out to be our problem. Mainly, though, this is another reason for the Fed to fight the urge to pretend that the crisis is over. Don’t raise rates until you see the whites of inflation’s eyes!

Solo Bobo

February 17, 2015

Mr. Nocera is off today, so we’re faced with Bobo, who’s decided to babble on about something he knows little to nothing about.  Again.  But he read a book about it…  In “The Moral Injury” he gurgles that the horrors of PTSD are more complex than most of us know. Sufferers feel exile, and healing must be moral as well as psychological.  This from someone who was a drum major for the Iraq war…  “Rich in Atlanta,” an infantry veteran from Decatur, GA, opened his comment with these words:  “Thank you, Mr. Brooks, for a facile conclusion on something you’ve never experienced.”  Here’s Bobo:

David J. Morris returned from Iraq with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The former Marine turned war correspondent was plagued by nightmares. His imagination careened out of control; he envisioned fireballs erupting while on trips to the mall. His emotions could go numb, but his awareness was hypervigilant. Images and smells from the war were tattooed eternally fresh on his brain, and he circled back to them remorselessly.

“Trauma destroys the fabric of time,” Morris writes in his book, “The Evil Hours.” “In normal time you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death. After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy or bouncing like a rubber ball from now to then to back again. … In the traumatic universe the basic laws of matter are suspended: ceiling fans can be helicopters, car exhaust can be mustard gas.”

Morris’s book is so good because it relies on literature, history and psychology to communicate the reality of PTSD, both to those who live with it and those who never have. But this book is also important because it’s part of a broader re-evaluation of trauma.

Most discussion about PTSD thus far has been about fear and the conquering of fear. But, over the past few years, more people have come to understand PTSD is also about exile — moral exile.

We don’t think about it much, but in civilian life we live enmeshed in a fabric of moral practices and evaluations. We try to practice kindness and to cause no pain.

People who have been to war have left this universe behind. That’s because war — no matter how justified or unjustified, noble or ignoble — is always a crime. It involves accidental killings, capricious death for one but not another, tainted situations where every choice is murderously wrong.

Many veterans feel guilty because they lived while others died. Some feel ashamed because they didn’t bring all their men home and wonder what they could have done differently to save them. When they get home they wonder if there’s something wrong with them because they find war repugnant but also thrilling. They hate it and miss it.

Many of their self-judgments go to extremes. A comrade died because he stepped on an improvised explosive device and his commander feels unrelenting guilt because he didn’t go down a different street. Insurgents used women and children as shields, and soldiers and Marines feel a totalistic black stain on themselves because of an innocent child’s face, killed in the firefight. The self-condemnation can be crippling.

The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened. They find themselves unable to communicate their condition to those who remained at home, resenting civilians for their blind innocence.

People generally don’t suffer high rates of PTSD after natural disasters. Instead, people suffer from PTSD after moral atrocities. Soldiers who’ve endured the depraved world of combat experience their own symptoms. Trauma is an expulsive cataclysm of the soul.

We now have a growing number of books and institutions grappling with this reality, including Phil Klay’s novel “Redeployment,” which won the National Book Award; Nancy Sherman’s forthcoming “Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers”; and therapy programs like the one on moral injury found at the San Diego Naval Medical Center. These writers and therapists suggest that there has to be a moral reckoning, a discernment process that doesn’t whitewash what happened but does lead to merciful judgments about how much guilt should be borne; settled and measured conclusions about how responsibility for terrible things should be apportioned.

Sherman, who is a philosopher at Georgetown University, emphasizes that most of the work will have to be done at the micro level — through individual conversations between veterans and civilians that go beyond the cheap grace of “thank you for your service.” The conversations have to deal with the individual facts of each case. The goal is to get veterans to adopt the stance of a friendly observer, to make clear how limited choices are when one is caught in a random, tragic situation, to arrive at catharsis and self-forgiveness about what was actually blameworthy and what wasn’t.

The civilian enters into the world the veteran actually inhabited during those awful crowded hours and expands his own moral awareness. The veteran feels trusted, respected and understood — re-integrated into the fabric of his or her homeland.

We live in a culture that emphasizes therapy, but trauma often has to be overcome morally, through rigorous philosophical autobiography, nuanced judgment, case by case.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 6, 2015

In “Conflict and Ego” Bobo says the best way to successfully respond to hate, even from the likes of ISIS, is to step outside the logic of vengeance.  He opens this POS with a terrific, sniveling whine:  “If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”  It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill.”  He’s delusional if he thinks that the Times doesn’t filter comments on his stuff through an EXTREMELY fine mesh strainer.  “Vituperative” never gets through.  Poor, poor Bobo is SO set upon.  Maybe he could take a fricking step back and consider WHY he gets the comments that he does…  Mr. Cohen says “Israel Needs a Grownup,” and that Netanyahu promotes himself as a “Bibi-sitter”, but babysitters don’t think about the future.  Prof. Krugman, in “A Game of Chicken,” says Europe faces a moment of truth as it deals with a debt-ridden Greece.  Here, gawd help us, is Bobo:

If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”

It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill. But if I read them with the (possibly delusional) attitude that these are treasured friends bringing me lovely gifts of perspective, then my eye slides over the insults and I can usually learn something. The key is to get the question of my self-worth out of the way — which is actually possible unless the insulter is really creative.

It’s not only newspaper columnists who face this kind of problem. Everybody who is on the Internet is subject to insult, trolling, hating and cruelty. Most of these online assaults are dominance plays. They are attempts by the insulter to assert his or her own superior status through displays of gratuitous cruelty toward a target.

The natural but worst way to respond is to enter into the logic of this status contest. If he puffs himself up, you puff yourself up. But if you do this you put yourself and your own status at center stage. You enter a cycle of keyboard vengeance. You end up with a painfully distended ego, forever in danger, needing to assert itself, and sensitive to sleights.

Clearly, the best way to respond is to step out of the game. It’s to get out of the status competition. Enmity is a nasty frame of mind. Pride is painful. The person who can quiet the self can see the world clearly, can learn the subject and master the situation.

Historically, we reserve special admiration for those who can quiet the self even in the heat of conflict. Abraham Lincoln was caught in the middle of a horrific civil war. It would have been natural for him to live with his instincts aflame — filled with indignation toward those who started the war, enmity toward those who killed his men and who would end up killing him. But his second inaugural is a masterpiece of rising above the natural urge toward animosity and instead adopting an elevated stance.

The terror theater that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is perpetrating these days is certainly in a different category than Internet nastiness. But the beheadings and the monstrous act of human incineration are also insults designed to generate a visceral response.

They are a different kind of play of dominance. They are attempts by insignificant men to get the world to recognize their power and status.

These Islamic State guys burn hostages alive because it wins praise from their colleagues, because it earns attention and because it wins the sort of perverse respect that accompanies fear. We often say that terrorism is an act of war, but that’s wrong. Terrorism is an act of taunting. These murderous videos are attempts to make the rest of us feel powerless, at once undone by fear and addled by disgust.

The natural and worst way to respond is with the soul inflamed. If they execute one of our guys, we’ll — as Jordan did — execute two of their guys. If they chest-thump, we’ll chest-thump. If they kill, we’ll kill.

This sort of strategy is just an ISIS recruiting tool. It sucks us into their nihilistic status war: Their barbarism and our response.

The world is full of invisible young men yearning to feel significant, who’d love to shock the world and light folks on fire in an epic status contest with the reigning powers.

The best way to respond is to quiet our disgust and quiet our instincts. It is to step out of their game. It is to reassert the primacy of our game. The world’s mission in the Middle East is not to defeat ISIS, which is just a barbaric roadblock. It’s to reassert the primacy of pluralism, freedom and democracy. It’s to tamp down zeal and cultivate self-doubt. The world has to destroy the Islamic State with hard power, but only as a means to that higher moral end.

Many people have lost faith in that democratic mission, but without that mission we’re just one more army in a contest of barbarism. Our acts are nothing but volleys in a status war.

In this column, I’ve tried to describe the interplay of conflict and ego, in arenas that are trivial (the comments section) and in arenas that are monstrous (the war against the Islamic State). In all cases, conflict inflames the ego, distorts it and degrades it.

The people we admire break that chain. They quiet the self and step outside the status war. They focus on the larger mission. They reject the puerile logic of honor codes and status rivalries, and enter a more civilized logic, that doesn’t turn us into our enemies.

Of course the Iraq war, that Bobo was SUCH a huge fan of, had NOTHING to do with what’s going on now…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A pivotal Israeli election looms in March with one man towering over it: Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s us or him,” says a slogan of the opposition Zionist Camp, as the prime minister seeks a fourth term. People tire of the same face; there’s a shelf life for any leader in a democracy. Netanyahu’s would-be successors are betting that, after a cumulative nine years in power, he has exhausted his.

Sensing the challenge, Netanyahu has gambled. His planned visit to Washington next month to address a joint session of Congress amounts to a high-risk foray. President Obama will not meet with him. Nor will Secretary of State John Kerry. Dozens of House Democrats have suggested they may give the March 3 address a pass. All have been angered by Netanyahu’s clumsy embrace of a Republican offer to step into the midst of American politics, an invitation accepted without the minimum courtesy of informing the White House.

Obama is furious, with cause. He has been a firm supporter of Israel. His patience with its leader is at an end. The question now is whether Israeli voters will be more swayed by the sight of a Netanyahu greeted by standing ovations in the Republican-controlled Congress as he lambastes a possible nuclear deal with Iran, or a Netanyahu shunned by the Obama administration for his decision to play to the gallery.

Israelis feel uncomfortable when relations with the United States deteriorate to the point reached today. They also know that any credible response to Iran is reinforced by American-Israeli unity and undermined by its absence. Netanyahu’s Washington visit — hatched by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer — smacks of a misjudgment. How serious this will prove remains to be seen.

Over the past couple of weeks, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party has rallied. Opinion polls now show Likud slightly ahead of the centrist Zionist Camp, winning an estimated 25 or 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, to the main opposition grouping’s 23 or 24. Last month, the Zionist Camp appeared to have a slight advantage. The reason comes down to a single word: security. When threats to Israel rise, Netanyahu reassures. The Bibi baritone steadies the ship. A Likud campaign ad shows him arriving at the home of parents who are going out for the evening: “You asked for a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter,” he says.

But of course babysitters take care of the immediate needs of kids. They do not build a future for them; they scarcely even think about the future. In this sense, the ad is instructive. The fundamental question about a potential fourth period in office for Netanyahu is: to what end?

The decision by Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader, and Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and longtime lead negotiator with the Palestinians, to call themselves the Zionist Camp is significant. Their Zionism is distinct from the Messianism of the Israeli right, which claims the mantle of Zionism while betraying it through maximalist territorial claims that undermine the long-term survival of a Jewish and democratic state.

Herzog and Livni begin with the idea that a two-state peace is the only guarantor of the founding Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish homeland. It is also the only outcome consistent with Jewish ethics founded on the principles of truth, justice and peace. Netanyahu has paid lip service, but no more, to the two-state idea. He would continue to do so if victorious with predictable consequences: a familiar status quo comprised of periodic war.

This is the fundamental issue in an election that appears to be about Netanyahu but is in fact about something far more serious: whether Israel can return to the Zionism of the founders of the modern state and seek in good faith a two-state outcome, whatever the myriad failings and errors of the Palestinians. These failings must be factored into negotiations rather than used as a pretext for the politics of kicking the can down the road.

When I was in Israel at the end of last year, Livni told me: “Netanyahu looks at the situation of Israel through the lens of the threats. His deep emotion is to stick together, be united against those who are against us. I believe we need to be for something. Written on my wall is Jewish Democratic state, two states for two peoples. Written on Likud’s wall is Jewish state, Greater Israel. For me any day that goes by without a solution is another lost day. For those believing in Greater Israel, another day that passes without an agreement is another day of victory and taking more land.”

That’s a pretty good summation of what’s at stake March 17. Beyond economic issues, corruption charges, Boehner-Bibi shenanigans and the rest, Israel’s future is on the line. It’s not a babysitter the Jewish state needs. It’s a grown-up.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wednesday, the European Central Bank announced that it would no longer accept Greek government debt as collateral for loans. This move, it turns out, was more symbolic than substantive. Still, the moment of truth is clearly approaching.

And it’s a moment of truth not just for Greece, but for the whole of Europe — and, in particular, for the central bank, which may soon have to decide whom it really works for.

Basically, the current situation may be summarized with the following dialogue:

Germany to Greece: Nice banking system you got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Greece to Germany: Oh, yeah? Well, we’d hate to see your nice, shiny European Union get all banged up.

Or if you want the stuffier version, Germany is demanding that Greece keep trying to pay its debts in full by imposing incredibly harsh austerity. The implied threat if Greece refuses is that the central bank will cut off the support it gives to Greek banks, which is what Wednesday’s move sounded like but wasn’t. And that would wreak havoc with Greece’s already terrible economy.

Yet pulling the plug on Greece would pose enormous risks, not just to Europe’s economy, but to the whole European project, the 60-year effort to build peace and democracy through shared prosperity. A Greek banking collapse would probably lead Greece to leave the euro and establish its own currency — and if even one country were to abandon the euro, investors would be put on notice that Europe’s grand currency design is reversible.

Beyond that, chaos in Greece could fuel the sinister political forces that have been gaining influence as Europe’s Second Great Depression goes on and on. After a tense meeting with his German counterpart, the new Greek finance minister didn’t hesitate to play the 1930s card. “Nazism,” he declared, “is raising its ugly head in Greece” — a reference to Golden Dawn, the not-so-neo-Nazi party that is now the third largest in the Greek legislature.

What we’re looking at here is, in short, a very dangerous confrontation. This isn’t diplomacy as usual; this is a game of chicken, of two trucks loaded with dynamite barreling toward each other on a narrow mountain road, with neither willing to turn aside. And all of this is taking place within the European Union, which is supposed to be — indeed, has been, until now — an institution that promotes productive cooperation.

How did Europe get to this point? And what’s the end game?

Like all too many crises, the new Greek crisis stems, ultimately, from political pandering. It’s the kind of thing that happens when politicians tell voters what they want to hear, make promises that can’t be fulfilled, and then can’t bring themselves to face reality and make the hard choices they’ve been pretending can be avoided.

I am, of course, talking about Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her colleagues.

It’s true that Greece got itself into trouble through irresponsible borrowing (although this irresponsible borrowing wouldn’t have been possible without equally irresponsible lending). And Greece has paid a terrible price for that irresponsibility. Looking forward, however, how much more can Greece take? Clearly, it can’t pay the debt in full; that’s obvious to anyone who has done the math.

Unfortunately, German politicians have never explained the math to their constituents. Instead, they’ve taken the lazy path: moralizing about the irresponsibility of borrowers, declaring that debts must and will be paid in full, playing into stereotypes about shiftless southern Europeans. And now that the Greek electorate has finally declared that it can take no more, German officials just keep repeating the same old lines.

Maybe the Germans imagine that they can replay the events of 2010, when the central bank coerced Ireland into accepting an austerity program by threatening to cut off its banking system. But that’s unlikely to work against a government that has seen the damage wrought by austerity, and was elected on a promise to reverse that damage.

Furthermore, there’s still reason to hope that the European Central Bank will refuse to play along.

On Wednesday, the central bank made an announcement that sounded like severe punishment for Greece, but wasn’t, because it left the really important channel of support for Greek banks (Emergency Liquidity Assistance — don’t ask) in place. So it was more of a wake-up call than anything else, and arguably it was as much a wake-up call for Germany as it was for Greece.

And what if the Germans don’t wake up? In that case we can hope that the central bank takes a stand and declares that its proper role is to do all it can to safeguard Europe’s economy and democratic institutions — not to act as Germany’s debt collector. As I said, we’re rapidly approaching a moment of truth.

Solo Bobo

February 3, 2015

Mr. Nocera is off today — maybe he sprained his back from carrying all that water…  Bobo has decided to tell us all about “Building Better Secularists.”  He babbles that today’s secularism speaks convincingly to the rational mind, but it must speak to the whole human heart if it is to serve as a guide for life.  His solution?  Religion!  In the comments “J Burkett” from Austin had this to say:  “You’re wrong, David – It isn’t such a struggle to treat others kindly and with dignity. Mike Huckabee and his Christian/religious brethren ought to try it more often.  According to you, they alone have all the rules to live by to make them caring, decent people, but hardly a week goes by that we don’t see video recorded proof of them ignoring those rules.”  And here’s Bobo:

Over the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people who are atheist, agnostic or without religious affiliation. A fifth of all adults and a third of the youngest adults fit into this category.

As secularism becomes more prominent and self-confident, its spokesmen have more insistently argued that secularism should not be seen as an absence — as a lack of faith — but rather as a positive moral creed. Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist, makes this case as fluidly and pleasurably as anybody in his book, “Living the Secular Life.”

Zuckerman argues that secular morality is built around individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility. Instead of relying on some eye in the sky to tell them what to do, secular people reason their way to proper conduct.

Secular people, he argues, value autonomy over groupthink. They deepen their attachment to this world instead of focusing on a next one. They may not be articulate about why they behave as they do, he argues, but they try their best to follow the Golden Rule, to be considerate and empathetic toward others. “Secular morality hinges upon little else than not harming others and helping those in need,” Zuckerman writes.

As he describes them, secularists seem like genial, low-key people who have discarded metaphysical prejudices and are now leading peaceful and rewarding lives. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that the secular writers are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it. Consider the tasks a person would have to perform to live secularism well:

•   Secular individuals have to build their own moral philosophies. Religious people inherit creeds that have evolved over centuries. Autonomous secular people are called upon to settle on their own individual sacred convictions.

•   Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

•   Secular individuals have to build their own Sabbaths. Religious people are commanded to drop worldly concerns. Secular people have to create their own set times for when to pull back and reflect on spiritual matters.

  Secular people have to fashion their own moral motivation. It’s not enough to want to be a decent person. You have to be powerfully motivated to behave well. Religious people are motivated by their love for God and their fervent desire to please Him. Secularists have to come up with their own powerful drive that will compel sacrifice and service.

The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation. The point is that an age of mass secularization is an age in which millions of people have put unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves. People who don’t know how to take up these burdens don’t turn bad, but they drift. They suffer from a loss of meaning and an unconscious boredom with their own lives.

• One other burden: Past secular creeds were built on the 18th-century enlightenment view of man as an autonomous, rational creature who could reason his way to virtue. The past half-century of cognitive science has shown that that creature doesn’t exist. We are not really rational animals; emotions play a central role in decision-making, the vast majority of thought is unconscious, and our minds are riddled with biases. We are not really autonomous; our actions are powerfully shaped by others in ways we are not even aware of.

It seems to me that if secularism is going to be a positive creed, it can’t just speak to the rational aspects of our nature. Secularism has to do for nonbelievers what religion does for believers — arouse the higher emotions, exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action. Christianity doesn’t rely just on a mild feeling like empathy; it puts agape at the center of life, a fervent and selfless sacrificial love. Judaism doesn’t just value community; it values a covenantal community infused with sacred bonds and chosenness that make the heart strings vibrate. Religions don’t just ask believers to respect others; rather each soul is worthy of the highest dignity because it radiates divine light.

The only secularism that can really arouse moral motivation and impel action is an enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second. I suspect that over the next years secularism will change its face and become hotter and more consuming, less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.

I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I do wish he’d go back to writing about politics.  At least that was something he seemed to have sort of a grasp of.  His navel-gazing pieces are just ghastly.

Brooks and Krugman

January 23, 2015

Oh, Jesus…  Bobo’s here with dating advice.  Just shoot me now.  In “The Devotion Leap” he babbles that the ability to move from the self-centeredness of dating to the self-sacrifice of love requires one to lower the boundaries between self and self.  Whatever the crap that means.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says “Part of the fun when reading a David Brooks column is to try to find the conservative political tie-in. It’s possible that in this case there isn’t one, but if that’s true we’re just taking dating advice from a conservative Republican.”  Gah.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Much Too Responsible:”  Why is the United States experiencing a solid recovery while Europe is sinking ever deeper into deflationary quicksand?  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

The online dating site OkCupid asks its clients to rate each other’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5. When men rated the women, the median score was about 3 and the ratings followed a bell curve — a few really attractive women and an equal number of women rated as unattractive.

But when women rated men, the results were quite different. The median score was between 1 and 2. Only 1 in 6 of the guys was rated as having above average looks. Either the guys who go to places like OkCupid, Tinder and other sites are disproportionately homely, or women have unforgiving eyes.

Looks, unsurprisingly, dominate online dating. But I learned some details from “Dataclysm,” the book by Christian Rudder, who is the co-founder and president of OkCupid.

There’s a gigantic superstar effect. Women who are rated in the top 5 percent of attractiveness get a vast majority of the approaches. The bottom 95 percent get much less. For men, looks barely matter at all unless you are in the top 3 percent or so. The hunks get barraged with approaches.

It’s better to have a polarizing profile than a bland one. People who generate high levels of disapproval — because they look like goths or bikers or just weird — often also generate higher levels of enthusiasm.

Racial bias is prevalent. When Asian men are looking at Asian women they rate them as 18 percent more attractive than average. But when they are looking at black women, they rate them as 27 percent less attractive. White and Latino men downgrade black women by nearly the same percentage. White, Latino and Asian women have similar preferences.

When people start texting or tweeting to each other, they don’t turn into a bunch of Einsteins. Rudder looked into the most common words and phrases used on Twitter. For men they include: good bro, ps4, my beard, in nba, hoopin and off-season. For women they include: my nails done, mani pedi, retail therapy, and my belly button.

People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work. OkCupid took down the pictures one day. The people who interacted on this day exchanged contact info at twice the rate as on a regular day.

The dating sites have taken the information available online and tried to use it to match up specific individuals. They’ve failed. An exhaustive review of the literature by Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern and others concluded, “No compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work.” That’s because what creates a relationship can’t be expressed in data or photographs. Being in love can’t be done by a person in a self-oriented mind-set, asking: Does this choice serve me? Online dating is fascinating because it is more or less the opposite of its object: love.

When online daters actually meet, an entirely different mind-set has to kick in. If they’re going to be open to a real relationship, they have to stop asking where this person rates in comparison to others and start asking, can we lower the boundaries between self and self. They have to stop thinking in individual terms and start feeling in rapport terms.

Basically, they have to take the enchantment leap. This is when something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable and devotional. Sometimes a student becomes enraptured by the beauty of math, and becomes a mathematician. Soldiers doing the drudgery of boot camp are gradually bonded into a passionate unit, for which they will risk their lives. Anybody who has started a mere job and found in it a vocation has taken the enchantment leap.

In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. The people involved move from selfishness to service, from prudent thinking to poetic thinking, from a state of selection to a state of need, from relying on conscious thinking to relying on their own brilliant emotions.

When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.

I have to guess some cultures are more fertile for enchantment — that some activities, like novel-reading or music-making, cultivate a skill for it, and that building a capacity for enchantment is, these days, a countercultural act and a practical and fervent need.

The horrible thought just struck me that, now that Bobo’s marriage is on the rocks, he’s dipping his toe back into the dating pool.  Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to date Bobos.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The United States and Europe have a lot in common. Both are multicultural and democratic; both are immensely wealthy; both possess currencies with global reach. Both, unfortunately, experienced giant housing and credit bubbles between 2000 and 2007, and suffered painful slumps when the bubbles burst.

Since then, however, policy on the two sides of the Atlantic has diverged. In one great economy, officials have shown a stern commitment to fiscal and monetary virtue, making strenuous efforts to balance budgets while remaining vigilant against inflation. In the other, not so much.

And the difference in attitudes is the main reason the two economies are now on such different paths. Spendthrift, loose-money America is experiencing a solid recovery — a reality reflected in President Obama’s feisty State of the Union address. Meanwhile, virtuous Europe is sinking ever deeper into deflationary quicksand; everyone hopes that the new monetary measures announced Thursday will break the downward spiral, but nobody I know really expects them to be enough.

On the U.S. economy: No, it’s not morning in America, let alone the kind of prosperity we managed during the Clinton years. Recovery could and should have come much faster, and family incomes remain well below their pre-crisis level. Although you’d never know it from the public discussion, there’s overwhelming agreement among economists that the Obama stimulus of 2009-10 helped limit the damage from the financial crisis, but it was too small and faded away far too fast. Still, when you compare the performance of the American economy over the past two years with all those Republican predictions of doom, you can see why Mr. Obama is strutting a bit.

Europe, on the other hand — or more precisely the eurozone, the 18 countries sharing a common currency — did almost everything wrong. On the fiscal side, Europe never did much stimulus, and quickly turned to austerity — spending cuts and, to a lesser extent, tax increases — despite high unemployment. On the monetary side, officials fought the imaginary menace of inflation, and took years to acknowledge that the real threat is deflation.

Why did they get it so wrong?

To some extent, the turn toward austerity reflected institutional weakness: In the United States, federal programs like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps helped support states like Florida with especially severe housing busts, whereas European nations in similar straits, like Spain, were on their own. But European austerity also reflected willful misdiagnosis of the situation. In Europe as in America, the excesses that led to crisis overwhelmingly involved private rather than public debt, with Greece very much an outlier. But officials in Berlin and Brussels chose to ignore the evidence in favor of a narrative that placed all the blame on budget deficits, and simultaneously rejected the evidence suggesting — correctly — that trying to slash deficits in a depressed economy would deepen the depression.

Meanwhile, Europe’s central bankers decided to worry about inflation in 2011 and raise interest rates. Even at the time it was obvious that this was foolish — yes, there had been an uptick in headline inflation, but measures of underlying inflation were too low, not too high.

Monetary policy got much better after Mario Draghi became president of the European Central Bank in late 2011. Indeed, Mr. Draghi’s heroic efforts to provide liquidity to nations facing speculative attack almost surely saved the euro from collapse. But it’s not at all clear that he has the tools to fight off the broader deflationary forces set in motion by years of wrongheaded policy. Furthermore, he has to function with one hand tied behind his back, because Germany remains adamantly opposed to anything that might make life easier for debtor nations.

The terrible thing is that Europe’s economy was wrecked in the name of responsibility. True, there have been times when being tough meant reducing deficits and resisting the temptation to print money. In a depressed economy, however, a balanced-budget fetish and a hard-money obsession are deeply irresponsible. Not only do they hurt the economy in the short run, they can — and in Europe, have — inflict long-run harm, damaging the economy’s potential and driving it into a deflationary trap that’s very hard to escape.

Nor was this an innocent mistake. The thing that strikes me about Europe’s archons of austerity, its doyens of deflation, is their self-indulgence. They felt comfortable, emotionally and politically, demanding sacrifice (from other people) at a time when the world needed more spending. They were all too eager to ignore the evidence that they were wrong.

And Europe will be paying the price for their self-indulgence for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Brooks and Nocera

January 20, 2015

In “Support Our Students” Bobo gurgles that President Obama’s well-intentioned plan on free community-college tuition misunderstands students’ genuine obstacles.  Of which Bobo knows less than nothing.  He should read Mr. Blow’s piece from a few days ago.  Mr. Nocera, in “A Detainee’s Diary,” says one prisoner has written a memoir of life at Guantánamo that every American should read.  Here’s Bobo:

All college commencements are happy, but community-college commencements are the happiest of all. Many of the graduates are the first in their extended family to have earned degrees. When their name is read, big cheering sections erupt with horns and roars from the stands. Many students are older; you’ll see 50- or 60-year-old women grasping their diplomas awash in happy tears. The graduates often know exactly where they’re going to work; they walk with an extra sense of security as they head off campus.

These bright days serve as evidence that America can live up to its dream of social mobility, that there is hope at a time when the ladder upward seems creaky and inadequate.

So when President Obama unveils his community-college plan in the State of the Union address Tuesday night, it represents an opportunity — an opportunity to create days like that for more students.

Obama’s headline idea is to make community college free. It would reduce two years of tuition costs to zero for students with decent grades and who graduate within three years.

The evidence from a similar program in Tennessee suggests that the simple free label has an important psychological effect. Enrollment there surged when high school students learned that they could go to community college for nothing.

The problem is that getting students to enroll is neither hard nor important. The important task is to help students graduate. Community college drop out rates now hover somewhere between 66 percent and 80 percent.

Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free will do little to reduce that. In the first place, community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.

The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.

The smart thing to do would be to scrap the Obama tuition plan. Students who go to community college free now have tragically high dropout rates. The $60 billion could then be spent on things that are mentioned in President Obama’s proposal — but not prioritized or fleshed out — which would actually increase graduation rates.

First, you’d focus on living expenses. Tuition represents only a fifth of the costs of community-college life. The bulk is textbooks, housing, transportation and so on. Students often have to take on full-time or near-full-time jobs to cover the costs, and, once they do that, they’re much more likely to lose touch with college.

You’d subsidize guidance counselors and mentors. Community colleges are not sticky places. Many students don’t have intimate relationships with anyone who can guide them through the maze of registration, who might help bond them to campus.

You’d figure out the remedial education mess. Half of all community-college students arrive unprepared for college work. Remedial courses are supposed to bring them up to speed, but it’s not clear they work, so some states are dropping remediation, which could leave even more students at sea.

You’d focus on child care. A quarter of college students nationwide have dependent children. Even more students at community colleges do. Less than half of community colleges now have any day-care facilities. Many students drop out because something happens at home and there’s no one to take care of the kids.

In short, you wouldn’t write government checks for tuition. You’d strengthen structures around the schools. You’d focus on the lived environment of actual students and create relationships and cushions to help them thrive.

We’ve had two generations of human capital policies. Human Capital 1.0 was designed to give people access to schools and other facilities. It was based on the 1970s liberal orthodoxy that poor people just need more money, that the government could write checks and mobility will improve.

Human Capital 2.0 is designed to help people not just enroll but to complete school and thrive. Its based on a much more sophisticated understanding of how people actually live, on the importance of social capital, on the difficulty of living in disorganized circumstances. The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment — and how to use policy levers to boost these things.

The tuition piece of the Obama proposal is Human Capital 1.0. It is locked in 1970s liberal orthodoxy. Congress should take the proposal, scrap it and rededicate the money toward programs that will actually boost completion, that will surround colleges, students and their families with supporting structures. We don’t need another program that will lure students into colleges only to have them struggle and drop out.

“1970s liberal orthodoxy” my butt.  The 1970s were the era when community college (and ALL of City University of New York) and many state universities, STOPPED being tuition free. Bobo, you disgusting hack, you can thank your party’s icon Ronald Reagan who, as Governor of California in the 1960s, started the trend when he killed free tuition in the University of California system.  Bobo is so full of shit his eyes are brown.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Last week, several Republican senators, including John McCain, called on President Obama to stop releasing detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Their argument was that after the terror attacks in Paris, the 122 prisoners still in Guantánamo should be made to stay right where they are, where they can do the West no harm.

On Tuesday, one of those detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was sent to Guantánamo in 2002 and remains there to this day, is poised to offer a powerful rejoinder. Three years into his detention — years during which he was isolated, tortured, beaten, sexually abused and humiliated — Slahi wrote a 466-page, 122,000-word account of what had happened to him up to that point.

His manuscript was immediately classified, and it took years of litigation and negotiation by Slahi’s pro bono lawyers to force the military to declassify a redacted version. Even with the redactions, “Guantánamo Diary” is an extraordinary document — “A vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka,” as John le Carré aptly describes it in a back cover blurb — that every American should read.

A native of Mauritania, Slahi, 44, is fluent in several languages — he learned English while in Guantánamo — and lived in Canada and Germany as well as the Muslim world. He came under suspicion because an Al Qaeda member, who had been based in Montreal — where Slahi had also lived — was arrested and charged with plotting to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. Slahi was questioned about this plot several times, but he was always released. After 9/11, Slahi was detained again for questioning. That time, he was turned over to the American authorities, in whose captivity he has been ever since.

What was he accused of? Slahi asked this question of his captors often and was never given a straight answer. This, of course, is part of the problem with Guantánamo, a prison where being formally charged with a crime is a luxury, not a requirement. His efforts to tell the truth — that he had no involvement in any acts of terrorism — only angered his interrogators. “Looks like a dog, walks like a dog, smells like a dog, barks like a dog, must be a dog,” one interrogator used to say. That was the best his captors could do to explain why he was there. Yet the military was so sure he was a key Al Qaeda player that he was subjected to “special interrogation” techniques that had been signed off by the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, himself.

“Special interrogation techniques,” of course, is a euphemism for torture. The sections of the book that describe his torture make for harrowing reading. Slahi was so sleep-deprived that he eventually started to hallucinate. Chained to the ground, he was forced to “stand” in positions that were extremely painful. Interrogators went at him in shifts — 24 hours a day. Sometimes during interrogations, female interrogators rubbed their breasts over his body and fondled him.

It is hard to read about his torture without feeling a sense of shame.

Does Slahi crack? Of course: to get the torture to stop, he finally lied, telling his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear, just as torture victims have done since the Inquisition. “Torture doesn’t guarantee that the detainee cooperates,” writes Slahi. “In order to stop torture, the detainee has to please his assailant, even with untruthful, and sometime misleading [intelligence].” McCain, who was tortured in Vietnam, knows this; last month, he made a powerful speech in which he condemned America’s use of torture, saying, “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” That is also why it is so disheartening that McCain has allied himself with those who want to keep Guantánamo open.

In 2010, a federal district judge ruled in favor of Slahi’s habeas corpus petition because the evidence against him was so thin. The government appealed, and the order remains in limbo.

I asked Nancy Hollander, one of Slahi’s lawyers, to describe her client. “He is funny, smart, compassionate and thoughtful,” she said. All of these qualities come through in his memoir, which is surprisingly without rancor. “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” he writes toward the end of his book. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself.” One of the wonders of the book is that he does come across as fair to all, even his torturers.

But the quote that sticks with me most is something that one of his guards told him, something that could stand as a fitting epitaph for Guantánamo itself: “I know I can go to hell for what I did to you.”

Brooks and Krugman

January 9, 2015

Bobo has taken to his fainting couch, clutching his pearls.  In “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” he moans that the attack in France reminds us to look closely at our own speech codes, and to remember that offensive speech should be discouraged socially but never legally.  In the comments “P Catalano” from Helena, MT points out the obvious:  “The title of this op-ed should be not “I am not Charlie” but “I Do False Equivalences.””  Prof. Krugman, in “Voodoo Time Machine,” says that leaders in the Republican Party seem to be wrong on everything that counts, but no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds.  Here’s Bobo:

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.

The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.

Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.

Moreover, provocateurs and ridiculers expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of the deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird. Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.

In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.

If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation. It’s almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes and disinvite speakers.

Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes. Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

And Bobo can go and eat his huge plate of salted dicks out on the porch, since he’s not fit to sit at the kids’ table.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Many of us in the econ biz were wondering how the new leaders of Congress would respond to the sharp increase in American economic growth that, we now know, began last spring. After years of insisting that President Obama is responsible for a weak economy, they couldn’t say the truth — that short-run economic performance has very little to do with who holds the White House. So what would they say?

Well, I didn’t see that one coming: They’re claiming credit. Never mind the fact that all of the good data refer to a period before the midterm elections. Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, says that he did it, that growth reflected “the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”

The response of the Democratic National Committee — “Hahahahahahaha” — seems appropriate. I mean, talk about voodoo economics: Mr. McConnell is claiming not just that he can create prosperity without, you know, actually passing any legislation, but that he can reach back in time and create prosperity before even taking power. But while Mr. McConnell’s self-aggrandizement is funny, it’s also scary, because it’s a symptom of his party’s epistemic closure. Republicans know many things that aren’t so, and no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds.

At least Mr. McConnell didn’t do what many of his colleagues have done when faced with inconvenient facts: resort to conspiracy theories.

Consider, for example, how some Republicans dealt with good news about health reform. Before Obamacare went into effect, they overwhelmingly insisted that it would be a disaster, that more people would lose insurance than would gain it. They were, of course, delighted by the technical problems that initially crippled the program’s website. But those problems were fixed, and enrollment soared. Their response? “They are cooking the books,” declared Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who now leads the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

But that was then. At this point we have multiple independent confirmations — most recently from Gallup — that Obamacare has dramatically expanded insurance coverage. So what do they say now? The law “will collapse under its own weight,” says Representative Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Speaking of Mr. Ryan: Almost four years have passed since he and many others in his party lambasted Ben Bernanke, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve, for policies that they claimed would lead to high inflation and “debase the dollar.” The inflation never materialized, and the dollar proceeded to strengthen, but Mr. Ryan gave no sign of having been chastened — and many conservatives, including favorite intellectuals like Niall Ferguson of Harvard, became “inflation truthers,” insisting that the government is hiding price rises.

Oh, and Europe — whose central bank, unlike the Fed under Bernanke’s leadership, took those inflation warnings to heart and raised interest rates in 2011is now experiencing outright deflation, with terrifying implications for its economic and political outlook.

Then there’s climate change. It appears that 2014 was the hottest year yet, which should close the door on silly claims that global warming has stopped. But it won’t matter to Senator James Inhofe, who now leads a crucial environmental committee and has long insisted that all the science in this field is a liberal hoax.

Now, everyone makes predictions that turn out to have been wrong; it’s a complicated world out there, and nobody’s perfect. The point, however, is that Congress is now controlled by men who never acknowledge error, let alone learn from their mistakes.

In some cases, they may not even know that they were wrong. After all, conservative news media are not exactly known for their balanced coverage; if your picture of how health reform is working is based on Fox News, you probably have a sense that it has been a vast disaster, even though the reality is one of success that has surprised even the law’s supporters.

The main point, however, is that we’re looking at a political subculture in which ideological tenets are simply not to be questioned, no matter what. Supply-side economics is valid no matter what actually happens to the economy, guaranteed health insurance must be a failure even if it’s working, and anyone who points out the troubling facts is ipso facto an enemy.

And we’re not talking about marginal figures. You sometimes hear claims that the old-fashioned Republican establishment is making a comeback, that Tea Party extremists are on the run and we can get back to bipartisan cooperation. But that is a fantasy. We can’t have meaningful cooperation when we can’t agree on reality, when even establishment figures in the Republican Party essentially believe that facts have a liberal bias.

Brooks and Krugman

January 2, 2015

Now Bobo has seen fit to weigh in on things Middle Eastern.  In “The Age of Bibi” he gurgles that bellicose in words yet cautious in action, Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of contrasts, and he is subtly reshaping Israel.  In the comments “Joknecht” from NYC points out a few things:  “I find it very interesting that Mr. Brooks describes Mr. Netanyahu’s father as a “medeval scholar”, when in fact he was an extreme right wing Irgunist. His vision of a “Greater Israel,” stretching from Damascus to the sea, is what Bibi grew up with. The local Arab population was considered an inconvience at best. I find it equally interesting that Mr. Brook’s son is in the IDF instead of joining his own nation’s armed forces, and why Mr. Brooks thinks anything he writes about the region can be taken as either unbiased or factual.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Twin Peaks Planet,” says our current global setup isn’t working for everyone. He has a question: What consequences from that are ahead if we don’t do something about it?  Here’s Bobo:

If I were a political novelist, I’d try to write a novel about Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.

The story would be partly Nixonian. Netanyahu is surpassingly brilliant, as even his opponents here concede. He knows the minute guts of Israeli politics and has read deeply into big history and grand strategy. He is also said to be suspicious, solitary and insular. It is hard to stay on good terms with him, whether you are on his staff, or his nation’s closest ally.

The story would be partly Kennedyesque. The Netanyahu clan was presided over by Benjamin’s brilliant father Benzion, the great medieval historian. The eldest brother Jonathan was the golden child. When Jonathan died in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, hopes shifted to Benjamin, who is known as Bibi. Political analysts have spent decades psychoanalyzing the family dynamic, with mixed results, but a novelist who studied Sophocles or Tolstoy might be able to make some sense of it.

The story would be partly Churchillian. Netanyahu sees himself in world historical terms, and admires Theodor Herzl and Winston Churchill — two men who saw dangers ahead of other people. Netanyahu obviously lacks many of Churchill’s qualities, like playful charm, but he has a profound nationalist passion and a consuming historical consciousness.

Like Churchill, he is wisest when things are going wrong. He has been a pessimist about the Arab world. As the Arab Spring has deteriorated, as Palestinian democracy led to Hamas, as run of the mill extremists have lost ground to the Islamic State, Bibi’s instincts have basically been proved correct.

The story would be part Shakespearean. Nearly every political leader has one close friend or spouse, often female, who is widely hated. People can’t blame the leader for slights, so they blame her. In Israel, the role is played by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who has been the subject of fascination and scorn for decades: She is often described as Lady Macbeth. Few know her exact role, but, it is said, she exiles the disloyal, shapes his politics, mistreats servants and distracts him when he is supposed to be running the country. Obviously, any novel about Netanyahu and modern Israel would have to be told from her vantage point. The narrative voice would be electric.

The story would be part “Citizen Kane.” Netanyahu rose to fame via CNN. His rise and survival are intertwined with changes in media, with the decline of old newspapers that are generally hostile, and the rise of new cable networks and outlets that are often his allies. Ferociously tending his image, his wars with his foes in the Israeli press have been epic.

Finally, the story would be part Machiavelli. The great Renaissance philosopher argued that it is best to be both loved and feared, but if you have to choose one, it is better to be feared. Netanyahu is not loved, especially by those in his party. But he is feared and acknowledged, the way any large, effective object is feared and respected.

I’m visiting Israel for the 18th or 19th time (my son is currently a member of the Lone Soldiers Program, which allows people from around the world to serve in the Israeli military). I asked a couple of smart Israelis what their coming elections are about. They said that the elections are about one thing: What do you think of Netanyahu? Such is the outsized role he plays in the consciousness of this nation.

No one has a simple view of him. To some, he is a monster who has expanded the settlements on the West Bank, which are a moral stain and do calamitous damage to Israel’s efforts to win support around the world. To some, he is the necessary man in hard times, the vigilant guardian as the rest of the Middle East goes berserk.

Both viewpoints have some truth. To me, his caution is most fascinating. For all his soaring rhetoric and bellicosity, he has been a defensive leader. He seems to understand that, in his country’s situation, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The costs of a mistake are bigger than the benefits of an accomplishment. So he is loath to take risks. He doesn’t do some smart things, like improve life for Palestinians on the West Bank, but he doesn’t do unpredictable dumb things, like prematurely bomb Iran. He talks everything through, and his decisions shift and flip as the discussions evolve.

If you think trends in the Middle East will doom Israel unless it acts, then this defensiveness is a disaster. If you think, as I do, that Israel has to wait out the current spasm of Islamist radicalism, then this caution has its uses.

Israeli voters haven’t warmed to Netanyahu over the past quarter-century. But they have come to think more like him, accepting that this conflict will endure, digging in for a dogged struggle. For good and ill, he has refashioned the national mind.

It’s for ill, Bobo.  And I see that your kid loves being in the military.  We all assume he’ll join ours as soon as he gets home…  (Sometimes I just crack myself up.)  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

In 2014, soaring inequality in advanced nations finally received the attention it deserved, as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” became a surprise (and deserving) best seller. The usual suspects are still in well-paid denial, but, to everyone else, it is now obvious that income and wealth are more concentrated at the very top than they have been since the Gilded Age — and the trend shows no sign of letting up.

But that’s a story about developments within nations, and, therefore, incomplete. You really want to supplement Piketty-style analysis with a global view, and when you do, I’d argue, you get a better sense of the good, the bad and the potentially very ugly of the world we live in.

So let me suggest that you look at a remarkable chart of income gains around the world produced by Branko Milanovic of the City University of New York Graduate Center (which I will be joining this summer). What Mr. Milanovic shows is that income growth since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been a “twin peaks” story. Incomes have, of course, soared at the top, as the world’s elite becomes ever richer. But there have also been huge gains for what we might call the global middle — largely consisting of the rising middle classes of China and India.

And let’s be clear: Income growth in emerging nations has produced huge gains in human welfare, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty and giving them a chance for a better life.

Now for the bad news: Between these twin peaks — the ever-richer global elite and the rising Chinese middle class — lies what we might call the valley of despond: Incomes have grown slowly, if at all, for people around the 20th percentile of the world income distribution. Who are these people? Basically, the advanced-country working classes. And although Mr. Milanovic’s data only go up through 2008, we can be sure that this group has done even worse since then, wracked by the effects of high unemployment, stagnating wages, and austerity policies.

Furthermore, the travails of workers in rich countries are, in important ways, the flip side of the gains above and below them. Competition from emerging-economy exports has surely been a factor depressing wages in wealthier nations, although probably not the dominant force. More important, soaring incomes at the top were achieved, in large part, by squeezing those below: by cutting wages, slashing benefits, crushing unions, and diverting a rising share of national resources to financial wheeling and dealing.

Perhaps more important still, the wealthy exert a vastly disproportionate effect on policy. And elite priorities — obsessive concern with budget deficits, with the supposed need to slash social programs — have done a lot to deepen the valley of despond.

So who speaks for those left behind in this twin-peaked world? You might have expected conventional parties of the left to take a populist stance on behalf of their domestic working classes. But mostly what you get instead — from leaders ranging from François Hollande of France to Ed Milliband of Britain to, yes, President Obama — is awkward mumbling. (Mr. Obama has, in fact, done a lot to help working Americans, but he’s remarkably bad at making his own case.)

The problem with these conventional leaders, I’d argue, is that they’re afraid to challenge elite priorities, in particular the obsession with budget deficits, for fear of being considered irresponsible. And that leaves the field open for unconventional leaders — some of them seriously scary — who are willing to address the anger and despair of ordinary citizens.

The Greek leftists who may well come to power there later this month are arguably the least scary of the bunch, although their demands for debt relief and an end to austerity may provoke a tense standoff with Brussels. Elsewhere, however, we see the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties like France’s National Front and the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, in Britain — and there are even worse people waiting in the wings.

All of this suggests some uncomfortable historical analogies. Remember, this is the second time we’ve had a global financial crisis followed by a prolonged worldwide slump. Then, as now, any effective response to the crisis was blocked by elite demands for balanced budgets and stable currencies. And the eventual result was to deliver power into the hands of people who were, shall we say, not very nice.

I’m not suggesting that we’re on the verge of fully replaying the 1930s. But I would argue that political and opinion leaders need to face up to the reality that our current global setup isn’t working for everyone. It’s great for the elite and has done a lot of good for emerging nations, but that valley of despond is very real. And bad things will happen if we don’t do something about it.

Brace yourself, Maggie.  Bad times are a’comin’…


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