Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow and Krugman

March 2, 2015

Mr. Blow has a question in “CPAC: Hackneyed and Hollow:”  Where were the grand conservative thinkers? Where was the philosophical heft?  Mr. Blow, they know the answer to that even in Paris, where “HeyNorris” commented:  “Mr. Blow, I do admire your optimism. As Oscar Wilde noted, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.  The trouble is, the sky at CPAC is as dark and foul as the gutter. It’s nothing but an audition stage for presidential hopefuls to out-conservative one another. The “thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky” have been extinguished by the bigotry, hatred and small-mindedness of the ultra conservatives controlling the Republican party. That’s not an environment from which could spring any kind of intellectual engagement.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Walmart’s Invisible Hand,” says a pay raise by America’s largest employer shows that low wages are a choice, and that we can and should choose differently.  Here’s Mr. Blow (who I hope has recovered the brain cells lost by attending CPAC):

I never know how to set my expectations for the Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC.

I try to approach it with as much of an open mind as I can muster, understanding that I am at odds, fundamentally, with many conservative principles and conservatives’ views about the role, size and scope of government, but also realizing that apart from a debate setting, this may be the best place to take the temperature of, and hear from, the broadest range of conservative leaders.

I still think, perhaps naïvely so, that people can be ideologically opposed but intellectually engaged, that a good idea makes the best bridge.

So I do my best to follow the speeches — from afar (thank you, live streaming!) — and wait to hear something that jolts my consciousness or challenges my sense of things.

But once again this year, I was disappointed.

There remains in the Republican Party, as evidenced by the speakers at this event, a breathtaking narrowness of vision and deficit of creative thought.

The confab, for the most part, felt to me like a revelry of contrarians. Rather than presenting the party as one with a plan, many of the speakers seemed determined to cement it as the party of resistance and opposition.

Where were the grand conservative thinkers? Where was the philosophical heft? Where was the vision of a future not built on a transporting to the past?

It was largely absent. In its place was too much rhetoric about defending, defeating, defunding, deauthorizing. There was so much anti-Obama and anti-Hillary obsessing that the “pro” alternatives — to the extent that a case could be made — were obscured.

Furthermore, it was hard to skip over all the missteps.

Scott Walker, the leader in a new and oh-so-early Quinnipiac University poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus participants, compared union protesters in Wisconsin to the savage members of the Islamic State.

Rick Perry still couldn’t get his facts straight. He said the president “says that ISIS is a religious movement. Again, he’s simply wrong.” No, sir, you are wrong. The president has taken pains to make the opposite argument, and has taken some shots for that. Perry also said that “ISIS represents the worst threat to freedom since communism.” Really? Calm down, cowboy.

Chris Christie hung much of his question and answer presentation onbemoaning his coverage in the media, skirting the obvious fact that previous media fawning is a large part of the reason he rose to national prominence. Live by the pen; die by the pen.

Jeb Bush did his best before a somewhat hostile crowd — there were boos and hisses and some folks walked out (some in costume, of course) and reportedly shouted, “No more Bushes.” It must be noted here that CPAC is a particular kind of crowd: not exactly like the Republican electorate, and not at all like the national electorate as a whole. (Rand Paul has won the last three CPAC straw polls.)

But Bush seemed awkward and uncomfortable, trying to set up camp on both sides of the ravine on some issues like immigration and the Common Core.

At least he made the point that conservatives “have to start being for things again.”

This is where the Republican Party continues to falter. The cavalcade of contra nothingness at CPAC barreled forward with more speakers who lacked vision and brio.

I guess one could make the argument that if the Republican pool of candidates is wide but shallow, that’s good for Democrats. Indeed, it is.

Republicans have done exceedingly well in the recent midterms — in part because of anti-Obama Tea Party animus in 2010 and the fact that voter turnout for the 2014 midterms was the lowest of any election cycle since World War II. But presidential election years are a different story: They are national elections with a different electoral profile and greater participation.

And nationally, the Republican brand remains tarnished.

A Pew Research Center report released last week found that “majorities say the Democratic Party is open and tolerant, cares about the middle class and is not ‘too extreme.’ By contrast, most Americans see the G.O.P. lacking in tolerance and empathy for the middle class, and half view it as too extreme.”

This, of course, does not mean Democrats will have it easy in 2016 or thereafter. In fact, history tells us that politics swing like a pendulum.

But if this is the quality of candidates and discourse of the Republican side when that pendulum swings back, then that’s tragic. If the bulk of your message is about what you are against rather than what you are for, if it’s about dragging the country back rather than leading it forward, then we’ll all suffer.

But they’ve done such a SUPERB job of gerrymandering that they’ll continue to win…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

A few days ago Walmart, America’s largest employer, announced that it will raise wages for half a million workers. For many of those workers the gains will be small, but the announcement is nonetheless a very big deal, for two reasons. First, there will be spillovers: Walmart is so big that its action will probably lead to raises for millions of workers employed by other companies. Second, and arguably far more important, is what Walmart’s move tells us — namely, that low wages are a political choice, and we can and should choose differently.

Some background: Conservatives — with the backing, I have to admit, of many economists — normally argue that the market for labor is like the market for anything else. The law of supply and demand, they say, determines the level of wages, and the invisible hand of the market will punish anyone who tries to defy this law.

Specifically, this view implies that any attempt to push up wages will either fail or have bad consequences. Setting a minimum wage, it’s claimed, will reduce employment and create a labor surplus, the same way attempts to put floors under the prices of agricultural commodities used to lead to butter mountains, wine lakes and so on. Pressuring employers to pay more, or encouraging workers to organize into unions, will have the same effect.

But labor economists have long questioned this view. Soylent Green — I mean, the labor force — is people. And because workers are people, wages are not, in fact, like the price of butter, and how much workers are paid depends as much on social forces and political power as it does on simple supply and demand.

What’s the evidence? First, there is what actually happens when minimum wages are increased. Many states set minimum wages above the federal level, and we can look at what happens when a state raises its minimum while neighboring states do not. Does the wage-hiking state lose a large number of jobs? No — the overwhelming conclusion from studying these natural experiments is that moderate increases in the minimum wage have little or no negative effect on employment.

Then there’s history. It turns out that the middle-class society we used to have didn’t evolve as a result of impersonal market forces — it was created by political action, and in a brief period of time. America was still a very unequal society in 1940, but by 1950 it had been transformed by a dramatic reduction in income disparities, which the economists Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo labeled the Great Compression. How did that happen?

Part of the answer is direct government intervention, especially during World War II, when government wage-setting authority was used to narrow gaps between the best paid and the worst paid. Part of it, surely, was a sharp increase in unionization. Part of it was the full-employment economy of the war years, which created very strong demand for workers and empowered them to seek higher pay.

The important thing, however, is that the Great Compression didn’t go away as soon as the war was over. Instead, full employment and pro-worker politics changed pay norms, and a strong middle class endured for more than a generation. Oh, and the decades after the war were also marked by unprecedented economic growth.

Which brings me back to Walmart.

The retailer’s wage hike seems to reflect the same forces that led to the Great Compression, albeit in a much weaker form. Walmart is under political pressure over wages so low that a substantial number of employees are on food stamps and Medicaid. Meanwhile, workers are gaining clout thanks to an improving labor market, reflected in increasing willingness to quit bad jobs.

What’s interesting, however, is that these pressures don’t seem all that severe, at least so far — yet Walmart is ready to raise wages anyway. Andits justification for the move echoes what critics of its low-wage policy have been saying for years: Paying workers better will lead to reduced turnover, better morale and higher productivity.

What this means, in turn, is that engineering a significant pay raise for tens of millions of Americans would almost surely be much easier than conventional wisdom suggests. Raise minimum wages by a substantial amount; make it easier for workers to organize, increasing their bargaining power; direct monetary and fiscal policy toward full employment, as opposed to keeping the economy depressed out of fear that we’ll suddenly turn into Weimar Germany. It’s not a hard list to implement — and if we did these things we could make major strides back toward the kind of society most of us want to live in.

The point is that extreme inequality and the falling fortunes of America’s workers are a choice, not a destiny imposed by the gods of the market. And we can change that choice if we want to.

Blow and Krugman

February 23, 2015

In “Who Loves America?” Mr. Blow says our allegiance needn’t — mustn’t — be blind to be true. We must acknowledge our warts if we are to proclaim our beauty.  Prof. Krugman, in “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” explains why education isn’t the answer to inequality.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

We have arrived at the point where the utter tedium and desperation of personal attacks against the president about his life story and his loyalty are no longer news. The histrionics have shed their ability to shock. Most right-minded Americans — ethically speaking, not ideologically speaking — have moved on.

But occasionally the insults prove to be accidentally instructive.

Take for instance what Rudy Giuliani (“America’s mayor”) said about the president last week at a dinner for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (a contender for America’s president). At the dinner — attended, according to Politico, by “about 60 right-leaning business executives and conservative media types” — Giuliani said, “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America.” He continued, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

Yes, Mr. Mayor, it was a horrible thing to say, which is why you backpedaled. On Fox, Giuliani gave a meandering, mealy-mouthed defense of the this vile statement, claiming, preposterously, that “I’m not questioning his patriotism,” explaining that he hears Obama “criticize America much more often than other American presidents” and questioning the president’s faith in American exceptionalism.

Ah, American exceptionalism again.

This is in part about a fundamental difference in views. It is a definitional difference, not about the meaning of love but about the meaning of America and its place in the world. Does exceptionalism — if one accepts the premise — bestow exemption from critique? Is uniqueness perfection? Does our difference require some sort of arresting of development?

As the Pew Research Center pointed out in July, “the view that the U.S. is exceptional — standing above all other countries in the world — has declined 10 points since 2011.” At that time last year, 58 percent of Americans believed America is “one of the greatest countries in the world, along with others,” while only 28 percent believed America “stands above all other countries in the world.” (Whether this is truly a measure of exceptionalism or diminished standing isn’t completely clear to me.)

And what does it mean to love the country? We’re not talking about touristic love of the place — not the mountains and the valleys, the cities and the suburbs, the mighty rivers and the shores that kiss the oceans — but a love of the idea of America.

In a way, this is an ideological battle. Conservatism is rooted in preservation; progressivism advances alteration. These are different love languages. These languages turn on your view of change itself: When you think of America, do you see a country struggling to be maintained or one striving to be made better?

The president not only ran for office on the idea of change, but his presence — in both visage and values — is the manifestation of change. He not only represents a very real affront to the status quo and traditional power but is also not shy about pointing out where America can improve.

Our allegiance needn’t — mustn’t — be blind to be true. We must acknowledge our warts if we are to proclaim our beauty. Our aggrandizement must be grounded. We must be willing to laud America where it has soared and rebuke it where it has faltered.

America is a great country in many ways. But it is far from perfect.

America is a living idea. It isn’t only the tenets of its founding, but also the terms of its future. Every day, we make America.

Seeking to preserve and enshrine one vision of this country from one period of its past robs it of what makes it magical: its infinite possibility for adjustment.

“All men are created equal” is an exquisite idea, but one that wasn’t fully embraced when the words were written. We, the American people, have pushed this country to consider that clause in the broadest possible interpretation for hundreds of years.

We are engaged in a constant struggle to force America to “be true to what you said on paper,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it.

The concept of forming “a more perfect union” has embedded in it the idea of ambition but not perfection itself. There is room for betterment. America is not static. America is striving.

And sometimes, America requires critique. Jingoism is an avoidance of realism.

You can simultaneously love and be disappointed in the object of your love, wanting it to be better than it is. In fact, that is a measure of love. Honest critique is a pillar of patriotism.

As James Baldwin put it, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Amen.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Regular readers know that I sometimes mock “very serious people” — politicians and pundits who solemnly repeat conventional wisdom that sounds tough-minded and realistic. The trouble is that sounding serious and being serious are by no means the same thing, and some of those seemingly tough-minded positions are actually ways to dodge the truly hard issues.

The prime example of recent years was, of course, Bowles-Simpsonism — the diversion of elite discourse away from the ongoing tragedy of high unemployment and into the supposedly crucial issue of how, exactly, we will pay for social insurance programs a couple of decades from now. That particular obsession, I’m happy to say, seems to be on the wane. But my sense is that there’s a new form of issue-dodging packaged as seriousness on the rise. This time, the evasion involves trying to divert our national discourse about inequality into a discussion of alleged problems with education.

And the reason this is an evasion is that whatever serious people may want to believe, soaring inequality isn’t about education; it’s about power.

Just to be clear: I’m in favor of better education. Education is a friend of mine. And it should be available and affordable for all. But what I keep seeing is people insisting that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation, stagnating wages and rising inequality. This sounds serious and thoughtful. But it’s actually a view very much at odds with the evidence, not to mention a way to hide from the real, unavoidably partisan debate.

The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education.

My guess is that this sounds familiar — it’s what you hear from the talking heads on Sunday morning TV, in opinion articles from business leaders like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, in “framing papers” from the Brookings Institution’s centrist Hamilton Project. It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t.

For one thing, is the pace of technological change really that fast? “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” the venture capitalist Peter Thiel has snarked. Productivity growth, which surged briefly after 1995, seems to have slowed sharply.

Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time. “The wages of the highest-skilled and highest-paid individuals have continued to increase steadily,” the Hamilton Project says. Actually, the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.

So what is really going on? Corporate profits have soared as a share of national income, but there is no sign of a rise in the rate of return on investment. How is that possible? Well, it’s what you would expect if rising profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns to capital.

As for wages and salaries, never mind college degrees — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.

Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.

But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 19, 2015

In “The Obama Years” Mr. Blow says wherever you think he may rank as a president, there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.  Mr. Cohen has decided to channel MoDo and has written a fever dream.  In “The Great Jewish Exodus” he you should be careful what you wish for: An Israeli leader urges a course that diminishes Jewishness and the liberal world order.  Mr. Kristof addresses “The Cost of a Decline in Unions” and says as unions wane in American life, it’s increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining the middle class.  Which is most likely why TPTB are slowly strangling them.  Ms. Collins has a question in “A Gun on Every Corner:”  Should a local gun permit be treated like a driver’s license that is recognized all over the country?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As the political parlor game increasingly turns to obsessions about the jockeying to become the next president, my thinking increasingly turns to how history will measure the current one.

While a truly comprehensive appraisal and historical contextualization of a presidency is the scope and scale of books more than columns, there are things that, from my perch and according to the peculiarities of my personal interests, stand out.

Some of these are things for which the president can — in part or in whole — take personal responsibility, but others simply happened on this watch. And yet, I believe that they will all be somewhat associated with him and his stewardship.

In an interview broadcast earlier this month, the president told CNN, “I’m proud of saving the economy.” That may well be the most resounding mark of his presidency, even as people debate the quality of the recovery and his administration’s role in it.

It is nearly impossible to overstate how close we came to economic collapse in 2008 and how frightened we all were.

Now, that has turned around. The private sector has seen job growth for 59 straight months. The unemployment rate was down to 5.6 percent in December, the lowest since 2008, and as Reuters pointed out last month, new claims for unemployment benefits reached “the lowest level in nearly 15 years.”

But this recovery tends to feel more favorable for the wealthy than the working class. As the National Employment Law Project pointed out in an April policy paper, there is an imbalance between the kinds of jobs lost in the recession and the kinds experiencing the greatest growth in the recovery: High-wage industries accounted for 41 percent of the job losses but only 30 percent of the recent employment growth, while lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of the job losses but 44 percent of recent growth.

But if you are one of the Americans well off enough to own stocks, life looks much better. In 2009, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen below 7,000; now it’s above 18,000. And yet, as CNBC pointed out in September, the percent of Americans who hold stock either directly or indirectly is at an 18-year low while “stock ownership for the wealthy is at a new high,” based on 2012 data. As CNBC reported:

“In 2010, the latest period available, the top 10 percent of Americans by net worth held 81 percent of all directly held or indirectly held stocks, according to Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University who specializes in inequality and Federal Reserve data.”

The Obama years will also be remembered for the reshaping of our politics. There was the rise of the Tea Party and the demise of moderate voices. There were the unfathomable and indefensible rulings by the Supreme Court to bless dark money in the Citizens United case and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. There is an ongoing voter effort to shrink and restrict the voting pool as minorities are beginning to feel their power at the polls.

The Obama years will be remembered as a cultural — and legal — tipping point for equality for all people who do not identify as strictly heterosexual, arguably the civil rights movement of our times. The president signed the bill repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court.

And in 2012, Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage (a book by David Axelrod even claims that the president was in favor of same-sex marriage, long before he publicly proclaimed it, and indeed when he was publicly saying that he wasn’t). When Obama took office, same-sex marriage was rare; now it’s legal in 37 states. And a case now before the Supreme Court could determine whether it will be legal nationally.

The New Republic even dubbed Obama the “Gay-Rights President,” and it is hard to argue with that.

The Obama years will also be remembered for his signature legislation — the Affordable Care Act. This week, the president said that 11.4 million people had signed up for insurance or renewed coverage under the plan. Needless to say, the program is reducing the number of people who are uninsured but it also appears to be lowering medical costs.

Yet the future of the act is unclear. There is a case (King v. Burwell) before the Supreme Court — a laughable case about a language quibble that may be the most significant linguistic imprecision of a generation — that could spell doom for the law by withholding subsidies from millions of low-income Americans to purchase health insurance.

There’s the Supreme Court again. One could argue that the Supreme Court — the judicial Divine Nine — has shaped the Obama presidency as much as Obama has. That’s not to say that he hasn’t done an amazing job of shaping the judiciary in this country himself. In addition to appointing two new members to the Supreme Court — both women, a first for any president — he has completely transformed the lower courts.

As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in The New Yorker in October:

“When Obama took office, Republican appointees controlled ten of the thirteen circuit courts of appeals; Democratic appointees now constitute a majority in nine circuits. Because federal judges have life tenure, nearly all of Obama’s judges will continue serving well after he leaves office.

Furthermore, Toobin laid out the diversity of the Obama transformation, writing:

“Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a scholar of judicial appointments, said, ‘The majority of Obama’s appointments are women and nonwhite males.’ Forty-two per cent of his judgeships have gone to women. Twenty-two per cent of George W. Bush’s judges and twenty-nine per cent of Bill Clinton’s were women. Thirty-six per cent of President Obama’s judges have been minorities, compared with eighteen per cent for Bush and twenty-four per cent for Clinton.”

This is huge.

And there isn’t space in this column to address the many other things the Obama years will be remembered for: our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Russian aggression, moves on climate policy and the rise of American energy, the re-fighting of issues over women’s reproductive rights and immigration policy, to name a few.

Whether you agree that Obama was a transformational figure or how he ranks among other presidents — a new survey of American Political Science Association members puts him 18th — there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.

Next up we have MoDo Mr. Cohen:

They were gone, as completely as from Baghdad or Cairo, Damascus or Alexandria. They had vanished from Budapest and Brussels, from Frankfurt and Padua, from Paris and Manchester, from Antwerp and Stockholm.

As in the Arab world, Europe wondered what it had lost. The texture of life was thinned, the richness of exchange diminished, the flowering of ideas curtailed. There was an absence.

They did not say much. They packed and left, wheeling their suitcases, carrying their bags and bundles and babies, a little wave offered here and there. Rich and poor, religious and not, they sold what they had and went on their way. People looked askance, as their forbears once had in crueler circumstances, a little uneasy at the exodus, unsure what it meant but certain it was the end of a very long story.

Was Europe not the Continent of Disraeli and Heine and Marx (all baptized, but still), of Freud and Einstein, of Rothschild and Bleichröder, of Dreyfus and Herzl, of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig? Was it not the home of Yiddish, once the first tongue of millions, a language perhaps unique, as Isaac Bashevis Singer noted, because it was never spoken by men in power?

Was it not the scene of a great 19th-century struggle for emancipation beginning in France and stretching across the Continent to the pogrom-stained Pale of Settlement, a battle that in many instances ushered this stubborn people, with their eternal covenant of ethics entered into with a faceless God, to the summit of the professions, only for this progress, threatening to some, to end in the Nazis’ industrialized mass murder?

Was Europe not, against all odds, the place liberalism triumphed over the deathly totalitarianisms? The land of Isaiah Berlin who quoted Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The Continent where this people survived after the attempted annihilation (in which the majority of Europeans were complicit), forming new communities, even in Germany; a Continent of crooked timber, of every expression and experiment in their identity, their partial loss of identity, their embrace of merged and multiple identities?

Yes, there was often a sense of otherness, a self-imposed discretion, but there was also reassurance in being part of a great European convergence that over many decades dissolved the borders across which countless wars had been fought and affirmed the right of every European of whatever faith or ethnicity to equal rights, free expression, and the free practice of their beliefs.

Yet now they were gone. Europe, without the Jews, had lost part of itself. It had lost the very right to a conscience. It had been defeated in its essence. It had rebirthed itself after the 20th-century horror only to surrender.

Jewishness had lost one of its constituent elements, the European Jew of the diaspora. As for humanity, it had lost all hope. Humankind had succumbed to the tribal nightmare, to the darkest of tides. Tribal war loomed.

The strange thing was that the prime minister of Israel, the Jewish homeland established in 1948, the certain refuge at last, the place where belonging could never be an issue, had wished it so.

It was the Israeli leader who suggested it was time to abandon the European Jewish experiment. He had been in office many years. He saw himself as the visionary defender and gatherer of his people, the man for every threat (and they seemed to multiply endlessly).

After the shootings of Jews in Brussels and Paris and Copenhagen, as European soldiers and police fanned out to protect synagogues and as he faced a close election, the Israeli leader said this: “This wave of terror attacks is expected to continue, including these murderous anti-Semitic attacks.”

He continued: “We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe” of Jews. He added, “I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew.”

Israel is indeed the home of every Jew, and that is important, a guarantee of sorts. It is equally important, however, that not every Jew choose this home. That is another kind of guarantee, of Europe’s liberal order, of the liberal idea itself. So it was shattering when millions of Jews, every one of them in fact, as if entranced, upped and left their homes in Milan and Berlin and Zurich.

The leader himself was overcome: Where was he to house them? Many of the liberal Jews of Europe, long strangers in strange lands, knowing statelessness in their bones, mindful of Hillel’s summation of the Torah — “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man” — refused to be part of the spreading settlements in the West Bank, Israeli rule over another people.

The prime minister awoke, shaken. It had been such a vivid nightmare. Too vivid! To himself he murmured, “Careful what you wish for.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Like many Americans, I’ve been wary of labor unions.

Full-time union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year? A union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her? A police union in New York City that has a tantrum and goes on virtual strike?

More broadly, I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong.

I was wrong.

The abuses are real. But, as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life — especially the private-sector unions that are now dwindling.

Most studies suggest that about one-fifth of the increase in economic inequality in America among men in recent decades is the result of the decline in unions. It may be more: A study in the American Sociological Review, using the broadest methodology, estimates that the decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality among men.

“To understand the rising inequality, you have to understand the devastation in the labor movement,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington and the author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Take construction workers. A full-time construction worker earns about $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars, according to Rosenfeld. One reason is probably that the proportion who are unionized has fallen in that period from more than 40 percent to just 14 percent.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

In Germany, the average autoworker earns about $67 per hour in salary and benefits, compared with $34 in the United States. Yet Germany’s car companies in 2010 produced more than twice as many vehicles as American companies did, and they were highly profitable. It’s too glib to say that the problem in the American sector was just unions.

Or look at American history. The peak years for unions were the 1940s and ’50s, which were also some of the fastest-growing years for the United States ever — and with broadly shared prosperity. Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least.

Richard B. Freeman, a Harvard labor expert, notes that unions sometimes bring important benefits to industry: They can improve morale, reduce turnover and provide a channel to suggest productivity improvements.

Experts disagree about how this all balances out, but it’s clear that it’s not a major drag. “If you’re looking for big negatives, everybody knows they don’t exist,” Professor Freeman said.

Joseph Stiglitz notes in his book “The Price of Inequality” that when unions were strong in America, productivity and real hourly compensation moved together in manufacturing. But after 1980 (and especially after 2000) the link seemed to break and real wages stagnated.

It may be that as unions weakened, executives sometimes grabbed the gains from productivity. Perhaps that helps explain why chief executives at big companies earned, on average, 20 times as much as the typical worker in 1965, and 296 times as much in 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”

He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Earlier this month — right between Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day — Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced a bill that would allow people from states with lax gun laws to carry their concealed weapons all around the country.

The goal, Cornyn said in a press release, is to treat local gun permits “like drivers’ licenses.”

“This operates more or less like a driver’s license,” he told a reporter for The Hill. “So, for example, if you have a driver’s license in Texas, you can drive in New York, in Utah, and other places subject to the laws in those states.”

This is perfectly reasonable, except for the part about gun permits being anything whatsoever like drivers’ licenses. If a citizen from Mississippi shows his driver’s license to someone in Connecticut, the Connecticut person has good reason to presume that the licensee can, um, drive. It’s not a perfect system — witness the fact that there are many, many licensed drivers in America who have successfully parallel parked only one time in their entire life. But, still, no matter what state it comes from, a driver’s license generally signifies a certain level of accomplishment when it comes to the basics of stopping, starting and steering.

On the other hand, a permit to carry a concealed weapon from Mississippi is concrete proof of the owner’s ability to fill out an application. In Virginia, you can take an online course. You can get a permit from Florida without ever living in Florida, although you definitely do have to send $112 to the State Department of Agriculture.

In some states, you can be pretty certain that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon has been checked out carefully. In others, not so much. In 2007, The Sun Sentinel in Florida found that in a six-month period, more than 1,400 people who had pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies had been awarded concealed carry permits, along with 216 people with outstanding warrants, 28 people with active domestic violence injunctions against them, and six registered sex offenders.

The Cornyn bill would set a national bar at the lowest denominator.

“The situation in Florida is dire enough on its own. But this law would present a danger to the rest of us because of Florida’s abhorrently low standards,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Think about this in terms of states’ rights.”

You’d think that states’ rights would be a winning argument. However, as with so many, many things in this world, states’ rights is a theory that people only like when it’s going to get them something they already want.

In many crowded cities, gun safety means there’s almost nobody carrying but the cops. But it’s impossible to keep that kind of order when people are roaming the streets waving out-of-town gun permits, which local police frequently have no way to verify.

“It’s a nightmare for New York law enforcement,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York. “In 20 states you can have a repeated history of mental health police visits and you can get a gun. You can have a domestic violence record. In many states, people subject to emergency orders of protection can be allowed to carry.”

Cornyn’s bill has been the top priority of groups like the National Rifle Association for years. That is, in part, because their base is irritated about not being able to drive around the country with a handgun in the glove compartment.

However, I suspect another part of the equation is that the gun lobby is running out of causes to rally the troops. Some states have already pretty much legalized everything. Once you’ve made it O.K. to carry a gun onto a playground, you’ve just about come to the end of the road. The N.R.A. doesn’t want to recruit members by arguing for Texans’ right to wave a pistol around the small appliance department at Target. It wants a big, meaty challenge — like fighting for looser gun regulation in states where the populace doesn’t want looser gun regulation.

Nobody doubts that the House of Representatives would pass a bill like Cornyn’s. (Really, just call them; they’ll come in and do it before dinner tonight.) The Senate has been more resistant, but, in 2013, the same proposal came within three votes of passage. And this is not an issue where minds are changed by an invigorating debate.

“You say: ‘Look, maybe this works in the rural parts of your state but it doesn’t work in Times Square,’ ” said Schumer. “They’re not even open to the argument.”

Now, with the new Republican majority, it’ll be extremely hard to keep a bill from being sent to the president. He could always veto it. Unless, of course, it was tied to some crucial, desperately needed measure.

“This is awful, awful, awful,” said Schumer.

Maybe our best hope is that Congress will do what it does best and fail to pass any legislation whatsoever for the rest of the year.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 16, 2015

In “A Kaffeeklatsch on Race” Mr. Blow says the F.B.I. chief, James Comey, enters the debate.  Mr. Cohen, in “Islam and the West at War,” says the Danish prime minister speaks of a “dark ideology.” This vagueness undermines the Muslims fighting the Islamist scourge.  Prof. Krugman addresses Greek debt and the lessons of history in “Weimar on the Aegean.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In our collective imaginations, we tend to conceive of the constantly called-for “national conversation on race” as having the formality of some grand conclave of consciousness — an American Truth and Reconciliation equivalent, a spiritual spectacle in which sins are confessed and blame taken and burdens lifted.

This may be ideal, but it is also exceedingly unlikely in this country, particularly in this political environment. There will be no great atoning. Reparations will not be paid. There will no sprawling absolution.

Yet we can still have a productive conversation. Indeed, I would argue that we are in the midst of a national conversation about race at this very moment. Its significance isn’t drawn from structure but from the freedom of its form.

Every discussion over a backyard fence or a cup of coffee is part of that conversation. It is the very continuity of its casualness that bolsters its profundity.

We need to stop calling for the conversation and realize that we are already having it.

Last week the F.B.I. director, James Comey, added his voice to that conversation, particularly as it relates to the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. There were portions I found particularly potent coming from a man in his position.

He gave a list of “hard truths,” the first of which was an admission that the history of law enforcement in this country was not only part of the architecture of oppression but also a brutal tool of that system. As Comey put it, “One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either.”

His second hard truth acknowledged the existence of unconscious racial bias “in our white-majority culture” and how that influences policing.

Third, he acknowledged that people in law enforcement can develop “different flavors of cynicism” that can be “lazy mental shortcuts,” resulting in more pronounced racial profiling.

But as in all discussions, there were portions of the speech to which I took exception.

First, Comey seems to falsely conflate condemnation of poor policing — sometimes predatory policing, in particular — with a condemnation of all policing. He makes a straw man argument, “Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods.” Who said it was?

This is a twisting of motive and purpose of the voices of recent protesters that undermines and mischaracterizes both. Minority communities want policing the same as any other, but they want it to be appropriate and proportional. They want not to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals. They want officers to display an equitable modicum of discernment in treating the law-abiding differently from the lawbreaking.

The discussion is not about police officers being a “root cause of problems” in a given neighborhood, but rather that they shouldn’t be a problem at all, anywhere. We are not geographically confined. We can move in and out of high-crime neighborhoods. We can’t move in and out of our own skin.

At another point, Comey states that cynicism “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights.” This is dangerous and unconditionally false. “Lazy mental shortcuts” — in other words, racial profiling — aren’t rational in any light. That violates not only an American principle but also a human one: that no person should be punished for the crimes or sins of another.

His fourth hard truth focused on how crimes among “many young men of color become part of that officer’s life experience.” But in seeking to offer context, he mentioned “environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment.” Here he moves perilously close to a racial pathology argument, as if there were something inherent in blackness and black culture that predisposes one to criminality. This, too, is a “lazy mental shortcut.”

What too few people mention when discussing crime is the degree to which concentrated poverty, hopelessness and despair are the chambermaids of violence and incivility. These factors are developed and maintained through a complicated interplay of structural biases — historical and current — interpersonal biases, environmental reinforcements and personal choices.

Even as I disagree on portions, I take the larger point, and I applaud the endeavor and its purpose. Comey seems to be making a genuine effort to be part of the conversation and the solution, and that is more than I can say for some.

One doesn’t have to possess the certitude of gospel to have a positive impact on this discussion — for oneself and others. Just an earnest desire for insight and mutual understanding.

This is more than one can say of the hard of heart, those resistant to engagement and, therefore, beyond enlightenment. The stone cannot absorb no matter how much you drench it.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

After a Danish movie director at a seminar on “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” and a Danish Jew guarding a synagogue were shot dead in Copenhagen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the prime minister of Denmark, uttered a familiar trope:

“We are not in the middle of a battle between Islam and the West. It’s not a battle between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a battle between values based on the freedom of the individual and a dark ideology.”

This statement — with its echoes of President Obama’s vague references to “violent extremists” uncoupled from the fundamentalist Islam to which said throat-cutting extremists pledge allegiance — scarcely stands up to scrutiny. It is empty talk.

Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world, in a failed bid to eradicate a metastasizing Islamist movement of murderous hatred toward Western civilization.

To call this movement, whose most potent recent manifestation is the Islamic State, a “dark ideology” is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate. There is little point in Western politicians rehearsing lines about there being no battle between Islam and the West, when in all the above-mentioned countries tens of millions of Muslims, with much carnage as evidence, believe the contrary.

The Danish filmmaker Finn Norgaard was killed a little over a decade after another movie director, Theo van Gogh, was slain in Amsterdam for making a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. The Islamists’ war is against freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of blasphemy, sexual freedom — in short, core characteristics of democracies seen by the would-be rebuilders of the Caliphate as signs of Western debasement.

Do not provoke them with cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, some say, show respect for Islam, the peaceful faith of some 1.6 billion people. But what, pray, was the “provocation” of Dan Uzan, the Jewish security guard outside the Copenhagen synagogue?

Islam is a religion that has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power. Islam, as such, is fair game for commentators, caricaturists and cartoonists, whose inclination to mock the depredations of theocracy and political Islam’s cynical uses of the Prophet cannot be cowed by fear.

Over the more than 13 years since Al Qaeda attacked America on 9/11, we have seen trains blown up in Madrid, the Tube and a bus bombed in London, Western journalists beheaded, the staff of Charlie Hebdo slaughtered, Jews killed in France and Belgium and now Denmark. This is not the work of a “dark ideology” but of jihadi terror.

On the right of Europe’s political spectrum, anger is rising against Islam, against marginalized Muslim communities, who in turn feel discriminated against and misrepresented, with cause. Several thousand young European Muslims troop off to join ISIS. Europe’s Jews are on edge, with cause. Israel calls them home. In the United States, three Muslim students were killed this month by a gunman in a possible hate crime denounced by Obama as “brutal and outrageous.” A tide of retaliatory menace rises.

Who or what is to blame? There are two schools. For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality, (Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib); its killing of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a jihadi-funding Saudi ally).

For the second, it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic State its appeal.

I find the second view more persuasive. The rise of the Islamic State, and Obama’s new war, are a direct result of the failure of the Arab Spring, which had seemed to offer a path out of the deadlocked, jihadi-spawning societies of the Arab world.

Only Arabs can find the answer to this crisis. But history, I suspect, will not judge Obama kindly for having failed to foster the great liberation movement that rose up in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Inaction is also a policy: Nonintervention produced Syria today.

I hear the words of Chokri Belaid, the brave Tunisian lawyer, shortly before he was gunned down by Islamist fanatics on Feb. 6, 2013: “We can disagree in our diversity but within a civilian, peaceful and democratic framework. Disagree in our diversity, yes!”

To speak of a nonspecific “dark ideology,” to dismiss the reality of conflict between the West and Islam, is also to undermine the anti-Islamist struggle of brave Muslims like Belaid — and these Muslims are the only people, ultimately, who can defeat the black-flagged jihadi death merchants.

And last but certainly not least here’s Prof. Krugman:

Try to talk about the policies we need in a depressed world economy, and someone is sure to counter with the specter of Weimar Germany, supposedly an object lesson in the dangers of budget deficits and monetary expansion. But the history of Germany after World War I is almost always cited in a curiously selective way. We hear endlessly about the hyperinflation of 1923, when people carted around wheelbarrows full of cash, but we never hear about the much more relevant deflation of the early 1930s, as the government of Chancellor Brüning — having learned the wrong lessons — tried to defend Germany’s peg to gold with tight money and harsh austerity.

And what about what happened before the hyperinflation, when the victorious Allies tried to force Germany to pay huge reparations? That’s also a tale with a lot of modern relevance, because it has a direct bearing on the crisis now brewing over Greece.

The point is that now, more than ever, it is crucial that Europe’s leaders remember the right history. If they don’t, the European project of peace and democracy through prosperity will not survive.

About those reparations: The basic story here is that Britain and France, instead of viewing the newly established German democracy as a potential partner, treated it as a conquered enemy, demanding that it make up their own wartime losses. This was deeply unwise — and the demands placed on Germany were impossible to meet, for two reasons. First, Germany’s economy had already been devastated by the war. Second, the true burden on that shrunken economy would — as John Maynard Keynes explained in his angry, powerful book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” — be far greater than the direct payments to the vengeful Allies.

In the end, and inevitably, the actual sums collected from Germany fell far short of Allied demands. But the attempt to levy tribute on a ruined nation — incredibly, France actually invaded and occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, in an effort to extract payment — crippled German democracy and poisoned relations with its neighbors.

Which brings us to the confrontation between Greece and its creditors.

You can argue that Greece brought its problems on itself, although it had a lot of help from irresponsible lenders. At this point, however, the simple fact is that Greece cannot pay its debts in full. Austerity has devastated its economy as thoroughly as military defeat devastated Germany — real Greek G.D.P. per capita fell 26 percent from 2007 to 2013, compared with a German decline of 29 percent from 1913 to 1919.

Despite this catastrophe, Greece is making payments to its creditors, running a primary surplus — an excess of revenue over spending other than interest — of around 1.5 percent of G.D.P. And the new Greek government is willing to keep running that surplus. What it is not willing to do is meet creditor demands that it triple the surplus, and keep running huge surpluses for many years to come.

What would happen if Greece were to try to generate those huge surpluses? It would have to further slash government spending — but that wouldn’t be the end of the story. Spending cuts have already driven Greece into a deep depression, and further cuts would make that depression deeper. Falling incomes would, however, mean falling tax receipts, so that the deficit would decline by much less than the initial reduction in spending — probably less than half as much. To meet its target, then, Greece would have to do another round of cuts, and then another.

Furthermore, a shrinking economy would lead to falling private spending too — another, indirect cost of the austerity.

Put it all together, and attempting to cough up the extra 3 percent of G.D.P. the creditors are demanding would cost Greece not 3 percent, but something like 8 percent of G.D.P. And remember, this would come on top of one of the worst economic slumps in history.

What would happen if Greece were simply to refuse to pay? Well, 21st-century European nations don’t use their armies as bill collectors. But there are other forms of coercion. We now know that in 2010 the European Central Bank threatened, in effect, to collapse the Irish banking system unless Dublin agreed to an International Monetary Fund program.

The threat of something similar hangs implicitly over Greece, although my hope is that the central bank, which is under different and more open-minded management these days, wouldn’t go along.

In any case, European creditors should realize that flexibility — giving Greece a chance to recover — is in their own interests. They may not like the new leftist government, but it’s a duly elected government whose leaders are, from everything I’ve heard, sincerely committed to democratic ideals. Europe could do a lot worse — and if the creditors are vengeful, it will.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 9, 2015

In “Beyond ‘Black Lives Matter'” Mr. Blow has a question.  He says Michael Brown and Eric Garner are now old news. He then asks: Where do we go from here?  Mr. Cohen, in “Western Illusions Over Ukraine,” says the only way to change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis is to help arm Ukraine.  JUST what we need — more saber rattling and dick swinging…  Prof. Krugman says “Nobody Understands Debt.”  He says families who rely on it make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true of nations? No, it isn’t, as he explains.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Black Lives Matter protesters took some criticism for what others viewed as a lack of clear focus and detailed agenda. But in truth, raising an issue to the point where it can no longer be ignored is the grist for the policy mill. Visibility and vocalization have value.

In the same way that Occupy Wall Street forever elevated that concept of income inequality, the Black Lives Matter protesters have elevated the idea of inequity in policing as it relates to minority communities.

Protests following the grand jury decisions in the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island have largely died down. Those stories no longer command front page placement or lead the news. The news machine, hungry for newness, as is its wont, has moved on to measles and back to the Islamic State’s medieval murder tactics.

But, as is often the case, there was no full resolution or reconciliation. The issue of police-community relations was raised but not solved. The memory of mistrust still wafts through the air like the smell of rot being carried by the breeze.

What was it all for? What came of it? Where do we go from here?

First, the encouraging news.

In December, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which in part aims to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.”

The White House has promoted the use of body cameras, and police departments across the country are considering their purchase and use.

The task force has held listening sessions around the country, and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is holding round-table discussions.

The Ferguson Police Department last week began testing a “less lethal” device that attaches to an officer’s gun. According to The Washington Post, “When a bullet fired, it melded with an attached projectile the size of a Ping-Pong ball that flew with enough force to knock a person down, maybe break some ribs, but not kill him, the product’s makers said — even at close range.”

The Huffington Post reported in November that in 2013, 27 law enforcement officers “were killed as a result of felonious acts — the lowest such figure in more than 50 years of F.B.I. reporting.” That month, The Chicago Tribune reported that “U.S. violent crimes including murders fell 4.4 percent in 2013 to their lowest number since the 1970s, continuing a decades-long downturn, the F.B.I. said.”

Now the discouraging news. According to a November USA Today report, “The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police last year — 461 — was the most in two decades, according to a new F.B.I. report.”

Something about these numbers doesn’t add up, and it will be interesting to see whether the protests and the heightened sensibilities they brought to the surface will affect these numbers in next year’s reporting.

In New York, after Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police union came to loggerheads, the mayor skipped an opportunity to address the issue of the police and minorities communities, and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton seems to be going out of his way to reassure the department at the expense of future protests.

The worry is that rapprochement may come to resemble appeasement.

In this month’s State of the City speech, as The Village Voice put it, de Blasio hardly mentioned policing, offering anodyne praise for the city’s officers. This raised the hackles of many reform advocates, even among his supporters.

Bratton has announced the creation of a separate police unit of roughly 500 patrol officers to handle temporary issues like large protests. He has resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for an independent monitor in cases where grand juries fail to indict officers in the death of a civilian. And he proposed raising resisting arrest from a misdemeanor — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and is often tossed out — to a felony.

According to BuzzFeed, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, “also called for enhanced penalties against protesters, asking the Legislature to make assaulting a police officer at a public assembly a Class B felony, which would carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.”

Few people support resisting arrest or assaulting officers, but in the scrum of protests, such severe penalties for sometimes subjective or even dubious charges seem disproportionate and an attempt to chill dissent.

This is what happens when a story fades from the headlines, the heat is dialed down and the eyes avert: In the silence, amid the stillness, there is movement. The immediacy of protests gives way to the glacial pace of policy. The burden is to remain vigilant, so that movement is in the right direction.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, who just can’t wait to whale away on those war drums:

The most difficult thing for a communist, it has been observed, is to predict the past. I was reminded of this as I listened to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in full Soviet mode at the Munich Security Conference, suggesting that after World War II it was “the Soviet Union that was against splitting Germany.”

People laughed; they guffawed. Germans recall the Soviet clamp on the east of the country and the Berlin Wall. But in a way Lavrov was right: The Soviet Union would have been quite happy to swallow all of Germany, given the chance.

Today, in similar fashion, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia would be quite happy to absorb all of Ukraine, which it views as an extension of the motherland, an upstart deluded by the West into imagining independent statehood.

Lavrov’s performance here reflected the alternate universe in which the Russian spaceship has docked almost a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. George Orwell’s doublethink scarcely begins to describe his assertions.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, he insisted, a popular uprising, the people “invoking the right of self-determination” as per the United Nations Charter. Ukrainians were engaged in an orgy of “nationalistic violence” characterized by ethnic purges directed against Jews and Russians. The United States was driven by an insatiable desire for global dominance and, in Ukraine, had orchestrated the “coup d’état” last year that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Europe post-1989 had turned its back on building “the common European house,” declining the prospect of a “free economic zone” from Lisbon to Vladivostok in favor of the expansion of NATO eastward to the doorstep of mother Russia.

Dream on, Sergei.

In fact, the Russian annexation of Crimea tore up by forceful means “the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine, in direct violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. It also shredded Russia’s formal commitment under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukraine’s international borders. The “nationalistic violence” that has again raised issues of war and peace in Europe stems not from Kiev but from Moscow, where Putin has cultivated a preposterous fable of encirclement, humiliation and Western depredation to generate hysteria and buttress Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, the fascism Lavrov purports to locate in Ukraine through allusions to attacks against Jews and other ethnic groups can in fact be far more persuasively identified back home. Putin has reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason. The Russian leader has invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He has persevered in the nonsense that all the Russian forces and matériel in eastern Ukraine are figments of the world’s imagination.

Lavrov’s “coup” in Ukraine was nothing of the sort: It was a popular uprising against a corrupt Russian puppet strong-armed into turning his country away from closer association with the West. Ukrainians are not nuts. They find the allure of Warsaw or Berlin greater than that of sunny Minsk. When they hear “common European house” they translate it as “Soviet imperium.”

Two plus two equals five was a Soviet slogan. It was deployed in 1931 in support of the notion that Stalin’s five-year plan could be completed in four. Two plus two equals five is still the “truth” emanating from Moscow. This is worth recalling in all negotiations over Ukraine.

There was much talk here of a possible Franco-German engineered cease-fire; of there being “no military solution” to the Ukrainian conflict (except, of course, the one Putin has in mind); of the advisability or not for the West of sending weapons to support the Ukrainian government (Chancellor Angela Merkel is opposed); and of the need to be resolute, at least in word.

Resolute-schmesolute: It’s time to get real over Putin. He has not poured tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems over the Ukrainian border because he is about to settle for anything less than a weak Ukraine, sapped by low-level conflict in the Donetsk region, a country with its very own pro-Russian enclave à la Abkhazia or Transnistria, firmly within the Russian sphere of influence: the symbol of his definitive strategic turn away from closer cooperation with the West toward the confrontation that shores him up as oil prices and the currency plunge. He will not let Ukraine go.

There is a language Moscow understands: antitank missiles, battlefield radars, reconnaissance drones. Bolster the Ukrainian Army with them and other arms. Change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. There are risks but no policy is risk-free. Recall that Ukraine gave up more than 1,800 nuclear warheads in exchange for that bogus commitment from Russia back in 1994 to respect its sovereignty and borders. Surely it has thereby earned the right to something more than night-vision goggles. The West’s current Ukraine diplomacy is long on illusion and short on realism. Two plus two equals four, in war and peace.

I wonder if there’s an area that he doesn’t want to arm…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Many economists, including Janet Yellen, view global economic troubles since 2008 largely as a story about “deleveraging” — a simultaneous attempt by debtors almost everywhere to reduce their liabilities. Why is deleveraging a problem? Because my spending is your income, and your spending is my income, so if everyone slashes spending at the same time, incomes go down around the world.

Or as Ms. Yellen put it in 2009, “Precautions that may be smart for individuals and firms — and indeed essential to return the economy to a normal state — nevertheless magnify the distress of the economy as a whole.”

So how much progress have we made in returning the economy to that “normal state”? None at all. You see, policy makers have been basing their actions on a false view of what debt is all about, and their attempts to reduce the problem have actually made it worse.

First, the facts: Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging,” which found, basically, that no nation has reduced its ratio of total debt to G.D.P. Household debt is down in some countries, especially in the United States. But it’s up in others, and even where there has been significant private deleveraging, government debt has risen by more than private debt has fallen.

You might think our failure to reduce debt ratios shows that we aren’t trying hard enough — that families and governments haven’t been making a serious effort to tighten their belts, and that what the world needs is, yes, more austerity. But we have, in fact, had unprecedented austerity. As the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, real government spending excluding interest has fallen across wealthy nations — there have been deep cuts by the troubled debtors of Southern Europe, but there have also been cuts in countries, like Germany and the United States, that can borrow at some of the lowest interest rates in history.

All this austerity has, however, only made things worse — and predictably so, because demands that everyone tighten their belts were based on a misunderstanding of the role debt plays in the economy.

You can see that misunderstanding at work every time someone rails against deficits with slogans like “Stop stealing from our kids.” It sounds right, if you don’t think about it: Families who run up debts make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true when we look at overall national debt?

No, it isn’t. An indebted family owes money to other people; the world economy as a whole owes money to itself. And while it’s true that countries can borrow from other countries, America has actually been borrowing less from abroad since 2008 than it did before, and Europe is a net lender to the rest of the world.

Because debt is money we owe to ourselves, it does not directly make the economy poorer (and paying it off doesn’t make us richer). True, debt can pose a threat to financial stability — but the situation is not improved if efforts to reduce debt end up pushing the economy into deflation and depression.

Which brings us to current events, for there is a direct connection between the overall failure to deleverage and the emerging political crisis in Europe.

European leaders completely bought into the notion that the economic crisis was brought on by too much spending, by nations living beyond their means. The way forward, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany insisted, was a return to frugality. Europe, she declared, should emulate the famously thrifty Swabian housewife.

This was a prescription for slow-motion disaster. European debtors did, in fact, need to tighten their belts — but the austerity they were actually forced to impose was incredibly savage. Meanwhile, Germany and other core economies — which needed to spend more, to offset belt-tightening in the periphery — also tried to spend less. The result was to create an environment in which reducing debt ratios was impossible: Real growth slowed to a crawl, inflation fell to almost nothing and outright deflation has taken hold in the worst-hit nations.

Suffering voters put up with this policy disaster for a remarkably long time, believing in the promises of the elite that they would soon see their sacrifices rewarded. But as the pain went on and on, with no visible progress, radicalization was inevitable. Anyone surprised by the left’s victory in Greece, or the surge of anti-establishment forces in Spain, hasn’t been paying attention.

Nobody knows what happens next, although bookmakers are now giving better than even odds that Greece will exit the euro. Maybe the damage would stop there, but I don’t believe it — a Greek exit is all too likely to threaten the whole currency project. And if the euro does fail, here’s what should be written on its tombstone: “Died of a bad analogy.”

Blow and Krugman

February 2, 2015

In “A Future Segregated by Science?” Mr. Blow says that when you look at the number of women and minorities seeking STEM careers, the situation is bleak.  Prof. Krugman addresses “The Long-Run Cop-Out” and says in today’s economic and political environment, dismissing the here and now is craven and irresponsible.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy.

I have always loved science, but I have always loved the arts — drawing, painting and, yes, writing — more.

My deepest foray into science came in high school when I won my way to the international science fair. (Don’t get too excited; that sounds more impressive than it was.) It was 1988, and I had produced a project about why the “Star Wars” missile defense system wouldn’t work. My project was a beautiful monstrosity made of stained and varnished plywood, with an insert for a diorama of missiles flying, lasers blasting and a midair explosion, and a cutout with space for a small television and a VCR (yes, I’m that old).

I won the district fair — in part, I suspect, because the judges’ pool was heavily populated by members of the military — even though I had violated one of the cardinal rules of science fairs: I hadn’t actually done an experiment. Mine was a fancy research project — like a 3-D opinion piece. But it didn’t matter. The airline lost the whole project when I flew to the international science fair, so I never got to compete.

Although my science dreams were dashed, I still loved science. And I’ve long been surrounded by science people. My ex-wife was a physics major. My oldest child is a biology major, and when my twins enter college next year, one wants to major in physics and the other in a scientific field to be determined.

But their interests defy a distressing disparity: Few women and minorities are getting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees, although STEM jobs are multiplying and pay more than many other careers.

This raises the question: Will our future be highly delineated by who does and who doesn’t have a science education (and the resulting higher salary), making for even more entrenched economic inequality by race and gender?

According to : “STEM job creation over the next 10 years will outpace non-STEM jobs significantly, growing 17 percent, as compared to 9.8 percent for non-STEM positions.”

And yet, the group says, we are not producing enough STEM graduates; other countries are moving ahead of us.

When you look at women and minorities, the situation is even more bleak.

Let’s start with high school. Last year, a Georgia Tech researcher analyzed which students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science in 2013. The researcher, Barbara Ericson, found that in three states no women took it, in eight states no Hispanics did and in 11 states no blacks did. (In Mississippi only one person — not female, black or Hispanic, by the way — took the test that year. Oh, Mississippi.)

Now, on to college, where the disparities remain bleak.

The Associated Press said in 2011 that “the percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade” and that this was very likely a result of “a complex equation of self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement and economics — and sometimes just wrong perceptions of what math and science are all about.”

It continued: “Black people are 12 percent of the United States population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees and 2 percent of Ph.D.s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.”

It doesn’t get better in the workplace. In a 2013 editorial, The New York Times pointed out: “Women make up nearly half the work force but have just 26 percent of science, technology, engineering or math jobs, according to the Census Bureau. Blacks make up 11 percent of the work force but just 6 percent of such jobs and Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of the work force but hold 7 percent of those positions.”

Even when minority students do get STEM degrees, there seems to be a disproportionate barrier to their finding work in those fields. “Top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them,” an October analysis by USA Today found.

Furthermore, the paper reported in December: “In 2014, leading technology companies released data showing they vastly underemploy African-Americans and Hispanics. Those groups make up 5 percent of the companies’ work force, compared to 14 percent nationally.”

No matter what strides we make — or don’t — in the march toward racial and gender equality in this country, is this an area in which the future will feel more stratified, and in which the inequalities, particularly economic ones, will mount? Is science education a new area of our segregation?

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Monday, President Obama will call for a significant increase in spending, reversing the harsh cuts of the past few years. He won’t get all he’s asking for, but it’s a move in the right direction. And it also marks a welcome shift in the discourse. Maybe Washington is starting to get over its narrow-minded, irresponsible obsession with long-run problems and will finally take on the hard issue of short-run gratification instead.

O.K., I’m being flip to get your attention. I am, however, quite serious. It’s often said that the problem with policy makers is that they’re too focused on the next election, that they look for short-term fixes while ignoring the long run. But the story of economic policy and discourse these past five years has been exactly the opposite.

Think about it: Faced with mass unemployment and the enormous waste it entails, for years the Beltway elite devoted almost all their energy not to promoting recovery, but to Bowles-Simpsonism — to devising “grand bargains” that would address the supposedly urgent problem of how we’ll pay for Social Security and Medicare a couple of decades from now.

And this bizarre long-termism isn’t just an American phenomenon. Try to talk about the damage wrought by European austerity policies, and you’re all too likely to encounter lectures to the effect that what we really need to discuss is long-term structural reform. Try to discuss Japan’s effort to break out of its decades-long deflationary trap, and you’re sure to encounter claims that monetary and fiscal policy are sideshows, and that deregulation and other structural changes are what’s important.

Am I saying that the long run doesn’t matter? Of course not, although some forms of long-termism don’t make sense even on their own terms. Think about the notion that “entitlement reform” is an urgent priority. It’s true that many projections suggest that our major social insurance programs will face financial difficulties in the future (although the dramatic slowing of increases in health costs makes even that proposition uncertain). If so, at some point we may need to cut benefits. But why, exactly, is it crucial that we deal with the threat of future benefits cuts by locking in plans to cut future benefits?

Anyway, even where the long-term issues are real, it’s truly strange that they have so often taken center stage in recent years. We are, after all, still living through the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. America seems, finally, to be recovering — but Bowles-Simpsonism had its greatest influence precisely when the United States economy was still mired in a deep slump. Europe has hardly recovered at all, and there’s overwhelming evidence that austerity policies are the main reason for that ongoing disaster. So why the urge to change the subject to structural reform? The answer, I’d suggest, is intellectual laziness and lack of moral courage.

About laziness: Many people know what John Maynard Keynes said about the long run, but far fewer are aware of the context. Here’s what he really said: “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” Quite. All too often, or so it seems to me, people who insist that questions of austerity and stimulus are unimportant are actually trying to avoid hard thinking about the nature of the economic disaster that has overtaken so much of the world.

And they’re also trying to avoid taking a stand that will expose them to attack. Discussions of short-run fiscal and monetary policy are politically charged. Oppose austerity and support monetary expansion and you’ll be lambasted by the right; do the reverse and you’ll be criticized and maybe ridiculed by the left. I understand why it’s tempting to dismiss the whole debate and declare that the really important issues involve the long run. But while people who say that kind of thing like to pose as brave and responsible, they’re actually ducking the hard stuff — which is to say, being craven and irresponsible.

Which brings me back to the president’s new budget.

It goes without saying that Mr. Obama’s fiscal proposals, like everything he does, will be attacked by Republicans. He’s also, however, sure to face criticism from self-proclaimed centrists accusing him of irresponsibly abandoning the fight against long-term budget deficits.

So it’s important to understand who’s really irresponsible here. In today’s economic and political environment, long-termism is a cop-out, a dodge, a way to avoid sticking your neck out. And it’s refreshing to see signs that Mr. Obama is willing to break with the long-termers and focus on the here and now.

Blow, Friedman and Bruni

January 28, 2015

In “Reducing Our Obscene Level of Child Poverty” Mr. Blow says a new report on our nation’s “moral disgrace” reminds us that allowing child poverty to remain this widespread costs more than eliminating it would.   The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Czar Putin’s Next Moves:”  Is anyone paying attention to the awful things President Vladimir Putin of Russia is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country?  Mr. Bruni says “We Dodged Icy Doom.  Let’s Gripe.”  He explains that whether they prepare for too little snow or too much, politicians can be assured of our unhappiness.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I’m not someone who believes that poverty can ever truly be ended — I’m one of those “the poor will always be with you” types — but I do believe that the ranks of the poor can and must be shrunk and that the effects of poverty can and must be ameliorated.

And there is one area above all others where we should feel a moral obligation to reduce poverty as much as possible and to soften its bite: poverty among children.

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

Today, the Children’s Defense Fund is releasing a report entitled “Ending Child Poverty Now” that calls this country’s rate of child poverty “a moral disgrace.”

As the report points out:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith. In fact if they had been born in 33 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries they would be less likely to be poor. Among these 35 countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.”

It points out many of the corrosive cruelties of childhood poverty: worse health and educational outcomes, impaired cognitive development and the effects of “toxic stress” on brain functions. It also points out the “intergenerational transmission” properties of poverty:

“In one study, people who experienced poverty at any point during childhood were more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child was poor, the greater the risk of adult poverty.”

But the report is more than just an excoriation of the hollowness of our professed American values and our ethical quandary. It also serves as an economic manifesto, making the point that allowing child poverty to remain at these unconscionable levels costs “far more than eliminating it would,” calculating that an immediate 60 percent reduction in child poverty would cost $77.2 billion a year, or just 2 percent of our national budget.

For context, the report puts it this way:

“Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report cites the M.I.T. Nobel laureate economist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Robert Solow, who wrote in his foreword to a 1994 C.D.F. report, “Wasting America’s Future”: “As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money.”

To pay for the effort, the report calls for some of the same things the president called for in his State of the Union speech last week, like closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy. But it also called for a reduction in the military budget. This is an echo, in a way, of the concerns Martin Luther King had about military spending sapping money from efforts to help the poor, which he laid out in his not-nearly-cited-enough 1967 anti-Vietnam speech at the Riverside Church:

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

What would we get for our $77 billion, anyway? Things like the creation of subsidized jobs, an increase in the earned income tax credit, a raise of the minimum wage, an expansion of child care subsidies and housing subsidies, and an increase in SNAP benefits.

The report holds up Britain, which took some of the same steps as a case study of how such an approach can work because they “managed to reduce child poverty by more than half over 10 years, and reductions persisted during the Great Recession.”

We can do this too, if just stop seeing helping these children as an us-versus-them struggle between makers and takers, if we stop getting so hung up on prudishness about sex and traditional views of what constitutes a family, if we stem our impulse to punish children for their mothers giving birth before marriage.

By the way, Britain’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is even higher than ours.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Zurich:

Last March, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, supposedly in defense of Russian-speakers there, was just like “what Hitler did back in the ‘30s“ — using ethnic Germans to justify his invasion of neighboring lands. At the time, I thought such a comparison was over the top. I don’t think so anymore. I’d endorse Mrs. Clinton’s comparison purely for the shock value: It draws attention to the awful things Putin is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country, whose credit rating was just reduced to junk status.

Putin’s use of Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia to invade Ukraine and to covertly buttress Ukrainian rebels bought and paid for by Moscow — all disguised by a web of lies that would have made Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels blush and all for the purpose of destroying Ukraine’s reform movement before it can create a democratic model that might appeal to Russians more than Putin’s kleptocracy — is the ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today.

Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS. It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values. If Putin the Thug gets away with crushing Ukraine’s new democratic experiment and unilaterally redrawing the borders of Europe, every pro-Western country around Russia will be in danger.

“Putin fears a Ukraine that demands to live and wants to live and insists on living on European values — with a robust civil society and freedom of speech and religion [and] with a system of values the Ukrainian people have chosen and laid down their lives for,” Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s finance minister, told a Ukraine seminar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

The U.S. and Germany have done a good job organizing the sanctions on Russia. While the Obama administration recently decided to deploy some American soldiers to Ukraine in the spring to train the Ukrainian National Guard, I’d support increasing our military aid to Ukraine’s Army now so it can better defend itself from the estimated 9,000 troops Putin has infiltrated into Ukraine.

Ukraine also needs $15 billion in loans and grants in the next year to stabilize its economy, in addition to its bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Ukrainians had dug themselves into a deep, deep hole with their 20-plus years of industrial levels of corruption from a series of bad governments after Kiev became independent of the Soviet Union. The reason for hope is that the revolution and latest elections in Ukraine have brought in a new generation of reformers, who are rapidly transforming ministries and passing tax and transparency regulations. They are actually welcoming hardheaded, good-governance benchmarks as a condition for Western aid. But if they deliver, we must deliver.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been traveling across Europe this week in part to lock in the aid package for Kiev. The U.S. has committed its share, but the European Union is still balking a bit. Putin’s aim is to sow enough instability that the West will hold back aid so the Ukraine reformers will fail to deliver and be discredited. That would be a shame.

Global financier George Soros, who’s been helping foster Ukrainian reform, told the Davos gathering that “there is a new Ukraine that is determined to be different from the old Ukraine. … What makes it unique is that it is not only willing to fight but engage in executing a set of radical reforms. It is up against the old Ukraine that has not disappeared … and up against a very determined design by President Putin to destabilize it and destroy it. But it is determined to assert the independence and European orientation of the new Ukraine.”

Ukraine could also impact the price of oil. The two biggest actors who can shape that price today are Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, and Russia’s czar, Putin. If the Saudis decide to cut back production significantly, the price of oil will go up. And if Putin decides to fully invade Ukraine, or worse, one of the Baltic states, and test whether NATO will really fight to defend either, the price of oil will go up. With his economy in shambles, Putin’s regime is now almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, so he’s really hurting with the oil price collapse. The odds of Putin fully invading Ukraine or the Baltics are low, but do not rule out either.

Triggering a big geopolitical crisis with NATO is an easy way for Putin to shock the oil price back up. Putin’s covert Ukraine interventions up to now have not succeeded in that. In sum: Today’s oil price will be most affected by two men — King Salman and how he uses his spare capacity to produce oil and Czar Putin and how he uses his spare capacity to produce trouble.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.

Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.

By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.

We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.

We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.

And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.

That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.

But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.

None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.

Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best.

“All signs were that this was going to be very bad,” Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security, told John Berman and Kate Bolduan on CNN, adding that for de Blasio not to take many or most of the steps that he did “would have been complete negligence.”

And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday.

But from the howls of inconvenience and accusations of overreaction in the city itself, you would have thought that Central Park’s snowfall (almost 10 inches) was everybody’s. Untrue. In matters meteorological as in others, Manhattan is solipsism central.

Still, there are questions to be fairly asked. Was it really necessary, at 11 p.m. Monday, to take the extraordinary step of shutting down the subways? Especially when it turned out that some trains were still running, empty, as a way of maintaining the system?

That was Cuomo’s call, and it could have waited, if indeed it ever had to be made. Friends who’ve lived through Moscow’s brutal winters tell me that its mass transit never lets up. And while Russia’s people are hardier, their vehicles are not.

To varying degrees, Cuomo, de Blasio, Christie and other politicians overreacted, at least slightly, but who’s to blame? They’ve seen leaders past — including the New York mayors John Lindsay in 1969, Michael Bloomberg in 2010 and de Blasio himself just a year ago — endure or be undone by charges of insufficient girding for snow.

And they know that these days, thanks to Twitter and the like, the verdict will be especially hasty and the jury unusually large and loud. TV networks, pressed for money and ratings, will pay rapt attention, because weather is an easy news story to cover: straightforward, theatrical. The correspondents get to wear their ski-chalet best and to roar over the wind’s whisper.

In a more nuanced environment, the politicians in the snow’s path could have charted a better midcourse between readiness and run-for-cover alarm. They could have trusted us to understand that their talents don’t include soothsaying and that their plans will never be precisely right.

But that’s not the climate we live in. No, ours is so gripe-happy that not long after dawn Tuesday, on the Business Insider website, Henry Blodget reacted to the transportation shutdown with this sweeping judgment: “New York has become a nanny state.”

Perhaps. But imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.

Blow and Krugman

January 26, 2015

In “Library Visit, Then Held at Gunpoint” Mr. Blow has questions.  What if his son had panicked and the officer had fired? Had he come close to losing him?  Prof. Krugman, in “Ending Greece’s Nightmare,” says now that Alexis Tsipras has won, and won big, European officials would be well advised to stop lecturing him on fiscal responsibility.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Saturday evening, I got a call that no parent wants to get. It was my son calling from college — he’s a third-year student at Yale. He had been accosted by a campus police officer, at gunpoint!

This is how my son remembers it:

He left for the library around 5:45 p.m. to check the status of a book he had requested. The book hadn’t arrived yet, but since he was there he put in a request for some multimedia equipment for a project he was working on.

Then he left to walk back to his dorm room. He says he saw an officer “jogging” toward the entrance of another building across the grounds from the building he’d just left.

Then this:

“I did not pay him any mind, and continued to walk back towards my room. I looked behind me, and noticed that the police officer was following me. He spoke into his shoulder-mounted radio and said, ‘I got him.’

“I faced forward again, presuming that the officer was not talking to me. I then heard him say, ‘Hey, turn around!’ — which I did.

“The officer raised his gun at me, and told me to get on the ground.

“At this point, I stopped looking directly at the officer, and looked down towards the pavement. I dropped to my knees first, with my hands raised, then laid down on my stomach.

“The officer asked me what my name was. I gave him my name.

“The officer asked me what school I went to. I told him Yale University.

“At this point, the officer told me to get up.”

The officer gave his name, then asked my son to “give him a call the next day.”

My son continued:

“I got up slowly, and continued to walk back to my room. I was scared. My legs were shaking slightly. After a few more paces, the officer said, ‘Hey, my man. Can you step off to the side?’ I did.”

The officer asked him to turn around so he could see the back of his jacket. He asked his name again, then, finally, asked to see my son’s ID. My son produced his school ID from his wallet.

The officer asked more questions, and my son answered. All the while the officer was relaying this information to someone over his radio.

My son heard someone on the radio say back to the officer “something to the effect of: ‘Keep him there until we get this sorted out.’ ” The officer told my son that an incident report would be filed, and then he walked away.

A female officer approached. My son recalled, “I told her that an officer had just stopped me and pointed his gun at me, and that I wanted to know what this was all about.” She explained students had called about a burglary suspect who fit my son’s description.

That suspect was apparently later arrested in the area.

When I spoke to my son, he was shaken up. I, however, was fuming.

Now, don’t get me wrong: If indeed my son matched the description of a suspect, I would have had no problem with him being questioned appropriately. School is his community, his home away from home, and he would have appreciated reasonable efforts to keep it safe. The stop is not the problem; the method of the stop is the problem.

Why was a gun drawn first? Why was he not immediately told why he was being detained? Why not ask for ID first?

What if my son had panicked under the stress, having never had a gun pointed at him before, and made what the officer considered a “suspicious” movement? Had I come close to losing him? Triggers cannot be unpulled. Bullets cannot be called back.

My son was unarmed, possessed no plunder, obeyed all instructions, answered all questions, did not attempt to flee or resist in any way.

This is the scenario I have always dreaded: my son at the wrong end of a gun barrel, face down on the concrete. I had always dreaded the moment that we would share stories about encounters with the police in which our lives hung in the balance, intergenerational stories of joining the inglorious “club.”

When that moment came, I was exceedingly happy I had talked to him about how to conduct himself if a situation like this ever occurred. Yet I was brewing with sadness and anger that he had to use that advice.

I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out — earn your way out — of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.

There is no amount of respectability that can bend a gun’s barrel. All of our boys are bound together.

The dean of Yale College and the campus police chief have apologized and promised an internal investigation, and I appreciate that. But the scars cannot be unmade. My son will always carry the memory of the day he left his college library and an officer trained a gun on him.

Thank God his son wasn’t in Ferguson or Albuquerque…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza coalition, is about to become prime minister of Greece. He will be the first European leader elected on an explicit promise to challenge the austerity policies that have prevailed since 2010. And there will, of course, be many people warning him to abandon that promise, to behave “responsibly.”

So how has that responsibility thing worked out so far?

To understand the political earthquake in Greece, it helps to look at Greece’s May 2010 “standby arrangement” with the International Monetary Fund, under which the so-called troika — the I.M.F., the European Central Bank and the European Commission — extended loans to the country in return for a combination of austerity and reform. It’s a remarkable document, in the worst way. The troika, while pretending to be hardheaded and realistic, was peddling an economic fantasy. And the Greek people have been paying the price for those elite delusions.

You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. Greece was already in recession when the deal was reached, but the projections assumed that this downturn would end soon — that there would be only a small contraction in 2011, and that by 2012 Greece would be recovering. Unemployment, the projections conceded, would rise substantially, from 9.4 percent in 2009 to almost 15 percent in 2012, but would then begin coming down fairly quickly.

What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. Greece didn’t hit the bottom until 2014, and by that point it had experienced a full-fledged depression, with overall unemployment rising to 28 percent and youth unemployment rising to almost 60 percent. And the recovery now underway, such as it is, is barely visible, offering no prospect of returning to precrisis living standards for the foreseeable future.

What went wrong? I fairly often encounter assertions to the effect that Greece didn’t carry through on its promises, that it failed to deliver the promised spending cuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Greece imposed savage cuts in public services, wages of government workers and social benefits. Thanks to repeated further waves of austerity, public spending was cut much more than the original program envisaged, and it’s currently about 20 percent lower than it was in 2010.

Yet Greek debt troubles are if anything worse than before the program started. One reason is that the economic plunge has reduced revenues: The Greek government is collecting a substantially higher share of G.D.P. in taxes than it used to, but G.D.P. has fallen so quickly that the overall tax take is down. Furthermore, the plunge in G.D.P. has caused a key fiscal indicator, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., to keep rising even though debt growth has slowed and Greece received some modest debt relief in 2012.

Why were the original projections so wildly overoptimistic? As I said, because supposedly hardheaded officials were in reality engaged in fantasy economics. Both the European Commission and the European Central Bank decided to believe in the confidence fairy — that is, to claim that the direct job-destroying effects of spending cuts would be more than made up for by a surge in private-sector optimism. The I.M.F. was more cautious, but it nonetheless grossly underestimated the damage austerity would do.

And here’s the thing: If the troika had been truly realistic, it would have acknowledged that it was demanding the impossible. Two years after the Greek program began, the I.M.F. looked for historical examples where Greek-type programs, attempts to pay down debt through austerity without major debt relief or inflation, had been successful. It didn’t find any.

So now that Mr. Tsipras has won, and won big, European officials would be well advised to skip the lectures calling on him to act responsibly and to go along with their program. The fact is they have no credibility; the program they imposed on Greece never made sense. It had no chance of working.

If anything, the problem with Syriza’s plans may be that they’re not radical enough. Debt relief and an easing of austerity would reduce the economic pain, but it’s doubtful whether they are sufficient to produce a strong recovery. On the other hand, it’s not clear what more any Greek government can do unless it’s prepared to abandon the euro, and the Greek public isn’t ready for that.

Still, in calling for a major change, Mr. Tsipras is being far more realistic than officials who want the beatings to continue until morale improves. The rest of Europe should give him a chance to end his country’s nightmare.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

January 22, 2015

In “Inequality in the Air We Breathe?” Mr. Blow says it’s hard to imagine anyone, with a straight face, proposing to openly burn millions of pounds of explosives near, say, Manhattan or Seattle.  Mr. Kristof considers “Reagan, Obama and Inequality” and says the average American has been stuck since the Reagan era in a predawn darkness of stagnation and inequality.  In “The Road Meets the Walrus” Ms. Collins says the gas tax might be a good topic to discuss when people ask you what you thought of President Obama’s State of the Union address.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I grew up in the small town of Gibsland, in northern Louisiana. It is dirt poor, but proud. And it’s an overwhelmingly African-American community.

(There are fewer than 1,000 people in Gibsland; more than 80 percent of them are black; the median household income is $27,292, little over half the national average of $51,939; and the poverty rate is 28 percent, compared with the national rate of 15 percent.)

My mother, one of my brothers and a raft of relatives still live in Gibsland. Another brother moved to the next town over, Minden, a big city relatively speaking (it has 13,000 people), where he is a high school teacher. Minden, just west of Gibsland, is also majority African-American and relatively poor — 55 percent of the residents are black, the median household income is $30,411 and 24 percent of the residents are poor.

For years, one of the largest employers in that area was the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant, about four miles from Minden. The Environmental Protection Agency eventually listed the plant as a Superfund site because for more than 40 years “untreated explosives-laden wastewater from industrial operations was collected in concrete sumps at each of the various load line areas,” and emptied into “16 one-acre pink water lagoons.” It was determined that the toxic contamination in soil and sediments from the lagoons was a “major contributor” to toxic groundwater contamination.

But wait, it gets worse.

When the plant ceased production, as The Times-Picayune of New Orleans pointed out, “the Army awarded now-bankrupt Explo Systems a contract in 2010 to ‘demilitarize’ the propellant charges for artillery rounds” on the site. The company conducted “operations” there “until a 2012 explosion sent a mushroom cloud 7,000 feet high and broke windows a mile away in Doyline,” another small community in the area.

But wait, it gets worse.

According to The Shreveport Times, “investigation by state police found the millions of pounds of propellant stored in 98 bunkers scattered around” the site. It turned out that when Explo went bankrupt, it simply abandoned the explosives, known as M6. Now there was a risk of even more explosions, so there was need for a plan to get rid of the M6, and quickly.

(By the way, Shreveport is the largest city near the site, and it, too, is majority black, has a median household income well below the national average and a poverty rate well above it.)

But wait, it gets worse.

According to the website Truthout:

“After months of bureaucratic disputes between the Army and state and federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) recently announced an emergency plan to burn 15 million pounds of M6 — up to 80,000 pounds a day over the course of a year — on open ‘burn trays’ at Camp Minden, a disposal process that environmental advocates say is outdated and has been outlawed in other countries. The operation would be one of the largest open munitions burn in U.S. history.”

Indeed, Robert Flournoy, an environmental toxicologist and former Louisiana Tech professor, wrote in The Shreveport Times this week:

“The E.P.A. says this is a safe way to destroy the propellant. I strongly disagree with their decision and their safety statement. I have over 42 years of environmental experience and can say without a doubt the open-tray method is not safe. The E.P.A. has produced no data to the safety of such a burn and repeatedly ignores requests for such data from media, citizens, state officials and environmental professionals. In addition to the air contamination risk, we have three other issues: explosive detonation, groundwater contamination and soil contamination.”

And yes, again, it gets worse.

A local television news station, KTBS in Shreveport, pointed out last week:

“It’s expected to be the nation’s largest open burn in history. And now, it seems there’s even more explosive material at Camp Minden than we all previously thought. We’ve all heard the number 15 million pounds of explosives, but documents from the E.P.A. show there’s millions more pounds.”

This week, a group of “71 social and environmental justice organizations” across the country sent a letter of protest to the E.P.A.’s assistant administrator Cynthia Giles, saying in part:

“By definition, open burning has no emissions controls and will result in the uncontrolled release of toxic emissions and respirable particulates to the environment.”

Feeling the pressure from local citizen and environmentalist rightly concerned about the immediate and long-term health implications, the E.P.A. recently delayed the burn by 90 days to allow the state’s department of environmental quality and the National Guard to “select their own alternative for disposing of the explosive material,” according to The Times-Picayune.

Still, these little places in the woods aren’t yet out of the woods. It’s still not clear what will eventually happen with the explosives.

We have to stop and ask: How was this allowed to come to such a pass in the first place? How could this plant have been allowed to contaminate the groundwater for 40 years? How could the explosives have been left at the site in the first place? How is it that there doesn’t seem to be the money or the will to more safely remove them? Can we imagine anyone, with a straight face, proposing to openly burn millions of pounds of explosives near Manhattan or Seattle?

This is the kind of scenario that some might place under the umbrella of “environmental racism,” in which disproportionately low-income and minority communities are either targeted or disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous materials and waste facilities.

There is a long history in this country of exposing vulnerable populations to toxicity.

Fifteen years ago, Robert D. Bullard published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. In it, he pointed out that nearly 60 percent of the nation’s hazardous-waste landfill capacity was in “five Southern states (i.e., Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas),” and that “four landfills in minority ZIP codes areas represented 63 percent of the South’s total hazardous-waste capacity” although “blacks make up only about 20 percent of the South’s total population.”

More recently, in 2012, a study by researchers at Yale found that “The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc are in the mix of fine particles they breathe.”

Among the injustices perpetrated on poor and minority populations, this may in fact be the most pernicious and least humane: the threat of poisoning the very air that you breathe.

I have skin in this game. My family would fall in the shadow of the plume. But everyone should be outraged about this practice. Of all the measures of equality we deserve, the right to feel assured and safe when you draw a breath should be paramount.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Since the end of the 1970s, something has gone profoundly wrong in America.

Inequality has soared. Educational progress slowed. Incarceration rates quintupled. Family breakdown accelerated. Median household income stagnated.

“It’s morning again in America” — that was a campaign slogan by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. But, in retrospect, the average American has been stuck since the Reagan era in a predawn darkness of stagnation and inequality, and we still haven’t shaken it off, particularly since 2000. Inequality has increased further under President Obama.

That’s the context for Obama’s call, in his State of the Union address, for greater economic fairness. But first, the caveats. His proposals are dead on arrival in Congress. They won’t be implemented and probably won’t change the public’s thinking: Research by George C. Edwards, a political scientist, finds that presidential speeches rarely persuade the public much.

Remember the 2014 State of the Union address? Of course not. Of 18 proposals in it, there was action on two, according to PBS. Or Obama’s passionate call in his 2013 State of the Union for measures to reduce gun violence? Nothing much resulted, and the word “guns” didn’t even pass his lips this time.

Yet the bully pulpit still can shape the national agenda and nag at the American conscience. I don’t fully agree with Obama’s solutions — how could he skip over early-childhood interventions?! — but he’s exactly right in the way he framed the inequality issue: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?”

Some background. Even with the global Great Depression, the United States performed brilliantly in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, with incomes and education mostly rising and inequality flat or falling — and gains were broadly shared by poor and rich alike. High school graduation rates surged, G.I.’s went to college, and the United States led the world in educational attainment.

And, in part of this remarkable era, the top federal income tax rate exceeded 90 percent. Republicans might remember that point when they warn that Obama’s proposals for modestly higher taxes would savage the American economy.

Then, for average Americans, the roof fell in around the end of the 1970s. The ’70s were “the end of normal,” the economist James K. Galbraith argues in a new book of that title. Afterward, the economy continued to grow over all, but the spoils went to the wealthy and the bottom 90 percent barely benefited.

Median household income is little greater today than it was in 1979. Today, the typical family in Canada appears better off than the typical American family.

By some measures, education — our seed corn for the future — has pretty much stalled. More young American men today have less education than their parents (29 percent) than have more education (20 percent). Among industrialized countries as a whole, 70 percent of 3-year-olds go to preschool; in the United States, 38 percent do.

I wonder if the celebration of unfettered capitalism and “greed is good” since the Reagan era didn’t help shape social mores in ways that accelerated inequality.

In any case, Reagan was right on one point — “the best social program is a productive job” — and Obama offered sound proposals to increase incentives for work. Better child-care and sick-leave policies would also make work more feasible. The United States is the only country among the 34 in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that provides no paid maternity leave.

Oddly, Obama didn’t push early-childhood initiatives, focused on kids from newborns to 5 years old, that have a particularly strong evidence base for creating opportunity.

Early-education initiatives poll well, and some of the leaders in programming have been red states like Oklahoma. So while the Obama agenda is mostly for show, expansion of preschool could actually occur at least at the state level.

Obama rightly heralded the fall in teenage pregnancy rates. But he had little to do with it (although the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” played a role!), and about 30 percent of American girls still get pregnant by age 19. Making reliable birth control available to at-risk teenagers would help them, reduce abortion rates and even pay for itself in reduced social spending later.

In America, we have subsidized private jets, big banks and hedge fund managers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to subsidize kids? So if higher capital gains taxes can pay for better education, infrastructure and jobs, of course that trade-off is worthwhile.

Congressional Republicans seem focused on a pipeline that isn’t even economically viable at today’s oil prices. Let’s hope that the national agenda can broaden along the lines that Obama suggests, so that the last 35 years become an aberration rather than a bellwether.

And next up we have Ms. Collins:

Let’s raise the gas tax.

There are several reasons we need to discuss this now. One is that plummeting gasoline prices make the idea very timely. Also, people will be asking you this week what you thought of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Even though he did not mention the gas tax, bringing it up will allow you to avoid having an opinion on whether it’s time to close the capital gains stepped-up-basis loophole.

The gas tax raises much-needed money for roads and mass transit. Our roads, you may have noticed, are falling apart. Every time you hit a pothole, yell: “Raise the gas tax!”

Even more important, it encourages Americans to use fuel-efficient cars. While we’re all happy as clams about falling gas prices, every gallon produces more than 19 pounds of planet-warming emissions. We just had the hottest year on record. The ice floes are melting. Walruses keep piling up along the Alaskan shore, where the babies can get squashed.

Raise the gas tax and remember the walruses.

Plus, it’s not really a tax! Or at least not necessarily. Just ask Ronald Reagan. When he entered office, Reagan said he didn’t see the likelihood of a gas tax increase “unless there’s a palace coup.” But then, you know, stuff happened and The Great Communicator discovered that a levy on gasoline wasn’t really a tax, but merely a “user fee.” So no problem at all, and under his administration the, um, fee was more than doubled.

Ah, Ronald Reagan. Perhaps you noticed, during the State of the Union, that President Obama was urging Congress to bring the capital gains tax back up to Reagan-era levels? Who’d have thought? We live in ironic times, people.

But about the gas tax. It was also raised under George H.W. (The Good One) Bush, and then again under Bill Clinton. Remember Al Gore breaking the tie in the Senate? Ah, Al Gore.

And that was it. The federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, is not indexed for inflation, and it has not gone up since 1993. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the federal highway construction program, keeps falling deeper into the red. It’s currently scheduled to implode sometime this spring.

The White House has been very clear about its lack of enthusiasm for solving the problem with a gas tax increase. Mainly, the objection is that if Congress wouldn’t pass Obama’s proposal to pay for early education with a tobacco tax, it’s not going to fund road repair with a gas tax. This is a pretty good point. However, deeply cynical souls could also argue that the current majority likes road construction more than preschool.

During the State of the Union, Obama made his pitch for another idea: reform the tax on overseas business profits, creating a one-time-only windfall of revenue for the government to use in a mega-road-building spree.

Three reasons the gas tax is a better idea:

1) Walruses.

2) Half the members of Congress are eyeing that very same windfall to pay for their own pet programs.

3) Only works once. “It’s just a coward’s way out,” says Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. Genuine fiscal conservatives hate the idea of paying for permanent ongoing programs with one-shot revenues. Corker has been known to complain that he’s been in the Senate for eight years and never saw Congress permanently solve a problem.

Last year Corker and Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut, floated the idea of raising the gas tax 12 cents over two years. “Our bet when we went out on a limb last year was that we could position it as a topic for serious discussion this year, and I hope it’s going to pay off,” said Murphy.

And it’s working, sort of. A number of prominent Republicans have been muttering things like “nothing is off the table.” Senator James Inhofe, the new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and a man whose position on global warming makes him an enemy to walruses everywhere, has said a gas tax is “one of the options.” An option that is not off the table! Truly, the worm has turned.

On the other hand, Representative Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently announced: “We won’t pass a gas tax.” That would seem to be somewhat discouraging, but there are still these gleams of hope that Republicans might come around since:

— You can call it a user fee. (Ask Ronald Reagan.)

— President Obama doesn’t like it.

— Compromise is possible. Many conservatives hate the fact that the Highway Trust Fund also helps support mass transit and invests in things like highway beautification and bike paths. There might be some room for give here. Let’s throw something in the fund under the proverbial bus. I nominate “transportation museums.”

Walrus seconds the motion.

Blow and Krugman

January 19, 2015

In “How Expensive It Is to Be Poor” Mr. Blow says most wealthy Americans believe “poor people today have it easy.” This view is infuriatingly obtuse.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Hating Good Government:”  Why do so many Americans hold views that are completely at odds with, and completely unaffected by, actual experience?  Well, Faux Noise may have a great deal to do with both issues.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a study that found that most wealthy Americans believed “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

This is an infuriatingly obtuse view of what it means to be poor in this country — the soul-rending omnipresence of worry and fear, of weariness and fatigue. This can be the view only of those who have not known — or have long forgotten — what poverty truly means.

“Easy” is a word not easily spoken among the poor. Things are hard — the times are hard, the work is hard, the way is hard. “Easy” is for uninformed explanations issued by the willfully callous and the haughtily blind.

Allow me to explain, as James Baldwin put it, a few illustrations of “how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

First, many poor people work, but they just don’t make enough to move out of poverty — an estimated 11 million Americans fall into this category.

So, as the Pew report pointed out, “more than half of the least secure group reports receiving at least one type of means-tested government benefit.”

And yet, whatever the poor earn is likely to be more heavily taxed than the earnings of wealthier citizens, according to a new analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. As The New York Times put it last week:

“According to the study, in 2015 the poorest fifth of Americans will pay on average 10.9 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the middle fifth will pay 9.4 percent and the top 1 percent will average 5.4 percent.”

In addition, many low-income people are “unbanked” (not served by a financial institution), and thus nearly eaten alive by exorbitant fees. As the St. Louis Federal Reserve pointed out in 2010:

“Unbanked consumers spend approximately 2.5 to 3 percent of a government benefits check and between 4 percent and 5 percent of payroll check just to cash them. Additional dollars are spent to purchase money orders to pay routine monthly expenses. When you consider the cost for cashing a bi-weekly payroll check and buying about six money orders each month, a household with a net income of $20,000 may pay as much as $1,200 annually for alternative service fees — substantially more than the expense of a monthly checking account.”

Even when low-income people can become affiliated with a bank, those banks are increasingly making them pay “steep rates for loans and high fees on basic checking accounts,” as The Times’s DealBook blog put it last year.

And poor people can have a hard time getting credit. As The Washington Post put it, the excesses of the subprime boom have led conventional banks to stay away from the riskiest borrowers, leaving them “all but cut off from access to big loans, like mortgages.”

One way to move up the ladder and out of poverty is through higher education, but even that is not without disproportionate costs. As the Institute for College Access and Success noted in March:

“Graduates who received Pell Grants, most of whom had family incomes under $40,000, were much more likely to borrow and to borrow more. Among graduating seniors who ever received a Pell Grant, 88 percent had student loans in 2012, with an average of $31,200 per borrower. In contrast, 53 percent of those who never received a Pell Grant had debt, with an average of $26,450 per borrower.”

And often, work or school requires transportation, which can be another outrageous expense. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:

“Low- and moderate-income households spend 42 percent of their total annual income on transportation, including those who live in rural areas, as compared to middle-income households, who spend less than 22 percent of their annual income on transportation.”

And besides, having a car can make prime targets of the poor. One pernicious practice that the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — and the protests that followed — resurfaced was the degree to which some local municipalities profit from police departments targeting poor communities, with a raft of stops, fines, summonses and arrests supported by police actions and complicit courts.

As NPR reported in August:

“In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.”

The story continued:

“ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-area public defender group, says in its report that more than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the ‘illegal and harmful practices’ of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations — and then arresting people when they don’t pay.”

The list of hardships could go on for several more columns, but you get the point: Being poor is anything but easy.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s now official: 2014 was the warmest year on record. You might expect this to be a politically important milestone. After all, climate change deniers have long used the blip of 1998 — an unusually hot year, mainly due to an upwelling of warm water in the Pacific — to claim that the planet has stopped warming. This claim involves a complete misunderstanding of how one goes about identifying underlying trends. (Hint: Don’t cherry-pick your observations.) But now even that bogus argument has collapsed. So will the deniers now concede that climate change is real?

Of course not. Evidence doesn’t matter for the “debate” over climate policy, where I put scare quotes around “debate” because, given the obvious irrelevance of logic and evidence, it’s not really a debate in any normal sense. And this situation is by no means unique. Indeed, at this point it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.

Before I get into that, let me remind you of some other news that won’t matter.

First, consider the Kansas experiment. Back in 2012 Sam Brownback, the state’s right-wing governor, went all in on supply-side economics: He drastically cut taxes, assuring everyone that the resulting boom would make up for the initial loss in revenues. Unfortunately for his constituents, his experiment has been a resounding failure. The economy of Kansas, far from booming, has lagged the economies of neighboring states, and Kansas is now in fiscal crisis.

So will we see conservatives scaling back their claims about the magical efficacy of tax cuts as a form of economic stimulus? Of course not. If evidence mattered, supply-side economics would have faded into obscurity decades ago. Instead, it has only strengthened its grip on the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the news on health reform keeps coming in, and it keeps being more favorable than even the supporters expected. We already knew that the number of Americans without insurance is dropping fast, even as the growth in health care costs moderates. Now we have evidence that the number of Americans experiencing financial distress due to medical expenses is also dropping fast.

All this is utterly at odds with dire predictions that reform would lead to declining coverage and soaring costs. So will we see any of the people claiming that Obamacare is doomed to utter failure revising their position? You know the answer.

And the list goes on. On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

The question, as I said at the beginning, is why. Why the dogmatism? Why the rage? And why do these issues go together, with the set of people insisting that climate change is a hoax pretty much the same as the set of people insisting that any attempt at providing universal health insurance must lead to disaster and tyranny?

Well, it strikes me that the immovable position in each of these cases is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest. If you don’t want the government to impose controls or fees on polluters, you want to deny that there is any reason to limit emissions. If you don’t want the combination of regulation, mandates and subsidies that is needed to extend coverage to the uninsured, you want to deny that expanding coverage is even possible. And claims about the magical powers of tax cuts are often little more than a mask for the real agenda of crippling government by starving it of revenue.

And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure. I’m partial to that story, partly because it helps explain why climate science and health economics inspire so much rage.

Whether this is the right explanation or not, the fact is that we’re living in a political era in which facts don’t matter. This doesn’t mean that those of us who care about evidence should stop seeking it out. But we should be realistic in our expectations, and not expect even the most decisive evidence to make much difference.


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