Archive for the ‘Blow’ Category

Blow and Krugman

March 23, 2015

In “Gov. Jindal’s Implosion” Mr. Blow says Louisiana’s governor has made a mess of his state and wrecked his reputation in the process.  But he’s still hoping to climb into the 2016 Clown Car…  Prof. Krugman, in “This Snookered Isle,” says a misleading fixation on budget deficits has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

What happened to Bobby Jindal?

He was the next wave of Republican. He was young and smart — a Rhodes scholar. He was the son of immigrants and the first Indian-American governor in this country’s history.

He had even bounced back from his disastrous rebuttal to President Obama’s first State of the Union address. (Personally, I thought that his claim of having participated in an exorcism performed on his friend in college would have been more of an issue than it was, but that was just me.)

Jindal had all the right rhetoric.

He told Cal Thomas of Shreveport’s The Times: “As Republicans we don’t need to obsess about our opponents, we don’t need to define ourselves in opposition to our opponents. Let [Democrats] look backward; we need to look forward.”

In 2013, he demanded that the G.O.P. “stop being the stupid party.”

Jindal was the brainy Moses coming to deliver his people from the bondage of inanity. But that was then.

Now, Jindal has gone from being one of the most popular governors in the country to one of the least popular.

In the latest CNN/ORC poll of Republicans and independents who lean Republican, only 1 percent said that he was the candidate they would most likely support for the Republican nomination. Even “none/no one” got 6 percent.

And in a desperate attempt at relevancy — and press — he has lately been sliding further into Islamic hysteria.

In January, he caused a controversy by claiming that parts of Europe were “no-go zones” because of Muslim extremists. Jindal said that there were cities “where non-Muslims simply don’t go in,” like Birmingham in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron said in response: “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools’ Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot.”

That hasn’t stopped Jindal. Last week on Fox News, he set about defending his statement that America “shouldn’t tolerate those who want to come and try to impose some variant, or some version, of Shariah law.” But he went so far as to say of prospective immigrants:

“In America we want people who want to be Americans. We want people who want to come here. We don’t say, ‘You have to adopt our creed, or any particular creed,’ but we do say, ‘If you come here, you need to believe in American exceptionalism.’ ”

What? Where is that written? I can’t find this “need to believe in American exceptionalism” anywhere in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Isn’t American exceptionalism itself a creed?

The smart-on-paper Jindal increasingly comes across as nuttier than a piece of praline.

On Friday, Robert Mann, a columnist at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, called for Jindal’s resignation, citing all of the problems in the state that the governor isn’t focusing on as he tries to gin up a greater national profile:

“We have some of the nation’s highest poverty and worst health outcomes and you’ve done little to address them. Baton Rouge, your hometown, has the nation’s second-highest H.I.V. rate (New Orleans is fourth), but you’ve done nothing to address that crisis. What you have done is hollow out higher education and inject needless confusion and rancor into the state’s elementary and secondary education system. Meanwhile, the state’s health care system is a fractured, dysfunctional mess under your privatization schemes. Now, you’ve outsourced the state’s tax policy to Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.”

Louisiana’s fiscal picture is dire. As Politico reported in February:

“Jindal is preparing a budget to close a $1.6 billion shortfall in Louisiana, a particularly daunting task after the $400 million in additional money he had to scare up to fill a budget gap for the current year. The president of Louisiana State University said earlier this month that the state’s flagship school is preparing for a 40 percent cut in its operating budget next year.”

In fact, The Times-Picayune reported in January that “Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said Louisiana’s colleges and universities should be prepared to sustain anywhere from $200 million to $300 million in cuts during the 2015-16 school year.”

But in February, Jindal strained credulity, claiming, “The total higher education budget, including means of total finance — is actually a little bit, just slightly, higher than when I took office.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog quickly smacked that down, awarding Jindal three Pinocchios.

Jindal has made a mess of Louisiana and wrecked his reputation in the process. His odds of becoming president of the United States have shrunk to nil.

Sometimes what looks good on paper is a disaster in practice.

I just can’t resist…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “In the new world order, Jindal deals with poverty by creating more of it. He deals with racism by fomenting Islamic hysteria. He deals with health care by privatizing it into dysfunction. He deals with education by shutting it down. In short, he’s a mainstream Republican. On what grounds would they reject him for national office? I can easily imagine him joining the marquee of dim bulbs casting a shadow in the next Republican primary.”

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The 2016 election is still 19 mind-numbing, soul-killing months away. There is, however, another important election in just six weeks, as Britain goes to the polls. And many of the same issues are on the table.

Unfortunately, economic discourse in Britain is dominated by a misleading fixation on budget deficits. Worse, this bogus narrative has infected supposedly objective reporting; media organizations routinely present as fact propositions that are contentious if not just plain wrong.

Needless to say, Britain isn’t the only place where things like this happen. A few years ago, at the height of our own deficit fetishism, the American news media showed some of the same vices. Allegedly factual articles would declare that debt fears were driving up interest rates with zero evidence to support such claims. Reporters would drop all pretense of neutrality and cheer on proposals for entitlement cuts.

In the United States, however, we seem to have gotten past that. Britain hasn’t.

The narrative I’m talking about goes like this: In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.

Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University has dubbed this narrative “mediamacro.” As his coinage suggests, this is what you hear all the time on TV and read in British newspapers, presented not as the view of one side of the political debate but as simple fact.

Yet none of it is true.

Was the Labour government that ruled Britain before the crisis profligate? Nobody thought so at the time. In 2007, government debt as a percentage of G.D.P. was close to its lowest level in a century (and well below the level in the United States), while the budget deficit was quite small. The only way to make those numbers look bad is to claim that the British economy in 2007 was operating far above capacity, inflating tax receipts. But if that had been true, Britain should have been experiencing high inflation, which it wasn’t.

Still, wasn’t Britain at risk of a Greek-style crisis, in which investors could lose confidence in its bonds and send interest rates soaring? There’s no reason to think so. Unlike Greece, Britain has retained its own currency and borrows in that currency — and no country fitting this description has experienced that kind of crisis. Consider the case of Japan, which has far bigger debt and deficits than Britain ever did yet can currently borrow long-term at an interest rate of just 0.32 percent.

Which brings me to claims that austerity has been vindicated. Yes, British interest rates have stayed low. So have almost everyone else’s. For example, French borrowing costs are at their lowest level in history. Even debt-crisis countries like Italy and Spain can borrow at lower rates than Britain pays.

What about growth? When the current British government came to power in 2010, it imposed harsh austerity — and the British economy, which had been recovering from the 2008 slump, soon began slumping again. In response, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government backed off, putting plans for further austerity on hold (but without admitting that it was doing any such thing). And growth resumed.

If this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop.

Given all this, you might wonder how mediamacro gained such a hold on British discourse. Don’t blame economists. As Mr. Wren-Lewis points out, very few British academics (as opposed to economists employed by the financial industry) accept the proposition that austerity has been vindicated. This media orthodoxy has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.

Still, you can say the same of Bowles-Simpsonism in the United States, and we know how that doctrine temporarily came to hold so much sway. It was all about posturing, about influential people believing that pontificating about the need to make sacrifices — or, actually, for other people to make sacrifices — is how you sound wise and serious. Hence the preference for a narrative prioritizing tough talk about deficits, not hard thinking about job creation.

As I said, in the United States we have mainly gotten past that, for a variety of reasons — among them, I suspect, the rise of analytical journalism, in places like The Times’s The Upshot. But Britain hasn’t; an election that should be about real problems will, all too likely, be dominated by mediamacro fantasies.

Blow, Friedman, Kristof and Collins

March 19, 2015

In “Stop Playing the ‘Race Card’ Card” Mr. Blow says people who claim that certain accusations of racism are exaggerated seek to do what they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.  The Moustache of Wisdom has another question in “Bibi Will Make History:”  How is the rest of the world going to react to an Israeli government that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected?  By cutting off aid would be a start…  In “Deadliest Country For Kids” Mr. Kristof says oil and diamonds give Angola a wealth that is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, yet it has the highest rate of under-5 child mortality in the world.  Ms. Collins says “Oh, No! It’s a New Senate Low!”  But she says there is good news to share, too. The House has been on a roll, if you overlook some a terrible budget proposal and assaults on hapless poor people.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

So, Starbucks’ chief executive, Howard Schultz, wants us to serve the country coffee and a race dialogue.

This week Schultz announced that the chain’s baristas would have the option to write the words “race together” on cups of coffee and engage customers in a racial dialogue.

The suspicion and ridicule of this idea has been swift and broad. It has been mocked as impractical, hypocritical and even opportunistic.

Kate Taylor wrote in Entrepreneur Magazine:

“Tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing aspects of Race Together haven’t helped in establishing a strong base for employees to build on. Starbucks’ press photos for the event appear to feature only white employees. The press release on Race Together bizarrely leads with the subheading ‘It began with one voice,’ painting Howard Schultz as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race — something others, especially people of color, haven’t exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries.”

And yet, I would like to assume that the motive is noble even if something about it feels a shade off. Wanting to do something — even this — has to have a greater moral currency than resigning oneself to doing nothing.

So, in that spirit, let me start this portion of the conversation with this: Let’s all agree to strike the phrase “playing the race card” from all future conversation.

I was reminded of how toxic this term is in an interview, published this week, that former Vice President Dick Cheney did with Playboy magazine.

The interviewer asked:

“At different points, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have suggested that racism is a factor in criticism of them. Is there any truth in that?”

Cheney responded:

“I think they’re playing the race card, in my view. Certainly we haven’t given up — nor should we give up — the right to criticize an administration and public officials. To say that we criticize, or that I criticize, Barack Obama or Eric Holder because of race, I just think it’s obviously not true. My view of it is the criticism is merited because of performance — or lack of performance, because of incompetence. It hasn’t got anything to do with race.”

Before we dissect the use of “playing the race card here,” let’s deal with the questioner and the answer more broadly. They both trade in racial absolutes, which is a mistake and diverts from honest dialogue.

In January of 2014, President Obama told The New Yorker:

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” But he continued, “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

Furthermore, he explained:

“You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans.”

Attorney General Holder for his part told ABC News in July:

“You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver.”

Neither man was dealing in absolutes, but in nuance. The deliberate use of “some” people in both cases blunts the kind of retort that Cheney delivers. And there is empirical evidence that “some” people is correct here. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 2008 when Obama was running for office, 19 percent of respondents said they didn’t think most people they knew would vote for a black presidential candidate and 6 percent said that they wouldn’t vote for one themselves.

Cheney’s attempt at blanket absolution from what was not a blanket accusation holds no weight.

But now, back to that detestable phrase, “playing the race card.”

I have a particular revulsion for this phrase because of all that it implies: that people often invoke race as a cynical ploy to curry favor, or sympathy, and to cast aspersions on the character of others.

Maybe there are some people who do this, but I have never known a single person to admit to it or be proven to have done it.

Sure, living in a society still replete with racial bias can make one hypersensitive, to the point of seeing it even when it isn’t there. But this to me isn’t evidence of malicious intent, but rather the manifestation of chronic injury.

Furthermore, there are surely still people like the ones Booker T. Washington described:

“There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

But those who can realize a profit pale in comparison to the vast majorities of regular people trying to get by. To confuse the two is a deliberate deception.

It is one thing to debate the presence of racial motive in a circumstance, but it is quite another to suggest that people who suspect a racial component are exploiting some mythological, vaunted position and prerogative of aggrieved groups or exerting the exclusionary authority of the dominant group.

And furthermore, what other forms of discrimination are so routinely diminished and delegitimized in this way — cast as a game, a tactic or a stratagem?

The truth is that the people who accuse others — without a shred of evidence — of “playing the race card,” claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card. It is a privileged attempt at dismissal.

They seek to do the very thing they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.

Now, about that coffee…

Next up we have TMOW:

Well, it’s pretty clear now: Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a major figure in Israeli history — not because he’s heading to become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, but because he’s heading to be the most impactful. Having won the Israeli elections — in part by declaring that he will never permit a two state-solution between Israelis and Palestinians — it means Netanyahu will be the father of the one-state solution. And the one-state solution means that Israel will become, in time, either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy.

Yes, sir, Bibi is going to make history. And the leader in the world who is most happy that Netanyahu ran on — and won on — a one-state solution is the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Oh, my goodness. They must have been doing high-fives and “Allahu akbars” all night in the ruling circles of Tehran when they saw how low Bibi sank to win. What better way to isolate Israel globally and deflect attention from Iran’s behavior?

The biggest losers in all of this, besides all the Israelis who did not vote for Netanyahu, are American Jews and non-Jews who support Israel. What Bibi did to win this election was move the Likud Party from a center-right party to a far-right one. The additional votes he got were all grabbed from the other far-right parties — not from the center. When the official government of Israel is a far-right party that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected, it will split the basic unity of the American Jewish community on Israel. How many American Jews want to defend a one-state solution in Washington or on their college campuses? Is Aipac, the Israel lobby, now going to push for a one-state solution on Capitol Hill? How many Democrats and Republicans would endorse that?

Warning: Real trouble ahead.

You cannot win that dirty and just walk away like nothing happened. In the days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu was asked by the Israeli news site, NRG, if it was true that a Palestinian state would never be formed on his watch as prime minister, Netanyahu replied, “Indeed,” adding: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel.”

This makes null and void his speech in June 2009 at Bar Ilan University, where Netanyahu had laid out a different “vision of peace,” saying: “In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” Provided the Palestinian state recognizes Israel’s Jewish character and accepts demilitarization, he added, “We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”

Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state — and that one state will either be a Jewish democracy that systematically denies the voting rights of about one-third of its people or it will be a democracy and systematically erodes the Jewish character of Israel.

Just look at the numbers: In 2014, the estimated Palestinian Arab population of the West Bank was 2.72 million, with roughly 40 percent under the age of 14. There are already 1.7 million Israeli Arabs citizens — who assembled all their parties together in the latest election onto one list and came in third. Together, the West Bankers and Israeli Arabs constitute 4.4 million people. There are 6.2 million Israeli Jews. According to statistics from the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish population of Israel grew by 1.7 percent over the past year, and the Arab population grew by 2.2 percent.

If there is only one state, Israel cannot be Jewish and permit West Bank Palestinians to exercise any voting rights alongside Israeli Arabs. But if Israel is one state and wants to be democratic, how does it continue depriving West Bankers of the vote — when you can be sure they will make it their No. 1 demand.

I doubt, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu gave any of this much thought when he tossed the two-state solution out the window of his campaign bus in a successful 11th-hour grab for far-right voters. To be sure, he could disavow his two-state disavowal tomorrow. It would not surprise me. He is that cynical. But, if he doesn’t — if the official platform of his new government is that there is no more two-state solution — it will produce both a hostile global reaction and, in time, a Palestinian move in the West Bank for voting rights in Israel, combined with an attempt to put Israel in the docket in the International Criminal Court. How far is the Obama administration going to go in defending Israel after it officially rejects a two-state solution? I don’t know. But we’ll be in a new world.

No one on the planet will enjoy watching Israel and America caught on the horns of this dilemma more than the clerical regime in Tehran. It is a godsend for them. Iran’s unstated position is that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem must be perpetuated forever. Because few things serve Iran’s interests more than having radical Jewish settlers in a never-ending grinding conflict with Palestinians — and the more bloodshed and squashing of any two-state diplomatic options the better. Because, in that conflict, the Palestinians are almost always depicted as the underdogs and the Israelis as the bullies trying to deprive them of basic rights.

From Iran’s point of view, it makes fantastic TV on Al Jazeera, and all the European networks; it undermines Israel’s legitimacy with the young generation on college campuses around the globe; and it keeps the whole world much more focused on Israeli civil rights abuses against Palestinians rather than the massive civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime against its own people.

It is stunning how much Bibi’s actions serve Tehran’s strategic interests.

And that is why I am certain that Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a historic, very impactful prime minister in Jewish history. I just hope that — somehow — a Jewish democratic Israel survives his tenure.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Lubango, Angola:

This is a country laden with oil, diamonds, Porsche-driving millionaires and toddlers starving to death. New Unicef figures show this well-off but corrupt African nation is ranked No. 1 in the world in the rate at which children die before the age of five.

“Child mortality” is a sterile phrase, but what it means here is wizened, malnourished children with twig limbs, discolored hair and peeling skin. Here in Lubango in southern Angola, I stepped into a clinic and found a mother carrying a small child who seemed near death. He was unconscious, his eyes rolling, his skin cold and his breathing labored, so I led the mom to the overburdened nurses.

Just then, 20 feet away, a different mother began screaming. Her malnourished son, José, had just died.

Westerners sometimes think that people in poor countries become accustomed to loss, their hearts calloused and their pain numbed. No one watching that mother beside her dead child could think that — and such wailing is the background chorus in Angola. One child in six in this country will die by the age of five.

That’s only the tip of the suffering. Because of widespread malnutrition, more than one-quarter of Angolan children are physically stunted. Women have a 1-in-35 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth.

In a Lubango hospital, I met a 7-year-old boy, Longuti, fighting for his life with cerebral malaria. He weighed 35 pounds.

His mother, Hilaria Elias, who had already lost two of her four children, didn’t know that mosquitoes cause malaria. When Longuti first became sick, she took him to a clinic, but it lacked any medicine and didn’t do a malaria test. Now Longuti is so sick that doctors say that even if he survives, he has suffered neurological damage and may have trouble walking and speaking again.

Yet kids like Longuti who are seen by a doctor are the lucky ones. Only about 40 percent to 50 percent of Angola’s population has access to the health care system, says Dr. Samson Agbo, a Unicef pediatrics expert.

Angola is a nation of infuriating contradictions. Oil and diamonds give it a wealth that is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, and you see the riches in jewelry shops, Champagnes and $10,000-a-month one-bedroom apartments in the capital, Luanda.

Under the corrupt and autocratic president, José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled for 35 years, billions of dollars flow to a small elite — as kids starve.

President dos Santos, whose nation’s oil gives him warm, strong ties to the United States and Europe, hires a public relations firm to promote his rule, but he doesn’t take the simplest steps to help his people. Some of the poorest countries, such as Mauritania and Burkina Faso, fortify flour with micronutrients — one of the cheapest ways possible to save lives — yet dos Santos hasn’t tried that. He invests roughly three times as much on defense and security as on health.

“Children die because there is no medicine,” lamented Alfred Nambua, a village chief in a thatch-roof village on a rutted dirt road near the northern city of Malanje. The village has no school, no latrine, no bed nets. The only drinking water is a contaminated creek an hour’s hike away.

“Now there’s nothing,” said Nambua, 73, adding that life was better before independence in 1975.

“In the colonial period, when I was sick, they were afraid I would die and gave me good care,” he said, and he pretended to shiver in imitation of malaria. “Now when I’m sick, no one cares if I die.”

Statisticians say that Angola’s child mortality is, in fact, declining — but achingly slowly.

“Death in this country is normal,” said Dr. Bimjimba Norberto, who runs a clinic in a slum outside the capital. A few doors down, a funeral was beginning for Denize Angweta, a 10-month-old baby who had just died of malaria.

“If I lived in another country, I could still be playing with my daughter,” Denize’s father, Armondo Matuba, said bitterly.

It may get worse. With falling oil prices, the government has proposed a one-third cut in the health budget this year.

I’ve often criticized Western countries for not being more generous with aid. Yet it’s equally important to hold developing countries accountable.

It’s difficult to see why Western countries should continue to donate to Angola and thus let rich Angolans off the hook as they drive Porsches.

There are many ways for a leader to kill his people, and although dos Santos isn’t committing genocide he is presiding over the systematic looting of his state and neglect of his people. As a result, 150,000 Angolan children die annually. Let’s hold dos Santos accountable and recognize that extreme corruption and negligence can be something close to a mass atrocity.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

The United States Senate is worse than ever.

I know this is hard for you to believe, people. But, really, this week was a new bottom. The Senate found itself unable to pass a bill aiding victims of human trafficking, a practice so terrible that it is one of the few subjects on which members of Congress find it fairly easy to work in bipartisan amity.

“This has got to get done for me to continue having faith in this institution,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who’s particularly concerned about sexual exploitation of Native American women. She has always struck me as one of the more cheerful members of the Senate, so this seems like a bad sign.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed twelve bills against human trafficking already this year.

Wow, the House is doing great! If you overlook the introduction of a budget that features terrible math and many assaults on hapless poor people, the lower chamber has been on a roll lately. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, rescued the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and now they’re working out a plan to avoid the next fiscal cliff, which involves keeping Medicare running.

Plus, this week, the Republican majority got rid of disgraced Representative Aaron Schock, who decorated his office as if it was a scene from “Downton Abbey.” In the wake of questions about his mileage reimbursement requests, Schock announced his resignation. Since he had never successfully sponsored any legislation in his six-year congressional career, his greatest legacy may be a reminder that members of the House of Representatives should avoid brightening the workplace with vases of pheasant feathers.

So the House is working on a new fiscal-cliff plan, passed 12 human trafficking bills and subtracted Aaron Schock. Maybe it’s going to become the center of bipartisan cooperation the nation has been waiting for!

O.K., probably not. Anyway, it’s been doing better than the Senate.

At the beginning of the month, the Senate was working on its own anti-trafficking bill, sponsored by Republican John Cornyn of Texas, with several Democratic co-sponsors. The idea was to fine sexual predators and give the money to groups that help sex-trafficking victims.

Sounded promising. The Senate Judiciary Committee had easily approved Cornyn’s bill earlier this year. Then before it reached the floor, someone discovered that it had acquired a clause forbidding the use of the money to provide victims with access to abortions.

“They’re putting poison pills in their own bills!” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a phone interview.

Before we discuss how badly the Republicans behaved, we need to take time out to note that none of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seem to have noticed that somewhere along the line, this change had been inserted in the bill. (One senator acknowledged that an aide knew, but never shared the information.)

It was easy to miss, the Democrats contended, being very oblique and supertiny. “Out of a 112-page bill, there is this one sentence,” complained Democrat Dick Durbin.

I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that missing a change in important legislation is excusable only if the Senate Judiciary Committee is suffering from a shortage of lawyers.

No one seemed clear on how the new language got there in the first place, but abortion restriction is not something you casually toss into a bill that you want to pass with support from both parties. It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.

Cornyn argued that it made no difference whatsoever because there were plenty of exemptions that would allow any sexually exploited trafficking victim to qualify for an abortion anyway. That was a good point, except for the part where you wondered why he was so insistent that this allegedly meaningless language be preserved at all costs.

“My wish is that we hadn’t junked that bill up with abortion politics,” said Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican who has to run for re-election next year in Illinois. Many Republicans agreed with him, but in public they dug in their heels. In retaliation, the Democrats brought all progress to a halt with a filibuster.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thought he was going to show how to make the Senate work, was irate, and said there would be no vote on Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general nominee, until Democrats gave in.

Possible theme for the session: “Republicans who can’t lead meet Democrats who can’t read.”

Lynch did get some support from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who penned a letter urging Republicans to get behind her. When Giuliani is the most sensible voice in the room, there’s not much farther down to go, unless they start bringing in pheasant feathers.

Blow and Krugman

March 16, 2015

In “Flash Point Ferguson” Mr. Blow says the protest movement’s progress has been tarnished by violence. That doesn’t have to be the case.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Israel’s Gilded Age:”  Why is the country’s inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Ferguson, Mo., is once again a flash point in this nation’s struggle to come to grips with itself, as its citizens are embroiled in a profound conversation about bias, policing, the criminal justice system, civil rights and social justice.

The Department of Justice has released its scathing report documenting widespread racial targeting of citizens with fine and tickets. The city manager, the police chief and a judge cited in the report have stepped down. Cases will now be adjudicated outside the corrupt system described in the report. According to an article last week in The Times:

“The Missouri Supreme Court, citing the need for ‘extraordinary action’ to restore trust in Ferguson’s court system after the Department of Justice blasted it for routinely violating constitutional rights, assigned a state appeals court judge on Monday to oversee all municipal cases.”

But unfortunately, two police officers have also been shot in Ferguson. (The officers were treated at a hospital and released.)

All of it has caused the nation’s attention to once again turn to this small town and the sustained protests there.

Sometimes we understandably want justice to come quickly — but justice, if it is to be permanent, often inches forward. For those in the grip of injustice, toiling in the shadow of oppression, the wait can be nearly unbearable. But that hasn’t necessarily happened in this case.

It could be argued that the protest movement born in Ferguson in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson — a movement that quickly expanded from a focus on a single case to a sprawling indictment of the system — has been one of the most successful in recent history, both in terms of the speed at which it has garnered results and the breadth of those results.

And yet, that progress has been tarnished by flashes of violence.

That doesn’t have to be the case. There is a moral continuity that bridges and binds all people of good conscience.

There is universal condemnation of predation. No one should ever be targeted for harm. No cause can turn wrong to right. Violence can never be liberated from its inherent abhorrence.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in the 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.” King continued, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

Violence is weakness masquerading as strength. It is a crude statement of depravity voiced by the unethical and impolitic. It reduces humanity rather than lifts it.

The violent must find no asylum in the assembly of the righteous. We can and must stand up to injustice and against vigilante justice simultaneously.

(Authorities announced Sunday that an arrest had been made in the shootings. The prosecutor insisted the suspect had been a “demonstrator” — a fact that protest leaders denied — although the prosecutor did acknowledge that the shooter said he had a dispute with people in front of the police department “which had nothing to do with the demonstrations that were going on.”)

To those peaceful protesters who eschew violence as much as the rest of us, we must say: Hold tight. Be encouraged, steadfast and unmovable. We know the fatigue that builds from feeling that one must always fight. But your efforts are not in vain.

This is your moment. History has heard you, and justice is coming to meet you.

And we can do as a nation what those protesters have shown us can be done. We can elevate dialogue so that racial realities — both interpersonal and structural — can be acknowledged and remedies developed and implemented.

We can register indignation while preserving civility.

On “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” President Obama put it this way:

“What had been happening in Ferguson was oppressive and objectionable and was worthy of protest. But there was no excuse for criminal acts. And whoever fired those shots shouldn’t detract from the issue — they’re criminals. They need to be arrested. And then what we need to do is to make sure that like-minded, good-spirited people on both sides — law enforcement who have a terrifically tough job and people who understandably don’t want to be stopped and harassed just because of their race — that we’re able to work together to try to come up with some good answers.”

We can honor the lives of police officers — and applaud them when proper service is rendered — and at the same time marvel at the persistence and efficacy of the protesters who have gotten the nation’s attention and gotten results.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington? For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress. If you’re seriously trying to affect American foreign policy, you don’t insult the president and so obviously align yourself with his political opposition. No, the real purpose of that speech was to distract the Israeli electorate with saber-rattling bombast, to shift its attention away from the economic discontent that, polls suggest, may well boot Mr. Netanyahu from office in Tuesday’s election.

But wait: Why are Israelis discontented? After all, Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse. What is there to complain about?

The answer, which I don’t think is widely appreciated here, is that while Israel’s economy has grown, this growth has been accompanied by a disturbing transformation in the country’s income distribution and society. Once upon a time, Israel was a country of egalitarian ideals — the kibbutz population was always a small minority, but it had a large impact on the nation’s self-perception. And it was a fairly equal society in reality, too, right up to the early 1990s.

Since then, however, Israel has experienced a dramatic widening of income disparities. Key measures of inequality have soared; Israel is now right up there with America as one of the most unequal societies in the advanced world. And Israel’s experience shows that this matters, that extreme inequality has a corrosive effect on social and political life.

Consider what has happened at either end of the spectrum — the growth in poverty, on one side, and extreme wealth, on the other.

According to Luxembourg Income Study data, the share of Israel’s population living on less than half the country’s median income — a widely accepted definition of relative poverty — more than doubled, to 20.5 percent from 10.2 percent, between 1992 and 2010. The share of children in poverty almost quadrupled, to 27.4 percent from 7.8 percent. Both numbers are the worst in the advanced world, by a large margin.

And when it comes to children, in particular, relative poverty is the right concept. Families that live on much lower incomes than those of their fellow citizens will, in important ways, be alienated from the society around them, unable to participate fully in the life of the nation. Children growing up in such families will surely be placed at a permanent disadvantage.

At the other end, while the available data — puzzlingly — don’t show an especially large share of income going to the top 1 percent, there is an extreme concentration of wealth and power among a tiny group of people at the top. And I mean tiny. According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market. The nature of that control is convoluted and obscure, working through “pyramids” in which a family controls a firm that in turn controls other firms and so on. Although the Bank of Israel is circumspect in its language, it is clearly worried about the potential this concentration of control creates for self-dealing.

Still, why is Israeli inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme.

You might think that Israeli inequality is a natural outcome of a high-tech economy that generates strong demand for skilled labor — or, perhaps, reflects the importance of minority populations with low incomes, namely Arabs and ultrareligious Jews. It turns out, however, that those high poverty rates largely reflect policy choices: Israel does less to lift people out of poverty than any other advanced country — yes, even less than the United States.

Meanwhile, Israel’s oligarchs owe their position not to innovation and entrepreneurship but to their families’ success in gaining control of businesses that the government privatized in the 1980s — and they arguably retain that position partly by having undue influence over government policy, combined with control of major banks.

In short, the political economy of the promised land is now characterized by harshness at the bottom and at least soft corruption at the top. And many Israelis see Mr. Netanyahu as part of the problem. He’s an advocate of free-market policies; he has a Chris Christie-like penchant for living large at taxpayers’ expense, while clumsily pretending otherwise.

So Mr. Netanyahu tried to change the subject from internal inequality to external threats, a tactic those who remember the Bush years should find completely familiar. We’ll find out on Tuesday whether he succeeded.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 12, 2015

In “Hate Takes the Bus” Mr. Blow says so what if they were millennials, and college students to boot? This kind of racism envelops us like a fog.  In “When Liberals Blew It” Mr. Kristof has a question.  He says fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued presciently that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable. Have we learned anything since? Well, Nick, we’ve certainly gotten better at shaming poor people (see David Brooks for countless examples).  Ms. Collins says “Hillary Clinton Comes Back” and also has a question:  Is the email crisis a bad start to a 2016 campaign or a preview of the next 20 months?  Gail, it’s completely irrelevant to me.  This life-long Democrat would rather stick bamboo slivers under her fingernails than vote for Hillary Clinton.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This week, when video was posted showing members of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon gleefully engaged in a racist chant on a bus, some people were shocked. Others, like me, were not.

This was just video confirmation of a racism that envelops us like a fog, often just as evanescent and immeasurable.

Some people seemed surprised because these were millennials, and college students to boot. Both because of generational easing and educational enlightenment, weren’t these sorts of things supposed to be vestiges of the past?

After all, as the Pew Research Center put it last year, “Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history,” with “some 43 percent of millennial adults” being nonwhite.

A 2010 Pew report found that “almost all millennials accept interracial dating and marriage.” An MTV poll of millennials found that “84 percent say their family taught them that everyone should be treated the same, no matter what their race,” and that 89 percent “do believe that everyone should be treated the same no matter their race.”

But these numbers can be deceiving. They don’t herald an age of egalitarianism as we might think.

As New York magazine pointed out in a January article on its Science of Us site, the problem that obscures some disturbing persistence of racism is that these polls lump all millennials together and don’t separate white millennials from the rest.

The magazine reported the findings of Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who found that “younger (under-30) whites are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans.”

Furthermore, the magazine printed this exchange:

“ ‘White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,’ Piston told Science of Us in an email, ‘at least using this dataset and this measure of prejudice.’ ”

In the same vein, as data from the Race Implicit Association Test published in the January/February issue of Mother Jones magazine showed, pro-white biases were also strongest among people 65 years old and older, although people 18 to 24 ranked second among the age groups.

It is in this environment of dualities that today’s young people exist, dealing with the growing pains of increasing diversification grinding against unyielding racial attitudes.

And we must acknowledge that the most deleterious effect of racism they face isn’t about hurt feelings or exercises of poor, outdated social graces, but rather about the actual material effects of racism as it suffuses society and becomes embedded in our systems.

Real psychophysical injuries can result from confrontations with overt or even subtle racism. There is a real and worthy conversation taking place in this country now, particularly among young people, around the idea of microaggressions — slight, often unintended discriminatory comments or behaviors.

The idea of racial battle fatigue — that “chronic exposure to racial discrimination is analogous to the constant pressure soldiers face on the battlefield,” as Psych Central put it — is also gaining currency and exposure.

Indeed, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2013:

“A growing literature shows discrimination raises the risk of many emotional and physical problems. Discrimination has been shown to increase the risk of stress, depression, the common cold, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and mortality. Recently, two journals — The American Journal of Public Healthand The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race — dedicated entire issues to the subject. These collections push us to consider how discrimination becomes what the social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger, one of the field’s leaders, terms ‘embodied inequality.’ ”

This says nothing of the bias that can — consciously or unconsciously — influence our policies and procedures in all areas of our lives, including education, policing, the criminal justice system and employment.

Here is where it’s important to recognize how much of an influence the fraternity systems have in these areas.

As a major examination of the United States fraternity system published by The Atlantic last year pointed out:

“Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900 and, historically, 76 percent of U.S. senators [and] 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.”

If this trend continues — and there is no indication that it won’t — the boys on that bus and others like them will be tomorrow’s leaders, and the attitudes they carry with them out of school and into the wider world will have a real impact on real people’s lives.

(In full disclosure, I pledged a fraternity in college and wrote about that experience in my memoir, including how the noble missions of national organizations can be utterly overshadowed by the destructive, renegade rituals of local chapters.)

This is why the vileness displayed on that bus matters: It was a reflection of the distance that must still be covered, and the rigidity of racism and the casualness of hate. It can wear a smile and be set to a tune.

We have to understand what that hate is. Hate is never about the object of the hate but about what is happening in the mind of the hater. It is in the darkness of that space that fear and ignorance merge and morph. It comes out in an impulse to mark and name, to deny and diminish, to exclude and threaten, to elevate the self by putting down the other.

What happened on that bus was bigger than just that bus; it was a reflection of where we are.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

Fifty years ago this month, Democrats made a historic mistake.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a federal official, wrote a famous report in March 1965 on family breakdown among African-Americans. He argued presciently and powerfully that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable.

“The fundamental problem,” Moynihan wrote, is family breakdown. In a follow-up, he explained: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families … never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Liberals brutally denounced Moynihan as a racist. He himself had grown up in a single-mother household and worked as a shoeshine boy at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street in Manhattan, yet he was accused of being aloof and patronizing, and of “blaming the victim.”

“My major criticism of the report is that it assumes that middle-class American values are the correct values for everyone in America,” protested Floyd McKissick, then a prominent African-American civil rights leader.

The liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair. In fact, Moynihan emphasized that slavery, discrimination and “three centuries of injustice” had devastated the black family. He favored job and education programs to help buttress the family.

But the scathing commentary led President Lyndon Johnson to distance himself from the Moynihan report. Scholars, fearful of being accused of racism, mostly avoided studying family structure and poverty.

In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle stepped into the breach by emphasizing the role of the family in addressing poverty, including a brief reference to Murphy Brown, a television character who was a single mom. Liberals rushed to ridicule Quayle for sexism and outdated moralism, causing politicians to tread this ground ever more carefully.

The taboo on careful research on family structure and poverty was broken by William Julius Wilson, an eminent black sociologist. He has praised Moynihan’s report as “a prophetic document,” for evidence is now overwhelming that family structure matters a great deal for low-income children of any color.

In 2013, 71 percent of black children in America were born to an unwed mother, as were 53 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of white children.

Indeed, a single parent is the new norm. At some point before they turn 18, a majority of all American children will likely live with a single mom and no dad.

My point isn’t to cast judgment on nontraditional families, for single parents can be as loving as any. In fact, when one parent is abusive, the child may be better off raised by the other parent alone. And well-off kids often get plenty of support whether from one parent or two.

One kind of nontraditional household does particularly well. One study found that children raised by same-sex couples excelled by some measures, apparently because the parents doted on their children — most gay couples don’t have unwanted children whom they neglect.

Yet Moynihan was absolutely right to emphasize the consequences for low-income children of changing family structure. Partly because there is often only one income coming into a single-parent household, children of unmarried moms are roughly five times as likely to live in poverty as children of married couples.

Causation is difficult to tease from correlation. But efforts to do that suggest that growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent, according to an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard. They point to the likely mechanism: “A father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule-breaking, delinquency and illegal drug use.” These effects are greater on boys than on girls.

Conservatives shouldn’t chortle at the evidence that liberals blew it, for they did as well. Conservatives say all the right things about honoring families, but they led the disastrous American experiment in mass incarceration; incarceration rates have quintupled since the 1970s. That devastated families, leading countless boys to grow up without dads.

What can be done?

In line with Moynihan’s thinking, we can support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families. We can help girls and young women avoid pregnancy (30 percent of American girls become pregnant by age 19). If they delay childbearing, they’ll be more likely to marry and form stable families, notes Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution.

So let’s learn from 50 years of mistakes. A starting point is to acknowledge the role of families in fighting poverty. That’s not about being a moralistic scold, but about helping American kids.

Oh, I guess he’s been reading Bobo —  “not about being a moralistic scold…”  I wonder if Bobo reads him?  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Right now you’re probably asking yourself: What am I supposed to do with all this Hillary Clinton stuff? True, I am a concerned citizen, but I have a big deadline at work and a lot of social activities scheduled for the weekend.

We feel your pain, concerned citizen. It’s exhausting. The nation has been obsessed with the Hillary email crisis for more than a week now, but, still, so many unanswered questions.

One of which is: Clinton says she sent and received about 62,000 emails while she was secretary of state. By my extremely rough calculations, that comes down to about 42 messages in and out per day. How is this possible? Wouldn’t the Chelsea wedding alone have used up more than that quota? Don’t her friends mail her funny videos? Doesn’t anybody ever write to ask her to connect on LinkedIn?

Another question is about how a diligent voter is supposed to respond to this whole uproar. Test your political pulse. Would you say that the Hillary press conference on Tuesday was:

A) Maybe not her finest moment.

B) Better than the book tour.

C) Terrible! Awful! She’s going to lose! The campaign will just be one big mess after another! Maybe the Democrats should be looking for a new face!

If your answer is C, then, wow, I can see why you’re upset. However, forget about looking for a new face. New faces are wonderful except that when they start to get old, they can turn into John Edwards or Herman Cain.

Or Scott Walker. The governor of Wisconsin is the new face in the Republican presidential race this year. He became famous with a rousing speech about how he stood up to his state’s public employees. So far, that’s pretty much the end of his persona. When he compared international terrorism to protesting union members, it may be because that’s the only crisis he knows about.

Even Democrats who are comfortable with the lack of newness in the Clinton candidacy have been dismayed about the email matter. The way she handled her communications was the exact opposite of transparency in public service. Particularly the part where she let some unidentified lawyers decide which messages belonged to the government and which ones were private conversations that ought to be expunged from history.

Then Clinton waited too long to respond to the ensuing political crisis. Finally, she held a chaotic press conference at the United Nations next to a big tapestry version of Picasso’s “Guernica,” which has to be the worst possible imagery you want to be associated with when you’re trying to tell the nation that everything’s hunky-dory.

Is this just a bad start or a preview of the next 20 months? Hillary supporters say everything’s fine: Her problems just stem from the fact that she’s a presidential candidate without a presidential campaign. Once she gets a staff in place and makes the announcement — an event that could come any time between Palm Sunday and Mother’s Day — she’ll be organized, focused and happily digging away at the Republicans who sent that snotty letter to the leaders of Iran.

Well, maybe. Sort of. If Hillary had been supported by a campaign staff this week, she definitely would have been doing her press conference alongside a better picture. But nobody’s going to make her into a different candidate in time for the presidential race. It’s like telling your older sister that you’d appreciate it if she’d develop a new personality before the family reunion.

Clinton is both the best and worst retail politician on the national stage. She’s not a gifted orator, and unless she’s coming back from some disaster, her speeches can be a snooze. But she makes terrific contact with average voters when she’s talking with them about boring, important issues. I have a fond memory of an event in New Hampshire early in the 2008 race in which she went on slowly and explicitly about why she wanted to get rid of a Wall Street tax break for financiers known as “carried interest.” It was an eat-your-vegetables kind of moment, but the audience was agog. (When the Clinton campaign launches, watch for the return of this particular crusade against Wall Street. If it doesn’t show up, feel free to throw in the towel. Really, there are limits.)

There won’t be a new Hillary. What voters can hope for is the best possible version of her flawed self. That while there will be messes, she will force herself to be open during the cleanup. That while she might not be a transformative speaker, she will be able to explain how she can take the issues she’s been pursuing for decades and turn them into a plan for serious change.

Also, she should keep building on her talent for holding firm during crises. But it’d be nice to have a little peace in between.

Still, bamboo slivers under the fingernails…

Blow and Krugman

March 9, 2015

In “Race, History, a President, a Bridge” Mr. Blow says the mind imagines the horror at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but the president’s speech was not only about the past.  Prof. Krugman considers “Partying Like It’s 1995″ and says that now, as then, unemployment is down to a level at which the economy should be overheating, but it isn’t. How should the Fed react?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As our van in the presidential motorcade reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and began the descent toward the thousands of waiting faces and waving arms of those who had come to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the gravity of that place seized me, pushing out the breath and rousing the wonder.

The mind imagines the horror of that distant day: the scrum of bodies and the cloud of gas, the coughing and trampling, the screaming and wailing, the batons colliding with bones, the opening of flesh, the running down of blood.

In that moment I understood what was necessary in President Obama’s address: to balance celebration and solemnity, to honor the heroes of the past but also to motivate the activists of the moment, to acknowledge how much work had been done but to remind the nation that that work was not complete.

(I, along with a small group of other journalists, had been invited by the White House to accompany the president to Selma and have a discussion with him during the flight there.)

About an hour north of where the president spoke was Shelby County, whose suit against the Department of Justice the Supreme Court had used to gut the same Voting Rights Act that Bloody Sunday helped to pass.

His speech also came after several shootings of unarmed black men, whose deaths caused national protests and racial soul-searching.

It came on the heels of the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, Mo., which found pervasive racial bias and an oppressive use of fines primarily against African-Americans.

It came as a CNN/ORC poll found that four out of 10 Americans thought race relations during the Obama presidency had gotten worse, while only 15 percent thought they had gotten better.

The president had to bend the past around so it pointed toward the future. To a large degree, he accomplished that goal. The speech was emotional and evocative. People cheered. Some cried.

And yet there seemed to me something else in the air: a lingering — or gathering — sense of sadness, a frustration born out of perpetual incompletion, an anger engendered by the threat of regression, a pessimism about a present and future riven by worsening racial understanding and interplay.

To truly understand the Bloody Sunday inflection point — and the civil rights movement as a whole — one must appreciate the preceding century.

After the Civil War, blacks were incredibly populous in Southern states. They were close to, or exceeded, half the population in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina.

During Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified, abolishing slavery, granting citizenship and equal protection to former slaves and extending the vote to black men. As a result, “some 2,000 African-Americans held public office, from the local level all the way up to the U.S. Senate,” according to the television channel History.

This was an assault on the traditional holders of power in the South, who responded aggressively. The structure of Jim Crow began to form. The Ku Klux Klan was born, whose tactics would put the current Islamic State to shame.

Then in the early 20th century came the first wave of the Great Migration, in which millions of Southern blacks would decamp for the North, East and West.

This left a smaller black population in Southern states that had developed and perfected a system to keep those who remained suppressed and separate.

Here, the civil rights movement and Bloody Sunday played out.

The movement was about justice and equality, but in a way it was also about power — the renewed fear of diminished power, the threat of expanded power, the longing for denied power.

Now, we must look at the hundred years following the movement to understand that another inflection point is coming, one that again threatens traditional power: the browning of America.

According to the Census Bureau, “The U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043,” with minorities projected to be 57 percent of the population in 2060.

In response, fear and restrictive laws are creeping back into our culture and our politics — not always explicitly or violently, but in ways whose effects are similarly racially arrayed. Structural inequities — economic, educational — are becoming more rigid, and systemic biases harder to eradicate. But this time the threat isn’t regional and racially binary but national and multifaceted.

So, we must fight our fights anew.

As the president told a crowd in South Carolina on Friday, “Selma is not just about commemorating the past.” He continued, “Selma is now.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Six years ago, Paul Ryan, who has since become the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the G.O.P.’s leading voice on matters economic, had an Op-Ed article published in The Times. Under the headline “Thirty Years Later, a Return to Stagflation,” he warned that the efforts of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve to fight the effects of financial crisis would bring back the woes of the 1970s, with both inflation and unemployment high.

True, not all Republicans agreed with his assessment. Many asserted that we were heading for Weimar-style hyperinflation instead.

Needless to say, those warnings proved totally wrong. Soaring inflation never materialized. Job creation was sluggish at first, but more recently has accelerated dramatically. Far from seeing a rerun of that ’70s show, what we’re now looking at is an economy that in important respects resembles that of the 1990s.

To be sure, there are big differences between America in 2015 and America in the ’90s. TV is much better now, the situation of workers much worse. While stocks are high and there is talk of a new technology bubble, there’s nothing like the old euphoria. There is also, unfortunately, no sign that the great productivity surge of 1995-2005, brought on as businesses adopted information technology, is coming back.

Still, we’re now adding jobs at a rate not seen since the Clinton years. And it goes without saying that low inflation combined with rapid job growth makes nonsense of all those predictions that Obamacare, or maybe just the president’s bad attitude, would destroy the private sector.

But pointing out yet again just how wrong the usual suspects on the right have been about, well, everything isn’t the only reason to note parallels with the 1990s. There are also implications for monetary policy: Recent job gains have brought the Fed to a fork in the road very much like the situation it faced circa 1995. Now, as then, job growth has taken the official unemployment rate down to a level at which, according to conventional wisdom, the economy should be overheating and inflation should be rising. But now, as then, there is no sign of the predicted inflation in the actual data.

The Fed has a so-called dual mandate — it’s supposed to achieve both price stability and full employment. At this point price stability is conventionally taken to mean low but positive inflation, at around 2 percent a year. What does it mean to achieve full employment? For the Fed, it means reaching the Nairu — the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, which is consistent with that inflation target.

The Fed currently estimates the Nairu at between 5.2 percent and 5.5 percent, and the latest report puts the actual unemployment rate at 5.5 percent. So we’re there — time to raise interest rates!

Or maybe not. The Nairu is supposed to be the unemployment rate at which the economy overheats and an inflationary spiral starts to kick in. But there is no sign of inflationary pressure. In particular, if the job market really were tight, wages would be rising quickly, whereas they are in fact going nowhere.

The thing is, we’ve been here before. In the early-to-mid 1990s, the Fed generally estimated the Nairu as being between 5.5 percent and 6 percent, and by 1995, unemployment had already fallen to that level. But inflation wasn’t actually rising. So Fed officials made what turned out to be a very good choice: They held their fire, waiting for clear signs of inflationary pressure. And it turned out that the United States’ economy was capable of generating millions more jobs, without inflation, than it would have if the Fed had reined in the boom too soon.

Are we in a similar situation now? Actually, I don’t know — but neither does the Fed. The question, then, is what to do in the face of that uncertainty, with no inflation problem yet in sight.

To me, as to a number of economists — perhaps most notably Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary — the answer seems painfully obvious: Don’t yank away that punch bowl, don’t pull that rate-hike trigger, until you see the whites of inflation’s eyes. If it turns out that the Fed has waited a bit too long, inflation might overshoot 2 percent for a while, but that wouldn’t be a great tragedy. But if the Fed moves too soon, we might end up losing millions of jobs we could have had — and in the worst case, we might end up sliding into a Japanese-style deflationary trap, which has already happened in Sweden and possibly in the eurozone.

What’s worrisome is that it’s not clear whether Fed officials see it that way. They need to heed the lessons of history — and the relevant history here is the 1990s, not the 1970s. Let’s party like it’s 1995; let the good, or at least better, times keep rolling, and hold off on those rate hikes.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

March 5, 2015

In “The Feds vs. Ferguson” Mr. Blow says the Ferguson Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens like a revenue stream, violating their constitutional rights in the process.  Mr. Kristof, in “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”, says through frostbite, blizzards and frozen rivers, Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter did what seemed impossible: hiking from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in winter.  In “Pearls Before Congress” Ms. Collins asks .adies and gentleman, are you ready for this? She says we have some bipartisan cooperation in Congress!  Here’s Mr. Blow:

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice released the utterly devastating results of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The report contained charges that the Police Department and the municipal courts treated citizens less like constituents and more like a revenue stream, violating citizens’ constitutional rights in the process.

And it found that this burden was disproportionately borne by the black people in a town that is two-thirds black. This disproportionate weight is exacerbated when people are poor.

As the Justice Department report pointed out:

“Court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

According to an August Brookings report:

“Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

The view that emerges from the Justice Department report is that citizens were not only paying a poverty tax, but a pigment tax as the local authorities sought to balance their budgets and pad their coffers on the backs of poor black people.

Perhaps most disturbing — and damning — is actual correspondence in the report where the authorities don’t even attempt to disguise their intent.

Take this passage from the report:

“In March 2010, for instance, the City Finance Director wrote to Chief [Thomas] Jackson that ‘unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.’ Similarly, in March 2013, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: ‘Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.’”

Furthermore, the report made clear that “officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued.”

The report read like one about a shakedown gang rather than about city officials.

The police appear to have done what was requested of them.The report puts it this way:

“According to data the City reported to the Missouri State Courts Administrator, at the end of fiscal year 2009, the municipal court had roughly 24,000 traffic cases and 28,000 non-traffic cases pending. As of October 31, 2014, both of those figures had roughly doubled to 53,000 and 50,000 cases, respectively. In fiscal year 2009, 16,178 new cases were filed, and 8,727 were resolved. In 2014, by contrast, 24,256 new offenses were filed, and 10,975 offenses were resolved.”

For context, the population of Ferguson is around 21,000 people, according to the Census Bureau.

Some officers balked at this obscenity, particularly as it related to “imposing mounting penalties on people who will never be able to afford them” — one member repeating the adage “How can you get blood from a turnip?” But “enough officers — at all ranks — have internalized this message that a culture of reflexive enforcement action, unconcerned with whether the police action actually promotes public safety, and unconcerned with the impact the decision has on individual lives or community trust has taken hold within FPD.”

And the racial disparities as charged by the Justice Department are unconscionable.

According to the report, “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias” and “there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

For instance:

“African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search.”

Also:

“FPD appears to bring certain offenses almost exclusively against African Americans. For example, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.”

Furthermore:

“Even where FPD officers have legal grounds to stop or arrest, however, they frequently take actions that ratchet up tensions and needlessly escalate the situation to the point that they feel force is necessary.”

This all brings us full circle to the only reason there was an investigation and the only reason this information has been analyzed and presented — the killing of Michael Brown and the protests that followed.

(Darren Wilson first encountered Michael Brown and his friend walking in the street and ordered them to move to the sidewalk, and a scuffle began, and Wilson ultimately shot Brown. By the way, Wilson was also cleared of civil rights violations by the Justice Department on Wednesday.)

Whatever one thinks about the case of the killing and how it was handled in the courts, it is clear that Brown’s death will not be in vain. It is clear that the frustration that poured out onto the streets of Ferguson was not without merit.

Once again, the oppression people feel as part of their lived experiences, and can share only by way of anecdote, is bolstered by data.

When people say “Black Lives Matter,” they’re not referring only to the lives lost, but also to those stunted and controlled by a system of power that sees them as pawns.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In October, two young Americans set off on the most daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since, oh, maybe Lewis and Clark.

They were trying to become the first people ever to backpack from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in the dead of winter. Once before, in 1983, two people set out to traverse the trail in winter. They never made it. Their bodies were found a month after they fell off an icy cliff.

A winter thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail seemed impossible. The trail is covered by many feet of snow that time of year, and, even if the two explorers managed to find their way, they risked triggering avalanches, plunging through ice into rivers, or simply running out of food while trapped in blizzards.

“People said it was a death sentence,” Shawn Forry, one of the hikers, told me. He had estimated half-jokingly at the start that they had a 17 percent chance of succeeding.

But he spoke to me shortly after he and Justin Lichter reached the Mexican border on Sunday, completing their 2,650-mile odyssey — and surviving frostbite, blizzards, tumbles into frozen rivers and 1,750 consecutive trail miles without encountering a single other hiker.

Perhaps it feels a little self-indulgent to celebrate two guys who took a long walk. But what a walk! Like the 4-minute mile or the free climb of the Dawn Wall at Yosemite, this is something that seemed beyond human capacity — and then humans did it.

So let’s take a break from current affairs and recriminations about human venality to laud a triumph of human strength.

It helped that the two men were enormously experienced. Forry is a wilderness instructorfor Outward Bound. Lichter works on a ski patrol and said he has hiked 35,000 miles, equivalent to nearly one and a half times around Earth. He gave up one long backpack across East Africa when lions were stalking him.

Both Forry and Lichter had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail in summer — itself an ultimate test of endurance (fewer people have thru-hiked the full trail than have climbed Mount Everest). But they wanted to see it in another season.

“With the snow, there’s so much natural beauty,” Lichter said. “It’s so peaceful. And the frozen rivers have these strange ice formations.”

They used snowshoes and, in California, skis, while carrying loads of up to 45 pounds, including food (they resupplied every week or so). Winter storms were frequent. When it snowed at night, they would get up every 30 minutes to push snow off their tarp to keep it from collapsing on them. In white-outs, they could barely see and stayed close to each other — except when crossing avalanche zones, when they had to separate to ensure that they would not both get buried in the same avalanche.

Even drinking water was a challenge. “You’re surrounded by frozen water, but you don’t have easy access to it to drink,” Forry said. They used a stove to melt snow for drinking water.

The worst period, they said, came in the Oregon mountains when a huge snowfall and below-zero temperatures left them with frostbitten feet. They were able to warm up and avoid permanent damage, yet they still had another 2,000 miles to go.

“At times, you’re pulling your knee up to your chest to take the next step, to get it above the snow — and that’s in snowshoes,” Forry said.

Barney Mann, the chairman of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and unofficial historian of the trail, said that after the frostbite incident he had doubted that Forry and Lichter would succeed.

“It’s the unrelenting cold,” Mann said. “It’s the unrelenting snow. It’s the moment-by-moment challenge of navigation when everything is white.”

One difficult day came in northern California when a storm dropped 10 inches of rain in 24 hours, winds reached 70 miles per hour and both men tumbled into a swollen torrent of a river that left them and their gear drenched and frigid.

Yet, in spite of all those challenges, they still urge people to try winter camping — carefully.

“I really encourage people to get out in the winter,” Forry said. “You have it to yourself, and it’s so peaceful. But start with a day trip — that way if anything goes wrong, you’re near your car.”

•

I’m delighted to announce that the winner of my annual win-a-trip contest is Austin Meyer, a journalism student at Stanford University. We’ll probably travel to India and Bangladesh, although Congo is an alternate possibility. The runners-up are Ashley Bastock of John Carroll University, Taylor Graham of Ithaca College and Sam Friedlander of University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Center for Global Development for helping me pick Austin from a dazzling field of 450 applicants. Stay tuned for a great reporting trip!

Self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing stupidity if you ask me…  Suppose they had been injured — they didn’t seem to give much thought to the people who would have had to come out and search for them.  Assholes.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Welcome to a whole new world.

In Congress, that is. Not in the actual world. Control your expectations, for heaven’s sake.

You may have noticed that in an orgy of bipartisan cooperation, Congress passed a bill this week funding the Department of Homeland Security until the fall. Then, on Wednesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill funding the Amtrak system.

And then everybody went away because it was, you know, going to snow.

But, still, bipartisan cooperation. It all started with the Senate. Republicans have been horrified to discover that whenever the now-minority Senate Democrats don’t like something, they can simply filibuster, requiring 60 votes to move the bill forward. The Democrats always complained bitterly when the Republicans pulled that trick on them, but now they say the circumstances are totally different.

The Democrats demanded that the homeland security funding bill be passed without any side assaults on President Obama’s immigration program. And Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, eventually had to give in.

In a way, you could look at last week’s homeland security crisis as similar to the reported theft of a $150,000 gown, covered entirely in pearls, which actress Lupita Nyong’o wore to the Academy Awards. Later, the disgruntled thief called TMZ and said he had left the dress in a hotel restroom out of disgust after he had two of the pearls appraised and discovered they were fake.

So, good news is that the Department of Homeland Security is going to be funded. Also, that very attractive gown is back. The bad news is that we’ve now hit the point where keeping the government running sounds like a big victory. And the pearls weren’t real.

Irony abounds. Who expected the Senate Republicans to be surprised when the Democrats started filibustering? Who knew dress thieves had such principled standards?

The Senate Democrats’ success really ticked off the Republicans in the House, which nurtures a long and glorious tradition of hating the Senate, no matter who’s in charge. (The Senate ignores the House completely.)

“If we’re going to allow seven Democratic senators to decide what the agenda is … then we might as well just give them the chairmanships, give them the leadership of the Senate,” groused Representative Raúl Labrador.

Labrador is a leading member of a superconservative Republican caucus, which was created recently, with the apparent goal of bossing Speaker John Boehner around. In its debut performance, the caucus managed to kill a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for just three weeks.

It is true that Labrador is the only member of Congress with the same name as a large, friendly retriever, but he can be really strict.

Pop Quiz: After conservative Republicans killed John Boehner’s bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks, Boehner realized that:

A) Homeland security isn’t actually all that big a deal.

B) His own right wing was completely crazy, and, if he wanted to get through the year, he was going to have to work with the Democrats.

C) “If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”

Yes! Boehner seems to have realized that he’s going to have to work with the Democrats. Also, he said that thing about the candy and nuts, but nobody really knew what he was talking about.

Both the homeland security bill and the Amtrak funding were passed with unanimous Democratic support, and huge Republican defections. The Amtrak bill, by the way, is more ambitious than your normal kicking-of-the-can-down-the-road legislation. There’s money to actually improve the infrastructure, which is more than Congress has managed to come up with lately for highways and bridges. It also opens up the wonderful world of rail transit to pet dogs and cats, which I have to say is something most of us were not anticipating.

The last bit seems to be the inspiration of a California Republican who owns a French bulldog that likes to travel. It is possible the program may be limited to small animals, but we will refrain making any jokes about aggrieved Labradors.

So this appears to be the path to the future: Senate Democrats will block anything they don’t like, forcing the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to compromise. In the House, the Labradorians won’t vote for any Senate compromises, so Boehner will need the Democrats to pass any legislation that could actually make it into law.

Here we go — four fiscal cliffs in the offing and if the Republican majority wants to avoid falling off any of them, they’ll have to join hands with the Democrats and tango. We won’t get any big, dramatic reforms, but we might avoid any big dramatic disasters.

Plus poodles on Amtrak. Who knew?

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 165 other followers