Archive for the ‘Bobo’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

October 6, 2015

In “The Big University” Bobo gurgles that many universities founded as religious institutions have needlessly dropped a key original goal: educating students’ emotional, spiritual and moral sides.  In the comments “allseriousnessaside” from Washington, DC had this to say:  “Sweeping generalizations based on no data, a premise that is entirely manufactured and a series of absurd and contradictory statements.”  In other words, the standard Bobo offering.  Mr. Nocera, in “The Case for Compromise,” says a chemical-safety bill in the Senate shows the wisdom of “good, old-fashioned legislating.”  Here’s Bobo:

Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.

Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.

Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.

Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for. They are given many career options, but they are on their own when it comes to developing criteria to determine which vocation would lead to the fullest life.

But things are changing. On almost every campus faculty members and administrators are trying to stem the careerist tide and to widen the system’s narrow definition of achievement. Institutes are popping up — with interdisciplinary humanities programs and even meditation centers — designed to cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.

Technology is also forcing change. Online courses make the transmission of information a commodity. If colleges are going to justify themselves, they are going to have to thrive at those things that require physical proximity. That includes moral and spiritual development. Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.

In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.

The trick is to find a way to talk about moral and spiritual things while respecting diversity. Universities might do that by taking responsibility for four important tasks.

First, reveal moral options. We’re the inheritors of an array of moral traditions. There’s the Greek tradition emphasizing honor, glory and courage, the Jewish tradition emphasizing justice and law, the Christian tradition emphasizing surrender and grace, the scientific tradition emphasizing reason and logic, and so on.

Colleges can insist that students at least become familiar with these different moral ecologies. Then it’s up to the students to figure out which one or which combination is best to live by.

Second, foster transcendent experiences. If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty — with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain — there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.

Third, investigate current loves and teach new things to love. On her great blog, Brain Pickings, Maria Popova quotes a passage from Nietzsche on how to find your identity: “Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ ” Line up these revered objects in a row, Nietzsche says, and they will reveal your fundamental self.

To lead a full future life, meanwhile, students have to find new things to love: a field of interest, an activity, a spouse, community, philosophy or faith. College is about exposing students to many things and creating an aphrodisiac atmosphere so that they might fall in lifelong love with a few.

Fourth, apply the humanities. The social sciences are not shy about applying their disciplines to real life. But literary critics, philosophers and art historians are shy about applying their knowledge to real life because it might seem too Oprahesque or self-helpy. They are afraid of being prescriptive because they idolize individual choice.

But the great works of art and literature have a lot to say on how to tackle the concrete challenges of living, like how to escape the chains of public opinion, how to cope with grief or how to build loving friendships. Instead of organizing classes around academic concepts — 19th-century French literature — more could be organized around the concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation.

It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted. Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer. If that happens, the future of the university will be found in its original moral and spiritual mission, but secularized, and in an open and aspiring way.

Lordy, but he’s tiresome.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In March, Moms Clean Air Force, a grass-roots environmental group co-founded by Dominique Browning, was tossed out of a coalition called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. Its heresy was supporting a Senate bill that would constitute the first serious revision in nearly 40 years of the woefully outdated Toxic Substances Control Act.

You see, the bill — officially the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act — is the result of (shudder!) compromise. Those compromises were originally hammered out by Lautenberg, a liberal Democratic senator, and David Vitter, a right-wing Republican senator allied with the chemical industry. The two men co-sponsored a bill in May 2013. Then Lautenberg died.

Senator Tom Udall, another Democrat, picked up where Lautenberg left off, and over the next two-plus years, he and Vitter continued to improve the bill while also making compromises to gain additional Senate support. In just the last week, the bipartisan bill, which the Senate is expected to vote on soon, has gained enough co-sponsors to be filibuster-proof.

In this era of polarized politics, it is something of a miracle: “an example of good, old-fashioned legislating,” Udall told me.

Browning, an old friend of mine, describes herself as an environmental pragmatist. She concluded that whatever the flaws in the bill, it was a vast improvement over the status quo — a status quo in which the Environmental Protection Agency can’t even regulate formaldehyde. She and her brain trust decided that their 570,000-member group would work to improve the bill instead of oppose it. This is also the position taken by the ever-pragmatic Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, with which Moms Clean Air Force is affiliated.

The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, however, which includes such major environmental groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, opposed the Senate bill. In a blog post, Andy Igrejas, who heads the coalition, listed provisions that he described, essentially, as gifts to the chemical industry. His coalition had thrown out E.D.F., a founding member, over the issue in 2013; now it was Moms Clean Air Force’s turn.

“They were supporting a Senate bill everyone else opposed,” Igrejas said when I asked him why. “You couldn’t do that and stay in the coalition.” He added, “At every point along the way, Fred [Krupp] would say, ‘You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Blah, blah, blah.’”

Igrejas believes that the bill, which his coalition still opposes, despite the many improvements, is better only because he and others came out so strongly against it. (I should note that the coalition supports a much narrower House bill.) The E.D.F.-Moms Clean Air Force view is that the bill got better because they were willing to roll up their sleeves and make common cause with conservative senators like Vitter and chemical industry lobbyists.

“We have always been clear that the way to get this done is to work in a bipartisan manner to support both Democrats and Republicans who were trying to solve the problem of the old law not working,” said Richard Denison, E.D.F.’s point person on the chemical bill. “And while lending our support, we also asked for improvements.” Which they got.

The bill doesn’t give environmentalists everything they want. There are thousands of unregulated chemicals, yet the bill calls for the E.P.A. to look at only 25 during the first five years after the bill becomes law. But it hardly gives the industry everything it wants, either: Chemicals that were once unregulated would now face the prospect of serious restrictions on their use.

The biggest issue is around something called “pre-emption” — meaning that states will not be able to write laws about certain chemicals if the E.P.A. starts a formal review of that chemical. Because some states, like California, are much tougher on chemicals than the federal government has been, many environmentalists don’t want any federal pre-emption. But the chemical industry, tired of dealing with different state standards, insisted on it.

The Senate bill offers a reasonable compromise that says that if the E.P.A. doesn’t act within a certain time frame, states can act on their own. This provision, notes Denison, is “an important backstop” that would prevent companies from seeking to delay E.P.A. action as long as possible.

“I could sit in my office and write a perfect bill, but it wouldn’t be one that could become law in the United States,” said Krupp. “The question isn’t whether it is perfect. The question is whether it is a really good bill. We think it is.”

Browning had another point: “If you live in California, then of course you don’t want pre-emption. But what about the rest of us poor moms who aren’t protected by serious state laws?” For them, the Senate bill’s compromises would improve their lives.

Proving, I think, that the perfect really is the enemy of the good.

Blah, blah blah notwithstanding.

Brooks and Krugman

October 2, 2015

Bobo, drenched in flop sweat while he whistles past the graveyard, now casts his eye to Carly.  (The Donald has them all terrified…)  In “Carly Fiorina: The Marketing Genius” he gurgles that Carly Fiorina’s rise will quickly flame out unless she develops an understanding of middle-class challenges necessary to back up her impressive rhetoric.  “Marketing genius” and “impressive rhetoric…”  Wow.  Just wow.  Here’s what “gemli” in Boston had to say in the comments:  “What an interesting rhetorical exercise this is. Brooks has penned an anti-paean, or maybe it’s an odious ode, to Carly Fiorina. He highlights her the way ISIS might highlight an ancient temple, first focusing our attention on it and then blowing it to pieces.”  Prof. Krugman tells us that “Voodoo Never Dies” and that the tax cuts favored by every Republican candidate just happen to be exactly what rich donors want.  How surprising…  Here’s Bobo:

Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign has been built on confrontational moments. With impregnable self-confidence and a fearless intensity, she has out-Trumped Trump and landed the most telling and quotable blows on Hillary Clinton.

In such a giant field of candidates what matters most is the ability to grab the spotlight. The era of YouTube and FaceTime video links has further magnified the power of a candidate who can create significant moments. Fiorina is great at it, perfectly suited to this environment.

She can go on MSNBC or some other outlet and bludgeon a host with a barrage of forcefully delivered bullet points, which then goes viral. When challenged on the accuracy or fairness of her assertions, she blasts straight through.

Clinton and Fiorina appeared back to back on “Meet the Press” recently. Clinton was challenged on the email issue and tried affably to defend her conduct. Fiorina was challenged on the existence of a Planned Parenthood video she claims to have seen.

In contrast to Clinton, Fiorina simply refused to adopt a defensive posture. She ignored the challenges and just hit Planned Parenthood harder. The factual issue sort of got lost in her torrent. She was stylistically indomitable even if she didn’t address the substance of the critique.

She is in tune with an electorate that is disgusted with the political class. In her stump speech she tells story after story in which she walks into this or that lion’s den and takes on the establishment. Some of her stories involve taking on the male establishment in corporate America. Others involve taking on the inside-the-Beltway crowd where she lives.

And yet for all her feisty outsider bravado, if you actually look at her views on substance and her behavior in the past, she is a completely conventional Republican. She was a strong supporter of John McCain and Mitt Romney, the last two nominees. A lot of her language is the normal, vague corporate-speak about “leadership,” “unlocking potential,” and understanding the economy.

On policy grounds her views are orthodox. She doesn’t want to move the party to the left or right, or in a more populist, libertarian or moderate direction. Her core argument on the stump is that government has gotten too big and is crushing business, which is hardly an innovative message in a Republican primary.

On issues where her views once contradicted the current fashion, like No Child Left Behind, and a path to citizenship for immigrants, she has moved to be where Republican voters now are. She is where the consumers want her to be.

In short, stylistically she is a renegade outsider, but substantively she’s completely establishmentarian. Another way to say it is that her campaign is brilliantly creative in its marketing arm, but unimaginative when it comes to product development.

And this is where her business background comes into view. When she ran Hewlett-Packard the core critique against her was that she was really good at marketing but not good at tech or operations.

Different people have very different takes on her performance at HP, but when you talk to close observers and read some of the voluminous literature on her tenure, it’s hard to come away feeling sanguine. Most tellingly, she made the classic marketer’s error, letting her promises get far out in front of reality. As my colleague Joseph Nocera pointed out, under her, HP failed to meets it revenue and profit projections nine times. One time it missed its earnings projections by a gigantic 23 percent.

The positive theory of her campaign is that she’s perfectly suited for a Republican electorate that wants to vent its outrage at the political class and the timid party leadership, but which doesn’t really believe in any alternative direction. She gives the G.O.P. establishment rebellious fire, but is actually one of them.

The more likely scenario is that Fiorina fades over the next few months. In this race there’s been a huge gap between the campaigners, like Trump, Carson and Fiorina, and the governors — those with actual experience in government.

In this early phase the voters are indulging in a little free outrage, enjoying the campaigners. But history teaches that parties invariably nominate government officials. Sooner or later, voters want a candidate rooted in something more than a marketing strategy. They want someone authentically connected to middle-class concerns and with strategies for their specific challenges, like wage stagnation.

Opposing the political class is not an agenda. Unless Fiorina can become a lot more creative and sympathetically connected to working-class voters, she’ll fall to an opponent who will turn to her in debate and ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So Donald Trump has unveiled his tax plan. It would, it turns out, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.

This is in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.

For what it’s worth, it looks as if Trump’s plan would make an even bigger hole in the budget than Jeb’s. Jeb justifies his plan by claiming that it would double America’s rate of growth; The Donald, ahem, trumps this by claiming that he would triple the rate of growth. But really, why sweat the details? It’s all voodoo. The interesting question is why every Republican candidate feels compelled to go down this path.

You might think that there was a defensible economic case for the obsession with cutting taxes on the rich. That is, you might think that if you’d spent the past 20 years in a cave (or a conservative think tank). Otherwise, you’d be aware that tax-cut enthusiasts have a remarkable track record: They’ve been wrong about everything, year after year.

Some readers may remember the forecasts of economic doom back in 1993, when Bill Clinton raised the top tax rate. What happened instead was a sustained boom, surpassing the Reagan years by every measure.

Undaunted, the same people predicted great things as a result of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. What happened instead was a sluggish recovery followed by a catastrophic economic crash.

Most recently, the usual suspects once again predicted doom in 2013, when taxes on the 1 percent rose sharply due to the expiration of some of the Bush tax cuts and new taxes that help pay for health reform. What happened instead was job growth at rates not seen since the 1990s.

Then there’s the recent state-level evidence. Kansas slashed taxes, in what its right-wing governor described as a “real live experiment” in economic policy; the state’s growth has lagged ever since. California moved in the opposite direction, raising taxes; it has recently led the nation in job growth.

True, you can find self-proclaimed economic experts claiming to find overall evidence that low tax rates spur economic growth, but such experts invariably turn out to be on the payroll of right-wing pressure groups (and have an interesting habit of getting their numbers wrong). Independent studies of the correlation between tax rates and economic growth, for example by the Congressional Research Service, consistently find no relationship at all. There is no serious economic case for the tax-cut obsession.

Still, tax cuts are politically popular, right? Actually, no, at least when it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy. According to Gallup, only 13 percent of Americans believe that upper-income individuals pay too much in taxes, while 61 percent believe that they pay too little. Even among self-identified Republicans, those who say that the rich should pay more outnumber those who say they should pay less by two to one.

So every Republican who would be president is committed to a policy that is both demonstrably bad economics and deeply unpopular. What’s going on?

Well, consider the trajectory of Marco Rubio, who may at this point be the most likely Republican nominee. Last year he supported a tax-cut plan devised by Senator Mike Lee that purported to be aimed at the poor and the middle class. In reality, its benefits were strongly tilted toward high incomes — but it still drew harsh criticism from the right for giving too much to ordinary families while not cutting taxes on top incomes enough.

So Mr. Rubio came back with a plan that eliminated taxes on dividends, capital gains, and inherited wealth, providing a huge windfall to the very wealthy. And suddenly he was gaining a lot of buzz among Republican donors. The new plan would add trillions to the deficit, which conservatives claim to care about, but never mind.

In other words, it’s straightforward and quite stark: Republicans support big tax cuts for the wealthy because that’s what wealthy donors want. No doubt most of those donors have managed to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for America. But at root it’s about rich people supporting politicians who will make them richer. Everything else is just rationalization.

Of course, once the Republicans settle on a nominee, an army of hired guns will be mobilized to obscure this stark truth. We’ll see claims that it’s really a middle-class tax cut, that it will too do great things for economic growth, and look over there — emails! And given the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism, this campaign of obfuscation may work.

But never forget that what it’s really about is top-down class warfare. That may sound simplistic, but it’s the way the world works.

Brooks and Nocera

September 29, 2015

Bobo, FSM help us, has decided to grapple with “The Prison Problem.”  He gurgles that the war on drugs and sentencing laws are often blamed for packed cells, but that explanation’s wrong, and the true causes are even harder to reverse.  Of course there’s one cause that Bobo didn’t bother to factor into his babbling.  In the comments “Mark” from Cheboyagen, MI asks the blindingly obvious question:  “Doesn’t the for profit prison system bear mentioning?”  Not if you’re Bobo, it doesn’t.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Donald Trump Serious?”  He says The Donald says yes, but his positions on the issues suggest otherwise.  Here’s Bobo:

Pretty much everybody from Barack Obama to Carly Fiorina seems to agree that far too many Americans are stuck behind bars. And pretty much everybody seems to have the same explanation for how this destructive era of mass incarceration came about.

First, the war on drugs got out of control, meaning that many nonviolent people wound up in prison. Second, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws led to a throw-away-the-key culture, with long, cruel and pointlessly destructive prison terms.

It’s true that mass incarceration is a horrific problem. Back in the 1970s the increase in incarceration did help reduce the crime rate, maybe accounting for a third of the drop. But today’s incarceration levels do little to deter crime while they do much to rip up families, increase racial disparities and destroy lives.

The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems to be largely wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.

The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the sharp rise in incarceration. About 90 percent of America’s prisoners are held in state institutions. Only 17 percent of these inmates are in for a drug-related offense, or less than one in five.

Moreover, the share of people imprisoned for drug offenses is dropping sharply, down by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011. Writing in Slate, Leon Neyfakh emphasized that if you released every drug offender from state prison today, you’d reduce the population only to 1.2 million from 1.5 million.

The war on drugs does not explain the rocketing rates of incarceration, and ending that war, wise or not, will not solve this problem.

The mandatory-minimum theory is also problematic. Experts differ on this, but some of the most sophisticated work with the best data sets has been done by John Pfaff of Fordham Law School. When I spoke with Pfaff on Monday I found him to be wonderfully objective, nonideological and data-driven.

His research suggests that while it’s true that lawmakers passed a lot of measures calling for long prison sentences, if you look at how much time inmates actually served, not much has changed over the past few decades. Roughly half of all prisoners have prison terms in the range of two to three years, and only 10 percent serve more than seven years. The laws look punitive, but the time served hasn’t increased, and so harsh laws are not the main driver behind mass incarceration, either.

So what does explain it? Pfaff’s theory is that it’s the prosecutors. District attorneys and their assistants have gotten a lot more aggressive in bringing felony charges. Twenty years ago they brought felony charges against about one in three arrestees. Now it’s something like two in three. That produces a lot more plea bargains and a lot more prison terms.

I asked Pfaff why prosecutors are more aggressive. He’s heard theories. Maybe they are more political and they want to show toughness to raise their profile to impress voters if they run for future office. Maybe the police are bringing stronger cases. Additionally, prosecutors are usually paid by the county but prisons by the state, so prosecutors tend not to have to worry about the financial costs of what they do.

Pfaff says there’s little evidence so far to prove any of these theories, since the prosecutorial world is largely a black box. He also points out that we have a radically decentralized array of prosecutors, with some elected and some appointed. Changing their behavior cannot be done with one quick fix.

Some politicians and activists suggest that solving this problem will be easy — just release the pot smokers and the low-level dealers. In reality, reducing mass incarceration means releasing a lot of once-violent offenders. That may be the right thing to do in individual cases, but it’s a knotty problem.

Two final points. Everybody is railing against the political establishment and experts and experienced politicians. But social problems are invariably more complex than they look. The obvious explanation for most problems is often wrong. It takes experience and craftsmanship to design policies that grapple with the true complexity of reality.

Finally, recategorizing a problem doesn’t solve it. In the 1970s, we let a lot of people out of mental institutions. Over the next decades we put a lot of people into prisons. But the share of people kept out of circulation has been strangely continuous. In the real world, crime, lack of education, mental health issues, family breakdown and economic hopelessness are all intertwined.

Changing prosecutor behavior might be a start. Lifting the spirits of inmates, as described in the outstanding Atlantic online video “Angola for Life,” can also help. But the fundamental situation won’t be altered without a comprehensive surge, unless we flood the zone with economic, familial, psychological and social repair.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

As part of his ongoing effort to make a mockery of the American political process, Donald Trump released his tax plan on Monday morning. This is the third official policy position he has laid out in the three and a half months he’s been running for president.

His opening salvo, of course, was his absurd proposal to round up the 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country and deport them, en masse, while also building an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “It’ll actually be a wall that will look good,” he actually told Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night.

His second position paper, which hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves, is a no-holds-barred defense of the Second Amendment that the National Rifle Association could have written. Among other things, Trump says that we don’t need expanded background checks, and that concealed carry permits — he has one himself, in case you were wondering — should be valid in all 50 states, just like a driver’s license.

His tax plan, at least, is not completely irrational. Then again, “a broken clock is right twice a day,” as Edward Kleinbard, a law professor and tax expert at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, puts it.

Kleinbard told me he likes the fact that Trump wants to tax profits that companies earn abroad at the time they are earned, just like domestic profits. That would help end the practice of American companies parking their profits overseas, because they are now taxed only upon repatriation. (Trump also wants to impose a one-time tax on those overseas profits, which would raise some $200 billion.)

A second tax expert I spoke to, Robert Willens, noted that Trump’s plan would end corporate “inversions,” whereby companies list an overseas “headquarters” to take advantage of another country’s lower tax rate. The reason, though, is that Trump’s proposed 15 percent corporate tax rate is so low that companies wouldn’t need to leave to enjoy drastically lower taxes.

Trump says his plan will also prevent American companies from moving jobs overseas. But it won’t. Companies might move their headquarters back to the U.S., but the main job sources — factories — will remain in countries that have lower labor costs, not lower taxes. And neither Trump nor anyone else running for president can fix that.

What is irrational is Trump’s belief that he can cut corporate taxes from 35 to 15 percent, can cut the top income tax rate from 39.6 to 25 percent, can allow millions of additional Americans to go untaxed completely (they’ll be able to fill out a form that says “I win”), can abolish the estate tax and can lower the maximum capital gains tax from 23.8 percent to 20 percent, and still be “revenue neutral.”

Where will the revenue come from to make up for those tax cuts? It’s not going to come from whacking the “hedge fund guys,” as he likes to call them. Though Trump proposes to end their “carried interest” tax break, his new maximum individual rate of 25 percent means their tax burden would barely budge. And though he claims he will get rid of various unspecified deductions, he didn’t dare touch the one individual deduction that matters: the mortgage interest deduction. Somebody must have told him that that would cost him in the polls.

Like almost everything else about the Trump campaign, his tax plan is hard to take seriously. (To be fair, most of the tax plans put forth by his Republican rivals are hard to take seriously.) During the “60 Minutes” interview, Trump told Pelley that he would force the Chinese to “do something” about North Korea’s nuclear program — while also preventing them from devaluing their currency! — that he would get rid of Obamacare — while instituting universal coverage! — and that he was on more magazine covers than “almost any supermodel.”

You could see Pelley struggling to keep a straight face.

I wonder, in fact, whether even now Trump is a serious candidate, or whether this is all a giant publicity ploy. Once a real developer, Trump is largely a licenser today; the more famous he becomes, the more he can charge to slap his name on buildings or perfume or men’s suits.

I’m not alone in wondering this, of course. Several Republican consultants I spoke to openly questioned whether Trump is in it for the long haul. “You would see him spending a lot more money if he were putting together a true national infrastructure,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.

There’s one other thing. All his life, Trump has had a deep need to be perceived as a “winner.” He always has to be perceived coming out on top. That’s why, ultimately, I don’t think he’ll ever put himself at the mercy of actual voters in a primary. To do so is to risk losing. And everyone will know it.

He’ll be out before Iowa. You read it here first.

From your pixels to the FSM’s noodly appendage…

Brooks and Krugman

September 25, 2015

Bobo is starting to get scared.  In “The American Idea and Today’s G.O.P.” he wails that American exceptionalism is built on immigration, not threatened by it, as most Republicans believe.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out the extremely obvious:  “Brooks tries to steer the Republican ship of fools off the rocks, but it’s a little late for this attempt at damage control. Instead of spending so much time shilling for idiots he might have tried to apply the brakes a bit sooner.”  Bobo seems to be breaking out into a flop sweat…  In “Dewey, Cheatem & Howe” Prof. Krugman says recent cases of disturbing business practices underscore the need for good regulation, which is at stake in next year’s election.  Here’s Bobo:

America was settled, founded and built by people who believed they were doing something exceptional. Other nations were defined by their history, but America was defined by its future, by the people who weren’t yet here and by the greatness that hadn’t yet been achieved.

American founders like Alexander Hamilton were aware that once the vast continent was settled the United States would be one of the dominant powers of the globe. There was also a religious eschatology — a belief, dating back to the Puritans, that God’s plans for humanity would be completed on this continent, that America would be the “last best hope of earth,” as Lincoln put it.

Herman Melville summarized this version of American exceptionalism in his novel “White Jacket”: “The future is endowed with such a life that it lives to us even in anticipation. … The future [is] the Bible of the free. … God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls.”

Today there are some conservative commentators and Republican politicians who talk a lot about American exceptionalism. But when they use the phrase they mean the exact opposite of its original meaning. In fact, they are effectively destroying American exceptionalism.

These commentators and candidates look backward to an America that is being lost. Ann Coulter encapsulated this attitude perfectly in her latest book title, “Adios, America.” This is the philosophy of the receding roar, the mourning for an America that once was and is now being destroyed by foreign people and ideas.

Out of this backward- and inward-looking mentality comes a desire to exclude. Donald Trump talks falsely and harshly about Hispanic immigrants. Ben Carson says he couldn’t advocate putting “a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

During George W. Bush’s first term there wasn’t much difference between how Democrats and Republicans viewed the overall immigration levels. Republicans were about eight percentage points more likely to be dissatisfied with the contemporary immigration flows. But now the gap is an astounding 40 percentage points. Eighty-four percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats are dissatisfied with the current immigration level, according to Gallup surveys.

As Peter Wehner, a longtime conservative writer who served in the Bush administration, wrote in the magazine Commentary: “The message being sent to voters is this: The Republican Party is led by people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the changing (and inevitable) demographic nature of our nation. The G.O.P. is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future. It is a party that is characterized by resentments and grievances, by distress and dismay, by the belief that America is irredeemably corrupt and past the point of no return. ‘The American dream is dead,’ in the emphatic words of Mr. Trump.”

It’s not exactly breaking news that this is ruinous to the long-term political prospects of the party. In his book “2016 and Beyond,” the veteran pollster Whit Ayres, now working for Marco Rubio, points out that given the composition of the electorate, if the G.O.P. candidate won the same 59 percent share of the white vote that Mitt Romney won in 2012, he would have to win 30 percent of the nonwhite vote to get a majority. That’s a daunting number, given that, as Dan Balz of The Washington Post points out, Romney only won 17 percent of that vote.

But it’s also bad for the spirit of conservatism. American conservatism has always been different than the conservatism found on continental Europe and elsewhere. There it was based on blood and soil, here on promise.

American free market and religious conservatives have traditionally embraced a style of nationalism that is hopeful and future minded. From Lincoln to Reagan to Bush, the market has been embraced for being dynamic and progressive. The major faiths uplift in part because they are eschatological — they look forward to a glorious future. They preach an ethos of generosity and welcome. As the researcher Benjamin Knoll has found, religious parishioners of all political stripes are more likely to support more open immigration policies than others.

But this hopeful nationalism is being supplanted in the G.O.P. by an anguished cry for a receding America.

This pessimism isn’t justified by the facts. As a definitive report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently found, today’s immigrants are assimilating as fast as previous ones. They are learning English. They are healthier than native-born Americans. Immigrant men age 18 to 39 are incarcerated at roughly one-fourth the rate of American men.

Instead the pessimism grows from a sour, overgeneralized and intellectually sloppy sense of alienation. It is one thing to think Democratic policies are wrong. It is another to betray the essential American faith and take a reactionary attitude toward life. This is an attitude that sours the tongue, offends the eye and freezes the heart.

The current crop of lunatics in the 2016 Clown Car really seems to be scaring poor, wee Bobo.  This makes me smile.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Item: The C.E.O. of Volkswagen has resigned after revelations that his company committed fraud on an epic scale, installing software on its diesel cars that detected when their emissions were being tested, and produced deceptively low results.

Item: The former president of a peanut company has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping tainted products that later killed nine people and sickened 700.

Item: Rights to a drug used to treat parasitic infections were acquired byTuring Pharmaceuticals, which specializes not in developing new drugs but in buying existing drugs and jacking up their prices. In this case, the price went from $13.50 a tablet to $750.

In other words, it has been a good few days for connoisseurs of business predators.

No doubt I, like anyone who points out ethical lapses on the part of some companies, will be accused of demonizing business. But I’m not claiming that all businesspeople are demons, just that some of them aren’t angels.

There are, it turns out, people in the corporate world who will do whatever it takes, including fraud that kills people, in order to make a buck. And we need effective regulation to police that kind of bad behavior, not least so that ethical businesspeople aren’t at a disadvantage when competing with less scrupulous types. But we knew that, right?

Well, we used to know it, thanks to the muckrakers and reformers of the Progressive Era. But Ronald Reagan insisted that government is always the problem, never the solution, and this has become dogma on the right.

As a result, an important part of America’s political class has declared war on even the most obviously necessary regulations. Too many important players now argue, in effect, that business can do no wrong and that government has no role to play in limiting misbehavior.

A case in point: This week Jeb Bush, who has an uncanny talent for bad timing, chose to publish an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal denouncing the Obama administration for issuing “a flood of creativity-crushing and job-killing rules.” Never mind his misuse of cherry-picked statistics, or the fact that private-sector employment has grown much faster under President Obama’s “job killing” policies than it did under Mr. Bush’s brother’s administration.

What are the terrible, unjustified regulations Mr. Bush proposes to scrap?

Carbon regulation must go, of course, because doing nothing about climate change has become an essential part of the Republican identity. So must Obamacare.

But Mr. Bush also proposes doing away with rules regarding the disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants that contains mercury, arsenic and other contaminants that can cause serious health problems if they leak into groundwater or are blown into the air as dust. Does trying to limit these risks sound like an arbitrary, pointless action?

Then there’s for-profit education, an industry wracked by fraud — because it’s very hard for students to assess what they’re getting — that leaves all too many young Americans with heavy debt burdens and no real prospect of better jobs. But Mr. Bush denounces attempts at a cleanup.

Oh, and he denounces the administration for “regulating the Internet as a public utility,” which can sound odd until you realize that what’s actually being regulated are Internet service providers, who face little or no competition in many local markets. Did I mention that in Europe, where Internet providers are required to accommodate competition, broadband is much faster and much cheaper than it is here?

Last but not least, Mr. Bush calls for a rollback of financial regulation, repeating the thoroughly debunked claim that the Dodd-Frank law actually encourages banks to become too big to fail. (Markets disagree: Judging by their borrowing costs, big banks have lost, not gained, since Dodd-Frank went into effect.) Because why should we think that letting banks run wild poses any risks?

The thing is, Mr. Bush isn’t wrong to suggest that there has been a move back toward more regulation under Mr. Obama, a move that will probably continue if a Democrat wins next year. After all, Hillary Clinton released a plan to limit drug prices at the same time Mr. Bush was unleashing his anti-regulation diatribe.

But the regulatory rebound is taking place for a reason. Maybe we had too much regulation in the 1970s, but we’ve now spent 35 years trusting business to do the right thing with minimal oversight — and it hasn’t worked.

So what has been happening lately is an attempt to redress that imbalance, to replace knee-jerk opposition to regulation with the judicious use of regulation where there is good reason to believe that businesses might act in destructive ways. Will we see this effort continue? Next year’s election will tell.

Brooks and Nocera

September 22, 2015

Bobo is now an authority on the Pope and what he reads.  In “Pope Francis, the Prince of the Personal” he gurgles that on Francis’ visit he will offer a model on listening and learning, and upholding moral standards while remaining loving and merciful.  In the comments “Anetliner netliner” from the Washington DC area had this to say:  “This piece is a beautiful tribute to Pope Francis’s pastoral leadership. But Brooks– perhaps predictably– ignores Francis’s searing criticism of global capitalism as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si.  Francis’s campaign for economic justice is a key element of his papacy and should be acknowledged.”  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Trump and Fiorina’s Snake Oil Sales” and says Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina are each right about the other’s lousy business record.  Here’s Bobo:

One of Pope Francis’ favorite novels is “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni. It is about two lovers whose longing to marry is thwarted by a cowardly and morally mediocre priest and a grasping nobleman. A good simple friar shelters the suffering couple. Then a plague hits the country, reminding everyone of their mortality and vulnerability, and also bringing about a moral reckoning.

As the doctors serve in hospitals for the body, the good people in the church serve in hospitals for the soul. One cardinal remonstrates the cowardly priest. “You should have loved, my son; loved and prayed. Then you would have seen that the forces of iniquity have power to threaten and to wound, but no power to command.” In the end there are heart-wrenching scenes of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and marriage.

I mention this novel, which Francis has read four times, because we in the press are about to over-politicize his visit to America. We’re comfortable talking about our ideological disputes, so we’ll closely follow and cover whatever hints he drops on abortion, gay marriage, global warming and divorce.

But this visit is also a spiritual and cultural event. Millions of Americans will display their faith in public. Francis will offer doctrinal instruction for Catholics. But the great gift is the man himself — his manner, the way he carries himself. Specifically, Francis offers a model on two great questions: How do you deeply listen and learn? How do you uphold certain moral standards, while still being loving and merciful to those you befriend?

Throughout his life Francis’ core message has been anti-ideological. As Austen Ivereigh notes in his biography “The Great Reformer,” Francis has consistently criticized abstract intellectual systems that speak in crude generalities, instrumentalize the poor and ignore the rich idiosyncratic nature of each soul and situation. He has written that many of our political debates are so abstract, you can’t smell the sweat of real life. They reduce everything to “tired, gray cartoon-book narratives.”

Francis’ great gift, by contrast, is learning through intimacy, not just to study poverty, but to live among the poor and feel it as a personal experience from the inside. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Pope Francis told the interviewer Father Antonio Spadaro. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. … Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”

That closeness teaches you granular details, but also arouses a sense of respect. “I see the sanctity of God’s people, this daily sanctity,” Francis has said. “I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces.”

We practice material and intellectual elitism, looking upward for status and specialized and de-spiritualized knowledge. Pope Francis emphasizes that different kinds of knowledge come from different quarters. As he put it, “This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask the theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people.”

These days some religious people believe they need to cut themselves off from the corruptions of a decadent modern culture. But Francis argues that you need to throw yourself in the world’s diverse living cultures to see God in his full glory and you need faith to see people in their full depth. He is fond of quoting Dostoyevsky’s line from “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God. … Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have severed themselves from their own land.”

Francis’ whole approach is personal, intimate and situation-specific. If you are too rigorous and just apply abstract rules, he argues, you are washing your hands of your responsibility to a person. But if you are too lax, and just try to be kind to everybody, you are ignoring the truth of sin and the need to correct it.

Only by being immersed in the specificity of that person and that mysterious soul can you strike the right balance between rigor and compassion. Only by being intimate and loving can you match the authority that comes from church teaching with the democratic wisdom that bubbles from each individual’s common sense.

Pope Francis is an extraordinary learner, listener and self-doubter. The best part of this week will be watching him relate to people, how he listens deeply and learns from them, how he sees them both in their great sinfulness but also with endless mercy and self-emptying love.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Business wonk that I am, my favorite moment in last week’s Republican debate came when Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump got into a spat over which of them had the lousier track record as business leaders.

“The company is a disaster,” scoffed Trump, referring to Hewlett-Packard, the iconic technology company Fiorina ran from 1999 to 2005. Trump continued: “When Carly says the revenues went up that’s because she bought Compaq. It was a terrible deal, and it really led to the destruction of the company.”

Fiorina responded by focusing on how Trump ran his three Atlantic City casinos into the ground. “You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses,” she said, “using other people’s money, and you were forced to file for bankruptcy not once, not twice [but] four times, a record four times.”

They’re both right. Fiorina’s tenure at HP was indeed a disaster, and Trump’s casino interests did indeed file for bankruptcy multiple times. Now that Trump and Fiorina are number one and number two in a recent poll — oy! — it’s worth taking a closer look at their business records.

Fiorina’s effort to revise her reputation began in October 2006, some 20 months after she was ousted as the chief executive of HP, when she published her autobiography. In it, she claimed that she had taken a company that was adrift and gotten it humming again. She described her firing as the action of a dysfunctional board, which it certainly was. But that was in no small part because the directors played Charlie Brown to her Lucy. Again and again, she would say that progress was right around the corner, and they believed her; again and again, she disappointed.

By every metric that mattered, HP was in far worse shape when she was fired than when she was hired. The company’s stock price dropped more than 50 percent during her tenure, compared to a 7 percent drop in the S.&P. 500. And net earnings dropped to $2.4 billion from $3.1 billion during that same time. The Compaq merger, meanwhile, was a misguided fiasco; today, virtually all remnants of it have disappeared from HP. Fiorina’s me-me-me leadership style demoralized the company and its shareholders. When she walked out the door in February 2005 — with a $21 million severance package — the stock jumped nearly 7 percent.

Trump? He’s a business legend, all right, — in his own mind. To listen to him, you’d think he is the greatest business person of all time. He is not even close. What he mainly is, as his presidential campaign is proving, is our era’s P.T. Barnum.

The key fact about Trump’s early success is that it would never have happened without his father Fred’s money. As Tim O’Brien points out in his highly entertaining 2005 biography, “TrumpNation,” Trump would have flopped in his first foray in the big time — turning the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan — if his father had not lent him the money to cover cost overruns.

According to O’Brien, Fred Trump bailed out his son on other occasions, most notably when he bought $3.5 million worth of chips at one of Trump’s casinos — and then didn’t use them to gamble, in violation of state casino regulations — so that his son would have enough to make a loan payment.

As for the casino bankruptcies, Trump likes to characterize them as shrewd business moves, and stresses that he never filed for personal bankruptcy. But those corporate bankruptcies were costly; he wound up having to give up many of his real estate holdings, and was even put on a monthly budget for a time.

And with some $900 million in personal guarantees, he avoided personal bankruptcy by a whisker. Again, according to O’Brien, Trump borrowed millions from his siblings to keep his head above water. Today, a far more cautious Donald Trump runs what amounts to a Potemkin company, with a staff that mainly licenses his “brand.” He owns very few of the buildings with the Trump name on them.

Trump claims, implausibly, to be worth over $8 billion. (Forbes puts his net worth at half that amount.) But even taking him at his word, that sum is less impressive than you’d think. As several writers have pointed out, if, in 1988, he had simply put his money in a stock index fund, it would be worth $13 billion today. In effect, his post-1988 business career has cost him $5 billion.

Even putting aside their policy positions, their narcissism, their poor records as leaders and their lack of scruples in spinning failures as triumphs all suggest that Fiorina and Trump would make terrible presidents. To my mind, there is only one entrepreneur who has both a record of true business accomplishment and government service to merit consideration as a presidential candidate.

I can’t be the only one who wishes Michael Bloomberg would enter the race, can I?

Yes, Joe, I’m sure you can be.

Brooks and Krugman

September 18, 2015

Bobo has decided that he’s a fan of “The Marco Rubio-Carly Fiorina Option.”  He gurgles that the Grand Old Party is changing, but not to the extreme it’s flirted with this summer.  In the comments “Arun Gupta” from NJ summed it up succinctly:  “The drowning man, grasping at straws; after having helped create the flood.”  Prof. Krugman addresses “Fantasies and Fictions at G.O.P. Debate” and says Wednesday’s debate was full of bad ideas and outright lies.  Here’s poor Bobo, whistling past the graveyard:

My PBS colleague Mark Shields recently reminded me of the old saying that Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line.

Democrats have historically liked presidential nominees they can go gaga for, even if they lack experience: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy. Republicans on the other hand like to nominate the guy who’s paid his dues and already lost a presidential run: Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

So far this year, the parties have switched love languages. Democratic voters have become responsible and middle-aged, telling pollsters they want experienced pols who can work within the system. Republicans are embracing their inner adolescent.

By a majority of 64 to 30, conservative Republicans tell pollsters they want their candidate to be an outsider. Republican governors in the debates reel off long data-filled paragraphs about their accomplishments, and you can feel the entire Republican electorate doing the bored valley girl eye roll.

Republicans radiate more alienation than the sophomore class at a Berkeley alternative high school. They have also entered a weird post-material political space. Many Republicans show little interest in candidates who offer proposals, but flock to the ones who offer outrageous self-expression.

Donald Trump has emerged as the prankster narcissus. It doesn’t matter that he might not be able to find Syria on a map; he offers America hair, boasting, misogyny and insult. There’s no woman who can’t be reduced to a physical object. The socially insecure rise and applaud as he insults the people they’d never have the guts to take on themselves.

Republicans used to be split between economic and social conservatives. But this year the big fight is tactical.

One group wants to rip up the political process and disrupt everything. Renounce the Iran deal on Day 1, no matter what our allies say. Ignore the Supreme Court and effectively disallow gay marriage. Shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. Magically deport the 11 million illegal immigrants.

This is more or less the Bobby Jindal-Ted Cruz wing. (During those milliseconds when Trump is capable of entertaining a policy thought, he wanders into this camp.)

The others, like Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and Jeb Bush, live within the confines of reality. You can’t actually defund Planned Parenthood or end Obamacare if you don’t control the White House. Offending every global ally on the first day of a new administration might have some nasty knock on effects. You can’t actually erase the 14th Amendment and end birthright citizenship.

Over the summer the burn-down-the-house crowd had an amazing run, but if this week’s debate is a sign of anything, it is that the party is going to go off on a different trajectory. The outsiders are about to slide. Trump’s Don Rickles act wears thin. His ego may be galaxy-sized, but his policy ignorance is a void that overspills the known universe. He’s the Wizard of Oz. When the bluster curtain falls down, what’s left is pathetic.

That doesn’t mean the party will snap back to its old establishmentarian tendencies. Bush had several moments to deliver a devastating blow — like challenging Trump for going after his wife — but he couldn’t quite turn them into hot-blooded signature moments. Three hundred and fifty years of WASP reticence have left habits of gentility and emotional guardedness that inhibit him, just as they inhibited his father.

When Trump attacked him for his bilingualism, Bush retorted, “Well, I’ve been speaking English and I’ll keep speaking English!” This is not exactly a killer retort. It’s a nice guy’s impersonation of a killer retort.

Instead, the party will veer on a course midway between outsider and establishment. It will probably end up with some hybrid candidate — sharp of tongue, gifted in self-expression and yet still anchored in the world of reality.

That’s where Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio come in. So far, Fiorina has looked like the most impressive candidate. She has a genius for creating signature moments. (“If you want to stump a Democrat, ask them to name an accomplishment of Mrs. Clinton’s.”) But her spotty record at Hewlett-Packard probably means she can’t start at the top of the ticket.

Rubio is young and thus uncorrupted, and he is a genius at relating policy depth in a way that is personal. He has clarity of mind and can sum up a complex subject — Russia, the Middle East — in a way that is comprehensible but not oversimplified.

This debate was one moment in time, but you can see the vectors of where this campaign is headed. This is no longer Bob Dole’s or George H.W. Bush’s G.O.P. But it’s not going to completely lose its mind, either.

It’s going to be somewhat the same, but edgier and more renegade. Right now, Rubio, Fiorina and maybe Chris Christie are best positioned to occupy that space.

“Her spotty record at Hewlett-Packard” is one of the most amazing things Bobo has come up with.  In other news, the Atlantic is damp.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

I’ve been going over what was said at Wednesday’s Republican debate, and I’m terrified. You should be, too. After all, given the vagaries of elections, there’s a pretty good chance that one of these people will end up in the White House.

Why is that scary? I would argue that all of the G.O.P. candidates are calling for policies that would be deeply destructive at home, abroad, or both. But even if you like the broad thrust of modern Republican policies, it should worry you that the men and woman on that stage are clearly living in a world of fantasies and fictions. And some seem willing to advance their ambitions with outright lies.

Let’s start at the shallow end, with the fantasy economics of the establishment candidates.

You’re probably tired of hearing this, but modern G.O.P. economic discourse is completely dominated by an economic doctrine — the sovereign importance of low taxes on the rich — that has failed completely and utterly in practice over the past generation.

Think about it. Bill Clinton’s tax hike was followed by a huge economic boom, the George W. Bush tax cuts by a weak recovery that ended in financial collapse. The tax increase of 2013 and the coming of Obamacare in 2014 were associated with the best job growth since the 1990s. Jerry Brown’s tax-raising, environmentally conscious California is growing fast; Sam Brownback’s tax- and spending-slashing Kansas isn’t.

Yet the hold of this failed dogma on Republican politics is stronger than ever, with no skeptics allowed. On Wednesday Jeb Bush claimed, once again, that his voodoo economics would double America’s growth rate, while Marco Rubio insisted that a tax on carbon emissions would “destroy the economy.”

The only candidate talking sense about economics was, yes, Donald Trump, who declared that “we’ve had a graduated tax system for many years, so it’s not a socialistic thing.”

If the discussion of economics was alarming, the discussion of foreign policy was practically demented. Almost all the candidates seem to believe that American military strength can shock-and-awe other countries into doing what we want without any need for negotiations, and that we shouldn’t even talk with foreign leaders we don’t like. No dinners for Xi Jinping! And, of course, no deal with Iran, because resorting to force in Iraq went so well.

Indeed, the only candidate who seemed remotely sensible on national security issues was Rand Paul, which is almost as disturbing as the spectacle of Mr. Trump being the only voice of economic reason.

The real revelation on Wednesday, however, was the way some of the candidates went beyond expounding bad analysis and peddling bad history to making outright false assertions, and probably doing so knowingly, which turns those false assertions into what are technically known as “lies.”

For example, Chris Christie asserted, as he did in the first G.O.P. debate, that he was named U.S. attorney the day before 9/11. It’s still not true: His selection for the position wasn’t even announced until December.

Mr. Christie’s mendacity pales, however, in comparison to that of Carly Fiorina, who was widely hailed as the “winner” of the debate.

Some of Mrs. Fiorina’s fibs involved repeating thoroughly debunked claimsabout her business record. No, she didn’t preside over huge revenue growth. She made Hewlett-Packard bigger by acquiring other companies, mainly Compaq, and that acquisition was a financial disaster. Oh, and if her life is a story of going from “secretary to C.E.O.,” mine is one of going from mailman to columnist and economist. Sorry, working menial jobs while you’re in school doesn’t make your life a Horatio Alger story.

But the truly awesome moment came when she asserted that the videos being used to attack Planned Parenthood show “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” No, they don’t. Anti-abortion activists have claimed that such things happen, but have produced no evidence, just assertions mingled with stock footage of fetuses.

So is Mrs. Fiorina so deep inside the bubble that she can’t tell the difference between facts and agitprop? Or is she deliberately spreading a lie? And most important, does it matter?

I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?

Certainly not the NYT…

Brooks and Nocera

September 15, 2015

In “The Biden Formation Story” Bobo babbles that in discussing his grief with Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden revealed what could be the core of a very compelling presidential campaign.  In the comments “View from the hill” from Vermont said “I take Brooks’ point, but by the end he has reduced Biden’s grief to a campaign device.”  Which is typical Bobo.  Mr. Nocera, in “The Pyramid Scheme Problem,” says the F.T.C. tries to shut down illegal pyramid schemes yet won’t explain how they differ from legal multilevel marketing companies.  Here’s Bobo:

Last month I wrote that Joe Biden should not run for president this year. The electorate is in an anti-establishment mood, and as a longtime insider, Biden, I argued, would suffer from the same disadvantages Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are now enduring, without any of their advantages. It would end badly.

But then came Biden’s moment with Stephen Colbert. His discussion of his own grief over his son Beau’s death was beautiful and genuine and revealed the golden heart that everybody knows is at the core of the man.

Biden talked about Beau. “My son was better than me. And he was better than me in almost every way.” He gestured toward how fluid grief is, how it goes round and round, hides for a few hours and then suddenly overwhelms. But there was something else embedded in that Colbert moment: a formation story.

Every presidential candidate needs a narrative to explain how his or her character was formed. They needs a story line that begins outside of politics with some experience or life-defining crucible moment that then defines the nature of their public service.

Candidates like John F. Kennedy and John McCain were formed by war. Candidates like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were formed by their rise from broken homes and their dedication to lift others and heal divisions. Without a clear formation story, a candidate is just a hodgepodge of positions and logos.

Democrats this year are looking for a formation story that proves commitment. This is a party that is moving boldly leftward. Its voters want to know their candidate has the inner drive to push through structural changes, not just half measures.

Bernie Sanders has such a story. From his days at the University of Chicago onward, he has been a pile driver for progressive causes, regardless of the prevailing winds. Hillary Clinton hasn’t yet presented a clear formation story. She talks about being a grandmother, which humanizes her, but doesn’t explain how she got to be the person she is.

With Colbert, one saw the kernel of a Biden formation story that could connect not only with Democratic voters but with other voters as well. It is a story of dual loss: his wife and daughter decades ago and his son this year. Out of that loss comes a great empathy, a connection to those who are suffering in this economy and this world. Out of that loss comes a hypercharged sense of mission. Out of that loss comes a liberation from the fear of failure that dogs most politicians, and causes them to dodge, prevaricate and spin.

People who have suffered a loss often want to connect their tragedy to some larger redemptive mission. Biden could plausibly and genuinely emerge sadder but more empathetic and more driven. That would be not only a natural reaction, but also the basis for a compelling campaign. Biden would then benefit from the greater verbal self-discipline he has developed while vice president and from the fact that this year, as Donald Trump proves, voters seem tolerant of free-talkers.

Democratic voters aren’t the only ones looking for a strong formation story. Republicans are looking for one, too, but the nature of the Republican race is different. If Democrats are arguing over what positions to fight for, Republicans are arguing about how to fight.

Republican presidential candidates have found that the strongest way to win favor on the stump is to attack the leaders of their party in Congress for being timid and inept. Many Republican voters are alienated from their party’s leadership. They’re looking for a candidate who can lead a mutiny.

Donald Trump’s mutiny story is pretty clear. In doing business deal after business deal, he mastered the skills needed to take on the morons who are now running the party and the world. Ben Carson’s story is clear, too. Through his faith and through his medical career he developed the purity of heart and the discipline of will required to walk into Washington without being corrupted by the rottenness found there.

The Republican desire for a mutiny has kept Trump and Carson aloft longer than most people supposed. I still think they will implode. Their followers need them to be the superheroes they are portraying themselves to be. But politics is hard, especially for beginners, and sooner or later they will flounder and look like they’re in over their heads. At that point it’s all over. At that point, a Bush, Rubio, Kasich or Walker will have an opening to tell a different and more positive story.

On the Democratic side, a Biden run would be more formidable than I thought last month. You need emotion to beat emotion. With Stephen Colbert he revealed a story and suggested a campaign that is moving, compelling and in tune with the moment.

Just imagine — Biden decides to run and then all we’ll hear out of Bobo is how he can’t keep his mouth shut and is always coming up with malapropisms.  You heard it first here.  Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

“I have nothing for you,” said Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission. “Lots of reporters have asked that question. Our final response is, We’re not going to answer it.”

What had I asked that was so sensitive that the F.T.C. wouldn’t respond? I had requested that the agency explain what distinguished an illegal “pyramid scheme” from a legal multilevel marketing company.

What had prompted my question were two recent events. In late August, the F.T.C. had gotten an injunction issued against a multilevel marketing company called Vemma Nutrition, claiming it was in fact a pyramid scheme.

And last week, Fortune magazine published a lengthy story by Roger Parloff about William Ackman’s nearly three-year battle to force the government to make the same declaration about Herbalife. The company, of course, has fought back hard against the hedge fund manager’s allegations, insisting that its business practices are above board.

Indeed, the F.T.C.’s move against Vemma has caused both sides in the Herbalife battle to claim vindication. Although the F.T.C. has been investigating Herbalife for some 17 months, Timothy S. Ramey, a stock analyst and Herbalife bull, raised his price target for the company, saying Vemma’s business model was clearly different from Herbalife’s. Meanwhile, Ackman prepared a 29-slide deck with side-by-side comparisons of all the ways, in his view at least, Herbalife’s business model was exactly like Vemma’s.

So which is it?

As Parloff notes in his article, “The Siege of Herbalife,” there is no law defining a pyramid scheme, nor are there even any regulations on the books. The simple common-sense definition is that a pyramid scheme is a business in which recruits make a payment for the right to recruit others into the network, and whose revenues are more dependent on recruitment than on selling a product.

But it turns out to be so much more complicated. In 1979, the F.T.C., after investigating Amway, a multilevel marketing company with a vast product line, decided that the company’s business model passed muster — even though recruitment was at the heart of it — because it claimed to take certain steps that (among other things) supposedly showed that its recruits were selling the company’s products to real customers, not just to other recruits. Very quickly, other multilevel marketing companies adopted the “Amway rules” to stay on the right side of the F.T.C.

Yet the Amway rules have never been codified into regulation — they’re really more like suggestions — nor have they ever been proved to mitigate the harm pyramid schemes do in taking advantage of recruits or lying to them about the potential to get rich. (A vast majority of those who sign up for pyramid schemes lose money, sometimes lots of money.)

For a while, the courts and the F.T.C. seemed to say that a truer test of a pyramid scheme was how much of its products was bought outside its recruitment network (meaning they had real customers who were not involved in the pyramid) versus how much was bought by those inside the network, who were buying precisely to remain part of the network.

But in a recent court decision involving a pyramid scheme calledBurnLounge, the appeals court ruled that it didn’t really matter whether the customer was inside or outside the network, and that the test was actually whether a company’s “primary” purpose involved recruiting rather than “meaningful opportunities for retail sales.”

William Keep, dean of the College of New Jersey’s School of Business, and a pyramid scheme critic, told Bloomberg earlier this year that “in terms of sending clear signals to the industry, the F.T.C. has done worse than nothing since 1979. It sends confusing signals that have in no way helped us understand how to identify a multilevel marketing company that may be a pyramid scheme.”

In the Herbalife dispute, this lack of federal guidelines animates much of the controversy.

Ackman says Herbalife is a pyramid scheme because the only way people can make any money is by recruiting others, not by selling the company’s protein shakes. Herbalife says its business model is on the up and up because it is selling a real product to consumers who sign up more to get product discounts than to become part of a recruiting network. Parloff, after months of investigation, came down more on Herbalife’s side than Ackman’s, though in truth, that’s just his best guess. The F.T.C. wouldn’t talk to him, either.

“Here we are three years into [the Herbalife battle] and it’s no clearer than it was at the beginning,” Keep told me when we spoke. If the government had rules about where the line was between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legal multilevel marketing company, there wouldn’t be any such dispute. It’s ridiculous that we have to guess what’s illegal.

The F.T.C.’s refusal to define a pyramid scheme — and to act aggressively on that definition — is a dereliction of duty.

Brooks and Krugman

September 11, 2015

In “The Russia I Miss” Bobo wails that gone is the  depth of soul that influenced Western culture for 150 years.  Prof. Krugman, in “Japan’s Economy, Crippled By Caution,” says that respectability creates a trap for policy makers.  Here’s Bobo, writing from St. Petersburg:

People who came of age after the end of the Cold War may not realize how powerfully Russia influenced Western culture for 150 years. For more than a century, intellectuals, writers, artists and activists were partly defined by the stances they took toward certain things Russian: Did they see the world like Tolstoy or like Dostoyevsky? Were they inspired by Lenin and/or Trotsky? Were they alarmed by Sputnik, awed by Solzhenitsyn or cheering on Yeltsin or Gorbachev?

That was because Russian culture had an unmatched intensity. It was often said that Russian thinkers addressed universal questions in their most extreme and illuminating forms.

In his classic book, “The Icon and the Axe,” James H. Billington wrote that because of certain conditions of Russian history, “the kind of debate that is usually conducted between individuals in the West often rages even more acutely within individuals in Russia.”

Russian influence was especially strong in America. There were certain mirror image parallels. Both nations didn’t quite know what to make of the sophistication and polish of Western Europe. Both countries had Eurocentric elites who copied Parisian manners, and populist masses who ridiculed them. Both nations had mental landscapes defined by the epic size and wild beauty of their natural landscapes.

But Russia stood for something that America has never been known for: depth of soul. If America radiated a certain vision of happiness onto the world, Russian heroes radiated a vision of total spiritual commitment.

“The ‘Russian’ attitude,” Isaiah Berlin wrote, “is that man is one and cannot be divided.” You can’t divide your life into compartments, hedge your bets and live with prudent half-measures. If you are a musician, writer, soldier or priest, integrity means throwing your whole personality into your calling in its purest form.

The Russian ethos was not bourgeois, economically minded and pragmatic. There were radicals who believed that everything should be seen in materialistic terms. But this was a reaction to the dominant national tendency, which saw problems as primarily spiritual rather than practical, and put matters of the soul at center stage.

In the Middle Ages, Russian religious icons presented a faith that was more visual than verbal, more mysterious than legalistic. Dostoyevsky put enormous faith in the power of the artist to address social problems. The world’s problems are shaped by pre-political roots: myths, morals and the state of the individual conscience. Beauty could save the world.

Even as late as the 1990s, one could sit with Russian intellectuals, amid all the political upheaval in those days, and they would talk intensely about the nature of the Russian soul. If it was dark in the kitchen at night, they wouldn’t just say, “Let’s replace the light bulb.” They’d talk for hours about how actually the root problem was the Russian soul.

Many of Russia’s most charismatic figures were on a lifelong search for purity. For the elder Tolstoy, you could live with material abundance and rot inside, or you could live the pure, simple rural life of the peasant. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “It makes me happier, more secure, to think … that I am only a sword made sharp to smite the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them.”

All of this spiritual ardor, all of this intense extremism, all of this romantic utopianism, all of this tragic sensibility produced some really bad political ideas. But it also produced a lot of cultural vibrancy that had an effect on the world.

While the rest of the world was going through industrialization and commercialism and embracing the whole bourgeois style of life, there was this counterculture of intense Russian writers, musicians, dancers — romantics who offered a different vocabulary, a different way of thinking and living inside.

And now it’s gone.

Russia is a more normal country than it used to be and a better place to live, at least for the young. But when you think of Russia’s cultural impact on the world today, you think of Putin and the oligarchs. Now the country stands for grasping power and ill-gotten money.

There’s something sad about the souvenir stands in St. Petersburg. They’re selling mementos of things Russians are sort of embarrassed by — old Soviet Army hats, Stalinist tchotchkes and coffee mugs with Putin bare-chested and looking ridiculous. Of the top 100 universities in the world, not a single one is Russian, which is sort of astonishing for a country so famously intellectual.

This absence leaves a mark. There used to be many countercultures to the dominant culture of achievement and capitalism and prudent bourgeois manners. Some were bohemian, or religious or martial. But one by one those countercultures are withering, and it is harder for people to see their situations from different and grander vantage points. Russia offered one such counterculture, a different scale of values, but now it, too, is mainly in the past.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman, writing from Tokyo:

Visitors to Japan are often surprised by how prosperous it seems. It doesn’t look like a deeply depressed economy. And that’s because it isn’t.

Unemployment is low; overall economic growth has been slow for decades, but that’s largely because it’s an aging country with ever fewer people in their prime working years. Measured relative to the number of working-age adults, Japanese growth over the past quarter century has been almost as fast as America’s, and better than Western Europe’s.

Yet Japan is still caught in an economic trap. Persistent deflation has created a society in which people hoard cash, making it hard for policy to respond when bad things happen, which is why the businesspeople I’ve been talking to here are terrified about the possible spillover from China’s troubles.

Deflation has also created worrisome “debt dynamics”: Japan, unlike, say, the United States after World War II, can’t count on growing incomes to make past borrowing irrelevant.

So Japan needs to make a decisive break with its deflationary past. You might think this would be easy. But it isn’t: Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, has been making a real effort, but he has yet to achieve decisive success. And the main reason, I’d argue, is the great difficulty policy makers have in breaking with conventional notions of responsibility.

Respectability, it turns out, can be an economy-killer, and Japan isn’t the only place where this happens.

As I said, you might think that ending deflation is easy. Can’t you just print money? But the question is what do you do with the newly printed money (or, more usually, the bank reserves you’ve just conjured into existence, but let’s call that money-printing for convenience). And that’s where respectability becomes such a problem.

When central banks like the Federal Reserve or the Bank of Japan print money, they generally use it to buy government debt. In normal times this starts a chain reaction in the financial system: The sellers of that government debt don’t want to sit on idle cash, so they lend it out, stimulating spending and boosting the real economy. And as the economy heats up, wages and prices should eventually start to rise, solving the problem of deflation.

These days, however, interest rates are very low in most major economies, reflecting the weakness of investment demand. What this means is that there’s no real penalty for sitting on cash, and that’s what people and institutions do. The Fed has bought more than $3 trillion in assets since 2008; most of the cash it has pumped out there has ended up just sitting inbank reserves.

How, then, can policy fight deflation?

Well, the answer currently being tried in much of the world is so-calledquantitative easing. This involves printing a very large amount of money and using it to buy slightly risky assets, in the hope of doing two things: pushing up asset prices and persuading both investors and consumers that inflation is coming, so they’d better put idle cash to work.

But is this sufficient? Doubtful. America is recovering, but it has taken a long time to get there. Europe’s monetary efforts have fallen well short of expectations. And so far the same is true of “Abenomics,” the bold — but not bold enough — effort to turn Japan around.

What’s remarkable about this record of dubious achievement is that there actually is a surefire way to fight deflation: When you print money, don’t use it to buy assets; use it to buy stuff. That is, run budget deficits paid for with the printing press.

Deficit finance can be laundered, if you like, by issuing new debt while the central bank buys up old debt; in economic terms it makes no difference.

But nobody is doing the obvious thing. Instead, all around the advanced world governments are engaged in fiscal austerity, dragging their economies down, even as their central banks are trying to pump them up. Mr. Abe has been less conventional than most, but even he set his program back with an ill-advised tax increase.

Why? Part of the answer is that demands for austerity serve a political agenda, with panic over the alleged risks of deficits providing an excuse for cuts in social spending. But the biggest reason it’s so hard to fight deflation, I contend, is the curse of conventionality.

After all, printing money to pay for stuff sounds irresponsible, because in normal times it is. And no matter how many times some of us try to explain that these are not normal times, that in a depressed, deflationary economy conventional fiscal prudence is dangerous folly, very few policy makers are willing to stick their necks out and break with convention.

The result is that seven years after the financial crisis, policy is still crippled by caution. Respectability is killing the world economy.

Brooks and Nocera

September 8, 2015

Bobo has taken to the fainting couch, clutching his pearls.  In “The Anti-Party Men: Trump, Carson, Sanders and Corbyn” he moans that the rise of extreme political figures this summer is a result of the decline of civic institutions.  In the comments even “Aaron Walton” from as far away as Geelong, Australia can point out the obvious:  “”These four anti-party men have little experience in the profession of governing.” What an underhanded, untrue shot at Sanders! The man has only been in elected office since 1981 and has served as both an executive (mayor of Burlington) and as a legislator (House & Senate).  What more “experience in the profession of governing” do you want?”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “Mr. Zuckerberg’s Expensive Lesson:”  What happened to the Facebook founder’s $100 million gift to Newark’s schools?  Here’s Bobo:

Political parties are civic institutions. They are broad coalitions built for the purpose of creating a governing majority that can be used to win elections and pass agendas. This summer three American politicians have risen to the fore, and they all sit outside or at the margin of the party they are trying to lead.

Donald Trump didn’t even swear allegiance to his party’s eventual nominee until last week. He is a lone individual whose main cause and argument is Himself.

Ben Carson has no history in politics and a short history in the Republican Party. He is a politically unattached figure whose primary lifetime loyalty has been to the field of medicine.

Bernie Sanders is a socialist independent, who in the Senate caucuses with the Democrats.

And yet, these anti-party figures are surging in the party races for the presidential nominations.

This phenomenon is even more extreme in Britain. The British Labour Party suffered a crushing election defeat in May because people did not think its leader was strong enough, and because they thought its policy agenda was too far left.

And yet at the moment the favorite to become the next leader of the British Labour Party is Jeremy Corbyn. Mr. Corbyn has existed for decades on the leftward fringe of the Labour Party, tolerated as sort of a nice but dotty uncle.

He spent much of his career at the edge of the parliamentary party, writing columns for The Morning Star, a communist-founded newspaper. He’s a pacifist who called for British withdrawal from NATO. He’s spent his career consorting with the usual litany of anti-Western figures, including his friends in Hamas and Hezbollah. Until about three months ago he was considered the most outside of the outsiders — until a cult of personality developed around him, rocketing him to the top of the polls.

These four anti-party men have little experience in the profession of governing. They have no plausible path toward winning 50.1 percent of the vote in any national election. They have no prospect of forming a majority coalition that can enact their policies.

These sudden stars are not really about governing. They are tools for their supporters’ self-expression. They allow supporters to make a statement, demand respect or express anger or resentment. Sarah Palin was a pioneer in seeing politics not as a path to governance but as an expression of her followers’ id.

Why has this type risen so suddenly?

First, political parties, like institutions across society, are accorded less respect than in decades past. But we’re also seeing the political effects of a broader culture shift, the rise of what sociologists call expressive individualism.

There has always been a tension between self and society. Americans have always wanted to remain true to individual consciousness, but they also knew they were citizens, members of a joint national project, tied to one another by bonds as deep as the bonds of marriage and community.

As much as they might differ, there was some responsibility to maintain coalitions with people unlike themselves. That meant maintaining conversations and relationships, tolerating difference, living with dialectics and working with opposites. The Democratic Party was once an illogical coalition between Northeastern progressives and Southern evangelicals. The G.O.P. was an alliance between business and the farm belt.

But in the ethos of expressive individualism, individual authenticity is the supreme value. Compromise and coalition-building is regarded as a dirty and tainted activity. People congregate in segregated cultural and ideological bubbles and convince themselves that the purest example of their type could actually win.

The young British left forms a temporary cult of personality around Jeremy Corbyn. The alienated right forms serial cults around Glenn Beck, Herman Cain, Palin, Trump and Carson.

These cults never last because there is no institutional infrastructure. But along the way the civic institutions that actually could mobilize broad coalitions — the parties — get dismissed and gutted. Without these broad coalition parties, the country is ungovernable and cynicism ratchets up even further.

Maybe this is a summer squall and voters will get interested in the more traditional party candidates come autumn, the ones who can actually win majorities and govern. But institutional decay is real, and it’s what happens in a country in which people would rather live in solipsistic bubbles than build relationships across differences.

I wonder what would happen if a sensible Donald Trump appeared — a former cabinet secretary or somebody who could express the disgust for the political system many people feel, but who instead of adding to the cycle of cynicism, channeled it into citizenship, into the notion that we are still one people, compelled by love of country to live with one another, and charged with the responsibility to make the compromises, build the coalitions, practice messy politics and sustain the institutions that throughout history have made national greatness possible.

“A sensible Donald Trump” is an oxymoron, with the emphasis on moron.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

It’s just hitting bookstores, but Dale Russakoff’s new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?,” has already become a source of enormous contention, both in Newark, where the story takes place, and among education advocates of various stripes.

The plotline revolves around what happened to the Newark school system after Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder and chief executive of Facebook, donated $100 million in 2010 to transform the city’s schools, a sum that was matched by the prodigious fund-raising of Cory Booker, Newark’s former mayor (now the state’s junior senator). The stated goal of the grant, according to Zuckerberg at the time, was to turn Newark’s schools into a “symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” Five years later, with the money basically gone, I think it is fair to say that hasn’t happened.

Russakoff’s story, in brief, is that Zuckerberg, knowing little about education reform, naïvely put his faith in the charismatic Booker, a champion of the reform movement. Booker advocated the usual things: more teacher accountability, more charter schools and new agreements with the teachers’ union that would allow for the best teachers to be rewarded — and the worst to be fired.

She goes on to describe a series of blunders by the reformers, including huge sums for consultants, the hiring of an abrasive superintendent, an unwillingness to fund useful programs that weren’t “transformative” enough, and a top-down approach that infuriated the people of Newark, who felt they were being dictated to by wealthy white outsiders.

Almost half of Zuckerberg’s grant was spent (or committed) to help gain new labor contracts; out of the $200 million in his money and the matching grant, a full $21 million went to buying out unwanted teachers and other staff members. Yet Zuckerberg didn’t realize until too late that New Jersey state law — not teacher contracts — imposed the seniority system he was trying to get rid of.

The education reform community is furious at the way it is portrayed in the book; one such critic, Laura Waters, described “The Prize” as “a fairy tale about reform.” Others believe that Russakoff overlooked some of the good things that have taken place in Newark, especially in the area of teacher training. And that the public schools are at least marginally better than they were.

But Russakoff doesn’t let those propagating the status quo off the hook, either. She describes the schools system as an “employer of last resort.” She shows the enormous impediments to real change imposed by the teachers’ union.

Most telling is her comparison between the resources that a very good charter school, Spark Academy, has at its disposal and those available to the public schools. The KIPP charter network gets $16,400 per pupil, of which $12,664 is devoted to Spark, its elementary school in Newark. The district schools get $19,650 per pupil, but only $9,604 trickles down to the school. Money that the charter school is spending on extra support is being soaked up by the bloated bureaucracy in the public school system. It is a devastating fact.

Here is another one: The primary change in Newark has been the increasing number of students — over 30 percent now — who are being educated in charter schools. I realize that many in the education reform community will applaud this fact, especially since those students have, by and large, shown enormous progress in test scores (though Russakoff is quick to note that as in all cities, some Newark charters failed “dramatically”). It’s great for the 30 percent who are learning from charter school teachers. But as Russakoff puts it in the most poignant line in her book, “What would become of the children left behind in district schools?”

The original idea behind the charter school movement was that this competition would spur traditional public schools to improve, to better compete for students. Instead, just as white flight drained urban school districts of white middle-class students when their families fled to the suburbs, now is there a new brain drain, with the black and Latino children of ambitious parents fleeing urban public schools now that they see an alternative.

There is another way to approach reform, a way that includes collaboration with the teachers, instead of bullying them or insulting them. A way that involves the community rather than imposing top-down decisions. A way that allows for cross-pollination between charters and traditional public schools so that the best teaching practices become commonplace in both kinds of schools.

As for Mark Zuckerberg, his experience in Newark does not appear to have deterred him. Last year he pledged to give $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. This time, however, he is insisting that he will collaborate with parents, teachers, school leaders and officials of both charter organizations and school districts, according to an op-ed he wrote with his wife, Priscilla Chan, in The San Jose Mercury News.

Apparently, Zuckerberg has learned his lesson. What will it take for the rest of us to learn?

Brooks and Krugman

September 4, 2015

In “The New Romantics in the Computer Age” Bobo babbles that the tasks where humans will continue to stand out above technology are mostly soft and squishy relational stuff.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Here we have some very practical advice for living in the modern world, assuming, of course, that you don’t have to eat or buy a house.”  Prof. Krugman considers “Other People’s Dollars, and Their Place in Global Economics” and says the countries behind greenbacks, Aussies, loonies and kiwis all weathered economic storms better than most of the rest of the world.  Here’s Bobo:

Just once I’d like to have a college student come up to me and say, “I really wanted to major in accounting, but my parents forced me to major in medieval art.” That probably won’t happen. It always seems to be the parents who are pushing their children in the “practical” or mercenary direction.

These parents are part of the vast apparatus — college résumés, standardized tests, the decline of humanities majors — that has arisen to make our culture more professional and less poetic.

But you see a counterreaction setting in. You see, here and there, signs of a new romanticism.

Ironically, technological forces may be driving some of the romantic rebirth. As Geoff Colvin points out in his book “Humans Are Underrated,” computers will soon be able to do many of the cognitive tasks taught in places like law schools and finance departments.

Computers can already go through millions of legal documents and sort them for relevance to an individual case, someday allowing one lawyer to do the work of 500. Computers may soon be able to cruise through troves of data and offer superior financial advice. Computers are not only getting smarter at systems analysis, they are improving at rates no human can match.

Colvin argues that improving your cognitive skills is no longer good enough. Simply developing more generic human capital will not help people prosper in the coming economy. You shouldn’t even ask, What jobs can I do that computers can’t do? That’s because they are getting good at so many disparate things. You should instead ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?

Those tasks are mostly relational. Being in a position of authority or accountability. Being a caregiver. Being part of a team. Transactional jobs are declining but relational jobs are expanding.

Empathy becomes a more important workplace skill, the ability to sense what another human being is feeling or thinking. Diabetes patients of doctors who scored high on empathy tests do better than patients with low-empathy doctors.

The ability to function in a group also becomes more important — to know how to tell stories that convey the important points, how to mix people together.

Secure workers will combine technical knowledge with social awareness — the sort of thing you get from your genes, from growing up in a certain sort of family and by widening your repertoire of emotions through reflection, literature and a capacity for intimacy.


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