Archive for the ‘Bobo’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

August 28, 2015

In “When ISIS Rapists Win” Bobo wrings his hands, and wails, and takes a look at the shocking means the Islamic State uses to spread its ideas.  In the comments “soxared04/07/13” from Crete, Illinois had this to say:  “As is usual with you, Mr. Brooks, you cut right to the chase: it’s all President Obama’s fault. His reaction has been quite “incorrect”, and his generals’ game-plans nothing more than chalkboard lectures at the War College. You fail to mention the decidedly inconvenient fact that “the wormhole” back to everlasting darkness was dug by Richard Cheney, who lied W. into signing off on it, an illegal and immoral invasion of a sovereign country that you, remember, approved with the zeal of the newly-converted. … This is, Mr. Brooks, a deeply dishonest column. You blame the present and exonerate the past with your cowardly silence.”  Prof. Krugman takes a look at the “Crash Test Dummies as Republican Candidates for President” and says the contenders are clueless in their China-bashing and bluster over volatile markets.  Here’s Bobo:

The ISIS atrocities have descended like distant nightmares upon the numbed conscious of the world. The first beheadings of Americans had the power to shock, but since then there has been a steady barrage of inhumanity: mass executions of Christians and others, throwing gay men from rooftops, the destruction of ancient archaeological treasures, the routine use of poison gas.

Even the recent reports in The Times about the Islamic State’s highly structured rape program have produced shock but barely a ripple of action.

And yet something bigger is going on. It’s as if some secret wormhole into a different historical epoch has been discovered and the knowledge of centuries is being unlearned.

This is happening in the moral sphere. State-sponsored slavery seemed like a thing of the past, but now ISIS is an unapologetic slave state. Yazidi women are carefully cataloged, warehoused and bid upon.

The rapes are theocratized. The rapists pray devoutly before and after the act. The religious leader’s handbook governing the rape program has a handy Frequently Asked Questions section for the young rapists:

“Question 12: May a man kiss the female slave of another, with the owner’s permission?

“A man may not kiss the female slave of another, for kissing [involves] pleasure, and pleasure is prohibited unless [the man] owns [the slave] exclusively.

“Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who hasn’t reached puberty?

“It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however, if she is not fit for intercourse it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen in the 21st century. Western experts have stared the thing in the face, trying to figure out the cause and significance of the moral disaster we are witnessing. There was a very fine essay in The New York Review of Books by a veteran Middle East expert who chose to remain anonymous and who more or less threw up his hands.

“The clearest evidence that we do not understand this phenomenon is our consistent inability to predict — still less control — these developments,” the author writes. Every time we think ISIS has appalled the world and sabotaged itself, it holds its own or gains strength.

Writing in The National Interest, Ross Harrison shows how the ISIS wormhole into a different moral epoch is accompanied by a political wormhole designed to take the Middle East into a different geostrategic epoch. For the past many decades the Middle East has been defined by nation- states and the Arab mind has been influenced by nationalism. But these nation-states have been weakened (Egypt) or destroyed (Iraq and Syria). Nationalism no longer mobilizes popular passion or provides a convincing historical narrative.

ISIS has arisen, Harrison argues, to bury nationalism and to destroy the Arab nation-state.

“It is tapping into a belief that the pre-nationalist Islamic era represents the glorious halcyon days for the Arab world, while the later era in which secular nationalism flourished was one of decline and foreign domination,” he writes.

ISIS consistently tries to destroy the borders between nation-states. It undermines, confuses or smashes national identities. It eliminates national and pre-caliphate memories.

Meanwhile, it offers a confident vision of the future: a unified caliphate. It fills the vacuum left by decaying nationalist ideologies. As Harrison puts it, “ISIS has cut off almost all pathways to a future other than its self-proclaimed caliphate. The intent is to use this as a wedge with which to expand beyond its base in Iraq and Syria and weaken secular nationalist bonds in Lebanon, Jordan and in even more innately nationalist countries like Egypt.”

President Obama has said that ISIS stands for nothing but savagery. That’s clearly incorrect. Our military leaders speak of the struggle against ISIS as an attempt to kill as many ISIS leaders and soldiers as possible. But this is a war about a vision of history. ISIS ideas have legitimacy because it controls territory and has a place to enact them.

So far the response to ISIS has been pathetic. The U.S. pledged $500 million to train and equip Syrian moderates, hoping to create 15,000 fighters. After three years we turned out a grand total of 60 fighters, of whom a third were immediately captured.

It’s time to stop underestimating this force as some group of self-discrediting madmen. ISIS is a moral and political threat to the fragile and ugly stability that exists in what’s left in the Middle East. ISIS will thrive and spread its ideas for as long as it has its land.

We are looking into a future with a resurgent Iran, a contagious ISIS and a collapsing state order. If this isn’t a cause for alarm and reappraisal, I don’t know what is.

He should be horse-whipped.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Will China’s stock crash trigger another global financial crisis? Probably not. Still, the big market swings of the past week have been a reminder that the next president may well have to deal with some of the same problems that faced George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Financial instability abides.

So this is a test: How would the men and women who would be president respond if crisis struck on their watch?

And the answer, on the Republican side at least, seems to be: with bluster and China-bashing. Nowhere is there a hint that any of the G.O.P. candidates understand the problem, or the steps that might be needed if the world economy hits another pothole.

Take, for example, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin. Mr. Walker was supposed to be a formidable contender, part of his party’s “deep bench” of current or former governors who know how to get things done. So what was his suggestion to President Obama? Why, cancel the planned visit to America by Xi Jinping, China’s leader. That would fix things!

Then there’s Donald Trump, who likes to take an occasional break from his anti-immigrant diatribes to complain that China is taking advantage of America’s weak leadership. You might think that a swooning Chinese economy would fit awkwardly into that worldview. But no, he simply declared that U.S. markets seem troubled because Mr. Obama has let China “dictate the agenda.” What does that mean? I haven’t a clue — but neither does he.

By the way, five years ago there were real reasons to complain about China’s undervalued currency. But Chinese inflation and the rise of new competitors have largely eliminated that problem.

Back to the deep bench: Chris Christie, another governor who not long ago was touted as the next big thing, was more comprehensible. According to Mr. Christie, the reason U.S. markets were roiled by events in China was U.S. budget deficits, which he claims have put us in debt to the Chinese and hence made us vulnerable to their troubles. That almost rises to the level of a coherent economic story.

Did the U.S. market plunge because Chinese investors were cutting off credit? Well, no. If our debt to China were the problem, we would have seen U.S. interest rates spiking as China crashed. Instead, interest rates fell.

But there’s a slight excuse for Mr. Christie’s embrace of this particular fantasy: scare stories involving Chinese ownership of U.S. debt have been a Republican staple for years. They were, in particular, a favorite of Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012.

And you can see why. “Obama is endangering America by borrowing from China” is a perfect political line, playing into deficit fetishism, xenophobia and the perennial claim that Democrats don’t stand up for America! America! America! It’s also complete nonsense, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

In fact, talking nonsense about economic crises is essentially a job requirement for anyone hoping to get the Republican presidential nomination.

To understand why, you need to go back to the politics of 2009, when the new Obama administration was trying to cope with the most terrifying crisis since the 1930s. The outgoing Bush administration had already engineered a bank bailout, but the Obama team reinforced this effort with a temporary program of deficit spending, while the Federal Reserve sought to bolster the economy by buying lots of assets.

And Republicans, across the board, predicted disaster. Deficit spending, they insisted, would cause soaring interest rates and bankruptcy; the Fed’s efforts would “debase the dollar” and produce runaway inflation.

None of it happened. Interest rates stayed very low, as did inflation. But the G.O.P. never acknowledged, after six full years of being wrong about everything, that the bad things it predicted failed to take place, or showed any willingness to rethink the doctrines that led to those bad predictions. Instead, the party’s leading figures kept talking, year after year, as if the disasters they had predicted were actually happening.

Now we’ve had a reminder that something like that last crisis could happen again — which means that we might need a repeat of the policies that helped limit the damage last time. But no Republican dares suggest such a thing.

Instead, even the supposedly sensible candidates call for destructive policies. Thus John Kasich is being portrayed as a different kind of Republican because as governor he approved Medicaid expansion in Ohio, but his signature initiative is a call for a balanced-budget amendment, which would cripple policy in a crisis.

The point is that one side of the political aisle has been utterly determined to learn nothing from the economic experiences of recent years. If one of these candidates ends up in the hot seat the next time crisis strikes, we should be very, very afraid.

Brooks and Nocera

August 25, 2015

Bobo’s gone off into pop-psych land again.  In “The Big Decisions” he gurgles that the  most important decisions in life should be based not on what we think we want, but on what or whom we admire.  In the comments “J Murphy” from Chicago had this to say:  “David Brooks speculates about having the chance to become a vampire. Immediately I think, what a strange wish. Considering myself a progressive, a liberal, it has never occurred to me that I might want to be a vampire. A vampire only takes, never gives. Vampires look for victims, not partners. Vampires want to live forever, since they don’t know how to enjoy the moment, the art, the sport, the love, the humanity. Vampirism is about control and fear and manipulation. Vampires operate in the dark, fear the light of day, and never reveal themselves for who or what they really are.  To paraphrase Bill Maher, not all Republicans are vampires, but if you’re a vampire looking for a party….”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Man Who Got China Right:”  How did a famed short-seller see troubles in China’s markets that no one else did?  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?

In her book “Transformative Experience,” L. A. Paul, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says life is filled with decisions that are a bit like this. Life is filled with forks in the road in which you end up changing who you are and what you want.

People who have a child suddenly become different. Joining the military is another transformational experience. So are marrying, changing careers, immigrating, switching religions.

In each of these cases the current you is trying to make an important decision, without having the chance to know what it will feel like to be the future you.

Paul’s point is that we’re fundamentally ignorant about many of the biggest choices of our lives and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”

The decision to have a child is the purest version of this choice. On average, people who have a child suffer a loss of reported well-being. They’re more exhausted and report lower life satisfaction. And yet few parents can imagine going back and being their old pre-parental selves. Parents are like self-fulfilled vampires. Their rich new lives would have seemed incomprehensible to their old childless selves.

So how do you make transformational decisions? You have to ask the right questions, Paul argues. Don’t ask, Will I like parenting? You can’t know. Instead, acknowledge that you, like all people, are born with an intense desire to know. Ask, Do I have a profound desire to discover what it would be like to be this new me, to experience this new mode of living?

As she puts it, “The best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.”

Live life as a series of revelations.

Personally, I think Paul’s description of the problem is ingenious but her solution is incomplete. Would you really trust yourself to raise and nurture a child simply on the basis of self-revelation? Curiosity is too thin, relativistic and ephemeral.

I’d say to really make these decisions well you need to step outside the modern conception of ourselves as cognitive creatures who are most sophisticated when we rely on rationality.

The most reliable decision-making guides are more “primitive.” We’re historical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, and there’s often a lot of wisdom in following those life scripts. We’re social creatures. Often we undertake big transformational challenges not because it fulfills our desires, but because it is good for our kind.

We’re mystical creatures. Often when people make a transformational choice they feel it less as a choice and more as a calling. They feel there was something that destined them to be with this spouse or in that vocation.

Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?

Our moral intuitions are more durable than our desires, based on a universal standard of right and wrong. The person who shoots for virtue will more reliably be happy with her new self, and will at least have a nice quality to help her cope with whatever comes.

Which brings us to the core social point. These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”

Now that we’ve survived that, here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the fall of 2009, Jim Chanos began to ask questions about the Chinese economy. What sparked his curiosity was the realization that commodity producers had been largely unaffected by the financial crisis; indeed, they had recorded big profits even as other sectors found themselves reeling in the aftermath of the crisis.

When he looked into why, he discovered that the critical factor was China’s voracious appetite for commodities: The Chinese, who had largely sidestepped the financial crisis themselves, were buying 40 percent of all copper exports; 50 percent of the available iron ore; and eye-popping quantities of just about everything else. That insight soon led Chanos to make an audacious call: China was in the midst of an unsustainable credit bubble.

Perhaps you remember Jim Chanos. The founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund that specializes in short-selling, Chanos was the first person to figure out, some 15 years ago, that Enron was a house of cards.

He shorted Enron stock — meaning that he would profit if the stock fell, rather than rose — and shared his suspicions with others, including my friend Bethany McLean, who wrote a story for Fortune that marked the beginning of the end for Enron. That call not only made Chanos a small fortune; it also made him famous.

Chanos and his crew at Kynikos don’t make big “macro” bets on economies; their style is more “micro”: looking at the fundamentals of individual companies or sectors. And so it was with China. “I’ll never forget the day in 2009 when my real estate guy was giving me a presentation and he said that China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, half residential and half commercial,” Chanos told me the other day.

“I said, ‘You must mean 5.6 billion square feet.’ ”

The man replied that he hadn’t misspoken; it really was 5.6 billion square meters, which amounted to over 60 billion square feet.

For Chanos, that is when the light bulb went on. The fast-growing Chinese economy was being sustained not just by its export prowess, but by a property bubble propelled by mountains of debt, and encouraged by the government as part of an infrastructure spending strategy designed to keep the economy humming. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China’s debt load today is an unfathomable $28 trillion.)

Chanos soon went public with his thesis, giving interviews to CNBC andCharlie Rose, and making a speech at Oxford University. He told Rose that property speculation in China was rampant, and that because so much of the economy depended on construction — in most cases building properties that had no chance of generating enough income to pay down the debt — China was on “the treadmill to hell.”

He also pointed out that much of the construction was for high-end condos that cost over $100,000, yet the average Chinese household made less than $10,000 a year.

Can you guess how the financial establishment, convinced that the Chinese juggernaut was unstoppable, reacted to Chanos’s contrarian thesis? It scoffed.

“I find it interesting that people who couldn’t spell China 10 years ago are now experts on China,” the well-known investor Jim Rogers told The New York Times. He added, “China is not in a bubble.”

The conventional view was that the Chinese economy would continue to grow at a rapid pace, and that Chinese officials, unencumbered by the messiness of democracy, could make quick adjustments if the economy started to slip.

Chanos was undeterred. “It reminded me of 1989, when everybody said that we should emulate the Japanese model,” he told me. “They used to say, ‘They can get stuff done and we can’t’ ” — just as the supposed experts were now saying about China.

As it turns out, China’s economy began to slow right around the time Chanos first made his call. No matter: Most China experts remained bullish. Chanos, meanwhile, was shorting the stocks of a number of companies that depended on the Chinese market. And he was regularly sending out emails when he came upon articles that seemed to confirm his thesis: stories about newly constructed ghost cities and troubled banks and debt-laden state-owned enterprises.

These days, with the markets in free-fall, it certainly looks like Chanos has been vindicated. China’s not the only reason the stock market has been so volatile, but it’s the most important one. China’s economy is faltering, its stock market is collapsing, and the ham-handed efforts by government officials to prop up both have mainly had the effect of disabusing anyone who still thinks the government can revive the economy with the snap of its fingers. This loss of confidence in China and its leaders has spooked stock markets around the world.

The moral of today’s story is a simple one. Listen to the skeptics and the contrarians. You dismiss them at your peril.

Brooks, Bruni and Krugman

August 7, 2015

Bobo has decided to tell us all about “3 U.S. Defeats: Vietnam, Iraq and now Iran.”  He gurgles that we should call the Iran nuclear deal what it is: a partial U.S. surrender.  In the comments “AlinZurich” from Zurich had this to say:  “Your mindset is completely in line with every neo-con who brought us into the catastrophic Iraq war. You, who constantly scold and hold yourself up as some kind of moral arbiter, have utterly no capacity for self-reflection.”  In a short, sweet comment “whweller” from Burnsville, NC had this to say:  “Don’t forget Mr. Brooks is a Chickenhawk.”  Mr. Bruni, in “A Foxy, Rowdy Republican Debate,” says for two hours in Cleveland, it was moderators on the attack and red-faced candidates on edge.  Prof. Krugman says “From Trump on Down, the Republicans Can’t Be Serious” and that Donald Trump is fundamentally absurd, but so are his rivals, and that’s what their party requires.  Let’s get Bobo out of the way:

The purpose of war, military or economic, is to get your enemy to do something it would rather not do. Over the past several years the United States and other Western powers have engaged in an economic, clandestine and political war against Iran to force it to give up its nuclear program.

Over the course of this siege, American policy makers have been very explicit about their goals. Foremost, to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Second, as John Kerry has said, to force it to dismantle a large part of its nuclear infrastructure. Third, to take away its power to enrich uranium.

Fourth, as President Obama has said, to close the Fordo enrichment facility. Fifth, as the chief American negotiator, Wendy Sherman, recently testified, to force Iran to come clean on all past nuclear activities by the Iranian military. Sixth, to shut down Iran’s ballistic missile program. Seventh, to have “anywhere, anytime 24/7” access to any nuclear facilities Iran retains. Eighth, as Kerry put it, to not phase down sanctions until after Iran ends its nuclear bomb-making capabilities.

As a report from the Foreign Policy Initiative exhaustively details, the U.S. has not fully achieved any of these objectives. The agreement delays but does not end Iran’s nuclear program. It legitimizes Iran’s status as a nuclear state. Iran will mothball some of its centrifuges, but it will not dismantle or close any of its nuclear facilities. Nuclear research and development will continue.

Iran wins the right to enrich uranium. The agreement does not include “anywhere, anytime” inspections; some inspections would require a 24-day waiting period, giving the Iranians plenty of time to clean things up. After eight years, all restrictions on ballistic missiles are lifted. Sanctions are lifted once Iran has taken its initial actions.

Wars, military or economic, are measured by whether you achieved your stated objectives. By this standard the U.S. and its allies lost the war against Iran, but we were able to negotiate terms that gave only our partial surrender, which forces Iran to at least delay its victory. There have now been three big U.S. strategic defeats over the past several decades: Vietnam, Iraq and now Iran.

The big question is, Why did we lose? Why did the combined powers of the Western world lose to a ragtag regime with a crippled economy and without much popular support?

The first big answer is that the Iranians just wanted victory more than we did. They were willing to withstand the kind of punishment we were prepared to mete out.

Further, the Iranians were confident in their power, while the Obama administration emphasized the limits of America’s ability to influence other nations. It’s striking how little President Obama thought of the tools at his disposal. He effectively took the military option off the table. He didn’t believe much in economic sanctions. “Nothing we know about the Iranian government suggests that it would simply capitulate under that kind of pressure,” he argued.

The president concluded early on that Iran would simply not budge on fundamental things. As he argued in his highhanded and counterproductive speech Wednesday, Iran was never going to compromise its sovereignty (which is the whole point of military or economic warfare).

The president hoped that a deal would change the moral nature of the regime, so he had an extra incentive to reach a deal. And the Western, Russian and Chinese sanctions regime was fragile while the Iranians were able to hang together.

This administration has given us a choice between two terrible options: accept the partial-surrender agreement that was negotiated or reject it and slide immediately into what is in effect our total surrender — a collapsed sanctions regime and a booming Iranian nuclear program.

Many members of Congress will be tempted to accept the terms of our partial surrender as the least bad option in the wake of our defeat. I get that. But in voting for this deal they may be affixing their names to an arrangement that will increase the chance of more comprehensive war further down the road.

Iran is a fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime. If you think its radicalism is going to be softened by a few global trade opportunities, you really haven’t been paying attention to the Middle East over the past four decades.

Iran will use its $150 billion windfall to spread terror around the region and exert its power. It will incrementally but dangerously cheat on the accord. Armed with money, ballistic weapons and an eventual nuclear breakout, it will become more aggressive. As the end of the nuclear delay comes into view, the 45th or 46th president will decide that action must be taken.

Economic and political defeats can be as bad as military ones. Sometimes when you surrender to a tyranny you lay the groundwork for a more cataclysmic conflict to come.

You can tell he’s just DYING to dust off his little “let’s cheer for the war” pom-poms…  He’s a toad.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

The first question to Chris Christie was about the nine credit downgrades that New Jersey had suffered since he became its governor.

Ben Carson was reminded of his domestic-policy blunders, of his foreign-policy blunders, of a whole raft of loopy statements that raise serious questions about how well he understands the country and globe. Could he reassure voters?

And Donald Trump had to listen obediently, even meekly, as Megyn Kelly—the one woman on Fox News’s panel of three debate moderators—recited a squirm-inducing litany of his misogynistic remarks through time.

“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” Kelly said, and if she was trying to hide her revulsion, she wasn’t doing an especially deft job. She recalled that Trump once told a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice” that “it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.” And she wondered how he’d ever stand up to inevitable charges from Hillary Clinton that he was a carrot-haired corporal in “the war on women.”

This wasn’t a debate, at least not like most of those I’ve seen.

This was an inquisition.

On Thursday night in Cleveland, the Fox News moderators did what only Fox News moderators could have done, because the representatives of any other network would have been accused of pro-Democratic partisanship.

They took each of the 10 Republicans onstage to task. They held each of them to account. They made each address the most prominent blemishes on his record, the most profound apprehensions that voters feel about him, the greatest vulnerability that he has.

It was riveting. It was admirable. It compels me to write a cluster of words I never imagined writing: hooray for Fox News.

Did Fox take this combative approach because it was theatrical? Because it promised tension, promoted unease and was a sure route to reddened faces and raised voices?

Of course. Nothing scares a network more than the prospect of a political snooze-fest, and candidates left to their own devices are candidates who drone on and on.

But Fox accomplished something important. It prevented the Republican contenders from relying on sound bites and hewing to scripts that say less about their talents and more about the labors of their well-paid handlers.

And the questions that the moderators asked weren’t just discomfiting, humiliating ones. They were the right ones, starting with a brilliant opener: Was there any candidate who was unwilling to pledge support to the eventual Republican nominee and swear off a third-party run?

Trump alone wouldn’t make those promises, even though the moderator who asked that question, Bret Baier, pointed out that such a third-party run would likely hand the presidency to the Democratic nominee.

And thus, in the first minute of the debate, Trump was undressed and unmasked, and he stood there as the unprincipled, naked egomaniac that he is. He never quite recovered. His admission of political infidelity was the prism through which all of his subsequent bluster had to be viewed.

By putting the candidates on the defensive and on edge, Fox created the mood for an exchange as raw and revealing as one between Christie and Rand Paul over national security, federal eavesdropping and the collection of personal data.

That back-and-forth was debate platinum, because it was simultaneously fiery and substantive, impassioned and important, a perfect distillation of the two sides of an essential, necessary argument.

Paul said that he didn’t want less federal surveillance of terrorists, just of innocent Americans. Christie said that that was a “ridiculous answer,” because it’s impossible to know who’s who at the start. Paul would get that, Christie said, if he wasn’t “sitting in a subcommittee, just blowing hot air.”

“You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights,” Paul shot back, later adding: “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug.” It was a reference to the way Christie welcomed the president to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.

Christie: “The hugs that I remember are the hugs that I gave to the families who lost their people on September 11th.”

They both scored points. They both made sense. And they both came out ahead—because they articulated their positions with clarity and passion.

All in all, the large number of candidates made it difficult for anyone to stand out much, so it’s impossible to come up with any sweeping, definitive list of winners and losers.

I do think that Trump lost: He said nothing, not one syllable, that infused his candidacy with any of the gravitas that it sorely needs, and there was something pouty and petulant about his whole performance. Some of his rivals managed, even under the Fox fire, to look grateful to be there and to enjoy themselves, at least a bit. Marco Rubio did.

I also think that Ted Cruz lost, inasmuch as I forgot he was there for most of the debate. I also lost track of Carson, up until a surprisingly charming closing statement, and of Mike Huckabee, until his hilarious conflation of Trump and Clinton at the very end.

Jeb Bush avoided any gaffes and discovered a bit of the spark that he often lacks. John Kasich charted a humane midcourse for Republicans trying to reconcile personal misgivings over same-sex marriage with how the Supreme Court has ruled. Will it do him any favors with Republican primary voters? Maybe not. But he sounded like a leader, and he sounded like a decent man.

No one made as vivid an impression as Carly Fiorina did during a shorter meeting earlier in the evening of the seven runners-up, for what one of them, Lindsey Graham, labeled the “happy hour” debate. (If that’s a happy hour, I don’t think that I could survive a sad one.)

Fiorina weds Trump’s anger to an uncommon precision and propulsion: She’s a human torpedo. She may not have any business running for president, but she’s zooming for all she’s worth.

The moderators for that happy hour didn’t needle the candidates. The moderators for the main event did. And because their questions were so well researched and so barbed, the television audience sometimes learned more about the candidates from what they were asked than from how they answered.

“When did you actually become a Republican?” Kelly said to Trump after another savage recitation, this one of his many past Democratic positions. She was his appointed slayer. She visibly relished the role.

Trump was also pressed to defend his many corporate bankruptcies. Bush was pressed to explain his inability months ago to say whether, knowing all that we know now, he would have invaded Iraq. Cruz was pressed about his famously obnoxious demeanor on Capitol Hill.

Scott Walker was pressed on job creation in Wisconsin, which isn’t all that he claims it to be.

“Given your record in Wisconsin, why should voters believe you?” said Chris Wallace, the third Fox moderator.

We shouldn’t. Candidates should have to convince us. They should square their slogans with their records, and that’s what Fox made them do. On this night, the network that pampers Republicans provoked them instead. It was great television, and even better politics.

Yeah, right, Frankie.  Here’s what “Operadoc” from Newport News had to say about your offering:  “Fox asked “all the right questions”? I guess I missed the discussions of student debt, Citizens United; the role of money in political campaigns, the Koch Brothers, climate issues and income inequality. But always good to have God as a topic regarding the leadership of a government which is supposed to remain separate from religion.”  Cripes…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

This was, according to many commentators, going to be the election cycle Republicans got to show off their “deep bench.” The race for the nomination would include experienced governors like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, fresh thinkers like Rand Paul, and attractive new players like Marco Rubio. Instead, however, Donald Trump leads the field by a wide margin. What happened?

The answer, according to many of those who didn’t see it coming, is gullibility: People can’t tell the difference between someone who sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about and someone who is actually serious about the issues. And for sure there’s a lot of gullibility out there. But if you ask me, the pundits have been at least as gullible as the public, and still are.

For while it’s true that Mr. Trump is, fundamentally, an absurd figure, so are his rivals. If you pay attention to what any one of them is actually saying, as opposed to how he says it, you discover incoherence and extremism every bit as bad as anything Mr. Trump has to offer. And that’s not an accident: Talking nonsense is what you have to do to get anywhere in today’s Republican Party.

For example, Mr. Trump’s economic views, a sort of mishmash of standard conservative talking points and protectionism, are definitely confused. But is that any worse than Jeb Bush’s deep voodoo, his claim that he could double the underlying growth rate of the American economy? And Mr. Bush’s credibility isn’t helped by his evidence for that claim: the relatively rapid growth Florida experienced during the immense housing bubble that coincided with his time as governor.

Mr. Trump, famously, is a “birther” — someone who has questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States. But is that any worse than Scott Walker’s declaration that he isn’t sure whether the president is a Christian?

Mr. Trump’s declared intention to deport all illegal immigrants is definitely extreme, and would require deep violations of civil liberties. But are there any defenders of civil liberties in the modern G.O.P.? Notice how eagerly Rand Paul, self-described libertarian, has joined in the witch hunt against Planned Parenthood.

And while Mr. Trump is definitely appealing to know-nothingism, Marco Rubio, climate change denier, has made “I’m not a scientist” his signature line. (Memo to Mr. Rubio: Presidents don’t have to be experts on everything, but they do need to listen to experts, and decide which ones to believe.)

The point is that while media puff pieces have portrayed Mr. Trump’s rivals as serious men — Jeb the moderate, Rand the original thinker, Marco the face of a new generation — their supposed seriousness is all surface. Judge them by positions as opposed to image, and what you have is a lineup of cranks. And as I said, this is no accident.

It has long been obvious that the conventions of political reporting and political commentary make it almost impossible to say the obvious — namely, that one of our two major parties has gone off the deep end. Or as the political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it in their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” the G.O.P. has become an “insurgent outlier … unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” It’s a party that has no room for rational positions on many major issues.

Or to put it another way, modern Republican politicians can’t be serious — not if they want to win primaries and have any future within the party. Crank economics, crank science, crank foreign policy are all necessary parts of a candidate’s resume.

Until now, however, leading Republicans have generally tried to preserve a facade of respectability, helping the news media to maintain the pretense that it was dealing with a normal political party. What distinguishes Mr. Trump is not so much his positions as it is his lack of interest in maintaining appearances. And it turns out that the party’s base, which demands extremist positions, also prefers those positions delivered straight. Why is anyone surprised?

Remember how Mr. Trump was supposed to implode after his attack on John McCain? Mr. McCain epitomizes the strategy of sounding moderate while taking extreme positions, and is much loved by the press corps, which puts him on TV all the time. But Republican voters, it turns out, couldn’t care less about him.

Can Mr. Trump actually win the nomination? I have no idea. But even if he is eventually pushed aside, pay no attention to all the analyses you will read declaring a return to normal politics. That’s not going to happen; normal politics left the G.O.P. a long time ago. At most, we’ll see a return to normal hypocrisy, the kind that cloaks radical policies and contempt for evidence in conventional-sounding rhetoric. And that won’t be an improvement.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

August 4, 2015

Bobo, in “Donald Trump’s Allure: Ego as Ideology,” carefully explains to us that Mr. Trump’s appeal fits today’s core political undercurrents: alienation, economic uncertainty and a craving for extremely confident leadership.  All the comments are wonderful, but here’s “Sally” from Switzerland:  “Donald Trump merely proves that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Why be surprised, the Republicans have been courting them long enough, and now there are so many of them that they direct the show.”  Mr. Cohen says “The Migrant Crisis in Calais Exposes a Europe Without Ideas.”  He says piecemeal small-mindedness, in 28 national iterations, has been the name of the game.  In “Obama’s Flexible Fix to Climate Change” Mr. Nocera says the president takes a successful 1990 approach to a 2015 environmental problem.  Now here’s Bobo:

When America is growing and happy, the country is sort of like a sprinter’s track. As Robert H. Wiebe put it in his classic book “The Segmented Society,” when things were going well the diverse country comprised “countless isolated lanes where Americans, singly or in groups, dashed like rows of racers toward their goals.”

In times of scarcity and alienation, it’s more like bumper cars. Different groups feel their lanes are blocked, so they start crashing into one another. The cultural elites start feuding with the financial elites. The lower middle class starts feuding with the poor.

A few decades ago the sociologist Jonathan Rieder studied what was then the white working-class neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn. People there were hostile both to their poorer black neighbors, who they felt threatened their community, and to the Manhattan elites, who they felt sold them out from above.

We are now living in a time of economic anxiety and political alienation. Just three in 10 Americans believe that their views are represented in Washington, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Confidence in public institutions like schools, banks and churches is near historic lows, according to Gallup. Only 29 percent of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to Rasmussen.

This climate makes it hard for the establishment candidates who normally dominate our politics. Jeb Bush is swimming upstream. Hillary Clinton may win through sheer determination, but she’s not a natural fit for this moment. A career establishment figure like Joe Biden doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a wonderful man and a great public servant, but he should not run for president this year, for the sake of his long-term reputation.

On the other hand, bumper-car politicians thrive. Bernie Sanders is swimming with the tide. He’s a conviction politician comfortable with class conflict. Many people on the left have a generalized, vague hunger for fundamental systemic change or at least the atmospherics of radical change.

The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.

Trump’s populism is pretty standard. He appeals to people who, as Walter Lippmann once put it, “feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row. … He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. … [But] these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. … In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern.”

When Trump is striking populist chords, he appeals to people who experience this invisibility. He appeals to members of the alienated middle class (like those folks in Canarsie) who believe that neither the rich nor the poor have to play by the same rules they do. He appeals to people who are resentful of immigrants who get what they, allegedly, don’t deserve.

But Trump’s support base is weird. It skews slightly more secular and less educated than the average Republican, but he doesn’t draw from any distinctive blocs. Unlike past populisms he’s not especially rural or urban, ethnic based or class based. He draws people as individuals, not groups.

Brooks, Blow and Krugman

July 31, 2015

In “Two Cheers for Capitalism” Bobo says a big coming debate will be over how much say government should have over business and income equality.  In the comments “David Henry” from Walden Pond says he’s given us “The same old GOP whine in a new bottle. No, Mr. Brooks. Without government “proposals” we would still have child labor, abuse of employees, and no benefits.”  In “The DuBose Family: Grieving But Determined” Mr. Blow says the siblings and mother of Samuel DuBose are struggling to deal with his killing by a university police officer.  Prof. Krugman, in “China’s Naked Emperors,” says the politicians in Beijing who have ruled during economic booms, not unlike many of their American counterparts, have no idea what they’re doing.  Here’s Bobo:

We are clearly heading toward another great debate about the nature of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism’s critics are becoming both bolder and more intellectually rigorous. Protests and discussions are sprouting up all over the place.

For example, this week I was attending the Aspen Action Forum, a gathering of young business and NGO leaders selected because of their work for social change. My friend and Times colleague Anand Giridharadas delivered a courageous and provocative keynote address that ruffled some feathers, earned a standing ovation and has had people talking ever since.

Anand argued that a rough etiquette has developed among those who work in and raise money for nonprofits. The rich are to be praised for the good they do with their philanthropy, but they are never to be challenged for the harm they do in their businesses. “Capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must NEVER be questioned,” he said.

Anand suggested that in these days of growing income inequality, this approach is no longer good enough. “Sometimes I wonder,” he said, “whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right side of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.”

The winners of our age, he continued, may be helping society with their foundations, but in their business enterprises, the main occupation of their life, they are doing serious harm. First they are using political and financial muscle to enact policies that help them “stack up, protect and bequeath the money.”

Second, they offload risks and volatility onto workers. Uber’s owners have a lot of security but they deny any responsibility for their workers’ “lives, health, desire for career growth.”

Third, the owners of capital are increasingly remote from their communities. “In the old days, if a company C.E.O. suddenly dumped the defined-benefits pension, you knew who to go see to complain. Today it may be an unseen private equity fund that lobbies for the change.” The virtualization of ownership insulates the privileged from the “devastating consequences” of their decisions.

Anand’s speech struck me as deeply patriotic in its passion and concern. He didn’t offer a policy agenda to address these deep structural problems, but his description of them implied that government would have to get much more heavily involved in corporate governance and private-sector investment decisions than ever before.

Indeed, progressive economists are already walking down this path. Hillary Clinton’s new tax plan is based on the assumption that government officials are smart enough to tell investors how they should time their investments. Her corporate governance proposals are based on the idea that federal officials know better than executives how they should run their own companies. There will be much more of this in years to come.

This strikes me as a departure from recent progressivism. In the recent past progressives have argued for a little redistribution to fund human capital development: early childhood education, child and family leave, better community colleges.

But the next wave of thinking implies that it is not enough to simply give people access to capitalism and provide them with a safety net. The underlying system has to be reconfigured.

This is a bigger debate.

People like me will argue that it’s a wrong turn. First, government planners are not smart enough to plan complex systems in this way. The beauty of capitalism is that it takes a dim view of human reason. No group of experts is smart enough to allocate the resources of society well. Capitalism sets up a system of discovery as different people compete and adapt in accordance with market signals. If you try to get technocratic planners organizing investment markets or internal business governance, you will wind up with perversities and rigidities that will make everything worse.

Second, the attempt to tame the market will end up stultifying it. Everybody knows that capitalism’s creative destruction can be rough. But over the last few decades, a ragged version of global capitalism in places ranging from China to Nigeria has brought about the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. America’s fluid style of capitalism attracts driven and talented immigrants and creates vast waves of technological innovation. This dynamism is always in danger of being stultified by planners who think they can tame it and by governing elites who want to rig it. We should not take it for granted.

The coming debate about capitalism will be between those who want to restructure the underlying system and those who want to help people take advantage of its rough intensity. It will be between people who think you need strong government to defeat oligarchy and those who think you need open competition.

This will be fun.

Fun?  FUN?  Eff off, Bobo.  Go sit in your “vast spaces for entertaining” and STFU.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Terina DuBose Allen had just gotten out of the shower when she answered the phone. It was her brother Aubrey DuBose.

Aubrey warned Terina, “You need to sit down.”

“I’m not sitting down,” Terina responded, sensing something wrong, and worrying maybe something had happened to their mother.

Aubrey said, “Sam is dead.”

Terina recalled to me over lunch Thursday in downtown Cincinnati, “I just screamed,” and she said she dropped to the floor. “Everything in my body went numb.” She continued, “I couldn’t get off the floor for three hours.”

Samuel DuBose was her brother, the second of five siblings. Terina is the oldest. Sam — no one called him Samuel, Terina explained — was a 43-year-old, unarmed Cincinnati man shot in the head and killed on July 19 by a University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing.

Terina struggled to explain the enormity of her and her family’s loss and her reaction to it: “I broke down because we had just lost a really good person, a person in the universe who always had your back.”

I spent much of the day Thursday with the DuBose family, “embedded,” as their lawyers called it. I went with them as they made the media rounds; I sat with them in the courtroom during the arraignment as they saw the man who killed Sam in the flesh for the first time; I ate with them; I was there when they laughed and when they cried uncontrollably in a hotel hallway. Grief comes in waves that keep crashing to shore.

I have had the honor and the solemn duty to be around many families with similar losses in the last couple of years, and there is something of an unsettling sameness: The feeling of being thrust into a harsh spotlight when you’d rather quietly grieve; being motivated by a sense of mission to fight for the person who is lost, all the while emotionally and physically running on empty; resisting the pull of a world trying desperately to reduce the man or woman you loved into a martyr it can champion or, conversely, a menace it can despise.

Tensing’s lawyer, Stew Mathews, said of Tensing: “He’s devastated by this, as is his family, and he is currently lodged in the Hamilton County Justice Center.”

Actually, if you want to see devastation, look no further than the DuBose family. As Terina said at the courthouse, “I wish my brother was in jail and not dead.”

But in addition to the staggering sense of loss is also a steel-spined determination, and no one in that family typifies that more than Terina. She has emerged as something of a spokeswoman and a warrior.

As she spoke to one of the lawyers on the sidewalk, I heard a man say over my shoulder, “She’s strong as hell,” to which a woman responded, “She’s my new idol.”

For instance, she has become a strong advocate for body cameras, although they are not perfect solutions. As she put it, in her brother’s case, they didn’t prevent the crime, but they prevented the cover-up.

Terina’s sister, Cleshawn DuBose, said of her: “We call her ‘Get-Right-Terina.’”

I got the sense of that statement immediately: If you were in the wrong, Terina would get you right.

Terina, who said she holds a graduate degree in strategic leadership and owns her own corporate consulting company, wanted to correct some of the “lies” about her brother.

According to both sisters, Sam wasn’t violent, and he wasn’t a heavy drinker. But, Terina said, “he wasn’t a monk” either.

As Terina said, “I’m trying to give you the real.” Cleshawn chimed in, “We don’t want Sam to be misrepresented.” Terina added, “for the better or the worse.”

Terina summed it up: Sam had been arrested dozens of times on traffic violations. Also, he smoked marijuana, and had years ago served time for selling it.

But as Terina put it, “That was the worst of it.”

Not only are none of those reasons to kill a man, or to say that he “deserved it,” none of those reasons have anything whatsoever to do with the incident that led to Sam’s death.

Sam was a human being — a man, a son, a brother and a father. “Sam was loved and Sam loved, hard,” Terina said.

Midway through the day, Sam’s mother, Audrey DuBose, joined the rest of the family on their rounds.

She was visibly drained, but still spiritually moored. She insisted that Terina and Cleshawn pray with her during one of our car rides: “We need to pray; we need the strength.”

I noticed the way she drew long breaths, the way the water in the bottle she was holding vibrated because her hand was trembling, the way she closed her eyes for long stretches, even when talking. It was the familiar fatigue that hangs on the mothers of killed children.

She confessed to me in a quiet moment: “All I want to do is just shut my door and cover up and never open it again.”

That is what devastation feels like.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Politicians who preside over economic booms often develop delusions of competence. You can see this domestically: Jeb Bush imagines that he knows the secrets of economic growth because he happened to be governor when Florida was experiencing a giant housing bubble, and he had the good luck to leave office just before it burst. We’ve seen it in many countries: I still remember the omniscience and omnipotence ascribed to Japanese bureaucrats in the 1980s, before the long stagnation set in.

This is the context in which you need to understand the strange goings-on in China’s stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn’t matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China’s remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation’s rulers have no idea what they’re doing.

Start with the fundamentals. China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth, made possible in large part by a vast migration of underemployed peasants from the countryside to coastal cities. This reserve of surplus labor is now dwindling, which means that growth must slow.

But China’s economic structure is built around the presumption of very rapid growth. Enterprises, many of them state-owned, hoard their earningsrather than return them to the public, which has stunted family incomes; at the same time, individual savings are high, in part because the social safety net is weak, so families accumulate cash just in case. As a result, Chinese spending is lopsided, with very high rates of investment but a very lowshare of consumer demand in gross domestic product.

This structure was workable as long as torrid economic growth offered sufficient investment opportunities. But now investment is running into rapidly decreasing returns. The result is a nasty transition problem: What happens if investment drops off but consumption doesn’t rise fast enough to fill the gap?

What China needs are reforms that spread the purchasing power — and it has, to be fair, been making efforts in that direction. But by all accounts these efforts have fallen short. For example, it has introduced what is supposed to be a national health care system, but in practice many workers fall through the cracks.

Meanwhile, China’s leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. So they’ve been pumping up demand by, in effect, force-feeding the system with credit, including fostering a stock market boom. Such measures can work for a while, and all might have been well if the big reforms were moving fast enough. But they aren’t, and the result is a bubble that wants to burst.

China’s response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. These are things you might do for a couple of days to contain an obviously unjustified panic, but they’re being applied on a sustained basis to a market that is still far above its level not long ago.

What do Chinese authorities think they’re doing?

In part, they may be worried about financial fallout. It seems that a number of players in China borrowed large sums with stocks as security, so that the market’s plunge could lead to defaults. This is especially troubling because China has a huge “shadow banking” sector that is essentially unregulated and could easily experience a wave of bank runs.

But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it’s ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.

Indeed, every time you think the authorities have done everything possible to destroy their credibility, they top themselves. Lately state-run media have been assigning blame for the stock plunge to, you guessed it, a foreign conspiracy against China, which is even less plausible than you may think: China has long maintained controls that effectively shut foreigners out of its stock market, and it’s hard to sell off assets you were never allowed to own in the first place.

So what have we just learned? China’s incredible growth wasn’t a mirage, and its economy remains a productive powerhouse. The problems of transition to lower growth are obviously major, but we’ve known that for a while. The big news here isn’t about the Chinese economy; it’s about China’s leaders. Forget everything you’ve heard about their brilliance and foresightedness. Judging by their current flailing, they have no clue what they’re doing.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 24, 2015

It’s too sweet for words.  Bobo is considering “The Minimum Wage Muddle.”  He babbles that mandates for better pay will certainly help some people, but hurt some, too.  The most terse comment came in the form of a question from “Ian MacFarlane” from Philadelphia:  “Could you, Mr, Brooks, live on the minimum wage?”  I’d pay good money to watch him try for a month…  In “Algeria’s Invisible Arab” Mr. Cohen says conflict is illuminated as the nameless murder victim of Camus’s “The Stranger” becomes a human being in a new novel.  In “The M.I.T. Crowd” Prof. Krugman says M.I.T.-trained economists have gained dominance in policy positions and policy discourse.  Here’s Bobo:

Once upon a time there was a near consensus among economists that raising the minimum wage was a bad idea. The market is really good at setting prices on things, whether it is apples or labor. If you raise the price on a worker, employers will hire fewer and you’ll end up hurting the people you meant to help.

Then in 1993 the economists David Card and Alan Krueger looked at fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and found that raising the minimum wage gave people more income without hurting employment. A series of studies in Britain buttressed these findings.

Today, raising the minimum wage is the central piece of the progressive economic agenda. President Obama and Hillary Clinton champion it. Cities and states across the country have been moving to raise minimum wages to as high as $15 an hour — including New York State just this week.

Some of my Democratic friends are arguing that forcing businesses to raise their minimum wage will not only help low-wage workers; it will actually boost profits, because companies will better retain workers. Some economists have reported that there is no longer any evidence that raising wages will cost jobs.

Unfortunately, that last claim is inaccurate. There are in fact many studies on each side of the issue. David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine and William Wascher of the Federal Reserve have done their own studies and point to dozens of others showing significant job losses.

Recently, Michael Wither and Jeffrey Clemens of the University of California, San Diego looked at data from the 2007 federal minimum-wage hike and found that it reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage points (which is actually a lot), and led to a six percentage point decrease in the likelihood that a low-wage worker would have a job.

Because low-wage workers get less work experience under a higher minimum-wage regime, they are less likely to transition to higher-wage jobs down the road. Wither and Clemens found that two years later, workers’ chances of making $1,500 a month was reduced by five percentage points.

Many economists have pointed out that as a poverty-fighting measure the minimum wage is horribly targeted. A 2010 study by Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser found that only 11.3 percent of workers who would benefit from raising the wage to $9.50 an hour would come from poor households. An earlier study by Sabia found that single mothers’ employment dropped 6 percent for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage.

A study by Thomas MaCurdy of Stanford built on the fact that there are as many individuals in high-income families making the minimum wage (teenagers) as in low-income families. MaCurdy found that the costs of raising the wage are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Minimum-wage workers often work at places that disproportionately serve people down the income scale. So raising the minimum wage is like a regressive consumption tax paid for by the poor to subsidize the wages of workers who are often middle class.

What we have, in sum, is a very complicated situation. If we do raise the minimum wage a lot of people will clearly benefit and a lot of people will clearly be hurt. The most objective and broadest bits of evidence provoke ambivalence. One survey of economists by the University of Chicago found that 59 percent believed that a rise to $9 an hour would make it “noticeably harder” for poor people to find work. But a slight majority also thought the hike would be worthwhile for those in jobs. A study by the Congressional Budget Office found that a hike to $10.10 might lift 900,000 out of poverty but cost roughly 500,000 jobs.

My own guess is the economists will never be able to give us a dispositive answer about who is hurt or helped. Economists have their biases and reality is too granular. It depends on what region a worker is in, whether a particular job can be easily done by a machine, what the mind-set of his or her employer is.

The best reasonable guess is that a gradual hike in high-cost cities like Seattle or New York will probably not produce massive dislocation. But raising the wage to $15 in rural New York will cause large disruptions and job losses.

The key intellectual upshot is that, despite what some people want you to believe, the laws of economic gravity have not been suspended. You can’t impose costs on some without trade-offs for others. You can’t intervene in the market without unintended consequences. And here’s a haunting fact that seems to make sense: Raising the minimum wage will produce winners among job holders from all backgrounds, but it will disproportionately punish those with the lowest skills, who are least likely to be able to justify higher employment costs.

Which will surely be proved out as NYC raises the minimum wage for fast food workers…  As if Bobo gave a crap about such peons.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

At the core of any conflict lies invisibility. The enemy cannot be seen, at least not if seeing betokens the start of understanding. The other is there, a menacing and ineffaceable presence, but is invisible in his or her human dimensions.

Demonization blocks any glimmer of shared humanity or sympathy. Only when the nameless foe becomes a man or a woman confronted with the puzzle of life does the path to understanding begin to open. No gun was turned to plowshare without some form, however tentative, of mutual recognition.

This question of invisibility is the starting point of Kamel Daoud’s remarkable first novel, “The Meursault Investigation.” His core idea is of startling ingenuity. Daoud, an Algerian journalist, takes Albert Camus’s classic novel, “The Stranger” — or more precisely the “majestically nonchalant” murder of an Arab at the heart of it — and turns that Arab into a human being rather than the voiceless, characterless, nameless object of a “philosophical crime” by a Frenchman called Meursault on an Algiers beach 20 years before the culmination of Algeria’s brutal war of independence.

By inverting the perspective, and turning the anonymous Arab into a young man named Musa Uld el-Assas rather than someone “replaceable by a thousand others of his kind, or by a crow, even,” Daoud shifts the focus from the absurdity of Meursault’s act in the giddying sunlight to the blindness of the colonial mind-set.

The issue is no longer Meursault’s devastating honesty about the human condition — he does not love, he does not pretend, he does not believe in God, he does not mourn his dead mother, he does not judge, he does not repress desire, he does not regret anything, he does not hide from life’s farce or shrink from death’s finality — but the blood he has spattered on the sand with five gunshots into young Musa.

Daoud’s device is to treat the fictional murder committed by Meursault in 1942 as a real event and create a narrator named Harun who is the younger brother of the dead Musa, a flailing chronicler of irreparable loss. Harun cannot get over how Musa has been blotted out: “My brother’s name was Musa. He had a name. But he’ll remain ‘the Arab’ forever.” He was “capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance.” Daoud writes that the French “watched us — us Arabs — in silence, as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees.”

Musa is invisible even in death. If he had been named, Harun reflects, perhaps their mother would have received a pension. Perhaps life would not have consisted of an unrequited attempt to find the body, locate the murderer, understand the crime — even avenge it somehow.

The Arabs are sullen. They wait. Harun’s reflection on the demise of French Algeria is devastating: “I didn’t even fight in the War of Liberation. I knew it was won in advance, from the moment when a member of my family was killed because somebody felt lethargic from too much sun.”

At the moment of liberation, or just after it, Harun kills a Frenchman, Joseph Larquais: “The Frenchman had been erased with the same meticulousness applied to the Arab on the beach twenty years earlier.” But this reciprocal murder, committed without conviction in the blinding night rather than the blinding heat, brings no real respite — from the fury Harun feels toward his relentless mother who wants him to be his lost brother, or from the quandary of the Algerian condition.

Independence will only bring disappointment. Algeria drifts toward the suffocating stranglehold of religion that Daoud, like Camus, deplores. Vineyards are uprooted because of Islam’s strictures. Harun laments that his one ephemeral love, Meriem, embodies a woman who has “disappeared in this country today: free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame.” His words recall Meursault’s dismissal of all the priest’s entreaties before his execution: “None of his certainties was worth one hair on the head of the woman I loved.”

Religion, for Daoud’s hero, is “public transportation I never use.” Who is God to give lessons? After all, “I alone pay the electric bills, I alone will be eaten by worms in the end. So get lost!”

Of course, an imam from a Salafist group has issued a fatwa for Daoud to be put to death. The author, in turn, has called the absence of alternatives to Islamism “the philosophical disaster of the Arab world.” Much more such honesty is needed.

Daoud’s novel has sometimes been portrayed as a rebuke to the pied-noir Frenchman Camus. But there is more that binds their protagonists than separates them — a shared loathing of hypocrisy, shallowness, simplification and falsification. Each, from his different perspective, renders the world visible — the only path to understanding for Arab and Jew, for American and Iranian, for all the world’s “strangers” unseen by each other.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Goodbye, Chicago boys. Hello, M.I.T. gang.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the term “Chicago boys” was originally used to refer to Latin American economists, trained at the University of Chicago, who took radical free-market ideology back to their home countries. The influence of these economists was part of a broader phenomenon: The 1970s and 1980s were an era of ascendancy for laissez-faire economic ideas and the Chicago school, which promoted those ideas.

But that was a long time ago. Now a different school is in the ascendant, and deservedly so.

It’s actually surprising how little media attention has been given to the dominance of M.I.T.-trained economists in policy positions and policy discourse. But it’s quite remarkable. Ben Bernanke has an M.I.T. Ph.D.; so do Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, and Olivier Blanchard, the enormously influential chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Blanchard is retiring, but his replacement, Maurice Obstfeld, is another M.I.T. guy — and another student of Stanley Fischer, who taught at M.I.T. for many years and is now the Fed’s vice chairman.

These are just the most prominent examples. M.I.T.-trained economists, especially Ph.D.s from the 1970s, play an outsized role at policy institutions and in policy discussion across the Western world. And yes, I’m part of the same gang.

So what distinguishes M.I.T. economics, and why does it matter? To answer that question, you need to go back to the 1970s, when all the people I’ve just named went to graduate school.

At the time, the big issue was the combination of high unemployment with high inflation. The coming of stagflation was a big win for Milton Friedman, who had predicted exactly that outcome if the government tried to keep unemployment too low for too long; it was widely seen, rightly or (mostly) wrongly, as proof that markets get it right and the government should just stay out of the way.

Or to put it another way, many economists responded to stagflation by turning their backs on Keynesian economics and its call for government action to fight recessions.

At M.I.T., however, Keynes never went away. To be sure, stagflation showed that there were limits to what policy can do. But students continued to learn about the imperfections of markets and the role that monetary and fiscal policy can play in boosting a depressed economy.

And the M.I.T. students of the 1970s enlarged on those insights in their later work. Mr. Blanchard, for example, showed how small deviations from perfect rationality can have large economic consequences; Mr. Obstfeld showed that currency markets can sometimes experience self-fulfilling panic.

This open-minded, pragmatic approach was overwhelmingly vindicated after crisis struck in 2008. Chicago-school types warned incessantly that responding to the crisis by printing money and running deficits would lead to 70s-type stagflation, with soaring inflation and interest rates. But M.I.T. types predicted, correctly, that inflation and interest rates would stay low in a depressed economy, and that attempts to slash deficits too soon would deepen the slump.

The truth, although nobody will believe it, is that the economic analysis some of us learned at M.I.T. way back when has worked very, very well for the past seven years.

But has the intellectual success of M.I.T. economics led to comparable policy success? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

True, there have been some important monetary successes. The Fed, led by Mr. Bernanke, ignored right-wing pressure and threats — Rick Perry, as governor of Texas, went so far as to accuse him of treason — and pursued an aggressively expansionary policy that helped limit the damage from the financial crisis. In Europe, Mr. Draghi’s activism has been crucial to calming financial markets, probably saving the euro from collapse.

On other fronts, however, the M.I.T. gang’s good advice has been ignored. The I.M.F.’s research department, under Mr. Blanchard’s leadership, has done authoritative work on the effects of fiscal policy, demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that slashing spending in a depressed economy is a terrible mistake, and that attempts to reduce high levels of debt via austerity are self-defeating. But European politicians have slashed spending and demanded crippling austerity from debtors anyway.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Republicans have responded to the utter failure of free-market orthodoxy and the remarkably successful predictions of much-hated Keynesians by digging in even deeper, determined to learn nothing from experience.

In other words, being right isn’t necessarily enough to change the world. But it’s still better to be right than to be wrong, and M.I.T.-style economics, with its pragmatic openness to evidence, has been very right indeed.

Solo Bobo

July 21, 2015

In “Dustin Yellin’s Modern Community-Building” Bobo gurgles that a New York artist draws together artists, physicists and others into a uniquely modern collective of creativity.  Bobo neglects to mention a few facts, so we’ll call on the comment from “Ellen” in Williamsburg:  “He is very connected and from an extremely wealthy family.  He picked up that warehouse for almost $4 million dollars… cash, like any drop-out could, if only they had the gumption…”  She supplied a link to this story, which Bobo neglected to cite.  Here he is:

When Dustin Yellin was 17 he dropped out of high school. The school was filled with jocks and cheerleaders and he clearly didn’t fit in. Plus he wasn’t intellectually engaged.

He hitchhiked around New Zealand and returned to Colorado. He became an apprentice to an eccentric physicist who believed he could get free energy from space and who performed experiments on Yellin involving crystals, baths of saline solution and hallucinogenic drugs.

When he was 18 Yellin hatched a plan. He would go to New York, become a successful artist and create a place where painters, scientists, writers, billionaires and other cool people could gather to try to change the world. Yellin turns 40 this week, and that’s more or less what he’s done.

Yellin is a successful artist with a staff of 23 and a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Four years ago he threw the vast bulk of his money (and more) into buying a large brick warehouse that was built as the Pioneer Iron Works in 1866. The building now hosts, well, a little bit of everything.

Artists from as far away as France, Israel and South Korea work there in residencies averaging three or four months. There are also a magazine, a radio station, a recording studio, a film editing room and spaces for scientists working on everything from nanotechnology, astrophysics and virtual-reality software to 3-D printing. The building has a cathedral-like exhibition space, a bookstore, classrooms for adults and neighborhood school kids, and lecture programs featuring Nobel Prize-winning physicists and other notables.

Yellin calls it a “museum of process.” You can walk through the structure and see different kinds of people doing their art, or just hanging out. The first time I went, a few months ago, a band was playing, hundreds of intimidatingly hip young people — part model, part geek — were talking, looking at sculpture or playing with their kids in the lush gardens off to the side. It was like a modern version of Andy Warhol’s Factory, with microbrews, web designers, quantum mechanics and consilience.

Yellin did this outside the system. He came to New York, completely ignorant of the canon of art history. The city was his education. He’d meet someone at a bar who’d recommend Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.” Elsewhere he picked up Joseph Cornell and Hieronymus Bosch, who are influential in his work.

Yellin started experimenting with layers of resin and found he could draw in three dimensions. Worried that the resin was too toxic, he switched to glass. He takes up to 50 sheets of glass, up to six feet high, and stacks them together. Between the sheets he inserts hundreds of little pictures, drawings and images clipped out of magazines, art books and the like — Inca masks, soldiers, pictures of old machines.

The effect is a colorful, complex, three-dimensional landscape of the unconscious, what the critic Kenneth Goldsmith called a “pop-up utopia.” The works are instantly beautiful and absorbingly complicated.

Most fascinating about Yellin is his style of community-building. He’s a product of the highly distracted Internet age. During the day he bounces between his studio and the Pioneer Works Center next door, multitasking among sculptures, planning a lecture series or helping edit the magazine. He says he’s a problematic boyfriend because he’s there till midnight. His studio is a physical manifestation of his mental thrill-seeking and pluralistic attention — there are literally thousands of little images of everything under the sun. “I don’t worry about inspiration as much as system overload,” he says.

And yet he has brought everything into some sort of cohesion. His sculptures often have the coherent shape of the human figure, but viewers can examine a different part of the figure and then move in any direction to create their own sequence of meanings.

Pioneer Works is a social sculpture that works the same way. It is a cohesive physical community but informal and pluralistic. It is not siloed along disciplinary lines like a university. On the contrary, artists, scientists and writers are jammed together, encouraged to borrow one another’s methodologies in pursuit of a project that is both individual and common — finding the hidden order of things.

Yellin’s community seeks to be an interdisciplinary Jane Jacobs ballet: hundreds of bodies in different fields going about their own business interminglingly. I wouldn’t want it to replace the university (the danger of dilettantism is real), but the creative pyrotechnics are inspiring.

The only question is whether Yellin will be able to enjoy what he’s built. He’s created a new institution and brought his life to a coherent point — hard things to do in a scattered era. But he can’t sit still long enough to have patient conversations with the geniuses he’s gathered. He’s racing off to the next thrill, a creator too restless to fully savor his living creation.

Brooks and Krugman

July 17, 2015

Oh, sweet, sweet Baby Jesus on a pogo stick…  Bobo has extruded a turd entitled “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” in which he gurgles that a new memoir provides a mind-altering account of the black male experience in America.  Two short comments are in order.  The first is from “Robert Eller,” who said this is “David Brooks’ Declaration of Incompetence and Irrelevance: This Week’s Edition.”  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say:  “Brooks praises Ta-Nehisi Coates with such faint damns that your head ends up clanging with his cognitive dissonance.”  The mind boggles that he had the stones to even consider writing this thing…  Prof. Krugman, in “Liberals and Wages,” tells us that workers’ pay can be raised without costing jobs.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates,

The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.

Your new book, “Between the World and Me,” is a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it.

There is a pervasive physicality to your memoir — the elemental vulnerability of living in a black body in America. Outside African-American nightclubs, you write, “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.”

Written as a letter to your son, you talk about the effects of pervasive fear. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

But the disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.

Your ancestors came in chains. In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.

You write to your son, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” The innocent world of the dream is actually built on the broken bodies of those kept down below.

If there were no black bodies to oppress, the affluent Dreamers “would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.”

Your definition of “white” is complicated. But you write “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining).” In what is bound to be the most quoted passage from the book, you write that you watched the smoldering towers of 9/11 with a cold heart. At the time you felt the police and firefighters who died “were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”

You obviously do not mean that literally today (sometimes in your phrasing you seem determined to be misunderstood). You are illustrating the perspective born of the rage “that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.

Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.

Bobo should really just sit down and STFU.  Forever.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Hillary Clinton gave her first big economic speech on Monday, and progressives were by and large gratified. For Mrs. Clinton’s core message was that the federal government can and should use its influence to push for higher wages.

Conservatives, however — at least those who could stop chanting “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” long enough to pay attention — seemed bemused. They believe that Ronald Reagan proved that government is the problem, not the solution. So wasn’t Mrs. Clinton just reviving defunct “paleoliberalism”? And don’t we know that government intervention in markets produces terrible side effects?

No, she wasn’t, and no, we don’t. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s speech reflected major changes, deeply grounded in evidence, in our understanding of what determines wages. And a key implication of that new understanding is that public policy can do a lot to help workers without bringing down the wrath of the invisible hand.

Many economists used to think of the labor market as being pretty much like the market for anything else, with the prices of different kinds of labor — that is, wage rates — fully determined by supply and demand. So if wages for many workers have stagnated or declined, it must be because demand for their services is falling.

In particular, the conventional wisdom attributed rising inequality to technological change, which was raising the demand for highly educated workers while devaluing blue-collar work. And there was nothing much policy could do to change the trend, other than aiding low-wage workers via subsidies like the earned-income tax credit.

You still see commentators who haven’t kept up invoking this story as if it were obviously true. But the case for “skill-biased technological change” as the main driver of wage stagnation has largely fallen apart. Most notably, high levels of education have offered no guarantee of rising incomes — for example, wages of recent college graduates, adjusted for inflation, have been flat for 15 years.

Meanwhile, our understanding of wage determination has been transformed by an intellectual revolution — that’s not too strong a word — brought on by a series of remarkable studies of what happens when governments change the minimum wage.

More than two decades ago the economists David Card and Alan Krueger realized that when an individual state raises its minimum wage rate, it in effect performs an experiment on the labor market. Better still, it’s an experiment that offers a natural control group: neighboring states that don’t raise their minimum wages. Mr. Card and Mr. Krueger applied their insight by looking at what happened to the fast-food sector — which is where the effects of the minimum wage should be most pronounced — after New Jersey hiked its minimum wage but Pennsylvania did not.

Until the Card-Krueger study, most economists, myself included, assumed that raising the minimum wage would have a clear negative effect on employment. But they found, if anything, a positive effect. Their result has since been confirmed using data from many episodes. There’s just no evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs, at least when the starting point is as low as it is in modern America.

How can this be? There are several answers, but the most important is probably that the market for labor isn’t like the market for, say, wheat, because workers are people. And because they’re people, there are important benefits, even to the employer, from paying them more: better morale, lower turnover, increased productivity. These benefits largely offset the direct effect of higher labor costs, so that raising the minimum wage needn’t cost jobs after all.

The direct takeaway from this intellectual revolution is, of course, that we should raise minimum wages. But there are broader implications, too: Once you take what we’ve learned from minimum-wage studies seriously, you realize that they’re not relevant just to the lowest-paid workers.

For employers always face a trade-off between low-wage and higher-wage strategies — between, say, the traditional Walmart model of paying as little as possible and accepting high turnover and low morale, and the Costco model of higher pay and benefits leading to a more stable work force. And there’s every reason to believe that public policy can, in a variety of ways — including making it easier for workers to organize — encourage more firms to choose the good-wage strategy.

So there was a lot more behind Hillary’s speech than I suspect most commentators realized. And for those trying to play gotcha by pointing out that some of what she said differed from ideas that prevailed when her husband was president, well, many liberals have changed their views in response to new evidence. It’s an interesting experience; conservatives should try it some time.

Not going to happen.  They’re the mole people and are incapable of learning.

Brooks and Nocera

July 14, 2015

In “The New Old Liberalism” Bobo babbles that Hillary Clinton’s speech was economically naive but politically masterful.  In the comments “Yankee Frankee” from NY, NY had this to say:  “Brooks, it appears, is congenitally incapable of seeing the waste, corruption and disastrous effects of the past 40 years while we allowed banks and corporations free reign to run amok over the economic needs of the citizenry.”  Mr. Nocera is playing the role of Gunga Din again.  You’d think that the water he totes would get heavy…  In “Shale Gas and Climate Change” he says that what the fracking debate needs is a dose of pragmatism.  Shut up, that’s why.  Here’s Bobo:

Well, Hillary Clinton hasn’t gone crazy. At a time when some in her party are drifting toward Bernie Sanders/Occupy Wall Street-style rhetoric, Clinton delivered her first major economic address of the campaign. It was solidly liberal — very solidly — but in tone and substance it was well within the general election mainstream. If any Republicans were hoping that Clinton would make herself unelectable by wandering into the class warfare fever swamps, they can forget about it.

The main narrative of the Sanders camp is that the economic game is rigged against ordinary people. The top 1 percent controls the fundamental economic conditions. Major transformation is required. There’s not much individuals can do given the structure of economic power.

Clinton did some Wall Street bashing in this speech, but it was either meaningless, bland (punish criminals) or broadly sensible (end the carried interest deduction). The main underlying assumption behind her speech was that individuals can rise and succeed if they are given the right helping hands from government.

This speech revealed a woman who does not have her heart in class conflict. The most passionate parts of her speech involved classic liberal efforts to give people a boost: early childhood education, family and medical leave, tax credits for job training, affordable child care programs.

She carefully avoided the more radical policy ideas embraced by the left, such as a blanket tax on the rich. She dodged the trade issue. She endorsed a minimum wage hike but didn’t commit, as many progressives do, to a $15an-hour rate.

This speech was more Children’s Defense Fund than Thomas Piketty. It was the sort of speech you give if you spend more time listening to voters, especially female ones, than studying the quintiles in the income distribution charts.

Stylistically, Clinton still sounds as if she is talking down to her audiences. But there was a wonky authenticity to this speech, which would not have been there if she had tried to sound like a pitchfork marauder. She has echoes of Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern in her voice, or a more liberal Michael Dukakis.

She’s way to the left of where her husband was and to the left of where Barack Obama was in 2008 or 2012. But she’s responded to the reality of growing inequality with a revived paleoliberalism, not with the edgier, angry economic policy you find among Bernie Sanders and the cutting-edge left. She is best viewed, as the progressive commentator Matt Yglesias put it in a Vox essay, as a new paleoliberal.

This neopaleoliberalism is built less on going after Wall Street and the rich and more on a tremendous faith in government to manage the economy more intelligently than the private sector. It’s less a negative assault on the elites and more an optimistic faith in the power of planning. The private sector is not evil or power hungry, just kind of dumb.

New Democrats like her husband believed in using market mechanisms to increase economic security. As a neopaleoliberal, Hillary Clinton used her kickoff economic address to embrace the idea that government can write rules to govern how much companies pay their workers. Government can direct investors toward more sensible long-term investments. Government can refashion the way companies distribute equity in their companies. Government can determine how companies should structure and manage themselves. “We’ll ensure that no firm is too complex to manage and oversee,” Clinton declared. One pictures squads of Federal Simplicity Enforcers roaming through the corridors of Midtown Manhattan telling C.E.O.s when their outfits are too mind-boggling.

In each case, in this view, government is more competent at steering companies toward their own best interests than the companies are themselves. Clinton’s constant refrain in this speech was that these federal interventions would increase growth and productivity, not limit them in the name of fairness.

Personally I find this faith epistemologically naïve. Clinton seems to have no awareness that many of the programs she endorsed have been tried and did not work. The Obama administration spent mightily on green energy jobs programs and they did not work to significantly increase employment. Empowerment zones, which she endorsed, have mostly failed to help low-income neighborhoods. Clinton displayed no awareness that most federal requirements involve difficult trade-offs. According to the Congressional Budget Office, raising the minimum wage to even $10.10 an hour would increase pay for millions of workers, but would cost roughly 500,000 jobs.

Clinton’s unchastened faith in the power of government planning is not shared by most voters. And she has no plausible chance of getting any of this through a divided Congress. But this agenda does pull off a neat trick. It will excite the progressive base without automatically alienating the rest of the country. Substantively she’s offered at least a coherent response to today’s economic conditions. Politically, she’s cleared the first hurdle in this campaign.

Now here’s Gunga Din:

Every columnist has his or her “go to” sources, people we rely on for their deep understanding of a particular subject, and a mode of thinking about that subject we find persuasive. For me, one such person is Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Levi believes in the power of facts. Though sensitive to the importance of dealing with climate change, he doesn’t indulge in the hyperbole that you sometimes hear from environmentalists. And while he appreciates the economic import of fracking and shale gas, he isn’t afraid to call out the industry on its problems. Early in the fracking boom, he went to Pennsylvania to observe what drilling for shale gas was doing to communities — and came away believing that “it was going to stir up much more local controversy than many were assuming.” Which is exactly what happened.

For the latest issue of Democracy, a quarterly magazine focused on progressive ideas, Levi has written an article titled “Fracking and the Climate Debate,” which he described to me the other day as a kind of summing up of his views about the role of cheap natural gas and fracking in the fight against climate change.

There are many people, of course, who believe that natural gas shouldn’t have any role at all in the climate change fight; while it may emit half the carbon dioxide of coal, it is still a fossil fuel that will keep us from going all-in on renewable energy. And the methane that can leak from fracked wells is a potent greenhouse gas that can negate natural gas’s advantage over coal.

There are others who see natural gas as a panacea. They believe that so long as we keep increasing production of inexpensive natural gas — mooting the need to build more coal-fired power plants, and even making it possible to shut some down — then we will be doing more than enough to control carbon emissions. In his article, Levi says, in effect: You’re both wrong.

After recounting a little history — was it really only a half dozen years ago that environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were promoting natural gas as a “step towards saving our planet”? — Levi delves into the three rationales behind their abrupt change of heart. One is the disruption that fracking imposes on communities. The second is the methane problem. The third is the “rapid progress” being made by renewable energy, which many environmentalists believe makes further reliance on natural gas unnecessary.

Levi believes that appropriate rules by both state and federal governments can mitigate the first two problems. Indeed, he believes that the industry needs to be better regulated for its own sake; otherwise, people will continue to fear the worst. As for renewables, the hard truth is that if the country were to move away from natural gas, the big winner would be coal, not solar or wind.

But that doesn’t mean that those who cling to the “free-market fundamentalist dream that a thriving shale gas industry will make climate policy unnecessary” have got it right. On the contrary, writes Levi, “merely making natural gas more abundant may do little, if anything, to curb carbon dioxide emissions.” How can this be? The answer is that, although cheap natural gas is helpful in that it “shoves aside coal,” it also boosts economic growth (which means more emissions), and “gives an edge to industries that are heavy energy users and big emitters.” These two conflicting forces effectively cancel each other out.

The best way to maximize the good that shale gas can do, concludes Levi, is to make it a key component of an overall energy policy that is bent on driving down carbon emissions. The government could promote policies to move the country away from coal, “which accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide produced in U.S. electricity generation.”

And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, he does seem to see shale gas as a potential bridge to renewables: If the government enacted policies that “reward emission cuts” no matter what technology achieves that goal, then coal users would gravitate to natural gas, while natural gas users might well move toward renewables. Government would also have to encourage policies that “drive down the cost of zero-based emissions.”

My own belief is that shale gas has been a blessing for all kinds of reasons: It has given us a degree of energy security that we haven’t seen in many decades, and has been a key source of economic growth. And, no matter how much environmentalists gnash their teeth, it is here to stay. That’s why the responsible approach is not to wish it away, but to exploit its benefits while straightforwardly addressing its problems. Ideologues will never get that done. That’s why Michael Levi’s realism — and his pragmatism — are so critical to hear.

Let’s all get together and finance Mr. Nocera’s move to an area where they’re fracking.  Maybe he’ll enjoy having his tap water catch fire…

Brooks and Nocera

July 7, 2015

In “The Courage of Small Things” Bobo informs us that a Rwandan genocide survivor’s story reminds us that simple narratives of good and evil, tribulation and triumph rarely capture the way life really is.  In the comments “Paul” from Nevada had this to say:  “Once again I do not get his point. A great story, but one with an unresolved ending. Guess we get Disney moment on Oprah. Flip to Springer for the unhappy endings. Interesting how Brooks always finds the ones who went to Yale. Guess the stories of just being a survivor don’t make the grade.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Good Jobs Strategy:”  Can companies offer both low prices and good jobs? He says a management professor finds they can.  Here’s Bobo:

I thought I knew the basic life story of my friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was 6 — though she didn’t understand it — the genocide began and her world started shrinking. Her father stopped going to work after dark. Her family ate dinner with the lights off.

To escape the mass murder, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away — not toward anything, just away.

They crossed the Akanyaru River (Clemantine thought the dead bodies floating in it were just sleeping) and into Burundi. Living off fruit, all her toenails fell out. She spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.

Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. One day, they barely survived a six-hour boat ride across Lake Tanganyika fleeing into Tanzania. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, were almost perfectly designed to give a sense that life is arbitrary.

In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.

In the middle of the 2006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.

Clemantine’s story, as I knew it then, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives — with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.

But Clemantine and Elizabeth Weil just wrote a more detailed version of her story for the online magazine Matter, and the reality is not so neat. For one thing, Clemantine never really reconciled with her family. After the “Oprah” taping they returned to Claire’s apartment. “My father kept smiling, like someone he mistrusted was taking pictures of him. Claire remained catatonic; I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real. I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones that had replaced me and Claire. I fell asleep crying.” The rest of the family flew back home to Africa the following Monday.

At every stop along the way, the pat narrative of Clemantine’s life is complexified by the gritty, mottled nature of human relationships. The refugee worker who married Claire and fathered her children turned out to be more a burden than a savior. The sisters’ psyches were not unscathed. “Claire made a hard, subconscious calculus: She could survive, and maybe enable me to survive, too, but only if she cast off emotional responsibility, only if she refused to take on how anything or anybody felt.”

Clemantine struggled to reconcile her old life with this one. A teacher she had at the Hotchkiss School gave a class a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain on a sinking boat. Do you toss overboard the old passenger or the young one? Clemantine lost it: “Do you want to know what that’s really like? This is an abstract question to you?”

At Yale, she couldn’t understand her own behavior. “Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?”

Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.

We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.

When she was a young girl, Clemantine displayed the large courage to endure genocide. In this essay she displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma; the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the tenacity to seek coherence after arbitrary cruelty; the ability to create tenacious bonds that have some give to them, to allow for the mistakes others make; the unwillingness to settle for the simple, fake story; and the capacity to look at life in all its ugly complexity.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

At the Aspen Ideas Festival — an annual summer gabfest that presents all sorts of interesting ideas, from the improbable to the important — one of the big themes this year was jobs. How will America close the skills gap? Where will the good middle-class jobs of the future come from? I heard pleas for infrastructure spending as a job strategy, and creating jobs by unleashing our energy resources. There were speakers who believed that innovation would bring good jobs, and speakers who feared that some of those innovations — in robotics, for instance — would destroy good jobs.

And then there was Zeynep Ton.

A 40-year-old adjunct associate professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., Ton brought one of the most radical, and yet one of the most sensible, ideas to Aspen this year. Her big idea is that companies that provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work, can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.

As Ton explained to me last week in Aspen — and as she has written in a book she published last year titled “The Good Jobs Strategy” — her thesis comes out of research she did early in her academic career on supply chain management in the retail industry, focused especially on inventory management. What she and her fellow researchers discovered is that while most companies were very good at getting products from, say, China to their stores, it was a different story once the merchandise arrived. Sometimes a product stayed in the back room instead of making it to a shelf where a customer could buy it. Or it was in the wrong place. Special in-store promotions weren’t being executed a surprisingly high percentage of the time. She saw this pattern in company after company.

As she took a closer look, Ton says, she realized that the problem was that these companies viewed their employees “as a cost that they tried to minimize.” Workers were not just poorly paid, but poorly trained. They often didn’t know their schedule until the last moment. Morale was low and turnover was high. Customer service was largely nonexistent.

Yet when she asked executives at these companies why they put up with this pattern, she was told that the only way they could guarantee low prices was to operate with employees who were paid as little as possible, because labor was such a big part of their overhead. The problems that resulted were an unavoidable by-product of a low-price business model.

Unconvinced that this was the only approach, Ton decided to search for retail companies — the same kind of companies that needed low prices to succeed — that did things differently. Sure enough, she found some.

The two companies she talks about most frequently in this regard are a Spanish grocery chain called Mercadona and QuikTrip, a Tulsa, Okla.-based chain of convenience store/gas stations that competes with the likes of the 7-Eleven chain.

What first struck her about Mercadona is that the annual turnover was an almost unheard-of 4 percent. Why do employees stay? “They get decent salaries, four weeks of training that costs the company $5,000, stable schedules … and the opportunity to thrive in front of their customers every day,” Ton said in a speech she forwarded to me. The grocery business is low margin, where every penny counts. If Mercadona couldn’t keep prices low with this strategy, it would have abandoned it long ago.

QuikTrip, an $11 billion company with 722 stores, is a prime example of what Ton means by “human-centered operations strategies.” Paying employees middle-class wages allows the company to get the most out of them. Employees are cross-trained so they can do different jobs. They can solve problems by themselves. They make merchandising decisions for their own stores. The ultimate result of the higher wages QuikTrip pays is that costs everywhere else in the operation go down. At QuikTrip, says Ton, products don’t remain in the back room, and in-store promotions always take place, as they’re supposed to.

Ton’s interest in the good jobs strategy is more than academic now; she has become a proselytizer, trying to spread the word that every company would be better served by this approach. “The assumed trade-off between low prices and good jobs is a fallacy,” she says. As we worry about where middle-class jobs are going to come from, Ton’s is a message that needs to be heard not just in Aspen but all across America.


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