Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

January 13, 2017

This is lovely.  Both Bobo and Prof. Krugman have addressed the same problem today.  And Bobo thinks he has a thing or two to say about the economics of health care…  He asks “Do Markets Work in Health Care?” and says that there’s psychology as well as economics in a consumer-based system.  “Gemli” from Boston will have something to say about that.  Prof. Krugman, who actually KNOWS a thing or three about economics, addresses “Donald Trump’s Medical Delusions” and says magical thinking won’t work on health care.  Here’s Bobo:

Believe it or not, we’re not really going to have to spend the next four years wading through wonky drudgery of Russian spy dossiers and hotel sex cameras. At some point we’re going to have a thrilling debate over the most scintillating question in health care policy.

The Republicans are going to try to replace Obamacare. They’re probably going to agree to cover everybody Obama covered, thus essentially granting the Democratic point that health care is a right. But they are going to try to do it using more market-friendly mechanisms.

As you know, the American health care system is not like a normal market. When you make most health care decisions you don’t get much information on comparative cost and quality; the personal bill you get is only vaguely related to the services; the expense is often determined by how many procedures are done, not whether the problem is fixed.

You wouldn’t buy a phone this way.

The Republicans are going to try to introduce more normal market incentives into the process. They are probably going to rely on refundable tax credits and health savings accounts so everybody can afford to shop for their own insurance and care.

This would still be nothing like a free-market system — it would still be a highly regulated, largely public benefit — but it would rely more on consumer incentives.

The crucial question is: Do market incentives work in health care?

This is really two questions. The economic one: Would market mechanisms improve quality and reduce costs? The psychological one: Do people want the extra cognitive burden of shopping for health care, or would they rather offload those decisions to someone else?

Most progressives say markets don’t work. They point back to a famous essay the economist Kenneth Arrow wrote in 1963, which is the same year the Beach Boys had a huge hit with “Surfer Girl.”

Arrow argued that there are several features that make health care unlike normal markets. People’s needs for health care are unpredictable, unlike food and clothing. The doctor-patient relationship is unique and demands a high level of trust, empathy and care. Providers know much more about medicine than patients do, so the information is hopelessly asymmetric. Patients on a gurney can’t really make normal choices, and payment comes after care, not before.

These are all solid points, especially the doctor-patient one. But health care has become less exceptional over time. The internet and other mechanisms help customers acquire a lot more information. Sophisticated modeling helps with unpredictability in a bunch of fields.

We put our lives in the hands of for-profit companies all the time. I spent part of my week learning from an aviation mechanic how hard manufacturers work to prevent pieces of metal from shredding through the cabin if an engine explodes. Airplanes are ridiculously safe.

Proponents of market-based health care rely less on theory and more on data. The most fair-minded review of the evidence I’ve read comes from a McKinsey report written by Penelope Dash and David Meredith. They noted that sometimes market forces lead to worse outcomes, but “we have been most struck by health systems in which provider competition, managed effectively, has improved outcomes and patient choice significantly, while at the same time reducing system costs.”

There’s much research to suggest that people are able to behave like intelligent health care consumers. Work by Amitabh Chandra of Harvard and others found higher-performing hospitals do gain greater market share over time. People know quality and flock to it.

Furthermore, health care providers work hard to keep up with the competitors. When one provider becomes more productive, the neighboring ones tend to as well.

There are plenty of examples where market competition has improved health care delivery. The Medicare Part D program, passed under President George W. Bush, created competition around drug benefits. The program has provided coverage for millions while coming in at 57 percent under the cost of what the Congressional Budget Office initially projected. A study of Indiana’s health savings accounts found the state’s expenses were reduced by 11 percent.

Laser eye surgery produces more patient satisfaction than any other surgery. But it’s generally not covered by insurance, so it’s a free market. Twenty years ago it cost about $2,200 per eye. Now I see ads starting at $250 an eye.

There’s a big chunk of evidence that market incentives would work in health care, especially in non-acute care. The harder problem for Republicans may be political. This is a harried society. People may not want the added burdens of making health care decisions on top of all the others. This is a distrustful society. People may not trust themselves or others to make decisions. This is an insecure society. People may not want what they perceive as another risk factor in their lives.

The policy case for the Republican plans is solid. Will they persuade in this psychological environment? I doubt it.

Bobo doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that Lasix surgery is optional, and can be considered in the same camp as plastic surgery.  I doubt that many cancer patients will defer treatment until the price comes down…  But then again, Bobo is a maroon.  Here’s what “gemli” had to say:

“The reason we have Obamacare is because the market-friendly days of old were not friendly to sick people. They were friendly to the markets at the expense of the sick. John Boehner went into a purple-tongued apoplectic rage when Obamacare was passed, not because it would help millions of the uninsured sick, but because it would inconvenience the ability of the free market to prey on them.

Health care is not a commodity, and it’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity, and the richest nation in the world should have found a way to provide medical care to the people whose lifetime of labor made it so. Instead of worrying about how health care will impact insurance companies, we should wonder how other advanced nations manage to provide low-cost, quality care to their citizens, and why we can’t.

Martin Shkreli is the poster boy for the free-market approach to health care. He may have seemed like an extreme example, but he was a piker when it came to robbing people blind for what were inexpensive drugs. How does his strategy differ from our current system, in which the U.S. isn’t allowed to negotiate drug prices?

There is one definitive and fool-proof test for determining the most compassionate and cost-effective health-care system that will support the needs of all our citizens: if Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress are for it, run screaming in the other direction. You’ll always be right.”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Thanks, Comey.

The Justice Department’s inspector general is now investigating the way the F.B.I. director conveyed the false impression of an emerging Clinton scandal just days before the election, even as he said nothing about ongoing investigations into Russian intervention and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. That action very probably installed Donald Trump in the White House. And it’s already obvious that the incoming commander in chief will be a walking, tweeting ethical disaster.

On the other hand, he’s also dangerously delusional about policy.

Some Republicans appear to be realizing that their long con on Obamacare has reached its limit. Chanting “repeal and replace” may have worked as a political strategy, but coming up with a conservative replacement for the Affordable Care Act — one that doesn’t take away coverage from tens of millions of Americans — isn’t easy. In fact, it’s impossible.

But it seems that nobody told Mr. Trump. In Wednesday’s news conference, he asserted that he would submit a replacement plan, “probably the same day” as Obamacare’s repeal — “could be the same hour” — that will be “far less expensive and far better”; also, with much lower deductibles.

This is crazy, on multiple levels.

The truth is that even if Republicans were settled on the broad outlines of a health care plan — the way Democrats were when President Obama took office — turning such an outline into real legislation is a time-consuming process.

In any case, however, the G.O.P. has spent seven years denouncing the Affordable Care Act without ever producing even the ghost of an alternative. That’s not going to change in the next few weeks, or ever. For the anti-Obamacare campaign has always been based on lies that can’t survive actual repeal.

A prime example is the pretense that health reform hasn’t helped anyone. “Things are only getting worse under Obamacare,” declared Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, last week. Yet the reality is that there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of Americans without insurance since reform went into effect — and an overwhelming majority of those covered by the new health exchanges are satisfied with their coverage.

How have Republicans nonetheless been able to get away with this lie? Part of the answer is that many of the newly insured don’t know that they’re being covered via Obamacare, or at any rate don’t realize that they will lose coverage if it’s repealed.

But that will change if repeal proceeds. For example, the percentage of nonelderly white adults without insurance fell by almost half from 2010 to 2016, from 16.4 to 8.7, a gain surely concentrated in the Trump-supporting white working class. Repeal would send that number right back up, and there would be no hiding the damage.

Meanwhile, Republicans have made hay over this year’s increase in insurance premiums. But this looks very much like a one-time adjustment; and the broader picture is that health costs have actually gone up much more slowly since Obamacare was enacted than they did before, in part due to the law’s cost-control features, which have worked far better than most expected.

And if the Affordable Care Act is killed, myths about its costs will be replaced by the reality of soaring bills for millions of Americans who don’t realize how much the act has helped them.

But won’t Trumpcare solve all these problems, by offering something much better and cheaper? Not a chance.

Republicans don’t have a health care plan, but they do have a philosophy — and it’s all about less. Less regulation, so that insurers can turn you down if you have a pre-existing condition. Less government support, so if you can’t afford coverage, too bad. And less coverage in general: Republican ideas about cost control are all about “skin in the game,” requiring people to pay more out of pocket (which somehow doesn’t stop them from complaining about high deductibles).

Implementing this philosophy would deliver a big windfall to the wealthy, who would get a huge tax cut from Obamacare repeal, and it would mean lower premiums for a relatively small number of currently healthy individuals — especially if they’re rich enough that they don’t need to worry about high deductibles.

But the idea that it would lead to big cost savings over all is pure fantasy, and it would have a devastating effect on the millions who have gained coverage during the Obama years.

As I said, it looks as if some Republicans realize this. They may go ahead with repeal-but-don’t-replace anyway, but they’ll probably do it because they believe they can find some way to blame Democrats for the ensuing disaster.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, gives every impression of having no idea whatsoever what the issues are. But then, is there any area of policy where he does?

No.  This has been another installment of SASQ.

Brooks and Rosenthal

January 10, 2017

In “Bannon Versus Trump” Bobo gurgles that the larger battle is over whether the Republican Party as a whole will become an ethno-populist party.  Will become?  Really, Bobo?  WILL become?  With Sessions as the possible new Attorney General?  Mr. Rosenthal, in “Republican Hypocrisy on Trump’s Nominees,” says Mitch McConnell used to be demanding when it came to presidential nominees. How times have changed.  Here’s Bobo, to be followed by a comment by “soxared, 04-07-13” from Crete, IL:

It’s becoming clear that for the next few years American foreign policy will be shaped by the struggle among Republican regulars, populist ethno-nationalists and the forces of perpetual chaos unleashed by Donald Trump’s attention span.

The Republican regulars build their grand strategies upon the post-World War II international order — the American-led alliances, norms and organizations that bind democracies and preserve global peace. The regulars seek to preserve and extend this order, and see Vladimir Putin as a wolf who tears away at it.

The populist ethno-nationalists in the Trump White House do not believe in this order. Their critique — which is simultaneously moral, religious, economic, political and racial — is nicely summarized in the remarks Steve Bannon made to a Vatican conference in 2014.

Once there was a collection of Judeo-Christian nation-states, Bannon argued, that practiced a humane form of biblical capitalism and fostered culturally coherent communities. But in the past few decades, the party of Davos — with its globalism, relativism, pluralism and diversity — has sapped away the moral foundations of this Judeo-Christian way of life.

Humane capitalism has been replaced by the savage capitalism that brought us the financial crisis. National democracy has been replaced by a crony-capitalist network of global elites. Traditional virtue has been replaced by abortion and gay marriage. Sovereign nation-states are being replaced by hapless multilateral organizations like the E.U.

Decadent and enervated, the West lies vulnerable in the face of a confident and convicted Islamofascism, which is the cosmic threat of our time.

In this view, Putin is a valuable ally precisely because he also seeks to replace the multiracial, multilingual global order with strong nation-states. Putin ardently defends traditional values. He knows how to take the fight to radical Islam.

It’s actually interesting to read Donald Trump’s ideologist, Bannon, next to Putin’s ideologist Alexander Dugin. It’s like going back to the 20th century and reading two versions of Marxism.

One is American Christian and the other orthodox Russian, but both have grandiose, sweeping theories of world history, both believe we’re in an apocalyptic clash of civilizations, both seamlessly combine economic, moral and political analysis. Both self-consciously see themselves as part of a loosely affiliated international populist movement, including the National Front in France, Nigel Farage in Britain and many others. Dugin wrote positively about Trump last winter, and Bannon referred to Dugin in his Vatican remarks.

“We must create strategic alliances to overthrow the present order of things,” Dugin has written, “of which the core could be described as human rights, anti-hierarchy and political correctness — everything that is the face of the Beast, the Antichrist.”

“We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin] is talking about as far as traditionalism goes,” Bannon said, “particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.”

Last week’s intelligence report on Russian hacking brought the Republican regulars, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, into direct conflict with the ethno-nationalist populists. Trump planted himself firmly in the latter camp, and dragged Fox News and a surprising number of congressional Republicans with him.

If Trump were as effective as Putin, we’d probably see a radical shift in American grand strategy, a shift away from the postwar global consensus and toward an alliance with various right-wing populist movements simmering around the globe.

But Trump is no Putin. Putin is theological and cynical, disciplined and calculating, experienced and knowledgeable. When Bannon, Michael Flynn and others try to make Trump into a revolutionary foreign policy president, they will be taking on the entire foreign policy establishment under a leader who may sympathize with them, but is inattentive, unpredictable and basically uninterested in anything but his own status at the moment.

I’m personally betting the foreign policy apparatus, including the secretaries of state and defense, will grind down the populists around Trump. Frictions will explode within the insanely confusing lines of authority in the White House. Trump will find he likes hanging around the global establishment the way he liked having the Clintons at his wedding. In office he won’t be able to fixate on ISIS but will face a blizzard of problems, and thus be dependent on the established institutions.

The result may be a million astounding tweets, but substantively no fundamental strategic shift — not terrible policy-making, but not good policy-making, either.

The larger battle is over ideas, whether the Republican Party as a whole will become an ethno-populist party like the National Front or the U.K. Independence Party. In this fight the populists might do better. There’s something malevolently forceful about their ideology, which does remind you of Marxism in its early days. There’s something flaccid about globalism, which is de-spiritualized and which doesn’t really have an answer for our economic and cultural problems.

In short, I suspect Steve Bannon is going to fail to corral the peripatetic brain of Donald Trump. But he may have more influence on the next generation.

If Bannon influences the next generation then I’m profoundly glad that I only have a few more years to live.  Here’s the comment from “soxared, 04-07-13:”

“Mr. Brooks, this column defines the utter chaos to come. And when Stephen Bannon is the architect of the next president’s worldview, well, we’re not at the lip of the abyss, we’re already plummeting.

Bannon, quite frankly, is a white nationalist. He’s Dylann Roof without the rap sheet of nine souls destroyed. Bannon is the lieutenant in the army of the “Judeo-Christian West” that has drawn a line in the sand against multiculturalism. As I read this devil’s script for international anarchy, all I could think of was that Bannon and Vladimir Putin’s own Bannon, Aleksandr Dugin have in mind a joint dual national program to eliminate Islam from the world’s face and, in the process, begin the systematic subjugation of mankind, those peoples not to their liking. Bannon, please recall, will be at Trump’s elbow in the Oval Office.

The absolutism of both Bannon and Dugan, are quite terrifying. The danger to our Republic, though, is the next president. It has been amply documented that his infinitesimal attention span is the last link in the chain of sanity. Its end is perilously close.

Leavening the loaf in the hellish oven until it is ripe are your GOP “ethno-nationalist populists.” Start with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, the Senate and House leaders, who worked assiduously to mine President Obama’s tenure with failure; both are viciously hostile to democracy. Putin is their soul mate, all things considered.

The “cosmic threat of our time” is the looming Trump administration.”

And now here’s Mr. Rosenthal:

The Constitution and American tradition provide lots of ways for a president to exercise executive power.

The president can, for example, create an agenda and propose legislation to Congress to carry it out; appoint cabinet members, with the Senate providing its advice and consent, and use the platform of the presidency to talk to Americans about important issues.

When the modern-day Republicans are in charge of the White House and Congress, of course, law, tradition and principle have little meaning.

Senator Mitch McConnell once said his party’s most important task was to deny Obama a second term. In February 2009, he wrote a letter to Senator Harry Reid, then the majority leader, saying there could be no action on Obama’s nominees pending a long list of demands, including completion of reviews by the Office of Government Ethics. McConnell only escalated when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014 and by last year he was refusing even to consider any Supreme Court nomination Obama might make.

So how will things be with our new Republican president?

We don’t really know what agenda Donald Trump will pursue, since he didn’t offer anything like a realistic one to voters. He takes office thanks to the obsolete and undemocratic Electoral College, as the second Republican president in a row to be rejected by a substantial majority of voters.

With the inauguration less than two weeks away, it’s certainly looking as if McConnell’s Republican Senate majority will do a complete about-face and rush through Trump’s appointments without the process on which senators used to insist.

McConnell and his cronies have crammed the Senate schedule full of confirmation hearings for Trump’s selections for major cabinet officials, including several of the biggest positions for this Wednesday.

Unfortunately, not all of these candidates have been through the customary vetting process. Last week, the Office of Government Ethics informed congressional Democrats that it had not yet had time to screen all of the Trump appointees, which created “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues.” Democrats want to delay some hearings until the candidates can be vetted.

McConnell’s response to Democrats’ concerns has been typically cynical and hypocritical.

This year, he’s telling Democrats to “grow up.” “All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate,” he said on Sunday.

Ethics review is hardly a “little procedural complaint,” especially since the Trump camp reportedly did far less than previous presidential transition teams to vet candidates before nominating them. Of course, since Trump won’t clear up the endless conflicts of interest involving his business interests and those of his children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom he is appointing to a senior White House role, why should we expect him to be concerned about his appointees’ conflicts?

If you think Trump’s partisan handmaidens in Congress are going to do the vetting for him, then you haven’t been paying much attention to American politics. What you can expect is a once-over-lightly review by the Republicans and efforts to thwart any Democrats who try to do the vetting.

So what about the “bully pulpit” that the presidency is going to give Trump once he takes office? The problem is that we are not supposed to take anything that Trump says seriously.

On Monday, Trump tore into Meryl Streep for mentioning in her Golden Globes speech that he had mocked a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski, during the campaign. Trump said, as he had before, that he had never mocked Kovaleski, despite videos viewed millions of times online that show him doing exactly that.

The problem, according to Trump’s chief propagandist, Kellyanne Conway, is that people are actually paying attention to what Trump says.

“You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth,” Conway sneered. Instead, she said, we should all “look at what’s in his heart.”

After Trump was elected, he told Times editors, reporters and business executives that he wasn’t interested in prosecuting Hillary Clinton anymore. The next day, he was smirking triumphantly while his supporters chanted “Lock her up!”

Does he believe in his heart that Clinton should be behind bars? Or does he believe what he said in a crowded conference room at The Times the day before? Or neither?

The sad truth is, we’re never going to know. We will never be able to trust what Trump tells us about his principles, his policies and his intentions as president — if he bothers to tell us anything at all. Mostly, we’re all just supposed to read his mind.

Solo Bobo

January 3, 2017

In “The Snapchat Presidency of Donald Trump” Bobo says the next occupant (at least part time) of the White House won’t lead or communicate policy like a normal leader.  Might that be because he’s NOT NORMAL, Bobo?  And “gemli” from Boston will have a thing or two to say in rebuttal.  Here’s Bobo:

Normal leaders come up with policy proposals in a certain conventional way. They gather their advisers around them and they debate alternatives — with briefing papers, intelligence briefings and implementation strategies.

Donald Trump doesn’t do that. He’s tweeted out policy gestures in recent weeks, say about the future of America’s nuclear arsenal. But these gestures aren’t attached to anything. They emerged from no analytic process and point to no implemental effects. Trump’s statements seem to spring spontaneously from his middle-of-night feelings. They are astoundingly ambiguous and defy interpretation.

Normal leaders serve an office. They understand that the president isn’t a lone monarch. He is the temporary occupant of a powerful public post. He’s the top piece of a big system, and his ability to create change depends on his ability to leverage and mobilize the system. His statements are carefully parsed around the world because presidential shifts in verbal emphasis are not personal shifts; they are national shifts that signal changes in a superpower’s actual behavior.

Donald Trump doesn’t think in that way, either. He is anti-system. As my “PBS NewsHour” colleague Mark Shields points out, he has no experience being accountable to anybody, to a board of directors or an owner. As president-elect, he has not begun attaching himself to the system of governance he’ll soon oversee.

If anything, Trump is detaching himself. In a very public way, he’s detached himself from the intelligence community that normally serves as the president’s eyes and ears. He’s talked about not really moving to the White House, the nerve center of the executive branch. He’s sided with a foreign leader, Vladimir Putin, against his own governmental structures.

Finally, normal leaders promulgate policies. They measure their days by how they propose and champion actions and legislation.

Trump doesn’t think in this way, either. He is a creature of the parts of TV and media where display is an end in itself. He is not really interested in power; his entire life has been about winning attention and status to build the Trump image for low-class prestige. The posture is the product.

When Trump issues a statement, it may look superficially like a policy statement, but it’s usually just a symbolic assault in some dominance-submission male rivalry game. It’s trash-talking against a rival, Barack Obama, or a media critic like CNN. Trump may be bashing Obama on Russia or the Mideast, but it’s not because he has implementable policies in those realms. The primary thing is bashing enemies.

Over the past weeks, we’ve treated the president-elect’s comments as normal policy statements uttered by a normal president-elect. Each time Trump says or tweets something, squads of experts leap into action, trying to interpret what he could have meant, or how his intention could lead to changes in American policy.

But this is probably the wrong way to read Trump. He is more postmodern. He does not operate by an if-then logic. His mode is not decision, implementation, consequence.

His statements should probably be treated less like policy declarations and more like Snapchat. They exist to win attention at the moment, but then they disappear.

To read Trump correctly, it’s probably best to dig up old French deconstructionists like Jean Baudrillard, who treated words not as things that have meanings in themselves but as displays in an oppositional power struggle. Trump is not a national leader; he is a national show.

If this is all true, it could be that the governing Trump will be a White House holograph. When it comes to the substance of actual governance, it could be that President Trump is the man who isn’t there.

The crucial question of the Trump administration could be: Who will fill the void left by a leader who is all facade?

It could be the senior staff. Trump will spew out a stream of ambiguous tweets, then the hypermacho tough guys Trump has selected will battle viciously with one another to determine which way the administration will really go.

It could be congressional Republicans. They have an off-the-shelf agenda they are hoping that figurehead Trump will sign, though it has nothing to do with the issues that drove the presidential campaign.

It could be the permanent bureaucracy, which has an impressive passive-aggressive ability to let the politicians have their press conference fun and then ignore everything that’s “decided.”

I’ll be curious to see if Trump’s public rhetoric becomes operationalized in any way. For example, I bet his bromance with Putin will end badly. The two men are both such blustery, insecure, aggressive public posturers, sooner or later they will get in a schoolyard fight.

It will be interesting to see if that brawl is just an escalating but ultimately harmless volley of verbiage, or whether it affects the substance of government policy and leads to nuclear war.

Happy New Year!

Brooks and Krugman

December 30, 2016

In “The Sidney Awards, Part Deux” Bobo presents a second batch of what he thinks are the year’s best essays.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Snatching Health Care Away From Millions:”  Will Trump really kill Obamacare?  I’ll bet if he does the 2018 midterms ought to be very interesting.  Here’s Bobo:

Every December I read hundreds of long-form essays to select the Sidney Awards, and every year I regret that I spend so much of the other 11 months reading online trivia. Then, every January, I revert to Twitter.

Andrew Sullivan got sucked into the online addiction in a big way, yanked himself away from it and wrote a brilliant essay on the process for New York magazine called “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

Sullivan was the superstar of what I guess we can call the blogging era, consumed with online volleying all day, every day. Everything else — health, friendships — atrophied: “Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.” He also came to understand that we don’t really control our time online. Our clicks are seduced by technologists superbly able to suck us in.

There is also something emotionally comforting, if cowardly, about life through the screen: “An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us.”

Sullivan cut the cord, went to a silent retreat center and promptly collapsed. Issues from his traumatic childhood flooded back. “It was as if, having slowly and progressively removed every distraction from my life, I was suddenly faced with what I had been distracting myself from. Resting for a moment against the trunk of a tree, I stopped, and suddenly found myself bent over, convulsed with the newly present pain, sobbing.”

Sullivan’s essay marks an important turning point as more people realize that smartphones have made online life so consuming as to become a monster.

Martha Nussbaum is one of America’s most brilliant philosophers, her work often focusing on the content and nature of emotions. Rachel Aviv’s wonderful New Yorker profile, “The Philosopher of Feelings,” opens with Nussbaum writing a lecture while flying to see her dying mother:

“In the lecture, she described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, ‘This time I pardon you.’ The sentence brought Nussbaum to tears. She worried that her ability to work was an act of subconscious aggression, a sign that she didn’t love her mother enough. I shouldn’t be away lecturing, she thought. I shouldn’t have been a philosopher. Nussbaum sensed that her mother saw her work as cold and detached, a posture of invulnerability. ‘We aren’t very loving creatures, apparently, when we philosophize,’ Nussbaum has written.”

The profile is a subtle exploration of a woman who is extreme at both ends of the sense and sensibility spectrum, who is almost fanatically organized and professionally accomplished, but also deeply emotional and open to the things in the world that can leave you shattered.

I have left the election largely out of the awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, since we’ve been so consumed by the madness all year. But I should mention a few deserving political essays:

In “How American Politics Went Insane,” in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that generations of well-intentioned reformers have destroyed the informal structures of politics, like parties, congressional hierarchies and pork barrel spending, that make government work. The reformers saw insiderish corruption, but these mediating structures held leaders accountable to one another. Without them, we are left in a world of chaos, political dysfunction, atomization and demagogy.

The economist Tyler Cowen of the Marginal Revolution blog excellently suggested that I include a pro-Trump essay, to give the winning side its due. I’ve picked “The Flight 93 Election,” from The Claremont Review of Books, by the person who writes under the name Publius Decius Mus. The core argument is that modern conservatism has failed at everything except its self-preservation, that a figure like Donald Trump could arise only in deeply corrupt times and that only the radical shift he offers can protect the nation from utter destruction.

Some sort of prognostication prize should go to Ronald Brownstein for “Is Donald Trump Outflanking Hillary Clinton,” also in The Atlantic. One week before the election, Brownstein wondered why the Clinton campaign was spending its energies on states it didn’t need to win, like Florida, while neglecting the “Blue Wall” states it absolutely had to win, like Wisconsin and Michigan.

Finally, to lift our eyes to the heavens, let’s throw in Alan Lightman’s “What Came Before the Big Bang?,” in Harper’s. Lightman describes current thinking about the creation of the universe. He suggests that the universe moves from tidiness to messiness, that the entire universe may have once been like a subatomic particle, that before-and-after, cause-and-effect thinking might be a human construct that prevents us from understanding cosmic events.

Lightman’s account of cosmology explodes our mental frameworks and normal categories, and thus serves as a good preparation for 2017.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If James Comey, the F.B.I. director, hadn’t tipped the scales in the campaign’s final days with that grotesquely misleading letter, right now an incoming Clinton administration would be celebrating some very good news. Because health reform, President Obama’s signature achievement, is stabilizing after a bumpy year.

This means that the huge gains achieved so far — tens of millions of newly insured Americans and dramatic reductions in the number of people skipping treatment or facing financial hardship because of cost — look as if they’re here to stay.

Or they would be here to stay if the man who squeaked into power thanks to Mr. Comey and Vladimir Putin wasn’t determined to betray his supporters, and snatch away the health care they need.

To appreciate the good news about Obamacare you need to understand where the earlier bad news came from. Premiums on the exchanges, the insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, did indeed rise sharply this year, because insurers were losing money. But this wasn’t because of a surge in overall medical costs, which have risen much more slowly since the act was passed than they did before. It reflected, instead, the mix of people signing up — fewer healthy, low-cost people than expected, more people with chronic health issues.

The question was whether this was a one-time adjustment or the start of a “death spiral,” in which higher premiums would drive healthy Americans out of the market, further worsening the mix, leading to even higher premiums, and so on.

And the answer is that it looks like a one-shot affair. Despite higher premiums, enrollments in the exchanges are running ahead of their levels a year ago; no death spiral here. Meanwhile, analysts are reporting substantial financial improvement for insurers: The premium hikes are doing the job, ending their losses.

In other words, Obamacare hit a bump in the road, but appears to be back on track.

But will it be killed anyway?

In a way, Democrats should hope that Republicans follow through on their promises to repeal health reform. After all, they don’t have a replacement, and never will. They’ve spent seven years promising something very different from yet better than Obamacare, but keep failing to deliver, because they can’t; the logic of broad coverage, especially for those with pre-existing conditions, requires either an Obamacare-like system or single-payer, which Republicans like even less. That won’t change.

As a result, repeal would have devastating effects, with people who voted Trump among the biggest losers. Independent estimates suggest that Republican plans would cause 30 million Americans to lose coverage, with about half the losers coming from the Trump-supporting white working class. At least some of those Trump supporters would probably conclude that they were the victims of a political scam — which they were.

Republican congressional leaders like Paul Ryan nonetheless seem eager to push ahead with repeal. In fact, they seem to be in a great rush, probably because they’re afraid that if they don’t unravel health reform in the very first weeks of the Trump era, rank-and-file members of Congress will start hearing from constituents who really, really don’t want to lose their insurance.

Why do the Republicans hate health reform? Some of the answer is that Obamacare was paid for in part with taxes on the wealthy, who will reap a huge windfall if it’s repealed, even as many middle-income families face tax hikes.

More broadly, Obamacare must die precisely because it’s working, showing that government action really can improve people’s lives — a truth they don’t want anyone to know.

How will Republicans try to contain the political fallout if they go ahead with repeal, and tens of millions lose access to health care? No doubt they’ll try to distract the public — and the all-too-compliant news media — with shiny objects of various kinds.

But surely a central aspect of their damage control will be an attempt to push a false narrative about Obamacare’s past. Health reform, they’ll claim, was always a failure, and it was already collapsing on the eve of the G.O.P. takeover. When the number of uninsured Americans skyrockets on their watch, they’ll claim that it’s not their fault — like everything, it’s the fault of liberal elites.

So let’s refute that narrative in advance. Obamacare has, in fact, been a big success — imperfect, yes, but it has greatly improved (and saved) many lives. And all indications are that this success is sustainable, that the teething problems of health reform weren’t fatal and were well on their way to being solved at the end of 2016.

If, as seems all too likely, a health care debacle is imminent, blame must be placed where it belongs: on Donald Trump and the people who put him over the top.

Bobo, solo

December 27, 2016

In “The 2016 Sidney Awards, Part I” Bobo tells us about some of what he thought were some of the year’s most readable essays.  Here he is:

Perry Link once noticed that Chinese writers use more verbs in their sentences whereas English writers use more nouns. For example, in one passage from the 18th-century Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Cao Xueqin uses 130 nouns and 166 verbs. In a similar passage from “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens uses 96 nouns and 38 verbs.

This observation is at the core of his New York Review of Books essay “The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?” which is the first winner of this year’s Sidney Awards. I give out the awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, to celebrate some of the best long-form essays of each year.

Link notes that Indo-European languages tend to use nouns even when verbs might be more appropriate. Think of the economic concept inflation. We describe it as a thing we can combat, or whip or fight. But it’s really a process.

Link takes this thought in a very philosophical direction, but it set me wondering how much our thinking is muddled because we describe actions as things. For example, we say someone has knowledge, happiness or faith (a lot of faith or a little faith, a strong faith or a weak faith); but faith, knowledge and happiness are activities, not objects.

If that last point needed underlining, go to Christian Wiman’s beautiful essay “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” in The American Scholar. As a small child, Wiman used to sneak into his parents’ room in the middle of the night and peel open their eyelids in the hopes that he could see what they were dreaming.

But the essay is mostly about the things children know, the things adults know and the process of reaching beyond everyday perception. It’s better to quote a few passages:

“People who have been away from God tend to come back by one of two ways: destitution or abundance, an overmastering sorrow or a strangely disabling joy. Either the world is not enough for the hole that has opened in you, or it is too much.”

“I suggested she pray to God. This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness.”

“As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish.”

Wiman also nicely quotes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”

These two essays are not about the events that shook the world in 2016. I’ll get to more of them in the next batch of Sidneys, but in the meantime, the most important — and best crafted — essay of the year was probably Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” in The Atlantic. It’s a classic not only on Barack Obama’s mind and the world situation today, but also about the act of foreign policy making.

Nathan Heller’s “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy,” in The New Yorker, captured the moral awakening (or mania) that is sweeping college campuses. That essay, too, generated an enormous amount of conversation and is worth revisiting.

I’ll end this batch of Sidneys with another perception-altering essay, Charles Foster’s “In Which I Try to Become a Swift,” from Nautilus. Foster writes about swifts, a family of birds a bit like swallows.

Swifts are violent, acrobatic and ethereal. They eat 5,000 or more insects a day. When they hunt for bees they select only the stingless ones. They can select the wasp mimics from actual wasps, even while traveling 50 feet a second.

But the essay is really about Foster’s efforts to enter into the swift experience. Once while driving to a day care center, he saw a group of them exploding from some tree tops. He scrambled up a tree, where “I swayed in a fork just below the top and pushed my head out into the killing zone of the delta. I saw a tongue, squat, gray, and dry; I saw myself, pinched and saucer-eyed. … I snapped a mouthful of nymphs and spat them onto the roof of a brand new Mercedes dropping off a child from a house 300 yards away. It was the closest I ever got.”

Foster enters into the different ways swifts experience air and time, and like all these writers, undercuts the normal way we see the world.

More winners are coming Friday. If you want essays like this all year, I have to again recommend the website The Browser, edited by Robert Cottrell, which gathers eloquence from far and wide day after day.

Bobo, solo

November 29, 2016

In “The Future of the American Center” Bobo has tells us that Donald Trump’s victory smashes traditions of party loyalty, presenting opportunities between the extremes.  And “gemli” from Boston will have something to say about that.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past few decades, party loyalty has been the defining feature of national politics. Especially in the House but even in the Senate, members deferred to their party leaders. Congress as a whole deferred to the presidency. Members of the president’s own party acted as his foot soldiers. Members of the other party acted as his opposition.

But Donald Trump’s victory smashes all that. He is hostile to the Republican establishment. His proposals cut across orthodox partisan lines.

As Bill Kristol told me, the coming Congress may not look like the recent Congresses, when party-line voting was the rule. A vote on an infrastructure bill may look very different from a vote on health care or education or foreign policy. This may be a Congress with many caucuses — floating coalitions rather than just follow-the-leader obedience.

Meanwhile, as Christopher DeMuth wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, committee chairmen may reassert authority against the executive branch. Trump’s authoritarian style represents an assault on the traditional separation of powers. He may end up energizing all those constitutional forms and practices he stands against.

What’s about to happen in Washington may be a little like the end of the Cold War — bipolarity gives way to multipolarity. A system dominated by two party-line powers gives way to a system with a lot of different power centers. Instead of just R’s and D’s, there will be a Trump-dominated populist nationalism, a more libertarian Freedom Caucus, a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus, a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi Democratic old guard.

The most important caucus formation will be in the ideological center. There’s a lot of room between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.

Until now, people in that space have been slow to create donor networks, slow to form think tanks, slow to build coalitions of moderate legislators. But suddenly there’s a flurry of activity between the extremes.

For example, Bill Kristol and Bill Galston have worked in the White Houses of different parties and had voted for the opposite presidential candidates in every election for four decades. But Donald Trump has reminded them how much they agree on the fundamentals.

The two Bills have now issued a joint statement calling for “a New Center.” It’s a defense of the basic institutions and practices of our constitutional order, which now seem under assault. It’s an attempt to learn from the election results and craft a governing philosophy that people of different parties can rally around.

That’s in the realm of ideas. In the realm of organization there’s also a flurry of activity. David Burstein’s group, Run for America, is recruiting a new generation of political candidates.

The most active centrist organization, No Labels, began six years ago in opposition to polarized, cutthroat politics. The problem with the group back then was that there was no future to a political movement whose first name is “No.” You have to be for something.

But under the leadership of its undeterrable co-founder, Nancy Jacobson, No Labels has evolved. It created a package of reform ideas to make Congress and the executive branch work together. It created an active congressional caucus, called the Problem Solvers Caucus, which now has 80 members, divided roughly evenly between both parties.

It has been building grass-roots activities, which have so far engaged one million people. It created a “super PAC” so that members of Congress who vote as centrists can get some political protection. It recently published a policy playbook with 60 proposals to create jobs, reform the tax code, balance the budget and secure entitlement programs.

Going forward, moderates face four big challenges. First, deepen a positive national vision that is not merely a positioning between left and right. Second, elevate a new generation of political leaders so the movement is not just a retread of retired establishment types.

Third, build a mass movement of actual voters, not just financiers and think-tank johnnies. Fourth, have the courage to stand together as a swing legislative caucus, when the pressure from the party leaderships becomes intense.

It’s an uphill climb, but this is a fertile moment. The Trump/Sanders era is going to create new opposition blocs, filled with people who never thought they would be working together.

Moreover, the future of this country is not going to be found in protecting jobs that are long gone or in catering to the fears of aging whites. There is a raging need for a movement that embraces economic dynamism, global engagement and social support — that is part Milton Friedman on economic policy, Ronald Reagan on foreign policy and Franklin Roosevelt on welfare policy.

The new center will probably start as a legislative caucus with members of both parties. Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.

He just can’t admit that his party foisted a megalomaniacal, narcissistic grifter on the nation.  Here’s “gemli” with a few words for Bobo:

“You’d think pundits would have realized by now that it’s impossible to predict anything in this New World Disorder. But David Brooks predicts that in the midst of unparalleled political chaos the lions will lay down with the lambs. The glare of near-nuclear presidential upheaval will really be the sun rising on a new day of across-the-aisle cooperation. New voices will emerge from the hellish Babel of contradictory policy statements.

It’s more likely that the policies coming from the Alt-White House will be just as confusing as they are now, with the “president” saying one thing about Romney for Secretary of State while his spokes-mantis Kellyanne Conway says the opposite.

There won’t be caucuses in Congress as much as carcasses, as the old dependable assaults on our freedom die, only to be replaced by new ones that will be a mystery to the conservative cliques of old.

At least we knew where we stood in the good old days of 10 minutes ago, when Congress was jam-packed with political cronies, gerrymandered hacks and economic frauds like Paul Ryan running the show. They were all about taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. They won’t begin to fathom what new deals the megalomaniacal Narcissist in Chief may have made, possibly with foreign powers.

We thought it was an embarrassing end-around ploy when Congress invited Netanyahu to speak before them. Imagine their surprise when Putin shows up to give them a lecture on how power really works.”

Brooks and Krugman

November 25, 2016

Today is full of questions.  In “Does Decision Making Matter?” Bobo has a question:  Why are you interested in the things that interest you?  Prof. Krugman also has a question in “The Populism Perplex:”  What does the white working class want?  Here’s Bobo:

Danny Kahneman grew up Jewish in occupied France during World War II. Once in Paris, after curfew, he was nearly captured by an SS officer. His family traveled from town to town through rural France, hiding and hoping people wouldn’t recognize them as Jews. As Michael Lewis writes in his forthcoming book, “The Undoing Project,” Kahneman survived the Holocaust by keeping himself apart.

The family moved to Jerusalem. The army assigned him to a psychological evaluation unit and Kahneman became a psychologist.

Amos Twersky was born in Israel, to a mother who ignored him for long periods so she could serve the nation. He became a paratrooper in the war of 1956, and received one of the nation’s highest awards for bravery after he rescued a man who’d fainted on a torpedo just before it exploded.

Twersky was idiosyncratic. “Amos thought people paid an enormous price to avoid mild embarrassment, and he himself decided early on it was not worth it,” a friend told Lewis.

If he felt like going for a run, he stripped off his pants and went in his underpants. If a social situation bored him, he left. Twersky wasn’t sure how he drifted into psychology. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” he once said. “The big choices we make are practically random.”

Kahneman and Twersky began to work together. They would lock themselves together and talk and laugh, year after year. If they were at a party, they would go off and talk to each other. “When they sat down to write, they nearly merged, physically, into a single form,” Lewis writes, hunched over a single typewriter.

“Their relationship was more intense than a marriage,” Twersky’s wife recalled. When they wrote a paper together they lost all track of who had contributed what. They scrambled for research topics that gave them an excuse to be together, and completed each other’s sentences.

“The way the creative process works is that you first say something and later, sometimes years later, you understand what you said,” Kahneman recalled. “And in our case it was foreshortened. I would say something and Amos understood it. It still gives me goose bumps.”

It was a mystical alchemy that revolutionized how we think about ourselves. Kahneman and Twersky are like a lot of the characters who appear in Michael Lewis’s books, like “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.” They are intellectual renegades who are fervently, almost obsessively, determined to see reality clearly, no matter how ferocious the resistance from everybody else.

While most economics models assumed people were basically rational, Kahneman and Twersky demonstrated that human decision-making is biased in systematic, predictable ways. Many of the biases they described have now become famous — loss aversion, endowment effect, hindsight bias, the anchoring effect, and were described in Kahneman’s brilliant book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” They are true giants who have revolutionized how we think about decision-making. Lewis makes academic life seem gripping, which believe it or not, is not easy to do.

My big question is: How is the world they describe reflected in their own lives? Kahneman and Twersky write about the kind of decisions that you might call casino decisions — in which people confront various probabilities and try to calculate which course will be best.

But over the course of their lives Kahneman and Twersky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. In the course of the book there’s only one big formal decision point — when Twersky decides to move to the U.S.

Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. They were fervently engaged by the puzzles before them. They succeeded not because they were master decision-makers but because of their capacity for zealous engagement. They followed their interests step by step.

And this is my problem with the cognitive sciences and the advice world generally. It’s built on the premise that we are chess masters who make decisions, for good or ill. But when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?

Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?

We don’t decide about life; we’re captured by life. In the major spheres, decision-making, when it happens at all, is downstream from curiosity and engagement. If we really want to understand and shape behavior, maybe we should look less at decision-making and more at curiosity. Why are you interested in the things you are interested in? Why are some people zealously seized, manically attentive and compulsively engaged?

Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Twersky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves.

Ahhh…  It would appear that Bobo is still in the throes of his midlife crisis.  It hasn’t been pretty…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million, and she would probably be president-elect if the director of the F.B.I. hadn’t laid such a heavy thumb on the scales, just days before the election. But it shouldn’t even have been close; what put Donald Trump in striking distance was overwhelming support from whites without college degrees. So what can Democrats do to win back at least some of those voters?

Recently Bernie Sanders offered an answer: Democrats should “go beyond identity politics.” What’s needed, he said, are candidates who understand that working-class incomes are down, who will “stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

But is there any reason to believe that this would work? Let me offer some reasons for doubt.

First, a general point: Any claim that changed policy positions will win elections assumes that the public will hear about those positions. How is that supposed to happen, when most of the news media simply refuse to cover policy substance? Remember, over the course of the 2016 campaign, the three network news shows devoted a total of 35 minutes combined to policy issues — all policy issues. Meanwhile, they devoted 125 minutes to Mrs. Clinton’s emails.

Beyond this, the fact is that Democrats have already been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward.

Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives. Take, in particular, the case of Clay County, which the Times declared a few years ago to be the hardest place in America to live. It’s still very hard, but at least most of its residents now have health insurance: Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill.

Mr. Trump received 87 percent of Clay County’s vote.

Now, you might say that health insurance is one thing, but what people want are good jobs. Eastern Kentucky used to be coal country, and Mr. Trump, unlike Mrs. Clinton, promised to bring the coal jobs back. (So much for the idea that Democrats need a candidate who will stand up to the fossil fuels industry.) But it’s a nonsensical promise.

Where did Appalachia’s coal mining jobs go? They weren’t lost to unfair competition from China or Mexico. What happened instead was, first, a decades-long erosion as U.S. coal production shifted from underground mining to strip mining and mountaintop removal, which require many fewer workers: Coal employment peaked in 1979, fell rapidly during the Reagan years, and was down more than half by 2007. A further plunge came in recent years thanks to fracking. None of this is reversible.

Is the case of former coal country exceptional? Not really. Unlike the decline in coal, some of the long-term decline in manufacturing employment can be attributed to rising trade deficits, but even there it’s a fairly small fraction of the story. Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed health care and higher minimum wages. But working-class whites overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to destroy those gains.

So what happened here? Part of the answer may be that Mr. Trump had no problems with telling lies about what he could accomplish. If so, there may be a backlash when the coal and manufacturing jobs don’t come back, while health insurance disappears.

But maybe not. Maybe a Trump administration can keep its supporters on board, not by improving their lives, but by feeding their sense of resentment.

For let’s be serious here: You can’t explain the votes of places like Clay County as a response to disagreements about trade policy. The only way to make sense of what happened is to see the vote as an expression of, well, identity politics — some combination of white resentment at what voters see as favoritism toward nonwhites (even though it isn’t) and anger on the part of the less educated at liberal elites whom they imagine look down on them.

To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment. In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.

One thing is clear, however: Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem.

Bobo, solo

November 22, 2016

So now Bobo considers himself a “critic” of Mein Fubar.  In “Fellow Trump Critics, Maybe Try a Little Listening” he babbles that we should take a break and see what’s going on.  Oh, trust me Bobo — we KNOW what’s going on.  “Gemli” from Boston will respond.  Here, God above help us, is Bobo:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the best imaginable Trump voter. This is the Trump supporter who wasn’t motivated by racism or bigotry. This is the one who cringed every time Donald Trump did something cruel, vulgar or misogynistic.

But this voter needed somebody to change the systems that are failing her. She needed somebody to change the public school system that serves the suburban children of professors, journalists and lawyers but has left her kids under-skilled and underpaid. She needed some way to protect herself from the tech executives who give exciting speeches about disruption but don’t know anything about the people actually being disrupted.

She is one of those people whom Joan C. Williams writes about in The Harvard Business Review who admires rich people but disdains professionals — the teachers who condescend to her, the doctors who don’t make time for her, the activists whose definition of social justice never seems to include the suffering people like her experience.

This voter wants leaders tough enough to crack through the reigning dysfunction, and sure enough, Trump’s appointments so far represent the densest concentration of hyper-macho belligerence outside a drill sergeant retirement home.

This voter wants a philosophic change of course, and Trump offers that, too. The two party establishments are mired in their orthodoxies, but Trump and his appointees are embodiments of the nationalism espoused by Pat Buchanan, the most influential public intellectual in America today.

Buchanan’s organizing worldview is embodied in visceral form in the person of Steve Bannon.

“The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia,” Bannon said in his Hollywood Reporter interview. The new political movement, he said, is “everything related to jobs.”

He vowed to drive conservatives crazy with a gigantic spending program to create jobs. He vowed to use that money to create a new New Deal that will win over 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote, creating a neo-Jacksonian majority that will govern for 50 years.

It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see why some good people might be willing to tolerate Trump and Bannon’s personalities in order to pursue it.

Thinking about this best voter has helped me take an emotional pause. Many of my fellow Trump critics are expressing outrage, depression, bewilderment or disgust. They’re marching or writing essays: Should we normalize Trump or fight the normalizers?

It all seems so useless during this transition moment. It’s all a series of narcissistic displays and discussions about our own emotional states.

It seems like the first thing to do is really learn what this election is teaching us. Second, this seems like a moment for some low-passion wonkery. It’s stupid to react to every Trump tweet outrage with your own predictable howls. It’s silly to treat politics and governance purely on cultural grounds, as a high school popularity contest, where my sort of people denigrates your sort of people.

We’ve arrived at the moment of actual governing. We’ve arrived at the moment when Trump has to turn his vague notions into concrete proposals.

Trump promised to rip up the Iran deal, but he seems to be realizing there are six other signatories and we’ve lost leverage with the Iranians because we already gave them back their money.

Trump promises to repeal Obamacare, but how do you do that when it has already been woven into the fabric of every health care system in America?

Whether it’s reforming immigration or trade policy, his governing challenge is going to be astoundingly hard and complicated. Surely this is not the moment to get swept up in our own moral superiority, but rather to understand the specificity of the proposals he comes up with and to offer concrete amendments and alternatives to address the same problems.

Finally, surely a little universal humility is in order. Orthodox Republicans spent the last 30 years talking grandly about entrepreneurialism while the social fabric around their core voters disintegrated. Maybe a little government action would have helped?

The Democratic Party is losing badly on the local, state and national levels. If you were a football team you’d be 2-8. Maybe you can do better than responding with the sentiment: Sadly, the country isn’t good enough for us.

Those of us in the opinion class have been complaining that Trump voters are post-truth, that they don’t have a respect for expertise. Well, the experts created a school system that doesn’t produce skilled graduates. The experts designed Obamacare exchanges that are failing. Maybe those of us in the professional class need to win back some credibility the old-fashioned way, with effective reform.

There will be plenty of time to be disgusted with Trump’s bigotry, narcissism and incompetence. It’s tempting to get so caught up in his outrage du jour that you never have to do any self-examination. But let’s be honest: It wouldn’t kill us Trump critics to take a break from our never-ending umbrage to engage in a little listening.

Brooks, Cohen, and Krugman

November 18, 2016

In “The Danger of a Dominant Identity” Bobo says that seeing people as one dimensional dehumanizes all of us.  I wonder if that applies to Bobo’s railing about dirty hippies and those shiftless layabouts having unapproved sexytimes while Bobo slaves away in the salt mines at the Times?  As usual, “gemli” from Boston has a thing or two to add.  Mr. Cohen ponders Trump, Bannon and the looming apocalypse in “The Man Who Would Not be President.”  Prof. Krugman, in “The Medicare Killers,” says candidate Trump promised to protect entitlements, but President-elect Trump apparently has different plans.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past few days we’ve seen what happens when you assign someone a single identity. Pollsters assumed that most Latinos would vote only as Latinos, and therefore against Donald Trump. But a surprising percentage voted for him.

Pollsters assumed women would vote primarily as women, and go for Hillary Clinton. But a surprising number voted against her. They assumed African-Americans would vote along straight Democratic lines, but a surprising number left the top line of the ballot blank.

The pollsters reduced complex individuals to a single identity, and are now embarrassed.

But pollsters are not the only people guilty of reductionist solitarism. This mode of thinking is one of the biggest problems facing this country today.

Trump spent the entire campaign reducing people to one identity and then generalizing. Muslims are only one thing, and they are dangerous. Mexicans are only one thing, and that is alien. When Trump talked about African-Americans he always talked about inner-city poverty, as if that was the sum total of the black experience in America.

Bigots turn multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures. Anti-Semites define Jewishness in a certain crude miniaturizing way. Racists define both blackness and whiteness in just that manner. Populists dehumanize complex people into the moronic categories of “the people” and “the elites.”

But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.

Large parts of popular culture — and pretty much all of stand-up comedy — consist of reducing people to one or another identity and then making jokes about that generalization. The people who worry about cultural appropriation reduce people to an ethnic category and argue that those outside can never understand it. A single identity walls off empathy and the imagination.

We’re even seeing a wave of voluntary reductionism. People feel besieged, or they’re intellectually lazy, so they reduce themselves to one category. Being an evangelical used to mean practicing a certain form of faith. But “evangelical” has gone from being an adjective to a noun, a simplistic tribal identity that commands Republican affiliation.

Unfortunately, if you reduce complex individuals to one thing you’ll go through life clueless about the world around you. People’s classifications now shape how they see the world.

Plus, as the philosopher Amartya Sen has argued, this mentality makes the world more flammable. Crude tribal dividing lines inevitably arouse a besieged, victimized us/them mentality. This mentality assumes that the relations between groups are zero sum and antagonistic. People with this mentality tolerate dishonesty, misogyny and terrorism on their own side because all morality lays down before the tribal imperative.

The only way out of this mess is to continually remind ourselves that each human is a conglomeration of identities: ethnic, racial, professional, geographic, religious and so on. Even each identity itself is not one thing but a tradition of debate about the meaning of that identity. Furthermore, the dignity of each person is not found in the racial or ethnic category that each has inherited, but in the moral commitments that each individual has chosen and lived out.

Getting out of this mess also means accepting the limits of social science. The judgments of actual voters are better captured in the narratives of journalism and historical analysis than in the brutalizing correlations of big data.

Rebinding the nation means finding shared identities, not just contrasting ones. If we want to improve race relations, it’s not enough to have a conversation about race. We also have to emphasize identities people have in common across the color line. If you can engage different people together as Marines or teachers, then you will have built an empathetic relationship, and people can learn one another’s racial experiences naturally.

Finally, we have to revive the American identity. For much of the 20th century, America had a rough consensus about the American idea. Historians congregated around a common narrative. People put great stock in civic rituals like the pledge. But that consensus is now in tatters, stretched by globalization, increasing diversity as well as failures of civic education.

Now many Americans don’t recognize one another or their country. The line I heard most on election night was, “This is not my America.” We will have to construct a new national idea that binds and embraces all our particular identities.

The good news, as my Times colleague April Lawson points out, is that there wasn’t mass violence last week. That could have happened amid a civic clash this ugly and passionate. That’s a sign that for all the fear and anger of this season, there’s still mutual attachment among us, something to build on.

But there has to be a rejection of single-identity thinking and a continual embrace of the reality that each of us is a mansion with many rooms.

And now here’s what “gemli” had to say about that:

“Yes, we’re all gems with many facets, and we should appraise each other in the refulgent glow of their wondrous complexities. This would be sage advice if any organism back to the moment of abiogenesis had ever viewed its fellow creatures as anything more than food.

Those of us who have evolved made the attempt to view people as more than one-dimensional objects. We thought people should be taken care of, even if they were poor, old or sick. But we faced opposition from certain monkeys who wouldn’t be happy until they had all the bananas.

It was only recently that conservatives and liberals tried to get along, momentarily intrigued by the novel idea of a democracy. Lion and lamb cooperated, and reluctantly agreed to work together. They valued education and science. Government worked to eliminate poverty, racial hatred, unfairness and ignorance.

It couldn’t last. Things started to fall apart when a recent president changed the complexion of the White House. Something primal was triggered, and conservatives reasserted their dominant identity.

This didn’t start with Donald Trump. He’s merely the culmination of the one-dimensional thinker, the self-appointed alpha male, pea-brained but powerful, prowling for prey and groping the gazelles.”

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

What was evident during the campaign is more apparent after Donald Trump’s election: He is deeply ambivalent about becoming president. He’d rather stay in his lavish New York penthouse. Policy is a headache. It requires concentration. There are annoying laws against nepotism. Trump won 4.1 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia. Washington does not pine for him.

It all began as a game, turned into an ego trip, and ended in a strange apotheosis. Trump has uncanny instincts but no firm ideas. He knows the frisson authority confers. A rich boy from Queens who made good in Manhattan, he understands the galvanizing force of playing the outsider card. A man who changed his past, purging German lineage for “Swedish,” he understands America’s love for the outsized invented life. For his victory he depended on America’s unique gift for amnesia.

Trump saw the immense potential appeal of an American restoration — all nationalism finds its roots in a gloried, mythical past — after the presidency of a black man, Barack Obama, who prudently chose not to exalt the exceptional nature of the United States but to face the reality of diminished power.

The proposed restoration went beyond that. It was of the Judeo-Christian West against what Trump’s chief strategist — read propaganda minister — Steve Bannon calls “the new barbarity.” That barbarity has many components. One is the crony capitalism of the “party of Davos” — the elites who have the system rigged. Another is the dilution of Judeo-Christian values through rampant secularization, migration and miscegenation. The mass 21st-century influx of Muslims in the West may be equated, in these people’s eyes, with the mass emancipation and emergence from the Shtetl of Jews in 19th- century Europe: disruptive, threatening, a menace to the established order.

Obama is of mixed race. Who could better symbolize the looming decadence? For “Make America Great Again,” read “Make America White Again.” Trump saw that racism and sexism could be manipulated in his favor. He was the self-styled voice of the people to whom he bore least resemblance: those at the periphery far from the metropolitan hubs of the Davos consensus.

From headline to headline Trump stumbled, ending up with the last thing he wants: a minutely scrutinized life. You can wing a campaign; you can’t wing the leadership of the free world. An unethical commander-in-chief is a commander-in-chief with problems.

Trump knows all this. He was big on hat; now he needs cattle. That’s problematic. He does not really know where to begin. Clearly not at the State Department, which has yet to hear from him.

One is put in mind of H.L. Mencken: “As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Except that Trump is no moron. That makes the outlook more sinister. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, got it about right when he said of Trump: “I’m a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one.” He might have said a gifted charlatan.

Bannon, as set out in remarks reported by BuzzFeed to a conference held at the Vatican in 2014, believes that, “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict” that will, absent a firm stand by “the church militant,” “completely eradicate everything we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

The thing is, of course, this fight — this imagined restoration — will be waged against the very essence of the modern world: the movement of peoples and ever greater interconnectedness, driven by technology. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Trump-Bannon war can only end in apocalypse.

I believe money binds Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Trump. Precisely how we do not know yet. But there is also a cultural aspect. Putin has set himself up as the guardian of an absolutist culture against what Russia sees as the predatory and relativist culture of the West. The Putin entourage is convinced the decadence of the West is revealed in its irreligious embrace of same-sex marriage, radical feminism, euthanasia, homosexuality and choose-your-gender bathrooms. Enter Bannon.

It’s all a terrible mistake. Trump affects something close to a regal pout, close enough anyway to be perfected through Botox. He loves gilt, gold and pomp. He’s interested in authority, but not details. He yearns to watch the genuflections of the awed. He loves ribbon-cutting and the regalia of power. Used to telling minions they’re fired, he prefers subjects to citizens. In short, he’d be better off at Buckingham Palace.

That won’t happen. I see a high chance of disaster within the first year of the new presidency. Trump won the game. But now the game for him could be up. Or perhaps the world will go down in flames.

Well, that’s what we’ve heard — no more water, fire next time.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

During the campaign, Donald Trump often promised to be a different kind of Republican, one who would represent the interests of working-class voters who depend on major government programs. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” he declared, under the headline “Why Donald Trump Won’t Touch Your Entitlements.”

It was, of course, a lie. The transition team’s point man on Social Security is a longtime advocate of privatization, and all indications are that the incoming administration is getting ready to kill Medicare, replacing it with vouchers that can be applied to the purchase of private insurance. Oh, and it’s also likely to raise the age of Medicare eligibility.

So it’s important not to let this bait-and-switch happen before the public realizes what’s going on.

Three points in particular need to be made as loudly as possible.

First, the attack on Medicare will be one of the most blatant violations of a campaign promise in history.

Some readers may recall George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security, in which he claimed a “mandate” from voters despite having run a campaign entirely focused on other issues. That was bad, but this is much worse — and not just because Mr. Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin, making any claim of a mandate bizarre.

Candidate Trump ran on exactly the opposite position from the one President-elect Trump seems to be embracing, claiming to be an economic populist defending the (white) working class. Now he’s going to destroy a program that is crucial to that class?

Which brings me to the second point: While Medicare is an essential program for a great majority of Americans, it’s especially important for the white working-class voters who supported Mr. Trump most strongly. Partly that’s because Medicare beneficiaries are considerably whiter than the country as a whole, precisely because they’re older and reflect the demography of an earlier era.

Beyond that, think of what would happen if Medicare didn’t exist. Some older Americans would probably be able to retain health coverage by staying at jobs that come with such coverage. But this option would by and large be available only to those with extensive education: Labor force participation among seniors is strongly correlated with education, in part because the highly educated are healthier than the less educated, and in part because their jobs require less physical effort. Working-class seniors would be left stranded, unable to get the health care they needed.

Still, doesn’t something have to be done about Medicare? No — which is my third point. People like Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, have often managed to bamboozle the media into believing that their efforts to dismantle Medicare and other programs are driven by valid economic concerns. They aren’t.

It has been obvious for a long time that Medicare is actually more efficient than private insurance, mainly because it doesn’t spend large sums on overhead and marketing, and, of course, it needn’t make room for profits.

What’s not widely known is that the cost-saving measures included in the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, have been remarkably successful in their efforts to “bend the curve” — to rein in the long-term rise in Medicare expenses. In fact, since 2010 Medicare outlays per beneficiary have risen only 1.4 percent a year, less than the inflation rate. This success is one main reason long-term budget projections have dramatically improved.

So why try to destroy this successful program, which is in important respects doing better than ever? The main answer, from the point of view of people like Mr. Ryan, is probably that Medicare is in the cross hairs precisely because of its success: It would be very helpful for opponents of government to do away with a program that clearly demonstrates the power of government to improve people’s lives.

And there’s an additional benefit to the right from Medicare privatization: It would create a lot of opportunities for private profits, earned by diverting dollars that could have been used to provide health care.

In summary, then, privatizing Medicare would betray a central promise of the Trump campaign, would specifically betray the interests of the voter bloc that thought it had found a champion, and would be terrible policy.

You might think this would make the whole idea a non-starter. And this push will, in fact, fail — just like Social Security privatization in 2005 — if voters realize what’s happening.

What’s crucial now is to make sure that voters do, in fact, realize what’s going on. And this isn’t just a job for politicians. It’s also a chance for the news media, which failed so badly during the campaign, to start doing its job.

Brooks solo

November 15, 2016

In “The Life and Example of Gwen Ifill” Bobo says she has left a chasm, which nobody else can fill up and which nobody has a tendency to fill.  Here he is:

Smartphones change death. When I heard that Gwen Ifill had died on Monday I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the photo album.

There were pictures of Gwen and her “NewsHour” colleague Judy Woodruff laughing uproariously together, doing little exploding fist-bumps, which I sneakily took while she was heroically covering the political conventions this year.

There was a picture of her joyously driving a boat full tilt during a “NewsHour” party a few summers ago, the wind blasting into her clothes and face. There were pictures of her posing with friends of mine who had come to visit the set. Everybody who came wanted a picture with Gwen.

Every reminiscence you read about Gwen will describe her smile. It was not subtle. It shone from her face like some sort of spiritual explosion.

Once, during a walk through Rock Creek Park, she told me that if she didn’t go to church on Sunday she felt a little flatter for the whole week. A spirit as deep and ebullient as hers needed nourishment and care, and when it came out it came out in her smile, which was totalistic and unrestrained.

Gwen worked in a tough business, and being an African-American woman in that business brought its own hardships and scars, but Gwen’s smile did not hold back. Her whole personality was the opposite of reticent, and timidity was a stranger to her. When the Ifill incandescence came at you, you were getting human connection full-bore.

And you had better honor it. After the photos, I searched Monday through our email exchanges. I don’t know how Gwen was with her other friends, but she’d send me short, sometimes cryptic emails every couple of weeks. Sometimes it was a compliment, sometimes a bit of gossip, sometimes it was a jokey offer to rub out someone who’d been nasty to me, and sometimes she was just the sort of friend who checks in: “For some reason you have been on my mind. Are you well?”

Gwen was ebullient, as I’ve mentioned, but she was not soft. She was authoritative, an executive and confident.

I suppose every profession has a few people like this, people who love the whole profession, who pay compliments when its standards are met and who are tough when they are not. Gwen talked a lot about her extended family, but also a lot about newsrooms and who were the great colleagues in them.

I would say she was an ambitious person. She liked moderating the big debates, even though she was a bundle of nerves just before. But she was not ambitious the way some other TV people are. Gwen was adored wherever she went, but she let the adoration roll off her, without it affecting her understanding of what was real.

She was ambitious for quality. She worked for low money at PBS. She worked doggedly on her programs, and whenever I did anything that diminished the “NewsHour” she let me know directly.

She loved her country, too. She relentlessly promoted female and African-American journalists. She had a strong affinity for badass women of all types. She kept her journalistic distance from the Obamas, but she knew what a step it was to have an African-American president.

The night before Obama’s inauguration in 2009, a group of journalists met in David and Katherine Bradley’s house. At the end of the evening they gathered around the piano and sang civil rights anthems and some hymns. Everybody knew the first stanza to “Amazing Grace,” but only Gwen knew the last three, which she sang alone, in honor of the past labors and future promise.

By 2012 she sensed that racial ugliness was coming out into the open. She began getting more racist reactions on social media and she moved to support her friend Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, who was getting anti-Semitic ones. Keep your head down and keep writing, she urged Goldberg; it’s what they don’t want you to do. Gwen knew what was coming.

These days it is normal to bash Washington, to want to “drain the swamp” and to attack the mainstream media. The populists are in and the establishment is out.

But I confess, when I looked at the front of The Times website on Monday and saw a photo of Stephen K. Bannon, on leave from Breitbart as chairman and rising in power, and then underneath it a photo of Gwen, who is passing from this world, I wanted to throw up. This is not progress and this is not good news.

Gwen’s death merits a bit of the reaction that greeted the death of the writer Samuel Johnson centuries ago: She has left a chasm, which nobody else can fill up and which nobody has a tendency to fill.

Now that Gwen is dead, who is the next best thing? There’s nobody. There are many great people who will follow her example. But nobody quite reminds you of Gwen.