Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

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.

Solo Bobo

June 30, 2015

I defy you to get through Bobo’s offering today without, as the kidz say, LOL.  In “The Next Culture War” he actually seems to believe that social conservatives are poised to heal broken pieces of society: and that they should do so rather than continuing to fight battles that are already over.  My cats are laughing…  In the comments “Bartleby T. Scrivener” from New York, NY points out the oh-so-obvious:  “Social conservatives are well-equipped to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable? Aren’t they the ones responsible for making our society atomized, unforgiving, and inhospitable?”  Here’s Bobo.  Put your coffee down, your keyboard doesn’t need it.

Christianity is in decline in the United States. The share of Americans who describe themselves as Christians and attend church is dropping. Evangelical voters make up a smaller share of the electorate. Members of the millennial generation are detaching themselves from religious institutions in droves.

Christianity’s gravest setbacks are in the realm of values. American culture is shifting away from orthodox Christian positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and a range of other social issues. More and more Christians feel estranged from mainstream culture. They fear they will soon be treated as social pariahs, the moral equivalent of segregationists because of their adherence to scriptural teaching on gay marriage. They fear their colleges will be decertified, their religious institutions will lose their tax-exempt status, their religious liberty will come under greater assault.

The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision landed like some sort of culminating body blow onto this beleaguered climate. Rod Dreher, author of the truly outstanding book “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” wrote an essay in Time in which he argued that it was time for Christians to strategically retreat into their own communities, where they could keep “the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness.”

He continued: “We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.”

Most Christian commentary has opted for another strategy: fight on. Several contributors to a symposium in the journal First Things about the court’s Obergefell decision last week called the ruling the Roe v. Wade of marriage. It must be resisted and resisted again. Robert P. George, probably the most brilliant social conservative theorist in the country, argued that just as Lincoln persistently rejected the Dred Scott decision, so “we must reject and resist an egregious act of judicial usurpation.”

These conservatives are enmeshed in a decades-long culture war that has been fought over issues arising from the sexual revolution. Most of the conservative commentators I’ve read over the past few days are resolved to keep fighting that war.

I am to the left of the people I have been describing on almost all of these social issues. But I hope they regard me as a friend and admirer. And from that vantage point, I would just ask them to consider a change in course.

Consider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.

Put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex. Put aside a culture war that, at least over the near term, you are destined to lose.

Consider a different culture war, one just as central to your faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.

We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.

Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.

This culture war is more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than Moral Majority. It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private.

I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex, and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.

As an aside, I wonder why Bobo, who is Jewish, is so terribly worried about the state of Christianity.  Except, of course, that the Talibangelicals are his brothers and sisters in spirit…

Brooks and Krugman

June 26, 2015

Bobo is pondering “The Robert E. Lee Problem.”  He’s thought and thought and thought and came up with a question.  He says the debate over flying the Confederate flag prompts another question over Southern heritage: Should we honor the Confederate general?  Well, Bobo, if you’re all for honoring traitors…  In the comments “zb” from BC had this to say:  “The real question is not about Lee but about you and the rest of the Republican Party and rightwing. What are we to do with people who through all their adult life have been willing to pander and perpetuate the symbols and reality of slavery, bigotry, and hate for the sake of power. Removing symbols of hate means nothing if you are not prepared to renounce the practices of hate itself.”  Prof. Krugman says “Hooray for Obamacare,” and that the reality of Obamacare is that it’s a tremendous success, which was conservatives’ big fear.  Here’s Bobo:

The debate about the Charleston Bible study shooting has morphed into a debate about the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. This is not a trivial sideshow. Racism is not just a personal prejudice and an evolutionary byproduct. It resurfaces year after year because it’s been woven by historical events into the fabric of American culture.

That culture is transmitted through the generations by the things we honor or don’t honor, by the symbols and names we celebrate and don’t celebrate. If we want to reduce racism we have to elevate the symbols that signify the struggle against racism and devalue the symbols that signify its acceptance.

Lowering the Confederate flag from public properties is thus an easy call. There are plenty of ways to celebrate Southern heritage and Southern life without choosing one so enmeshed in the fight to preserve slavery.

The harder call concerns Robert E. Lee. Should schools and other facilities be named after the great Confederate general, or should his name be removed and replaced?

The case for Lee begins with his personal character. It is almost impossible to imagine a finer and more considerate gentleman.

As a general and public figure, he was a man of impeccable honesty, integrity and kindness. As a soldier, he displayed courage from the beginning of his career straight through to the end. Despite his blunders at Gettysburg and elsewhere he was by many accounts the most effective general in the Civil War and maybe in American history. One biographer, Michael Korda, writes, “His generosity of spirit, undiminished by ideological or political differences, and even by the divisive, bloody Civil War, shines through in every letter he writes, and in every conversation of his that was reported or remembered.”

As a family man, he was surprisingly relaxed and affectionate. We think of him as a man of marble, but he loved having his kids jump into bed with him and tickle his feet. With his wife’s loving cooperation, he could write witty and even saucy letters to other women. He was devout in his faith, a gifted watercolorist, a lover of animals and a charming conversationalist.

In theory, he opposed slavery, once calling it “a moral and political evil in any country.” He opposed Southern secession, calling it “silly” and a rash revolutionary act. Moreover we shouldn’t be overly guilty of the sin of “presentism,” judging historical figures by contemporary standards.

The case against Lee begins with the fact that he betrayed his oath to serve the United States. He didn’t need to do it. The late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor demonstrated that 40 percent of Virginia officers decided to remain with the Union forces, including members of Lee’s family.

As the historian Allen Guelzo emailed me, “He withdrew from the Army and took up arms in a rebellion against the United States.” He could have at least sat out the war. But, Guelzo continues, “he raised his hand against the flag and government he had sworn to defend. This more than fulfills the constitutional definition of treason.”

More germane, while Lee may have opposed slavery in theory he did nothing to eliminate or reduce it in practice. On the contrary, if he’d been successful in the central task of his life, he would have preserved and prolonged it.

Like Lincoln he did not believe African-Americans were yet capable of equality. Unlike Lincoln he accepted the bondage of other human beings with bland complaisance. His wife inherited 196 slaves from her father. Her father’s will (somewhat impractically) said they were to be freed, but Lee didn’t free them.

Lee didn’t enjoy owning slaves, but he was considered a hard taskmaster and he did sell some, breaking up families. Moreover, he supported the institution of slavery as a pillar of Confederate life. He defended the right of Southerners to take their slaves to the Western territories. He fundamentally believed the existence of slavery was, at least for a time, God’s will.

Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture. We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain. Given our history, it seems right to aggressively go the extra mile to show that prejudice is simply unacceptable, no matter how fine a person might otherwise be.

My own view is that we should preserve most Confederate memorials out of respect for the common soldiers. We should keep Lee’s name on institutions that reflect postwar service, like Washington and Lee University, where he was president. But we should remove Lee’s name from most schools, roads and other institutions, where the name could be seen as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.

This is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Was I on the edge of my seat, waiting for the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare subsidies? No — I was pacing the room, too nervous to sit, worried that the court would use one sloppily worded sentence to deprive millions of health insurance, condemn tens of thousands to financial ruin, and send thousands to premature death.

It didn’t. And that means that the big distractions — the teething problems of the website, the objectively ludicrous but nonetheless menacing attempts at legal sabotage — are behind us, and we can focus on the reality of health reform. The Affordable Care Act is now in its second year of full operation; how’s it doing?

The answer is, better than even many supporters realize.

Start with the act’s most basic purpose, to cover the previously uninsured. Opponents of the law insisted that it would actually reduce coverage; in reality, around 15 million Americans have gained insurance.

But isn’t that a very partial success, with millions still uncovered? Well, many of those still uninsured are in that position because their state governments have refused to let the federal government enroll them in Medicaid.

Beyond that, you need to realize that the law was never intended or expected to cover everyone. Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible, and any system that doesn’t enroll people automatically will see some of the population fall through the cracks. Massachusetts has had guaranteed health coverage for almost a decade, but 5 percent of its nonelderly adult population remains uninsured.

Suppose we use 5 percent uninsured as a benchmark. How much progress have we made toward getting there? In states that have implemented the act in full and expanded Medicaid, data from the Urban Institute show the uninsured falling from more than 16 percent to just 7.5 percent — that is, in year two we’re already around 80 percent of the way there. Most of the way with the A.C.A.!

But how good is that coverage? Cheaper plans under the law do have relatively large deductibles and impose significant out-of-pocket costs. Still, the plans are vastly better than no coverage at all, or the bare-bones plans that the act made illegal. The newly insured have seen a sharp drop inhealth-related financial distress, and report a high degree of satisfactionwith their coverage.

What about costs? In 2013 there were dire warnings about a looming “rate shock”; instead, premiums came in well below expectations. In 2014 the usual suspects declared that huge premium increases were looming for 2015; the actual rise was just 2 percent. There was another flurry of scare stories about rate hikes earlier this year, but as more information comes in it looks as if premium increases for 2016 will be bigger than for this year but still modest by historical standards — which means that premiums remain much lower than expected.

And there has also been a sharp slowdown in the growth of overall health spending, which is probably due in part to the cost-control measures, largely aimed at Medicare, that were also an important part of health reform.

What about economic side effects? One of the many, many Republican votes against Obamacare involved passing something called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act, and opponents have consistently warned that helping Americans afford health care would lead to economic doom. But there’s no job-killing in the data: The U.S. economy has added more than 240,000 jobs a month on average since Obamacare went into effect, its biggest gains since the 1990s.

Finally, what about claims that health reform would cause the budget deficit to explode? In reality, the deficit has continued to decline, and the Congressional Budget Office recently reaffirmed its conclusion that repealing Obamacare would increase, not reduce, the deficit.

Put all these things together, and what you have is a portrait of policy triumph — a law that, despite everything its opponents have done to undermine it, is achieving its goals, costing less than expected, and making the lives of millions of Americans better and more secure.

Now, you might wonder why a law that works so well and does so much good is the object of so much political venom — venom that is, by the way, on full display in Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion, with its rants against “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” But what conservatives have always feared about health reform is the possibility that it might succeed, and in so doing remind voters that sometimes government action can improve ordinary Americans’ lives.

That’s why the right went all out to destroy the Clinton health plan in 1993, and tried to do the same to the Affordable Care Act. But Obamacare has survived, it’s here, and it’s working. The great conservative nightmare has come true. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Bobo, solo

June 23, 2015

Bobo’s decided to take on the Pope.  Who is, by the way, a scientist.  Something Bobo most certainly is not.  In “Fracking and the Franciscans” he babbles that Pope Francis’ new encyclical contains beautiful ideas that would make for terrible environmental and economic policy.  Since the word “Franciscan” is never mentioned in his column one must assume he thinks the Pope is a Franciscan because of the name he chose.  Wrong, Bobo, wrong again.  He’s a Jesuit.  As Charles Pierce at Esquire repeatedly reminds us, don’t fck with the Jesuits…  Here’s Bobo:

Pope Francis is one of the world’s most inspiring figures. There are passages in his new encyclical on the environment that beautifully place human beings within the seamless garment of life. And yet over all the encyclical is surprisingly disappointing.

Legitimate warnings about the perils of global warming morph into 1970s-style doom-mongering about technological civilization. There are too many overdrawn statements like “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.

The pope has a section on work in the encyclical. The section’s heroes are St. Francis of Assisi and monks — emblems of selfless love who seek to return, the pope says, to a state of “original innocence.”

He is relentlessly negative, on the other hand, when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point he links self-interest with violence. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California.

Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest. But Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world. He neglects the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good. Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness.

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

A few years ago, a team of researchers led by Daniel Esty of Yale looked at the environmental health of 150 countries. The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

You would never suspect, from this encyclical, that over the last decade, one of the most castigated industries has, ironically, produced some of the most important economic and environmental gains. I’m talking of course about fracking.

There was recently a vogue for polemical antifracking documentaries like “Gasland” that purport to show that fracking is causing flammable tap water and other horrors.

But a recent Environmental Protection Agency study found that there was no evidence that fracking was causing widespread harm to the nation’s water supply. On the contrary, there’s some evidence that fracking is a net environmental plus.

That’s because cheap natural gas from fracking displaces coal. A study by the Breakthrough Institute found coal-powered electricity declined to 37 percent from 50 percent of the generation mix between 2007 and 2012. Because natural gas has just half as much global-warming potential as coal, energy-related carbon emissions have declined more in the U.S. than in any other country over that time.

Fracking has also been an enormous boon to the nation’s wealth and the well-being of its people. In a new report called “America’s Unconventional Energy Opportunity,” Michael E. Porter, David S. Gee and Gregory J. Pope conclude that gas and oil resources extracted through fracking have already added more than $430 billion to annual gross domestic product and supported more than 2.7 million jobs that pay, on average, twice the median U.S. salary.

Pope Francis is a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person. But if we had followed his line of analysis, neither the Asian economic miracle nor the technology-based American energy revolution would have happened. There’d be no awareness that though industrialization can lead to catastrophic pollution in the short term (China), over the long haul both people and nature are better off with technological progress, growth and regulated affluence.

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

Well, since Mr. Nocera is off today I guess he left it up to Bobo to do the water carrying for Big Energy…

Brooks and Krugman

June 19, 2015

Bobo was too busy to do his own writing, so he presents us with “Hearts Broken Open.” In this second batch of personal takes on how some readers found purpose in life, raising children or confronting illness or death are major factors.  I still for the life of me cannot figure out why anyone would write to Bobo.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Voodoo, Jeb! Style:”  Why did Jeb Bush claim to know the secrets to achieving growth that even economists don’t know?  Here’s Bobo:

Last month, I asked readers if they had discovered a purpose in life and, if so, how they had discovered it. A few thousand wrote essays. I was struck by how elemental life is. Most people found their purpose either through raising children or confronting illness or death.

Scott Addington writes, “As is often the case, my purpose became clearly evident after I had stopped looking for it. On October 11, 1995, my daughter was born. Beginning with that moment, there has never been the slightest doubt regarding the purpose and source of meaning in my life. Being a father is the most meaningful and rewarding pursuit a man could ever hope to experience.”

Not only in parenting, but also in teaching. The essays from teachers ring with special clarity and force. Many of them see clearly how their day-to-day activities are in line with their ultimate end. This has its downside after people leave teaching.

Carolyn from Michigan writes, “Before class, I sometimes would sit in the chair of a student who was having a lot of trouble and pray that I might be a blessing to him that day. Yes, for 37 years I was a teacher, the last 25 as a high school special education teacher. That was my purpose; that was my calling.

“But now I am retired, and I am adrift. What is my purpose now? I struggle with it every day. When I was teaching, I would bound out of bed at 6:15 every morning. Now I wake early, but stay under the covers, filled with a world’s worth of anxiety. It might have been better had I died while trying to teach students with learning disabilities the basics of geometry.”

Quite frequently purpose emerges from loss. Greg Sunter from Brisbane, Australia, writes: “Four years ago, my wife of 21 years passed away as the result of a brain tumor. Her passage from diagnosis to death was less than six months. As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work — to a point that I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death.

“In his book ‘A Hidden Wholeness,’ Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our hearts can be broken: the first imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. The image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life.”

Some people’s lives organize around a certain role or calling. “My moniker could be ‘formidable advocate,’ ” writes Georgian Lussier. After her brother suffered a brain injury, she learned to help people work through the maze of the health care system. Now she helps older women find work.

But, for many people, the purpose of life is simply to live it fully. Many people don’t necessarily see their lives as pointing toward God or as defined by some mission statement. They seek to drink in life at full volume, to experience and help others richly.

Jae Brown was driving after smoking weed and drinking when he was pulled over. He confessed everything to the cop, who saw that Brown was in college and whispered, “Don’t let your friends get you in trouble you can’t get yourself out of,” and let him go. “My purpose in life,” Brown writes, “is to mentor, provide that whisper in someone’s ear that changes their life.”

The great struggle in essay after essay is to remain emotionally vital and intellectually alive.

Zachary Krowitz, 21, read the essays written in response to the column and concluded that “this desire for something that is surely true is present in all of us, and reflects an attempt to know what we really want. … Unfortunately, based both on the essays written in response to your column and common experience, such meaning is often lost as one travels through life, emotions become duller and less clear.”

Alayne Crossman, 42, is able to keep her emotion flowing at full pitch. “Without the love of my family I wouldn’t be who I am today. It means I cry during ‘Frozen,’ every single time. It means I cry when I listen to Van Morrison’s ‘Ancient Highway.’ I am ridiculously sentimental because I choose to remain open to this vast, messy thing we call life.”

For many people, the purpose of life is to have more life. That may not have defined people’s purpose in past eras, when it might have had more to do with the next life, or obedience to a creed. But many today seek to live with hearts wide open.

I almost feel sorry for him [not really…] because he really must be dreading having to address the 2016 Clown Car at some point.  Unless he’s decided that he’s above considering the hurley-burley of politics now…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Monday Jeb Bush — or I guess that’s Jeb!, since he seems to have decided to replace his family name with a punctuation mark — finally made his campaign for the White House official, and gave us a first view of his policy goals. First, he says that if elected he would double America’s rate of economic growth to 4 percent. Second, he would make it possible for every American to lose as much weight as he or she wants, without any need for dieting or exercise.

O.K., he didn’t actually make that second promise. But he might as well have. It would have been just as realistic as promising 4 percent growth, and considerably less irresponsible.

I’ll get to Jeb!onomics in a minute, but first let me tell you about a dirty little secret of economics — namely, that we don’t know very much about how to raise the long-run rate of economic growth. Economists do know how to promote recovery from temporary slumps, even if politicians usually refuse to take their advice. But once the economy is near full employment, further growth depends on raising output per worker. And while there are things that might help make that happen, the truth is that nobody knows how to conjure up rapid productivity gains.

Why, then, would Mr. Bush imagine that he is privy to secrets that have evaded everyone else?

One answer, which is actually kind of funny, is that he believes that the growth in Florida’s economy during his time as governor offers a role model for the nation as a whole. Why is that funny? Because everyone except Mr. Bush knows that, during those years, Florida was booming thanks to the mother of all housing bubbles. When the bubble burst, the state plunged into a deep slump, much worse than that in the nation as a whole. Taking the boom and the slump together, Florida’s longer-term economic performance has, if anything, been slightly worse than the national average.

The key to Mr. Bush’s record of success, then, was good political timing: He managed to leave office before the unsustainable nature of the boom he now invokes became obvious.

But Mr. Bush’s economic promises reflect more than self-aggrandizement. They also reflect his party’s habit of boasting about its ability to deliver rapid economic growth, even though there’s no evidence at all to justify such boasts. It’s as if a bunch of relatively short men made a regular practice of swaggering around, telling everyone they see that they’re 6 feet 2 inches tall.

To be more specific, the next time you encounter some conservative going on about growth, you might want to bring up the following list of names and numbers: Bill Clinton, 3.7; Ronald Reagan, 3.4; Barack Obama, 2.1; George H.W. Bush, 2.0; George W. Bush, 1.6. Yes, that’s the last five presidents — and the average rate of growth of the U.S. economy during their time in office (so far, in Mr. Obama’s case). Obviously, the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, but surely there’s nothing in that list to suggest that conservatives possess some kind of miracle cure for economic sluggishness. And, as many have pointed out, if Jeb! knows the secret to 4 percent growth, why didn’t he tell his father and brother?

Or consider the experience of Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback pushed through radical tax cuts that were supposed to drive rapid economic growth. “We’ll see how it works. We’ll have a real live experiment,” he declared. And the results of the experiment are now in: The promised boom never arrived, big deficits did, and, despite savage cuts to schools and other public services, Kansas eventually had to raise taxes again (with the pain concentrated on lower-income residents).

Why, then, all the boasting about growth? The short answer, surely, is that it’s mainly about finding ways to sell tax cuts for the wealthy. Such cuts are unpopular in and of themselves, and even more so if, like the Kansas tax cuts for businesses and the affluent, they must be paid for with higher taxes on working families and/or cuts in popular government programs. Yet low taxes on the rich are an overriding policy priority on the right — and promises of growth miracles let conservatives claim that everyone will benefit from trickle-down, and maybe even that tax cuts will pay for themselves.

There is, of course, a term for basing a national program on this kind of self-serving (and plutocrat-serving) wishful thinking. Way back in 1980, George H.W. Bush, running against Reagan for the presidential nomination, famously called it “voodoo economic policy.” And while Reaganolatry is now obligatory in the G.O.P., the truth is that he was right.

So what does it say about the state of the party that Mr. Bush’s son — often portrayed as the moderate, reasonable member of the family — has chosen to make himself a high priest of voodoo economics? Nothing good.

Brooks and Nocera

June 16, 2015

Bobo gives us a classic example of concern trolling in “The Democratic Tea Party.”  He gurgles that if  it stands, Democrats’ rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will go down as a mistake with extensive and long-lasting repercussions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “When David Brooks comes riding in on a white horse to save the world it’s probably best to take a close look at the horse, because it’s usually of the Trojan variety.”  Mr. Nocera, in “How to Grade a Teacher,” says there are better ways to evaluate teachers than test scores alone.  Here’s Bobo:

Last week, the Congressional Democrats defeated the underpinnings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Let’s count up the things these Democrats will have done if this policy stands.

Impoverish the world’s poor. There’s an argument over what trade agreements do to workers in the nation’s rich countries, but there is no question they have a positive impact on people in the poorer ones.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, probably didn’t affect the American economy too much. But the Mexican economy has taken off. With more opportunities, Mexican workers feel less need to sneak into the U.S. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, a regime that was anti-American has turned into one that is pro-American.

In Asia, the American-led open trade era has created the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. The Pacific trade deal would lift the living standards of the poorest Asians, especially the 90 million people of Vietnam.

As Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, wrote in his Marginal Revolution blog: “Do you get that progressives? Poorest country = biggest gainer. Isn’t that what we are looking for?”

Damage the American economy. According to a survey by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 83 percent of the nation’s leading economists believe that trade deals have been good for most Americans. That’s not quite the level of consensus on man-made global warming, but it is close.

That’s because free trade is not a zero-sum game. The global poor benefit the most, but most people in rich countries benefit, too. As Jason Furman, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors pointed out in a speech at the Brookings Institution, since World War II, reductions in U.S. tariffs have contributed an additional 7.3 percent to American incomes.

Trade treaties have led to significant growth in American manufacturing exports. According to Furman, export-intensive industries pay workers up to 18 percent more than nonexport-intensive ones. Rising imports also give American consumers access to a wider range of inexpensive products, leading to huge standard of living increases for those down the income scale.The authoritative study on the Pacific trade deal, by Peter Petri, Michael Plummer and Fan Zhai, suggests it would raise U.S. incomes by 0.4 percent per year by 2025.

Stifle future innovation. Democrats point out that some workers have been hurt by trade deals. And that’s true. Most manufacturing job losses have been caused by technological improvements.

But those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The best way forward is to increase the number of high-quality jobs in the service sector. The Pacific trade deal would help. The treaty is not mostly about reducing tariffs on goods. That work has mostly been done. It’s mostly about establishing rules for a postindustrial global economy, rules having to do with intellectual property, investment, antitrust and environmental protection. Service-sector industries like these are where America is strongest, where the opportunities for innovation are the most exciting and where wages are already 20 percent higher than in manufacturing.

Imperil world peace. The Pacific region will either be organized by American rules or Chinese rules. By voting against the trade deal, Democrats went a long way toward guaranteeing that Chinese rules will dominate.

As various people have noted, the Democratic vote last week was a miniversion of the effort to destroy the League of Nations after World War I. It damaged an institution that might head off future conflict.

The arguments Democrats use against the deal are small and inadequate. Some Democrats are suspicious because it was negotiated in secret. (They seem to have no trouble with the Iranian nuclear treaty, which is also negotiated in secret.)

Others worry that the treaty would allow corporations to sue governments. But these procedures are already in place, and as research from the Center for Strategic and Internatioanl Studies has demonstrated, the concerns are vastly overblown. They mostly protect companies from authoritarian governments who seek to expropriate their property.

In reality, the opposition to the trade pact is part of a long tradition of populist reaction. When economic stress rises, there is a strong temptation to pull inward. The Republican Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global diplomatic arrangements. The Democrats’ version of the Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global economic arrangements.

It would be nice if Hillary Clinton emerged and defended the treaty, which she helped organize.

Rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership will hurt economies from the U.S. to Japan to Vietnam. It will send yet another signal that America can no longer be counted on as the world’s leading nation.

If Bobo’s for it, then thinking people must be against it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

This is the second column I’ve written about Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. Ball believes the training that teachers get while they are in school needs to be drastically improved. Last year, I wrote about her effort to develop a professional training curriculum that would allow beginning teachers to be far better grounded in their craft than they are now.

Recently, I learned about another effort she has led, which I also think deserves wider attention. It tackles one of the most divisive topics in K-12 education: how to evaluate teachers so that the best can be rewarded and the worst fired.

In New York — a state where the issue has been especially contentious — Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year pushed through legislation that calls for student test scores to count for as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, up from the current 20 percent. The teachers’ unions were incensed, believing that test scores are a simplistic and unfair means of assessing teachers. So were many parents, who joined a boycott movement that resulted in an estimated 165,000 students opting out of this year’s standardized tests.

A teacher evaluation system “is only good if the teachers respect it and trust it,” says Vicki Phillips, a director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers are convinced that evaluation systems that overly rely on test scores are punitive, which the political rhetoric often underscores. For instance, Cuomo’s stated reason for changing the state’s teacher evaluation was that some 96 percent of teachers got top gradesunder the old process. He scoffed at those results as “baloney.” That’s hardly going to get teachers to buy into your new evaluation system.

Which brings me back to Michigan. In 2011, the State Legislature there changed the tenure law, making it easier to fire incompetent teachers. But it also set up the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, which was charged with coming up with its first-ever statewide evaluation system. Ball was named chairwoman of the council. Two years later, it came back with its recommendations.

The first thing I noticed about the council’s recommendations is that they completely avoid the divisive political language that has alienated teachers. Instead of casting teacher evaluation as primarily being about getting rid of bad teachers, they put the emphasis on teacher improvement. An evaluation system that stresses improvement instead of punishment has a much better chance of being embraced by teachers.

Such an emphasis isn’t just good politics. It’s also an important way to help make schools better. “Very few teachers can’t improve,” Ball told me recently. And most teachers want to improve — but have no means of getting useful feedback. The council’s idea was that the evaluations could be used not just to rid the system of incompetent teachers — though it would certainly do that — but also to give all the other teachers critical feedback. It also envisions transforming professional development, which is now mostly a wasteland, into a mechanism to put that feedback into practice.

There are two fundamental pieces to the Michigan council’s plan. The first piece is teacher observation. In most schools, it’s the principal who observes the teacher, often haphazardly, and rates him or her based on personal biases, which may or may not be sound. Ball and her colleagues would instead rely on observers who have been trained in using certain tools that have been proved effective. These observations would be the basis for the teacher’s feedback — feedback meant to encourage and help, rather than threaten.

The second piece is what the council calls evaluating “student growth.” Here the point would be not to measure student achievement in absolute terms — Does Johnny read at a fourth-grade level? — but rather to measure whether Johnny had made a year’s worth of improvement from the level he was reading at when he was in the third grade. This would be a more accurate representation of the difference the teacher made, and would take into account the wide range of learning levels teachers often have to contend with.

Some of this growth evaluation would undoubtedly be done through tests. But not all of it, or even most of it. “You have to look at objectives for students for the year and see if they made progress,” says Ball. There are ways to do that that don’t require standardized testing.

I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t. Legislation that embodied the work of the council failed to pass the Michigan Legislature in the last session. More recently, the chairman of a related Senate committee, Phil Pavlov, has essentially tossed the council’s work aside in favor of “local control.”

That is Michigan’s loss. But perhaps other states and school districts can look at the work of the Michigan council and learn from it. In which case, it could still be America’s gain.

Brooks and Krugman

June 12, 2015

Bobo has decided to tell us all “How Adulthood Happens.”  He informs us that the “Odyssey Years” before age 30 are a crucial part of American adults’ formation.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “Mr. Brooks’ columns are more like post-hypnotic suggestions than they are social or political commentary. He murmurs, “When you see college grads living at home, you will blame the victims….” And when we later hear reports of un- or under-employed kids living in their parents’ basements, or read stories in The Times about people defaulting on student loans, we’ll wonder, what’s the matter with kids today?”  Prof. Krugman, in “Seriously Bad Ideas,” says the financial crisis has given remarkable staying power to false explanations of big events. And they continue to warp policy.  Here’s Bobo:

Every society has its rites of passage, marking the transition from youth to adulthood. Most of these rites of passage are ritualized and structured, with adult supervision and celebration. But the major rite of passage in our society is unritualized, unstructured and unnamed. Most of the people in the middle of it don’t even know it is going on. It happens between ages 22 and 30.

The people who endure this rite of passage have often attended colleges where they were not taught how to work hard. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write in their book “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” the average student at a four-year college studies alone just over one hour per day. That is roughly half of how much students were compelled to study just a generation ago.

Meanwhile, colleges have become socially rich, stocked with student centers, student organizations, expensive gyms, concerts and activities. As Arum’s and Roksa’s research demonstrates, academic life is of secondary or tertiary importance to most students. Social life comes first. Students experience college as a place to meet other people and learn to build relationships.

When they leave campus, though, most of those social connections and structures are ripped away. Suddenly fresh alumni are cast out into a world almost without support organizations and compelled to hustle for themselves.

These twenty-somethings live in a world of radical freedom, flux and insecurity. Surveys show they are very pessimistic about the state of the country, but amazingly optimistic about their own eventual destiny.According to the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, 86 percent agree with the statement, “I am confident that eventually I will get what I want out of life.”

In the meantime, many spend the first few years out of college aspiring but adrift. They are largely unattached to religious institutions. Two-thirds report that they are not politically engaged. Half the students in Arum’s and Roksa’s recent study reported that they lacked clear goals or a sense of direction two years after graduation.

Yet they are not sure they want to rush into adulthood. As Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Elizabeth Fishel write in “Getting to 30,” “The value of youth has risen, and the desirability of adulthood has dropped accordingly. Today’s young people expect to reach adulthood eventually, and they expect to enjoy their adult lives, but most are in no hurry to get there.”

One way they cope is by moving back home. A third of the graduates in the Arum and Roksa sample were living at home, levels roughly double the share of grads living at home in the 1960s. Three-quarters of 18- to 25-year-olds who were not living at home received financial assistance from their parents. American parents provide an average of $38,000 in assistance to their young adult children.

The first big ordeal is finding a job. Many young adults have not been given basic information about how to go about this. As my Times colleague April Lawson, 28, notes, they are often given the advice, “Follow your dream! The possibilities are limitless!” which is completely discordant with the grubby realities they face. They want meaningful work with social impact. They want to bring their whole selves to work, and ignore the distinctions between professional and intimate life that were in the heads of earlier generations. But meaningful work is scarce. Fifty-three percent of college graduates in the Arum and Roksa sample who were in the labor force were unemployed, underemployed or making less that $30,000 a year.

As emerging adults move from job to job, relationship to relationship and city to city, they have to figure out which of their meanderings are productive exploration and which parts are just wastes of time. This question is very confusing from the inside, and it is certainly confusing for their parents.

Yet here is the good news. By age 30, the vast majority are through it. The sheer hardness of the “Odyssey Years” teaches people to hustle. The trials and errors of the decade carve contours onto their hearts, so they learn what they love and what they don’t. They develop their own internal criteria to make their own decisions. They fear what other people think less because they learn that other people are not thinking about them; they are busy thinking about themselves.

Finally, they learn to say no. After a youth dazzled by possibilities and the fear of missing out, they discover that committing to the few things you love is a sort of liberation. They piece together their mosaic.

One thing we can tell young grads and their parents is that this is normal. This phase is a thing. It’s a not a sentence to a life of video games, loneliness and hangovers. It’s a rite of passage that makes people strong.

He just cries out to be punched in the face…  Here’s Prof. Krugman, writing from Oxford:

One thing we’ve learned in the years since the financial crisis is that seriously bad ideas — by which I mean bad ideas that appeal to the prejudices of Very Serious People — have remarkable staying power. No matter how much contrary evidence comes in, no matter how often and how badly predictions based on those ideas are proved wrong, the bad ideas just keep coming back. And they retain the power to warp policy.

What makes something qualify as a seriously bad idea? In general, to sound serious it must invoke big causes to explain big events — technical matters, like the troubles caused by sharing a currency without a common budget, don’t make the cut. It must also absolve corporate interests and the wealthy from responsibility for what went wrong, and call for hard choices and sacrifice on the part of the little people.

So the true story of economic disaster, which is that it was caused by an inadequately regulated financial industry run wild and perpetuated by wrongheaded austerity policies, won’t do. Instead, the story must involve things like a skills gap — it’s not lack of jobs; we have the wrong workers for this high-technology globalized era, etc., etc. — even if there’s no evidence at all that such a gap is impeding recovery.

And the ultimate example of a seriously bad idea is the determination, in the teeth of all the evidence, to declare government spending that helps the less fortunate a crucial cause of our economic problems. In the United States, I’m happy to say, this idea seems to be on the ropes, at least for now. Here in Britain, however, it still reigns supreme. In particular, one important factor in the recent Conservative election triumph was the way Britain’s news media told voters, again and again, that excessive government spending under Labour caused the financial crisis.

It takes almost no homework to show that this claim is absurd on multiple levels. For one thing, the financial crisis was global; did Gordon Brown’s alleged overspending cause the housing busts in Florida and Spain? For another, all these claims of irresponsibility involve rewriting history, because on the eve of crisis nobody thought Britain was being profligate: debt was low by historical standards and the deficit fairly small. Finally, Britain’s supposedly disastrous fiscal position has never worried the markets, which have remained happy to buy British bonds despitehistorically low yields.

Nonetheless, that’s the story, generally reported not as opinion but as fact. And the really bad news is that Britain’s leaders seem to believe their own propaganda. On Wednesday, George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the government’s austerity policies,announced his intention to make these policies permanent. Britain, he said, should have a law requiring that the government run a budget surplus — with current revenue paying for all spending, including investment outlays — when the economy is growing.

It’s a remarkable proposal, and I mean that in the worst way. Mr. Osborne isn’t offering the wrong answer to Britain’s problems; he’s offering an answer to problems Britain doesn’t have, while ignoring and exacerbating the problems it does.

For Britain does not have a public debt problem. Yes, debt rose in the wake of economic crisis, but it’s still not high by historical standards, and borrowing costs have rarely been lower. In fact, interest rates adjusted for inflation are negative, even on very long-term borrowing. Investors, in other words, are willing to pay the British government to make use of part of their wealth.

Meanwhile, Britain’s real economy is still ailing. It’s true that employment has held up surprisingly well, but that’s only because of a spectacular, unprecedented productivity bust: adjusting for labor quality, output per person-hour has declined around 7 percent since early 2008.

Nobody fully understands either why this slump has happened or how to reverse it, but surely the combination of a still-weak economy, terrible productivity performance and negative borrowing costs says that this is a time to increase investment in things like infrastructure. (Passenger trains here make rail service in the United States look good, and traffic congestion is getting ever worse.) Yet the Osborne proposal would kill any such initiative.

But Mr. Osborne sounds very serious, and, if history is any guide, the Labour Party won’t make any effective counterarguments.

Now, some readers are probably thinking that I’m giving the likes of Mr. Osborne too much credit for sincerity. Isn’t all this deficit obsession just an excuse to slash social programs? And I’m sure that’s part of it. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Seriously bad ideas, I’d argue, have a life of their own. And they rule our world.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 9, 2015

Bobo is just FULL of heart-felt advice for Democrats and the nation.  In “The Mobilization Error” he gurgles that Hillary Rodham Clinton has chosen a campaign strategy that is bad for the nation and probably won’t work.  I love it when he concern trolls.  In the comments “Bos” from Boston points out a standard Bobo tactic:  “This appears to jamming-a-square-peg-in-a-round-hole argument because the dichotomy is an artificial one.”  Bobo has many, many strawmen…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Greek Trap,” says trying to save Greece has become an exercise in the absurd. Let the deluge happen and see how Syriza fares.  Maybe he should read some Krugman.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “Alabama Football Follies:”  Would it still be a real university without football?  Here’s Bobo:

Every serious presidential candidate has to answer a fundamental strategic question: Do I think I can win by expanding my party’s reach, or do I think I can win by mobilizing my party’s base?

Two of the leading Republicans have staked out opposing sides on this issue. Scott Walker is trying to mobilize existing conservative voters. Jeb Bush is trying to expand his party’s reach.

The Democratic Party has no debate on this issue. Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to run as the Democratic Scott Walker. As The Times’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported this week, Clinton strategists have decided that, even in the general election, firing up certain Democratic supporters is easier than persuading moderates. Clinton will adopt left-leaning policy positions carefully designed to energize the Obama coalition — African-Americans, Latinos, single women and highly educated progressives.

This means dispensing with a broad persuasion campaign. As the Democratic strategist David Plouffe told Martin and Haberman, “If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need.”

The Clinton advisers are smart, and many of them helped President Obama win the last war, but this sort of a campaign is a mistake.

This strategy is bad, first, for the country. America has always had tough partisan politics, but for most of its history, the system worked because it had leaders who could reframe debates, reorganize coalitions, build center-out alliances and reach compromises. Politics is broken today because those sorts of leaders have been replaced by highly polarizing, base-mobilizing politicians who hew to party orthodoxy, ignore the 38 percent of voters who identify as moderates and exacerbate partisanship and gridlock. If Clinton decides to be just another unimaginative base-mobilizing politician, she will make our broken politics even worse.

Second, this base mobilization strategy is a legislative disaster. If the next president hopes to pass any actual laws, he or she will have to create a bipartisan governing majority. That means building a center-out coalition, winning 60 reliable supporters in the Senate and some sort of majority in the House. If Clinton runs on an orthodox left-leaning, paint-by-numbers strategy, she’ll never be able to do this. She’ll live in the White House again, but she won’t be able to do much once she lives there.

Third, the mobilization strategy corrodes every candidate’s leadership image. Voters tend to like politicians who lead from a place of conviction, who care more about a cause than winning a demographic. If Clinton seems driven by demographics and microtargeting, she will underline the image some have that she is overly calculating and shrewd.

Finally, the base mobilizing strategy isn’t even very good politics.

It’s worth noting, to start with, that no recent successful first-term presidential campaign has used this approach. In 1992, Bill Clinton firmly grabbed the center. In 2000, George Bush ran as a uniter, not a divider. In 2008, Barack Obama ran as a One Nation candidate who vowed to transcend partisan divides.

The Clinton mobilization strategy is based on the idea that she can generate Obama-level excitement among African-American and young voters. But as Philip Klein documented in The Washington Examiner, Obama was in a league of his own when it came to generating turnout and support from those groups. If Clinton returns to the John Kerry/Al Gore level of African-American and youth support, or if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio can make inroads into the Hispanic vote, then the whole strategy is in peril.

The mobilization strategy over-reads the progressive shift in the electorate. It’s true that voters have drifted left on social issues. But they have not drifted left on economic and fiscal issues, as the continued unpopularity of Obamacare makes clear. If Clinton comes across as a stereotypical big-spending, big-government Democrat, she will pay a huge cost in the Upper Midwest and the Sun Belt.

Furthermore, this strategy vastly exaggerates the supposed death of the swing voter. The mobilizers argue that it’s foolish to go after persuadable voters because in this polarized country there are none left. It’s true there are fewer persuadables, but according to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of voters have a roughly equal number of conservative and liberal positions, and according to a range of academic studies, about 23 percent of the electorate can be swayed by a compelling campaign.

Today’s political consultants have a lot of great tools to turn out reliable voters. They’re capable of creating amazing power points. But as everybody from Ed Miliband to Mark Udall can tell you, this approach has not succeeded at the ballot box. Voters want better politics, not a continuation of the same old techniques. By adopting base mobilization, Clinton seems to have made the first big decision of her presidential campaign. It’s the wrong one.

Tell the lunatics in the Klown Kar to stop mobilizing the base first, Bobo.  (And boy oh boy are they base…)  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Athens:

Trying to save Greece has become an exercise in the absurd. Greece is near-enough bankrupt. Most Greeks know that. It can never repay its debts, no matter how many deals with creditors are pulled out of a hat.

The country is now run by a radical left party whose ministers have close to zero executive experience. Their executive experience nonetheless exceeds their diplomatic experience. This stands at less than zero — and it shows. The party, Syriza, includes people who want to re-fight the Greek Civil War (1946-49) in the belief the Communists will triumph this time.

For now, the party’s main enemies are international creditors and of course the Germans, who want the Greeks to present a plan of some sort to balance their books before doling out more cash — about $8 billion in fact — as part of an enormous bailout program. The thing is, however, that Syriza was elected precisely to say foreign-imposed austerity had already done enough damage to Greece.

The country, which desperately needs the $8 billion, is drowning under a welter of statistics that present a devastating picture of unemployment, unpayable pensions, youthful pensioners, uncollected taxes, drastic fiscal adjustments, and of course debt. Given all this, Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, declared the latest proposals from creditors “absurd” — you see what I mean about diplomacy — a view that reportedly caused Jean-Claude Juncker, the chief executive of the European Union, not to pick up a call from Tsipras over the weekend.

There’s one thing about reality: It tends to come back and kick you in the teeth. Forcing Greece and Germany to coexist in a currency union will always be an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Their economies are mismatched, their temperaments even more so.

Many Greeks are awaiting the worst. The rich, of course, already have their money elsewhere. Just about everyone has a few thousand euros stashed away — 5,000 per person where possible. Stores are taking out anti-looting insurance. Public hospitals are making contingency plans for operating when money dries up. More than $5 billion was pulled from bank accounts in April alone by companies and individuals.

Speculation is rampant — absent a debt deal — of a bank run, capital controls and the issue of i.o.u.’s (that will promptly lose 50 percent of their nominal value, especially if adorned with the face of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis). Shortly thereafter follow economic collapse, unrest and new elections.

That sounds terrible, but I’m not sure. It would represent reality rather than the repetitive evasion of it. Things are very bad here. But just how bad is not clear because it has not been fully tested. The surface has a way of glimmering.

The Greek bailouts have given time to other countries in the eurozone — including Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland — to either get their houses in order or embark seriously on the task. Euro-unraveling contagion is now far less likely. One thing is sure: If a deal is reached with Greece, it will only be the prelude to the next crisis in a few months or so.

Creditors could tell Syriza: You have a century to repay the debt, but now you’re on your own. Fix the country, whether inside the euro or out. Get foreign corporations to put their money in Greece. You want to try the Putin route, with Gazprom stepping in for the I.M.F., go for it! We’re off your back now — so find a way to make Greeks believe in Greece again without the ready excuse that Berlin, or the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission is to blame.

The European Union has done its healing work here. There will not be another civil war, come what may. The sun will still shine; a gazillion islands will still delight; Greeks will still curse every form of authority; they will still smoke in every restaurant in defiance of the law; they will still have more money than they appear to have; tables in cheap “tavernas” will still offer views that have no price. A Greek meltdown is not the same as a Slovakian meltdown. Life is not just.

So many mistakes have been made. They began with the sentimental illusion that the cradle of Western civilization was also an economy competitive enough to join the euro. It was not. Then came all the easy credit handed out in the era when the view was that risk had ceased to exist. The inevitable Greek implosion was followed by austerity measures whose symbol was Germany. These failed to offer Greeks a positive vision of what all the sacrifice might produce. The consequent anger created Syriza and its election victory and incoherent promises of a new way forward. Everyone is now caught in the web of their own contradictions.

More of the same might gain a few months. It will resolve nothing, sapping Europe’s energy, and Greece’s potential, for years to come.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Well, that didn’t last very long, did it?

It was only December when Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, announced that after a strategic review, the school had decided to stop fielding a football team. The main reason for Watts’s decision was financial: two-thirds of the athletic department’s $30 million budget came from a combination of university funds and student fees. When a consultant concluded that the subsidy would have to more than double over the next five years for the football team to be competitive, Watts said, Enough. “We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he told me at the time.

The university seemed to me then — and seems to me now — exactly the kind of school that should be rethinking football. It did not have a long football tradition — the team had been around for only 24 years. Its last winning season was in 2004. Its fan support was tepid; playing in a stadium with a capacity of 72,000, it averaged fewer than 20,000 fans a game until last year, when the number jumped to 21,800.

Besides, college sports, especially football, are getting more expensive. The major conferences are beginning to pay their athletes stipends that reflect the “full cost of attendance,” which can add $1 million or more in costs. There is the constant need to upgrade facilities to be able to recruit top-notch athletes. College coaches’ salaries are rising almost as fast as C.E.O. pay.

Schools in smaller conferences — Alabama-Birmingham is in Conference USA — have struggled to keep up, especially state schools whose budgets have been cut by their legislatures. (According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending per student in Alabama has declined over 36 percent since 2008.) USA Today does an annual ranking of university athletic department balance sheets, and you can clearly see this trend. Rutgers University had a $36 million deficit; the University of Connecticut, $27 million; the University of Massachusetts, $26 million; Eastern Michigan University, $25 million — and on the list goes.

Now fast forward to June 1 — when Watts did an about-face and announced that the university was not abandoning football after all. In the time between his first announcement in December and his second one last week, there was a huge outcry among the citizens of Birmingham. Despite the lack of fan support and the team’s tradition of losing, people reacted as if nothing were more important than getting their college football team back. There were calls for Watts to be fired.

When I asked Watts whether he had been taken aback by the outcry, he said he had been. A neurologist who was previously the dean of the university’s medical school — and now presides over a $3 billion institution — Watts was yet another college president who found himself spending ridiculous amounts of time dealing with sports.

But he really didn’t have much choice, given the passion the cancellation of football had aroused in the city. So, while continuing to insist that the university would not increase its subsidy beyond the current $20 million, Watts told the various interested parties that he would reinstate football (along with the bowling and rifle teams, which had also been cut) if they found a way to pay for it.

The university also commissioned a second study, which concluded that an additional $17.2 million would be needed over the next five years to field a competitive football team, plus $12 million to $14 million for a new practice facility.

There are those, like Andy Schwarz, a Bay Area economist who is an expert on the economics of college sports (and did his own study on the U.A.B. football decision), who say that the subsidy reported by most universities is wildly overstated, and that schools get numerous benefits for having a football team. But that is not the argument that anyone in Birmingham made. Instead, they accepted the idea that the football team had to be subsidized — and that they had to raise the money.

Which is what they did. By the end of May, the city’s corporate leaders had pledged to make up the additional $17.2 million subsidy, and had made a promising start on raising the $13 million or so needed for the practice facility.

When I asked Hatton Smith, the chief executive emeritus of Royal Cup Coffee and one of the fund-raising leaders, why it was so important to revive the football team, he essentially replied that it was a matter of civic pride. “In most major cities, there is some form of college football,” he said. “We think U.A.B. football adds to the quality of life in our community.” The way he described it, it was as if U.A.B. wouldn’t be a top-notch university anymore without a football team.

Thus does the cart come before the horse.

Brooks and Krugman

June 5, 2015

In “The Separation Strategy on Iraq” Bobo has the cojones to whine that it’s time to shift course on Iraq. He gurgles that the current approach from the Obama administration isn’t working.  In the comments “uwteacher” from Colorado (among many others) pointed something out to Bobo:  “Once more, Mr. Brooks and this time pay attention. The departure date was set by Bush, not Obama. The Iraq government was not willing to extend the stay of US forces under terms that were acceptable to the US.”  In “Lone Star Stumble” Prof. Krugman asks a question:  Remember how Texas was supposed to have the economy that couldn’t falter?  Here’s Bobo:

In 2006, Joe Biden, Les Gelb and many others proposed plans to decentralize power in Iraq. Biden, then a United States senator from Delaware, Gelb and others recognized that Iraqi society was fracturing into sectarian blocs. They believed that governing institutions should reflect the fundamental loyalties on the ground. According to the Biden plan, the central Iraqi government would still have performed a few important tasks, but many other powers would have been devolved to regional governments in the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish areas.

The administration of George W. Bush rejected that federalist approach and instead bet on a Baghdad-centric plan. The Iraqi prime minister at the time, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and his band of Shiite supremacists enflamed sectarian tensions even more, consolidated power, excluded rivals, alienated the Sunnis and Kurds and drove parts of the opposition into armed insurrection.

The Obama administration helped oust Maliki and replace him with a group of more moderate and responsible leaders. But that approach is still centralized and Baghdad-focused. The results are nearly as bad. The Sunnis continue to feel excluded and oppressed. Faith in national institutions has collapsed. Sectarian lines are hardening. Over the last several years, the number of people who tell pollsters that they are Iraqis first and foremost has plummeted.

Vastly outnumbered fighters for the Islamic State keep beating the Iraqi Army in places like Ramadi because the ISIS terrorists believe in their lunatic philosophy while the Iraqi soldiers no longer believe in their own leadership and are not willing to risk their lives for a dysfunctional, centralized state.

This attempt to impose top-down solutions, combined with President Obama’s too-fast withdrawal from Iraq, has contributed to the fertile conditions for the rise of ISIS. Obama properly vowed to eradicate this terrorist force, but the U.S. is failing to do so.

That’s largely because, mind-bogglingly, the Iraqi government has lost the battle over the hearts and minds to a group of savage, beheading, murderous thugs. As Anne Barnard and Tim Arango reported in The Times on Thursday, ISIS is hijacking legitimate Sunni grievances. Many Sunnis would apparently rather be ruled by their own kind, even if they are barbaric, than by Shiites, who rob them of their dignity.

The United States is now in the absurd position of being in a de facto alliance with Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Up until now, these militias have plowed through Sunni territory “liberating” villages from ISIS and then, often enough, proceeding to execute the local leaders, loot the property and destroy the towns.

The Obama administration is hoping that these militias will restrain themselves and listen to the central authority. But that would be to defy all recent Iraqi history. The more likely scenario is that the militias will occasionally beat ISIS on a tactical level while making the larger climate even worse.

The centralizing strategy has been a failure. Instead of fostering cooperation, efforts to bring Sunni and Shiite elites together have only rubbed at raw wounds, exacerbated tensions and accelerated the slide toward a regional confrontation. ISIS is now targeting Shiite pilgrims in Saudi Arabia in order to enflame that country and widen the religious war that is brewing across the region.

Iran is sponsoring terror armies across the region and trying to turn Shiite Iraq into a satellite state.

A brutalizing dynamic is now firmly in place: Sectarian tension radicalizes the leaderships on both the Sunni and Shiite sides. These radicalized leaders incite bigger and uglier confrontations.

Maybe it’s time to shift course.

America’s goal should be to help lower sectarian temperatures so that eventually a moderating dynamic replaces the current brutalizing one. The grand strategy should be to help the two sides separate as much as possible while containing the radicals on each side. The tactic should be devolution. Give as much local control to different groups in different nations. Let them run their own affairs as much as possible. Encourage them to create space between the sectarian populations so that hatreds can cool.

This was the core logic of the Biden/Gelb style decentralization plan, and it is still the most promising logic today.

The best objection has always been that the geography is not so neat. Populations are intermingled. If decentralization gets out of control and national boundaries are erased, then you could see ferocious wars over resources and national spoils.

That’s all true, but separation and containment are still the least terrible of the bad options. The U.S. could begin by arming Iraqi Sunnis directly and helping Sunnis take back their own homeland from the terrorists, with the assurance that they could actually run the place once they retook it.

Central politicians love centralization. But this is the wrong recipe for an exploding Middle East.

He’s so effing tiresome…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Remember the Texas economic miracle? In 2012, it was one of the three main arguments from then-Gov. Rick Perry about why he should be president, along with his strong support from the religious right and something else I can’t remember (sorry, couldn’t help myself). More broadly, conservatives have long held Texas up as a supposed demonstration that low taxes on the rich and harsh treatment of the poor are the keys to prosperity.

So it’s interesting to note that Texas is looking a lot less miraculous lately than it used to. To be fair, we’re talking about a modest stumble, not a collapse. Still, events in Texas and other states — notably Kansas and California — are providing yet another object demonstration that the tax-cut obsession that dominates the modern Republican Party is all wrong.

The facts: For many years, economic growth in Texas has consistently outpaced growth in the rest of America. But that long run ended in 2015, with employment growth in Texas dropping well below the national average and a fall in leading indicators pointing to a further slowdown ahead. In most states, this slowdown would be no big deal; occasional underperformance is just a fact of life. But everything is bigger in Texas, including inflated expectations, so the slowdown has come as something of a shock.

Now, there’s no mystery about what is happening: It’s all about the hydrocarbons. Texans like to point out that their state’s economy is a lot more diversified than it was in J.R. Ewing’s day, and they’re right. But Texas still has a disproportionate share of the U.S. oil and gas industry, and it benefited far more than most other states from the fracking boom. By my estimates, about half the energy-related jobs created by that boom since it began in the middle of the last decade were in Texas, and this extractive-sector windfall accounted for about a third of the difference between growth in Texas and growth in the rest of the country.

What about the other two-thirds? Like the rest of the Sunbelt, Texas is still benefiting from the long southward shift of America’s population that began with the coming of widespread air-conditioning; average January temperature remains a powerful predictor of regional growth. Texas also attracts new residents with its permissive land-use policies, which have kept housing cheap.

Now one of the three big drivers of Texas growth has gone into reverse, as low world oil prices are bringing the fracking boom to a screeching halt. Hey, things like that happen to every state now and then.

But Texas wasn’t supposed to be like other states. It was supposed to be the shining exemplar of the economic payoff to reverse Robin-Hood economics. So its recent disappointments hit the right-wing cause hard — especially coming on the heels of the Kansas debacle.

For those who haven’t been following the Kansas story, in 2012, Sam Brownback, the state’s hard-right governor, pushed through large tax cuts that would, he promised, lead to rapid economic growth with little, if any, loss of revenue. But the promised boom never materialized, while big budget deficits did.

And, meanwhile, there’s California, long mocked by the right as an economy doomed by its liberal politics. Not so much, it turns out: The budget is back in surplus in part because the emergence of a Democratic supermajority finally made it possible to enact tax increases, and the state is experiencing a solid recovery.

The states, Louis Brandeis famously declared, are the laboratories of democracy. In fact, Mr. Brownback himself described his plan as an “experiment” that would demonstrate the truth of his economic doctrine. What it actually did, however, was demonstrate the opposite — and much the same message is coming from other laboratories, from the stumble in Texas to the comeback in California.

Will anyone on the right take heed? Probably not. Unlike real experimenters, Mr. Brownback wasn’t willing to take no for an answer, whatever happened, and the same is true for just about everyone on his side of the political divide. Or to put it another way, belief that tax cuts are a universal elixir that cures all economic ills is the ultimate zombie idea — one that should have died long ago in the face of the facts, but just keeps shambling along. Nothing that has happened in the past quartercentury has supported tax-cut mania, yet the doctrine’s hold on the Republican Party is stronger than ever. It would be foolish to expect recent events to make much difference.

Still, the spectacle of the Texas economy coming back to earth, and Kansas sliding over the edge should at the very least make right-wing bombast ring hollow, in the general election if not in the primary. And someday, maybe, even conservatives will once again become willing to look at the facts.

Really?  Not gonna happen.  As we all know, facts are known to have a liberal bias.

Brooks and Krugman

May 29, 2015

Bobo has decided to wax poetic (or, rather, have other people wax poetic) about “The Small, Happy Life.  He burbles that in this first batch of personal takes on how some readers found purpose in life, a surprising theme emerged.  Oh, lawdy, that implies that there will be more…  In the comments “HeyNorris” from Paris had this to say:  “It’s becoming alarmingly apparent that Mr. Brooks sees himself as Professor Pangloss, and us Tonstant Weaders as his Candides. Well, this Candide is ready to fwow up.”  Prof. Krugman, in “The Insecure American,” says a new study on the financial well-being of U.S. households shows just how little room for error there is for many of us.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to send in essays describing their purpose in life and how they found it. A few thousand submitted contributions, andmany essays are online. I’ll write more about the lessons they shared in the weeks ahead, but one common theme surprised me.

I expected most contributors would follow the commencement-speech clichés of our high-achieving culture: dream big; set ambitious goals; try to change the world. In fact, a surprising number of people found their purpose by going the other way, by pursuing the small, happy life.

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Young continues, “I have always wanted to be effortlessly kind. I wanted to raise children who were kind.” She notes that among those who survived the Nazi death camps, a predominant quality she noticed was generosity.

“Perhaps,” she concludes, “the mission is not a mission at all. … Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that, if explored, provide meaning” and chances to be generous and kind. Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.

Kim Spencer writes, “I used to be one of the solid ones — one of the people whose purpose was clearly defined and understood. My purpose was seeing patients and ‘saving lives.’ I have melted into the in-between spaces, though. Now my purpose is simply to be the person … who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis. I can give it to you today and again in a few days. … I can edit your letter. … I can listen to you complain about your co-worker. … I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot. I am not upset if you cry. I am no longer drowning, so I can help keep you afloat with a little boost. Not all of the time, but every once in a while, until you find other people to help or a different way to swim. It is no skin off my back; it is easy for me.”

Terence J. Tollaksen wrote that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the “decision trap”: “This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomena whereby ‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”

Tollaksen continues, “I have always admired those goal-oriented, stubborn, successful, determined individuals; they make things happen, and the world would be lost without them.” But, he explains, he has always had a “small font purpose.”

“I can say it worked for me. I know it sounds so Midwest, but it’s been wonderful. I have a terrific wife, 5 kids, friends from grade school and high school, college, army, friends locally, and sometimes, best of all, horses, dogs, and cats. Finally, I have a small industrial business that I started and have run for 40 years based on what I now identify as principles of ‘Pope Francis capitalism.’ ”

Hans Pitsch wrote: “At age 85, the question of meaning in my life is urgent. The question of the purpose of my life is another matter. World War II and life in general have taught me that outcomes from our actions or inactions are often totally unpredictable and random.”

He adds, “I am thankful to be alive. I have a responsibility to myself and those around me to give meaning to my life from day to day. I enjoy my family (not all of them) and the shrinking number of old friends. You use the term ‘organizing frame’ in one’s life. I am not sure if I want to be framed by an organizing principle, but if there is one thing that keeps me focused, it’s the garden. Lots of plants died during the harsh winter, but, amazingly, the clematises and the roses are back, and lettuce, spinach and tomatoes are thriving in the new greenhouse. The weeping cherry tree in front of the house succumbed to old age. I still have to plant a new tree this year.”

This scale of purpose is not for everyone, but there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.

One wonders why any of these people would actually write to Bobo…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

America remains, despite the damage inflicted by the Great Recession and its aftermath, a very rich country. But many Americans are economically insecure, with little protection from life’s risks. They frequently experience financial hardship; many don’t expect to be able to retire, and if they do retire have little to live on besides Social Security.

Many readers will, I hope, find nothing surprising in what I just said. But all too many affluent Americans — and, in particular, members of our political elite — seem to have no sense of how the other half lives. Which is why a new study on the financial well-being of U.S. households, conducted by the Federal Reserve, should be required reading inside the Beltway.

Before I get to that study, a few words about the callous obliviousness so prevalent in our political life.

I am not, or not only, talking about right-wing contempt for the poor, although the dominance of compassionless conservatism is a sight to behold. According to the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of conservatives believe that the poor “have it easy” thanks to government benefits; only 1 in 7 believe that the poor “have hard lives.” And this attitude translates into policy. What we learn from the refusal of Republican-controlled states to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the bill, is that punishing the poor has become a goal in itself, one worth pursuing even if it hurts rather than helps state budgets.

But leave self-declared conservatives and their contempt for the poor on one side. What’s really striking is the disconnect between centrist conventional wisdom and the reality of life — and death — for much of the nation.

Take, as a prime example, positioning on Social Security. For decades, a declared willingness to cut Social Security benefits, especially by raising the retirement age, has been almost a required position — a badge of seriousness — for politicians and pundits who want to sound wise and responsible. After all, people are living longer, so shouldn’t they work longer, too? And isn’t Social Security an old-fashioned system, out of touch with modern economic realities?

Meanwhile, the reality is that living longer in our ever-more-unequal society is very much a class thing: life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot among the affluent, but hardly at all in the bottom half of the wage distribution, that is, among those who need Social Security most. And while the retirement system F.D.R. introduced may look old-fashioned to affluent professionals, it is quite literally a lifeline for many of our fellow citizens. A majority of Americans over 65 get more than half their income from Social Security, and more than a quarter are almost completely reliant on those monthly checks.

These realities may finally be penetrating political debate, to some extent. We seem to be hearing less these days about cutting Social Security, and we’re even seeing some attention paid to proposals for benefit increases given the erosion of private pensions. But my sense is that Washington still has no clue about the realities of life for those not yet elderly. Which is where that Federal Reserve study comes in.

This is the study’s second year, and the current edition actually portrays a nation in recovery: in 2014, unlike 2013, a substantial plurality of respondents said that they were better off than they had been five years ago. Yet it’s startling how little room for error there is in many American lives.

We learn, for example, that 3 in 10 nonelderly Americans said they had no retirement savings or pension, and that the same fraction reported going without some kind of medical care in the past year because they couldn’t afford it. Almost a quarter reported that they or a family member had experienced financial hardship in the past year.

And something that even startled me: 47 percent said that they would not have the resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400 — $400! They would have to sell something or borrow to meet that need, if they could meet it at all.

Of course, it could be much worse. Social Security is there, and we should be very glad that it is. Meanwhile, unemployment insurance and food stamps did a lot to cushion unlucky families from the worst during the Great Recession. And Obamacare, imperfect as it is, has immensely reduced insecurity, especially in states whose governments haven’t tried to sabotage the program.

But while things could be worse, they could also be better. There is no such thing as perfect security, but American families could easily have much more security than they have. All it would take is for politicians and pundits to stop talking blithely about the need to cut “entitlements” and start looking at the way their less-fortunate fellow citizens actually live.


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