Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

March 13, 2015

Welp, Bobo has gone back to writing about politics.  Not so sure that’s a good thing, come to think of it.  In “Hillary Clinton’s Big Test” he babbles that the all-but-declared presidential candidate needs to rise above the warring tactics that helped to shape her political career if she hopes to be successful in 2016.  Here’s “gemli” from Boston in the comments:  “It used to be that presidents weren’t called liars during national addresses and didn’t spend the first two years of their administration being asked to show their birth certificates. If Mr. Brooks wants to set the stage for this unprecedented chaos in Washington, he shouldn’t make it sound as though both sides are equally culpable.”  Yeah, Bobo just eats up the good old “but both sides do it” crap…  Prof. Krugman says “Strength Is Weakness,” and that the strong dollar is actually bad for America, giving Europe a way to export its troubles to the rest of the world.  Here’s Bobo:

The political world is stuck in the middle of an accelerating protocol crisis. All sorts of customary acts of self-restraint are being washed away. It used to be that senators didn’t go out campaigning against one another. It used to be they didn’t filibuster except in rare circumstances. It used to be they didn’t block presidential nominations routinely.

It used to be that presidents didn’t push the limits of executive authority by redefining the residency status of millions of people without congressional approval. It used to be that presidents didn’t go out negotiating arms control treaties in a way that doesn’t require Senate ratification. It used to be that senators didn’t write letters to hostile nations while their own president was negotiating with them.

All the informal self-restraints that softened the brutality of politics are being torn away. It’s like going to a dinner party where all the little customs of politeness are gone and everything is just grab what you can when you can.

Into this state of affairs walks Hillary Clinton. She has, maybe more than anybody else, been shaped by this sort of political warfare. Her career has been marked by a series of brutal confrontations: Whitewater, Travelgate, health care reform, cattle futures, Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi, the emails and so on.

Her manner amid these battles is well established. In normal times, she comes across as a warm, thoughtful, pragmatic and highly intelligent person. But she has been extremely quick to go into battle mode. When she is in that mode, the descriptions from people who know her are pretty much the same, crisis after crisis: hunkered down, steely, scornful and secretive. It is said that she demands extraordinary loyalty from her troops. In the 2008 campaign, she narrowed her circle of trust to a tiny and insular set of advisers. It is said that she assumes that the news media is operating in bad faith, that the press swarms are not there for information but just to tear people down.

So one big question this year is: What happens when Hillary Clinton’s battle mode temperament hits politics as it’s currently practiced?

Since Watergate, many scandal wars have been fought over access to information about the scandal rather than about the scandal itself. In the 1970s, a series of extremely stupid sunshine laws were put into place that semi-exposed the private deliberations of public figures, distorted internal debate and pushed real conversations deeper into the shadows. Now every hint of scandal is surrounded by an elaborate tussle over who gets to see what.

These struggles over information have brought out Clinton’s most aggressive and sometimes self-destructive instincts — even when the underlying scandal was not that bad. During Whitewater, she insisted that some of her law firm’s billing records could not be found (until they were discovered in the White House residence two years after being subpoenaed). Her health care reform effort was needlessly marred by her unwillingness to release the names of her consultants. The fallout from the attack of an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, was an overblown scandal, but the State Department still withheld emails from congressional investigators.

In these cases, Clinton’s admirable respect for privacy shifted into a generalized atmosphere of hostility. It will be interesting in the months ahead to see if she continues to react to political stress in the same way. More specifically, it will be interesting to see if goes strong or goes large.

If she goes strong, she will fight fire with fire. If she is hit, she’ll hit back. She’ll treat information as a source of power to be hoarded and controlled. She’ll strap on armor each morning and go into each day strictly disciplined — ready to prove that this woman is tough enough to be president.

If she goes large, she’ll resist the urge to fight scorn with scorn. Temperamentally, she’ll have to rise above the bitterness, as Reagan, F.D.R. and Lincoln did. She and her staff will recall that the primary mission is not to win the news cycle by hitting back at whatever loon is hitting her. It’s to craft a government agenda that can win the steady support of 61 senators. It’s to win a governing majority.

The only way to reverse the protocol crisis is to create policies that can win bipartisan support. If the next president gets the substance right, the manners will follow.

Can Hillary Clinton do this? Is she strong enough to rise above hostility, to instead reveal scary and vulnerable parts of herself so that voters feel as though they can trust and relate to her? We’ll see.

Frances Perkins, a hero of mine who was F.D.R.’s secretary of labor, was one of the nation’s great public servants. But she was too reticent, too closed in her attitude toward information. She shut down in the face of the media. This attitude did her enormous harm, regardless of her many other gifts.

What an egregious pile of shit.  Here’s what “TRP” from Crozet, VA had to say in the comments:  “There’s a far more recent example of a grace-under-fire president. Black guy? Big ears? Unpatriotic Muslim Kenyan lawless lying fascist tyrant appeaser? Must have slipped your mind.”  Cripes, I’d almost rather Bobo go back to trying to sound like a rabbi…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

We’ve been warned over and over that the Federal Reserve, in its effort to improve the economy, is “debasing” the dollar. The archaic word itself tells you a lot about where the people issuing such warnings are coming from. It’s an allusion to the ancient practice of replacing pure gold or silver coins with “debased” coins in which the precious-metal content was adulterated with cheaper stuff. Message to the gold bugs and Ayn Rand disciples who dominate the Republican Party: That’s not how modern money works. Still, the Fed’s critics keep insisting that easy-money policies will lead to a plunging dollar.

Reality, however, keeps declining to oblige. Far from heading downstairs to debasement, the dollar has soared through the roof. (Sorry.) Over the past year, it has risen 20 percent, on average, against other major currencies; it’s up 27 percent against the euro. Hooray for the strong dollar!

Or not. Actually, the strong dollar is bad for America. In an immediate sense, it will weaken our long-delayed economic recovery by widening the trade deficit. In a deeper sense, the message from the dollar’s surge is that we’re less insulated than many thought from problems overseas. In particular, you should think of the strong dollar/weak euro combination as the way Europe exports its troubles to the rest of the world, America very much included.

Some background: U.S. growth has improved lately, with employment rising at a pace not seen since the Clinton years. Yet the state of the economy still leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, the absence of much evidence for rising wages tells us that the job market is still weak despite the fall in the headline unemployment rate. Meanwhile, the returns America offers investors are ridiculously low by historical standards, with even long-term bonds paying only a bit more than 2 percent interest.

Currency markets, however, always grade countries on a curve. The United States isn’t exactly booming, but it looks great compared with Europe, where the present is bad and the future looks worse. Even before the new Greek crisis blew up, Europe was starting to resemble Japan without the social cohesion: within the eurozone, the working-age population is shrinking, investment is weak and much of the region is flirting with deflation. Markets have responded to those poor prospects by pushing interest rates incredibly low. In fact, many European bonds are now offering negative interest rates.

This remarkable situation makes even those low, low U.S. returns look attractive by comparison. So capital is heading our way, driving the euro down and the dollar up.

Who wins from this market move? Europe: a weaker euro makes European industry more competitive against rivals, boosting both exports and firms that compete with imports, and the effect is to mitigate the euroslump. Who loses? We do, as our industry loses competitiveness, not just in European markets, but in countries where our exports compete with theirs. America has been experiencing a modest manufacturing revival in recent years, but that revival will be cut short if the dollar stays this high for long.

In effect, then, Europe is managing to export some of its stagnation to the rest of us. We’re not talking about a nefarious plot, about so-called currency wars; it’s just the way things work in a global economy with highly mobile capital and market-determined exchange rates.

And the effects may be quite large. If markets believe that Europe’s weakness will last a long time, we would expect the euro to fall and the dollar to rise enough to eliminate much if not most of the difference in interest rates, which would mean severely crimping U.S. growth.

One thing that worries me is that I’m not at all sure that policy makers have fully taken the implications of a rising dollar into account. The Fed, still eager to raise interest rates despite low inflation and stagnant wages, seems to me to be too sanguine about the economic drag. And the most recent Fed minutes suggested that some members of the committee that governs monetary policy were thoroughly clueless, apparently believing that inflows of capital would make the U.S. economy stronger, not weaker.

Oh, and one more thing: a lot of businesses around the world have borrowed heavily in dollars, which means that a rising dollar may create a whole new set of debt crises. Just what the global economy needed.

Is there a policy moral to all this? One thing is that it’s really important for all of us that Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank and associates succeed in steering Europe away from a deflationary trap; the euro is their currency, but it turns out to be our problem. Mainly, though, this is another reason for the Fed to fight the urge to pretend that the crisis is over. Don’t raise rates until you see the whites of inflation’s eyes!

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 10, 2015

In “The Cost of Relativism” Bobo babbles that the stark and growing gap between the lives of kids from college-educated parents and kids from parents who didn’t go to college demands a complex response: political, social, and moral.  In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY sums it up for us:  “Another slick exercise in poor-shaming by David Brooks.”  In “Where the Road From Auschwitz Ends” Mr. Cohen tells how in a small town in Sweden, placid and increasingly prosperous, the horror proved insuperable.  Mr. Nocera, in “College For a New Age,” says an author has an education model that is not just cheaper, but also better.  Here’s Bobo:

One of America’s leading political scientists, Robert Putnam, has just come out with a book called “Our Kids” about the growing chasm between those who live in college-educated America and those who live in high-school-educated America. It’s got a definitive collection of data about this divide.

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. There are a bunch of charts that look like open scissors. In the 1960s or 1970s, college-educated and noncollege-educated families behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged. High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.

Interspersed with these statistics, Putnam and his research team profile some of the representative figures from each social class. The profiles from high-school-educated America are familiar but horrific.

David’s mother was basically absent. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he said. “I never really got to see my mom that much.” His dad dropped out of school, dated several woman with drug problems and is now in prison. David went to seven different elementary schools. He ended up under house arrest, got a girl pregnant before she left him for a drug addict.

Kayla’s mom married an abusive man but lost custody of their kids to him when they split. Her dad married a woman with a child but left her after it turned out the child was fathered by her abusive stepfather. Kayla grew up as one of five half-siblings from three relationships until her parents split again and coupled with others.

Elijah grew up in a violent neighborhood and saw a girl killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 4. He burned down a lady’s house when he was 13. He goes through periods marked by drugs, clubbing and sex but also dreams of being a preacher. “I just love beating up somebody,” he told a member of Putnam’s team, “and making they nose bleed and just hurting them and just beating them on the ground.”

The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.

People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.

History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.

Every parent loves his or her children. Everybody struggles. But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The most important word in the title of Goran Rosenberg’s beautifully wrought book, “A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz,” is the unlikely one that precedes the name of the Nazi death camp. Auschwitz, for the Jews, and not only for them, was a destination with no return ticket, a place of gas and ashes.

But some did survive; those sent the other way on the ramp to be worked to death for Hitler’s Reich, except of course that it might just be, if they were resilient enough, that the 1,000-year Reich expired in flames before them. As was the case with Rosenberg’s father, David, for whom there was a road, of sorts, from Auschwitz.

It first leads, as Rosenberg chronicles with a sinuous sobriety, through an archipelago of slave labor camps in Germany, where skeletal figures from Auschwitz, among others, are put to work making machinery desperately needed by the German war industry, whose engineers have reached the startling realization that the mass murder of Jews does not, precisely, contribute to the war effort. German industry needs slaves by the second half of 1944; it even needs Jewish slaves. To this requirement Rosenberg’s father, a Polish Jew from Lodz, owes his life.

As Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist and author, writes, “Luck, chance and freak are the stones with which every road from Auschwitz is paved. There are no other roads from Auschwitz but those of improbability.” He continues: “You’re part of a group of 350 Jewish men who were recently on their way from the ghetto in Lodz to the gas chambers and crematoriums in Auschwitz, and who by some blind fate have been nudged onto a route leading to a freight depot platform in the heart of Germany.”

Luck, of course, is a relative term. With a crazed frenzy, the war lost, German guards drive Jews through various slave camps. At his liberation, David Rosenberg weighed 80 pounds. There is little left of him; there is nothing left of the Jewish community of Lodz. He is alive. His world is gone.

By further chance, David Rosenberg, then in his early 20s, is put on a transport to Sweden, whose government has decided to give refuge to “some ten thousand children and invalids” from the refugee camps of Europe. He will end up in Sodertalje, near Stockholm, where he goes to work on the production line of a truck factory. This town with its tall pines and ordered streets starts out as “a brief halt on the road to somewhere else.” It becomes the place where this survivor lives out his days.

One of the great merits of Rosenberg’s book is the way he contrives to relive his father’s life forwards, not prejudging events through the prism of the outcome, but imbuing each stage of what he calls “the project” — that is, his parents’ aim of reconstructing a normal life in Sweden — with a kind of tender hope. Things will be all right. The project will work. Rocked in the cradle of Sweden’s welfare state and postwar boom, the Rosenbergs will overcome the Nazi torment.

At first, the project looks viable. David’s sweetheart, Halinka, from whom he has been separated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, has also survived. She comes to Sweden. The author is born, then a sibling. The family moves to a larger apartment. David’s pay improves, even if his professional ambitions meet obstacles. The Rosenbergs acquire a VW Beetle, and David tries for a while to market an ingenious luggage rack he has invented, the “Piccolo,” that attaches to the rear of the car above the engine. It doesn’t fly.

Rosenberg writes, “The Place seems to offer a world in which every dream is feasible, since it’s a world where no dreams have been shattered, including the dreams that were shattered in the world you come from, which is a world the Project will help put behind you.”

The project unravels through the 1950s. Frustration, darkness and depression creep into David Rosenberg. What the Nazis have done to him cannot be left behind after all. He goes to Israel, thinks of emigrating, but no. Some of the most wrenching pages chronicle his attempts to obtain reparations from the German government, efforts frustrated by a doctor chosen by Germany who writes in 1956 that: “Without a doubt the patient is exaggerating.” He concludes: “The symptoms of psychoneurosis that the patient alleges he has can no longer necessarily be linked to possible harm inflicted in the concentration camps.”

This bureaucratic letter is of a singular obscenity. Possible harm!

Written with tender precision, “A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz,” recently published in the United States, is the most powerful account I have read of the other death — the death after the camps, the death from damage that proves insuperable, the death that in this case comes 15 years later, in 1960, after electroshock treatment, in a Swedish lake beside a mental hospital. The project was indeed brief.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Kevin Carey has a 4-year-old girl. Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, has been thinking about the role of universities in American life for virtually his entire career. But after his daughter was born, that thinking took on a new urgency.

“All of a sudden there is a mental clock,” he told me the other day. “How am I going to pay for her college education? I wanted to write a book that asked, ‘What will college be like when my daughter is ready to go?’ ”

His answer is his new book, “The End of College,” which is both a stinging indictment of the university business model and a prediction about how technology is likely to change it. His vision is at once apocalyptic and idealistic. He calls it “The University of Everywhere.”

“The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come,” he writes. If he is right, higher education will be transformed into a different kind of learning experience that is cheaper, better, more personalized and more useful.

Universities in their current form have been with us for so long that it is difficult to imagine them operating any other way. But Carey begins “The End of College” by making a persuasive case that the university model has long been deeply flawed. It has three different missions: “practical training, research and liberal arts education.” Over time, the mission that came to matter most within the university culture was research. Great research institutions derived the most status. And professors who did significant research — publish or perish! — were the ones who reaped the rewards of the university system.

On the other hand, actual teaching, which is what the students — and their parents — are paying for, is scarcely valued at all. There is also the absurd importance of the football team. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to create an ever newer, ever fancier campus. The outmoded idea that college should cater to students just out of high school, even though a significant portion of students are in different stages of life.

And, of course, there is the cost. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, and Carey spoke to students who were going to graduate with more than $100,000 of debt, a terrible burden at the beginning of one’s career. Schools like George Washington University and New York University became top-tier universities in no small part by aggressively raising their prices — which, in turn, became part of the reason they are now considered prestigious universities.

Although Carey has long been aware of the flaws of the university model, it is the out-of-control cost of college that he believes will cause people to search for a different way to educate students. Indeed, much of the rest of his book is devoted to the educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists who are developing new ways to provide learning that make much more sense for many more students. “You don’t need libraries and research infrastructure and football teams and this insane race for status,” he says. “If you only have to pay for the things that you actually need, education doesn’t cost $60,000 a year.”

Carey spends a good chunk of “The End of College” exploring the new world of online learning, for instance. To that end, he took an online course — problem sets and exams included — offered by Eric Lander, the M.I.T. professor who was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. It was, he concludes, a better experience than if he had sat in Lander’s classroom.

He expects that as more people take to online learning, the combination of massive amounts of data and advances in artificial intelligence will make it possible for courses to adapt to the way each student learns. He sees thousands of people around the world taking the same course and developing peer groups that become communities, like study groups at universities. “A larger and larger percentage of the education that has been historically confined to scarce, expensive colleges and universities will be liberated and made available to anyone, anywhere.” That’s what I mean when I say his vision is an idealistic one.

(Carey also believes that over time, new kinds of credentials will emerge that will be accepted by employers, making it less necessary to get a traditional college degree. He explored this subject for The Upshot, which was published in Sunday Review in The Times over the weekend.)

When might all this take place? I asked him. He wasn’t ready to hazard a guess; colleges are protected by government regulation, accreditation boards, and cultural habit, among other things. But, he said, it was inevitable that we were going to see an increased educational experience at a far lower cost.

Maybe he’ll even be able to stop saving for his daughter’s college education. Maybe the rest of us will, too.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 6, 2015

In “The Temptation of Hillary” Bobo gurgles that the shift on the left from human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism is potent, damaging and based on a misinterpretation of the data.  (He REALLY should take the time to read Krugman…)  In the comments “Reality Based” from “flyover country” summed it up pretty succinctly:  “Oh, yes, another Republican attack on “redistribution”, from the party that has been redistributing wealth and income ruthlessly upward since Reagan. … Stay out of economics, David. You have no idea what you are talking about.”  In “Netanyahu’s Iran Thing” Mr. Cohen says the prime minister’s obsessive Iran demonization runs on hyperbole and selective history.  Prof. Krugman says “Pepperoni Turns Partisan,” and points out that the politics of Big Pizza resemble those of Big Coal or Big Tobacco and tell you a lot about what is happening to American governance in general.  Here’s Bobo:

Hillary Clinton’s record is more moderate than the Democratic primary voter today. So it was always likely that she would move left as the primary season approached. It’s now becoming clearer how she might do it. She might make a shift from what you might call human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism.

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

The real problem, some of them say, is concentrated political power. The oligarchs have rigged the game so that workers get squeezed. Others say the problem is stagnation. It’s not that workers don’t have skills; the private economy isn’t generating jobs. Or it’s about corporate power. Without stronger unions shareholders reap all the gains.

People in this camp point out that inflation-adjusted wages for college grads have been flat for the past 14 years. Education apparently hasn’t lifted wages. The implication? Don’t focus on education for the bottom 99 percent. Focus on spreading wealth from the top. Don’t put human capital first. Put redistribution first.

Over the past few months a stream of Democratic thinkers and politicians, including natural Clinton allies, have moved from the human capital emphasis to the redistributionist emphasis. (It’s a matter of emphasis, not strictly either/or.) For Clinton herself, the appeal is obvious. The redistributionist agenda allows her to hit Wall Street and C.E.O.’s — all the targets that have become progressive bêtes noires.

Unfortunately, this rising theory is wrong on substance and damaging in its effects.

It is true that wages for college grads have been flat this century, and that is troubling. But this is not true of people with post-college degrees, who are doing nicely. Moreover, as Lawrence Katz of Harvard points out, the argument that college doesn’t pay is partly a product of a short-time horizon. Since 2000, the real incomes of the top 1 percent have declined slightly. If you limited your view to just those years, you’d conclude that there is no inequality problem, which is clearly not true.

On an individual level, getting more skills is the single best thing you can do to improve your wages. The economic rewards to education are at historic highs. Americans with a four-year college degree make 98 percent more per hour than people without one. The median college-educated worker will make half-a-million dollars more than a high-school-educated worker over a career after accounting for college costs. Research by Raj Chetty of Harvard and others suggests that having a really good teacher for only one year raises a child’s cumulative lifetime income by $80,000.

“What I find destructive,” says David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is the message that if you don’t get into the top 1 percent then you’re out of the game. That’s deeply, deeply incorrect.”

Autor’s own research shows that skills differences are four times more important than concentration of wealth in driving inequality. If we could magically confiscate and redistribute the above-average income gains that have gone to the top 1 percent since 1979, that would produce $7,000 more per household per year for the bottom 99 percent. But if we could close the gap so that high-school-educated people had the skills of college-educated people, that would increase household income by $28,000 per year.

Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

The redistributionists seem to believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken. That growth has permanently stagnated. That productivity should no longer be the focus because it doesn’t lead to shared prosperity.

But their view is biased by temporary evidence from the recession. Right now, jobs are being created, wages are showing signs of life. Those who get more skills earn more money. Today’s economy has challenges, but the traditional rules still apply. Increasing worker productivity is the key. Increasing incentives to risk and invest is essential. Shifting people into low-productivity government jobs is not the answer.

It’s clear why Clinton might want to talk redistribution. On substantive policy grounds, it would be destructive to do so. And, in the general election, voters respond to the uplifting and the unifying, not the combative and divisive.

Again, Bobo, go read some Krugman.  You might learn something.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Let’s begin with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran logic. He portrays a rampaging Islamic Republic that “now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana,” a nation “gobbling” other countries on a “march of conquest, subjugation and terror.” Then, in the same speech, he describes Iran as “a very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding.

Well, which is it?

The Israeli prime minister dismisses a possible nuclear accord, its details still unclear, as “a very bad deal” that “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” He says just maintain the pressure and, as if by magic, “a much better deal” will materialize (thereby showing immense condescension toward the ministers of the six major powers who have been working on a doable deal that ring-fences Iran’s nuclear capacity so that it is compatible only with civilian use). Yet Netanyahu knows the first thing that will happen if talks collapse is that Russia and China will undermine the solidarity behind effective Iran sanctions.

So, where is the leverage to secure that “much better deal”?

Netanyahu lambastes the notion of a nuclear deal lasting 10 years (President Obama has suggested this is a minimum). He portrays that decade as a period in which, inevitably, Iran’s “voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year.” He thereby dismisses the more plausible notion that greater economic contact with the world and the gradual emergence of a young generation of Iranians drawn to the West — as well as the inevitable dimming of the ardor of Iran’s revolution — will attenuate such aggression.

With similar sleight of hand, he dances over the fact that military action — the solution implicit in Netanyahu’s demands for Iranian nuclear capitulation — would likely set back the Iranian program by a couple of years at most, while guaranteeing that Iran races for a bomb in the aftermath.

What better assures Israel’s security, a decade of strict limitation and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program that prevents it making a bomb, or a war that delays the program a couple of years, locks in the most radical factions in Tehran, and intensifies Middle Eastern violence? It’s a no-brainer.

No wonder Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party’s House Leader, saw Netanyahu’s speech to Congress as an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” Netanyahu’s “profound obligation” to speak of the Iranian threat to the Jewish people proved to be a glib opportunity for fear-mongering and evasion above all.

Netanyahu’s credibility is low. In 1993, in an Op-Ed article in The Times headlined “Peace in Our Time?” he compared the late Yitzhak Rabin to Chamberlain for the Oslo Accords. Rabin’s widow never forgave him. For more than a decade now, he has said Iran was on the brink of a bomb and threatened Israeli military action — and hoped his hyperbole would be forgotten. He called the 2013 interim agreement with Iran a “historic mistake”; the accord has proved a historic achievement that reversed Iran’s nuclear momentum.

Invoking Munich and appeasement is, it seems, Netanyahu’s flip reaction to any attempt at Middle Eastern diplomacy. Here, once again, before the Congress, was the by-now familiar analogy drawn between Iran and the Nazis. Its implication, of course, is that Obama, like the great Rabin, is some latter-day Chamberlain.

The kindest thing that can be said of Netanyahu’s attempt to equate Iran with the medieval barbarians of Islamic State, and to dismiss the fact that Iranian help today furthers America’s strategic priority of defeating those knife-wielding slayers, is that it was an implausible stretch. Of course Netanyahu mentioned the Persian viceroy Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jews, but not Cyrus of Persia, who ended the Babylonian exile of the Jews. The prime minister’s obsessive Iran demonization runs on selective history.

The Islamic Republic is repressive. It is hostile to Israel, underwrites Hezbollah and has sponsored terrorism. Its human rights record is abject. The regime is wedded to anti-Americanism (unlike the 80 million people of Iran, many of whom are drawn to America). But the most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Given Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, there is no better outcome for Israel and the world than the successful conclusion of the tough deal sought by Obama; one involving the intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program that assures that Iran is kept at least one year away from any potential “breakout” to bomb manufacture.

One word did not appear in Netanyahu’s speech: Palestine. The statelessness of the Palestinians is the real long-term threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Iran has often been a cleverly manipulated distraction from this fact.

Among foreign leaders, nobody has been invited to address Congress more often than Netanyahu. He now stands equal at the top of the table along with Winston Churchill. Behind Netanyahu trail Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin. That’s a pretty devastating commentary on the state of contemporary American political culture and the very notion of leadership.

Discuss that with Orange John…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you want to know what a political party really stands for, follow the money. Pundits and the public are often deceived; remember when George W. Bush was a moderate, and Chris Christie a reasonable guy who could reach out to Democrats? Major donors, however, generally have a very good idea of what they are buying, so tracking their spending tells you a lot.

So what do contributions in the last election cycle say? The Democrats are, not too surprisingly, the party of Big Labor (or what’s left of it) and Big Law: unions and lawyers are the most pro-Democratic major interest groups. Republicans are the party of Big Energy and Big Food: they dominate contributions from extractive industries and agribusiness. And they are, in particular, the party of Big Pizza.

No, really. A recent Bloomberg report noted that major pizza companies have become intensely, aggressively partisan. Pizza Hut gives a remarkable 99 percent of its money to Republicans. Other industry players serve Democrats a somewhat larger slice of the pie (sorry, couldn’t help myself), but, over all, the politics of pizza these days resemble those of, say, coal or tobacco. And pizza partisanship tells you a lot about what is happening to American politics as a whole.

Why should pizza, of all things, be a divisive issue? The immediate answer is that it has been caught up in the nutrition wars. America’s body politic has gotten a lot heavier over the past half-century, and, while there is dispute about the causes, an unhealthy diet — fast food in particular — is surely a prime suspect. As Bloomberg notes, some parts of the food industry have responded to pressure from government agencies and food activists by trying to offer healthier options, but the pizza sector has chosen instead to take a stand for the right to add extra cheese.

The rhetoric of this fight is familiar. The pizza lobby portrays itself as the defender of personal choice and personal responsibility. It’s up to the consumer, so the argument goes, to decide what he or she wants to eat, and we don’t need a nanny state telling us what to do.

It’s an argument many people find persuasive, but it doesn’t hold up too well once you look at what’s actually at stake in the pizza disputes. Nobody is proposing a ban on pizza, or indeed any limitation on what informed adults should be allowed to eat. Instead, the fights involve things like labeling requirements — giving consumers the information to make informed choices — and the nutritional content of school lunches, that is, food decisions that aren’t made by responsible adults but are instead made on behalf of children.

Beyond that, anyone who has struggled with weight issues — which means, surely, the majority of American adults — knows that this is a domain where the easy rhetoric of “free to choose” rings hollow. Even if you know very well that you will soon regret that extra slice, it’s extremely hard to act on that knowledge. Nutrition, where increased choice can be a bad thing, because it all too often leads to bad choices despite the best of intentions, is one of those areas — like smoking — where there’s a lot to be said for a nanny state.

Oh, and diet isn’t purely a personal choice, either; obesity imposes large costs on the economy as a whole.

But you shouldn’t expect such arguments to gain much traction. For one thing, free-market fundamentalists don’t want to hear about qualifications to their doctrine. Also, with big corporations involved, the Upton Sinclair principle applies: It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. And beyond all that, it turns out that nutritional partisanship taps into deeper cultural issues.

At one level, there is a clear correlation between lifestyles and partisan orientation: heavier states tend to vote Republican, and the G.O.P. lean is especially pronounced in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the “diabetes belt” of counties, mostly in the South, that suffer most from that particular health problem. Not coincidentally, officials from that region have led the pushback against efforts to make school lunches healthier.

At a still deeper level, health experts may say that we need to change how we eat, pointing to scientific evidence, but the Republican base doesn’t much like experts, science, or evidence. Debates about nutrition policy bring out a kind of venomous anger — much of it now directed at Michelle Obama, who has been championing school lunch reforms — that is all too familiar if you’ve been following the debate over climate change.

Pizza partisanship, then, sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. It is, instead, a case study in the toxic mix of big money, blind ideology, and popular prejudices that is making America ever less governable.

Mass market pizza sucks.  All of it.  If you’re not eating pizza from a local shop, made to order, you’re eating crap.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 3, 2015

In “Leaving and Cleaving” Bobo gurgles that instant communications technology has changed the nature of parting: a new level of self-discipline and sacrifice is required for a graceful split.  In the comments “Mary Askew” from Springfield, MA had this to say:  “David Brooks may know people who stalk and harass ex-lovers, friends, mentors. I don’t. And, I haven’t heard those issues discussed among my friends.  If he thinks about it, Brooks will drop the “We all know….” formula. It is, at best, a lazy rationalization for this column.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Vast Realm of ‘If’,” says hypothetically speaking, one life is not enough. There is not enough time for all of our dreams.  In “How Warren Buffet Does It” Mr. Nocera tells us about going from “cigar butt” investing to the greatest conglomerate ever in 50 years.  Here’s Bobo:

So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.

In earlier times, leaving was defined by distance, but now it is defined by silence. Everybody everywhere is just a text away, a phone call away. Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people.

The person moving on and changing a relationship no longer makes a one-time choice to physically go to another town. He makes a series of minute-by-minute decisions to not text, to not email or call, to turn intense communication into sporadic conversation or no communication. His name was once constant on his friend’s phone screen, but now it is rare and the void is a wound.

If you are like me you know a lot of relationships in which people haven’t managed this sort of transition well. Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.

We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.

Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?

The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind. The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.

The person left behind also probably thinks that the leaver is making a big mistake. She probably thinks that it’s stupid to leave or change the bond; that the other person is driven by selfishness, shortsightedness or popularity.

Yet if the whole transition is going to be managed with any dignity, the person being left has to swallow the pain and accept the decision.

The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to (except in the most highly unusual circumstances). The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love that the leaver may not deserve and may never learn about.

That means not calling when you are not wanted. Not pleading for more intimacy or doing the other embarrassing things that wine, late nights and instant communications make possible.

Maybe that will mean the permanent end to what once was, in which case at least the one left behind has lost with grace. But maybe it will mean rebirth.

For example, to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood.

The mistakes usually begin early in adolescence. The parents don’t create a space where the child can establish independence. They don’t create a context in which the child can be honest about what’s actually happening in his life. The child is forced to deceive in order to both lead a semi-independent life and also maintain parental love.

By college, both sides are to be pitied. By hanging on too tight, the parents have created exactly the separation they sought to avoid. The student, meanwhile, does not know if he is worthy of being treated as a dignified adult because his parents haven’t treated him that way. They are heading for a life of miscommunication.

But if the parents lay down sacrificially, accept the relationship their child defines, then it can reboot on an adult-to-adult basis. The hiddenness and deception is no longer necessary. Texts and emails can flow, not as before, but fluidly and sweetly.

Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect (at the exact moments when those things are hardest to muster). So today a new kind of heroism is required. Feelings are hurt and angry words are at the ready. But they are held back. You can’t know the future, but at least you can walk into it as your best and highest self.

I wonder if Bobo is busy cyber-stalking his ex-wife, since he seems so sure that we ALL know someone who does that…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

What happens only just happens; then inevitability is conferred upon it. Between the lived and the not-quite-lived lies the little word “if.” It’s a two-letter invitation to the vast realm of the hypothetical, the counterfactual, and all the various paths not taken over the course of a life.

When I lived in Brazil in the 1980s I would run along the beach from Leblon to Ipanema and back. After the workout, I’d always pay a couple of cents for coconut water. I liked to watch the way the beach-shack dude cupped the coconut in one hand and then, with three or four languorous but unerring swipes of his machete, opened up the top. He’d insert a straw. The iced water was always perfect.

I’d count his fingers. The blade never slipped. There were always 10.

Of course, if I’d thought of putting the coconut water in a bottle 30 years ago, marketing its health benefits, and selling it worldwide, I would not be writing this column today. It was too simple to think of that.

When I lived in Rome, before Brazil, I liked to watch the barmen ratcheting ground coffee into a receptacle, tapping the grains down, twisting the container into a socket, placing cups on a metal ledge-cum-filter beneath the coffee-yielding spouts, pouring milk with the requested dose of foam, and placing the various coffees on the counter. The quicksilver movements seemed all part of a single pirouette.

My then wife and I would travel from Rome to the Midwest, where she is from, and remark on the fact that it was near impossible to get a good coffee. She liked the idea of opening a coffee shop in the Twin Cities that would serve coffee as good as we’d become accustomed to drinking in Italy. Perhaps we could even grow the business across the United States!

Of course, if we’d done that in 1983, coffee aficionados might be speaking of St. Paul today the way they speak of Seattle. We’d be visiting our coffee shops in Chengdu and Glasgow. But it was too simple to do that.

Before Rome, when I lived in Brussels, I’d watch the chocolatiers down near the Grand Place apply their tongs (most useful and underrated of culinary implements!) to the cocoa-dusted truffles and place them, one by one, in small white boxes until the chocolates were arrayed in many-layered order, one temptation nestling against another.

It would have been easy enough, in 1980, to make those chocolates more widely available, and it did occur to me that they should be, but of course I did nothing about the thought. If I had, who knows?

When I was in Afghanistan in 1973, before all the trouble started, or rather at the moment the trouble started with the overthrow of the king, I should have brought back all those Afghan rugs, and perhaps picked up a few in Iran (in that one could drive across the country then without any problem or mention of nukes); and certainly I should have hung onto our VW Kombi called Pigpen, after the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead who died that year, but I did not imagine then what a vehicle like that, adorned with Afghan paintings, might go for on eBay today, or how the VW bus would one day be prized from Hay-on-Wye to Haight-Ashbury. I don’t even recall where in England I left Pigpen to die.

Hypothetically speaking, we need countless lives. There is not enough time. Or so it may seem. In the next one I will be a baker or a jeweler or a winemaker. I will make things. I will stay in one place.

Absent what might have been, I went on writing. In “The Debt to Pleasure,” the English novelist John Lanchester has this to say about my profession: “‘Your precipitate social decline cannot fail to alarm your well-wishers,’ I told my brother. ‘You started as a painter, then you became a sculptor, now you’re basically a sort of gardener. What next, Barry? Street-cleaner? Lavatory attendant? Journalism?”’

That is a little harsh on what happened in the absence of what might have.

There is beauty in our dreams of change, our constant what ifs. Days begin in the realm of solemn undertakings — to eat less, to exercise more, to work harder, or to go gentler. They end with wobbles into compromise, or collapses into indulgence, with the perennial solace of the prospect of another day. The good-intentions dinner, a salad with a couple of slivers of chicken, turns into a Burrito with cheese and avocado and salsa and chicken. That’s human.

It’s an illusion to think it would have been simple to change. We live lives that reflect our natures. Memory grows, a refuge, a solace, a repository so vast that what happened and what almost did begin to blur.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Fifty years ago, a young investor named Warren Buffett took control of a failing textile company, Berkshire Hathaway. “I found myself … invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little,” Buffett relates in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend. “I became the dog who caught the car.”

Buffett describes his approach in those days as “cigar butt” investing; buying shares of troubled companies with underpriced stocks was “like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it,” he writes. “Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” He continues: “Most of my gains in those early years … came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices.”

But that approach had limits. It took Charlie Munger, the Los Angeles lawyer who has been his longtime sidekick, to show him that there was another way to win at the investing game: “Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices,” Munger told him. “Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” Which is what Buffett’s been doing ever since.

He has done it in two ways. First — and this is what he is renowned for — he has bought stock in some of the great American companies of our time, stock that he has held not just for years, but for decades. Second, he has turned Berkshire Hathaway into a true conglomerate, which owns not just stocks but entire companies. Although Berkshire’s front office employs only 25 people, its companies have, in total, some 340,500 employees.

How successful has the Buffett-Munger approach been? In the 50 years since Buffett took over Berkshire, its stock has appreciated by 1,826,163 percent. That is an astounding number.

You would think, given Buffett’s success, that more people would try to emulate his approach to investing. It is not as if he hasn’t tried to explain how he does it. Every year, you can find a Buffett tutorial in his annual letter that the rest of us would do well to absorb — and practice.

In the current letter, for instance, he makes the case — which has been made many times before — that a diversified portfolio of stocks “that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions” are less risky over the long term than other investment vehicles that are tied to the dollar. Clearly, that’s been his approach. He then goes on to bemoan the fact that too many investors — both little guys and investment professionals — do things that add risk: “Active trading, attempts to ‘time’ market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees … and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy.”

Another thing about Buffett is that he has never gotten caught up in fads. He only buys businesses that he understands and can predict where the business will be in a decade. He teaches this point in the current letter with a discussion of the conglomerates that sprung up in the 1960s and became the hot stocks of the moment. Jimmy Ling, who ran one such company, LTV, used to say that he looked for acquisitions where “2 plus 2 equals 5.”

LTV, as conceived by Ling, of course, ceased to exist decades ago (though the company would go through several transformations and bankruptcy court before shuttering its last vestige in 2002). “Never forget that 2 + 2 will always equal 4,” writes Buffett. “And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.”

If it’s really this simple, why don’t more people try to invest like Buffett? One reason, I think, is that sound investing — buying when others are selling, holding for the long term, avoiding the hot stocks — requires a stronger stomach than most people have. When a stock is plummeting, it takes a certain strength to buy even more instead of selling in a panic. Most of us lack the temperament required for smart investing. The fundamental equanimity required to be a great investor is a rare thing.

The second reason is that investing the Warren Buffett way is a lot more complicated than he makes it sound. Can you predict where a business will be in 10 years? Of course not. But he can — and does.

In a few months, the faithful will flock to Omaha to attend Berkshire’s annual meeting — “Woodstock for capitalists,” Buffett likes to call it. For six hours, Buffett and Munger will be on stage, before some 40,000 people, cracking wise, while making their investment decisions sound like simplicity itself.

But, in coming to pay their annual homage, the throngs will not be acknowledging the simplicity of Buffett’s approach, but the genius behind it.

Brooks and Krugman

February 27, 2015

In “Converting the Ayatollahs” Bobo gurgles that the nuclear negotiations with Iran are based on misguided premises and could have disastrous outcomes.  In the comments (which generally take him to school) “Stuart” from NY, NY has this to say:  “Just my opinion, but I think this Op-Ed is irresponsible. First of all, it’s full of conjecture. Second, NYTimes readers already know Mr. Brooks’s tactics. He suggests a recklessness on the part of the Obama administration that reasonable people shouldn’t believe.  Mr. Brooks is only one of many wishing to derail diplomacy before seeing its results. It puts him in Dick and Liz Cheney territory. For all his warm and fuzzy think pieces, we’re expected to be swayed by this misguided propaganda. Why he would want to be the Joe Lieberman of columnists is anyone’s guess.”  Well, Stuart, he probably thinks Weeping Joe is a great ‘Murkan…  Prof. Krugman has a question in “What Greece Won:”  Why all the negative analysis about the debt deal that has actually done the rest of Europe a favor?  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past centuries, Western diplomats have continually projected pragmatism onto their ideological opponents. They have often assumed that our enemies are driven by the same sort of national interest calculations that motivate most regimes. They have assumed that economic interests would trump ideology and religion — that prudent calculation and statecraft would trump megalomania.

They assumed that the world leaders before 1914 would not be stupid enough to allow nationalist passion to plunge them into a World War; that Hitler would not be crazy enough to start a second one; that Islamic radicals could not really want to send their region back into the 12th century; that Sunnis and Shiites would never let their sectarian feud turn into a cataclysmic confrontation in places like Iraq.

The Obama administration is making a similar projection today. It is betting that Iran can turn into a fundamentally normal regime, which can be counted upon to put G.D.P. over ideology and religion and do the pragmatic thing.

The Iran nuclear negotiations are not just about centrifuges; they are about the future of the Middle East. Through a series of statements over the last few years, President Obama has made it reasonably clear how he envisions that future.

He seeks to wean Iran away from the radicalism of the revolution and bind it into the international economic and diplomatic system. By reaching an agreement on nukes and lifting the sanctions, Iran would re-emerge as America’s natural partner in the region. It has an educated middle class that is interested in prosperity and is not terribly anti-American. Global integration would strengthen Iranian moderates and reinforce democratic tendencies.

Once enmeshed in the global system, Iran would work to tame Hezbollah and Hamas and would cooperate to find solutions in Gaza, Iraq and Syria. There would be a more stable balance of power between the major powers. In exchange for good global citizenship, Iran would be richer and more influential.

To pursue this détente, Obama has to have a nuclear agreement. He has made a series of stunning sacrifices in order to get it. In 2012, the president vowed that he would not permit Iran to maintain a nuclear program. Six United Nations Security Council resolutions buttressed that principle. But, if reports of the proposed deal are correct, Obama has abandoned this policy.

Under the reported framework, Iran would have thousands of centrifuges. All restrictions on its nuclear program would be temporary and would be phased out over a decade or so. According to some reports, there will be no limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles, no resolution of Iran’s weaponizing activities. Monitoring and enforcement would rely on an inspection regime that has been good, but leaky.

Meanwhile, the United States has offended its erstwhile allies, like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, without being sure that Iran is really willing to supplement them. There is a chance that Iran’s regional rivals would feel the need to have their own nuclear programs and we would descend into a spiral of proliferation.

All of this might be defensible if Iran is really willing to switch teams, if religion and ideology played no role in the regime’s thinking. But it could be that Iran has been willing to be an international pariah for the past generation for a reason. It could be that Iran finances terrorist groups and destabilizes regimes like Yemen’s and Morocco’s for a reason. It could be that Iran’s leaders really believe what they say. It could be that Iranian leaders are as apocalyptically motivated, paranoid and dogmatically anti-American as their pronouncements suggest they are. It could be that Iran will be as destabilizing and hegemonically inclined as all its recent actions suggest. Iran may be especially radical if the whole region gets further inflamed by Sunni-Shia rivalry or descends into greater and greater Islamic State-style fanaticism.

Do we really want a nuclear-capable Iran in the midst of all that?

If the Iranian leaders believe what they say, then United States policy should be exactly the opposite of the one now being pursued. Instead of embracing and enriching Iran, sanctions should be toughened to further isolate and weaken it. Instead of accepting a nuclear capacity, eliminating that capacity should be restored as the centerpiece of American policy. Instead of a condominium with Iran that offends traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, the U.S. should build a regional strategy around strengthening relations with those historic pillars.

It’s hard to know what’s going on in the souls of Iran’s leadership class, but a giant bet is being placed on one interpretation. March could be a ruinous month for the Middle East. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel could weaken U.S.-Israeli relations, especially on the Democratic left. The world might accept an Iranian nuclear capacity. Efforts designed to palliate a rogue regime may end up enriching and emboldening it.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week, after much drama, the new Greek government reached a deal with its creditors. Earlier this week, the Greeks filled in some details on how they intend to meet the terms. So how did it go?

Well, if you were to believe many of the news reports and opinion pieces of the past few days, you’d think that it was a disaster — that it was a “surrender” on the part of Syriza, the new ruling coalition in Athens. Some factions within Syriza apparently think so, too. But it wasn’t. On the contrary, Greece came out of the negotiations pretty well, although the big fights are still to come. And by doing O.K., Greece has done the rest of Europe a favor.

To make sense of what happened, you need to understand that the main issue of contention involves just one number: the size of the Greek primary surplus, the difference between government revenues and government expenditures not counting interest on the debt. The primary surplus measures the resources that Greece is actually transferring to its creditors. Everything else, including the notional size of the debt — which is a more or less arbitrary number at this point, with little bearing on the amount anyone expects Greece to pay — matters only to the extent that it affects the primary surplus Greece is forced to run.

For Greece to run any surplus at all — given the depression-level slump that it’s in and the effect of that depression on revenues — is a remarkable achievement, the result of incredible sacrifices. Nonetheless, Syriza has always been clear that it intends to keep running a modest primary surplus. If you are angry that the negotiations didn’t make room for a full reversal of austerity, a turn toward Keynesian fiscal stimulus, you weren’t paying attention.

The question instead was whether Greece would be forced to impose still more austerity. The previous Greek government had agreed to a program under which the primary surplus would triple over the next few years, at immense cost to the nation’s economy and people.

Why would any government agree to such a thing? Fear. Essentially, successive leaders in Greece and other debtor nations haven’t dared to challenge extreme creditor demands, for fear that they would be punished — that the creditors would cut off their cash flow or, worse yet, implode their banking system if they balked at ever-harsher budget cuts.

So did the current Greek government back down and agree to aim for those economy-busting surpluses? No, it didn’t. In fact, Greece won new flexibility for this year, and the language about future surpluses was obscure. It could mean anything or nothing.

And the creditors did not pull the plug. Instead, they made financing available to carry Greece through the next few months. That is, if you like, putting Greece on a short leash, and it means that the big fight over the future is yet to come. But the Greek government didn’t succumb to the bum’s rush, and that in itself is a kind of victory.

Why, then, all the negative reporting? To be fair, fiscal policy isn’t the only issue. There were and are also arguments about things like privatization of public assets, where Syriza has agreed not to reverse deals already made, and labor market regulation, where some of the “structural reform” of the austerity era will apparently stand. Syriza also agreed to crack down on tax evasion, although why collecting taxes is supposed to be a defeat for a leftist government is a mystery to me.

Still, nothing that just happened justifies the pervasive rhetoric of failure. Actually, my sense is that we’re seeing an unholy alliance here between left-leaning writers with unrealistic expectations and the business press, which likes the story of Greek debacle because that’s what is supposed to happen to uppity debtors. But there was no debacle. Provisionally, at least, Greece seems to have ended the cycle of ever-more-savage austerity.

And, as I said, in so doing, Greece has done the rest of Europe a favor. Remember, in the background of the Greek drama is a European economy that, despite some positive numbers lately, still seems to be sliding into a deflationary trap. Europe as a whole desperately needs to end austerity madness, and this week there have been some slightly positive signs. Notably, the European Commission has decided not to fine France and Italy for exceeding their deficit targets.

Levying these fines would have been insane given market realities; France can borrow for five years at an interest rate of 0.002 percent. That’s right, 0.002 percent. But we’ve seen a lot of similar insanity in recent years. And you have to wonder whether the Greek story played a role in this outbreak of reasonableness.

Meanwhile, the first real debtor revolt against austerity is off to a decent start, even if nobody believes it. What’s the Greek for “Keep calm and carry on”?

Brooks and Nocera

February 24, 2015

Oh, Lord…  Bobo’s been to the theater.  In “The Hamilton Experience” he fizzes that Alexander Hamilton, brought strikingly to life in a new musical, embodies a complex but profound American tradition that is inspiring in its audacity.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “I wonder what Hamilton would make of today’s unfettered finance and capitalism that subjugates the poor and middle class. When Hamilton though about social mobility I suspect that he wasn’t imagining that the mobility would be almost exclusively downward. … As I read Mr. Brooks’ tribute to Hamilton, I wondered how he could wax rhapsodic (or rap-sodic, considering the musical format) about a man who would be vilified by today’s conservatives. Hamilton seemed to have a prodigious intellect, and valued learning. He was concerned about government becoming an oligarchy that would disadvantage the poor. He sought the esteem of thoughtful people. In short, he stood for everything that today’s conservatives despise. I wonder what he would make of pundits who shill for these people?”  Mr. Nocera considers “Scientology’s Chilling Effect” and says it’s impossible to tell the story of Scientology without getting into the issue of intimidation and why the church will never turn the other cheek.  Joe, sweetie, it’s a cult, not a religion.  Here’s Bobo:

Every once in a while a piece of art brilliantly captures the glory, costs and ordeals of public life. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” did that. And so does Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” now playing at The Public Theater in New York.

The Public Theater seems hellbent on putting drama back in the center of the national conversation, and Miranda’s “Hamilton” is one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a theater. Each element in the show is a jewel, and the whole is bold, rousing, sexy, tear-jerking and historically respectful — the sort of production that strips things down and asks you to think afresh about your country and your life.

It is a hip-hop musical about a founding father. If that seems incongruous, it shouldn’t. Like the quintessential contemporary rappers, Alexander Hamilton was a poor immigrant kid from a broken home, feverish to rise and broadcast his voice. He was verbally blessed, combative, hungry for fame and touchy about his reputation. Like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he died in a clash of male bravado. The spirits of Tupac and Biggie waft through this musical; their genre the modern articulation of Hamilton’s clever and cocky assertiveness.

The musical starts with the core fact about Hamilton and the strain of Americanism he represents: The relentless ambition of the outsider. He was effectively an orphan on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His mother died in the bed next to him. He was adopted by a cousin who committed suicide. Relentlessly efficient with his use of time and brilliant in the use of his pen, he made his name.

The musical reveals the dappled nature of that ambition. Hamilton is captivating and energetic — a history-making man who thinks he can remake himself and his country. But he is also haunted by a desperate sense that he is racing against time. He has a reckless, out-of-control quality. In the biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” upon which the musical was based, Ron Chernow writes that Hamilton “always had to fight the residual sadness of the driven man.” That haunting loneliness is in this show, too.

But Hamilton is not portrayed as ambition personified. The musical is structured around the rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who is the crafty one, the utilitarian manipulator whose only ambition is to get inside the room where power is wielded. In real life and in the musical, Hamilton’s ambition was redeemed by his romanticism. He was more Lord Byron than Horatio Alger.

Hamilton was romantic about virtue and glory. As a boy he read Plutarch and had an archaic belief that death could be cheated by the person who wins eternal fame. He sought to establish himself as a man of honor, who would live on in the mouths of those whose esteem was worth having.

He was also romantic about his country. Miranda plays up Hamilton’s connection to New York, but Hamilton actually dedicated his life to the cause of America. He sought redemption in a national mission, personal meaning in a glory that would be realized by generations to come.

He was also romantic about women, strong in his capacity for love. Hamilton communes with Angelica Schuyler, who is his intellectual equal. He marries her sister, Eliza Schuyler, who is not, but whose submerged strength comes out in adversity.

But the boldest stroke in Miranda’s musical is that he takes on the whole life — every significant episode. He shows how the active life is inevitably an accumulation of battles, setbacks, bruises, scars, victories and humiliating defeats.

Hamilton’s greatest foe, Thomas Jefferson, is portrayed brilliantly by the actor Daveed Diggs as a supremely gifted aristocrat who knows exactly how gifted he is. Hamilton assaulted Jefferson because he did not believe a country dominated by oligarchs could be a country in which poor boys and girls like him would have space to rise and grow.

By the time he set off for his fatal duel, Hamilton was a damaged man. But he left behind a vision, albeit one that sits uncomfortably across today’s political divide. Unlike progressives, he believed in relatively unfettered finance and capitalism to arouse energy and increase social mobility. Unlike conservatives, he believed that government should actively subsidize mobility. Unlike populists of left and right, he believed in an aristocracy, though one based on virtue and work, not birth.

He also left behind a spirit — the spirit of grand aspiration and national greatness. The cast at the Public Theater is mostly black and Latino, but it exudes the same strong ambition as this dead white man from centuries ago. America changes color and shape, but the spirit Hamilton helped bring to the country still lives. I suspect many people will leave the theater wondering if their own dreams and lives are bold enough, if their own lives could someday be so astounding.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

When I was at Fortune magazine in the 1990s, one of my colleagues was a reporter named Richard Behar. He had a special lock on his door, and he wouldn’t even let the janitor in to empty his wastebasket. He used a secret phone, which he kept hidden in a desk drawer, so that calls made to sources couldn’t be traced back to him.

At first, I just thought he was paranoid. But I soon learned that he had come by his paranoia honestly. In May 1991, as a correspondent for Time magazine, Behar had written an exposé of Scientology, calling it a “hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”

Before the article was published, Behar says, he was followed by private detectives, who also contacted acquaintances, asking whether he had financial problems. After its publication, that sort of harassment continued, he says — along with a major libel suit. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, it took years, and cost millions of dollars to defend. Behar’s deposition alone lasted 28 days.

What brings this to mind is Alex Gibney’s fine new HBO documentary about Scientology, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which is based on the book “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright. (Disclosure: I played a small role in Gibney’s 2005 documentary on Enron.) “Going Clear,” which was shown at Sundance in late January, is scheduled to air on HBO on March 29.

It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Scientology without getting into the issue of intimidation. As the film notes, going on the offensive against its critics is part of Scientology’s doctrine, handed down by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. “It is the antithesis of turn the other cheek,” says Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking official who left the church in 2004 and has since been subjected to Scientology harassment, as the film documents. It also retells the story, first reported in The New York Times, of how, in 1993, Scientology won a 25-year fight against the Internal Revenue Service, which had refused to grant it nonprofit status. Scientologists filed several thousand lawsuits, against not just the I.R.S. but individual I.R.S. officials, and hired private detectives to look for dirt and conduct surveillance operations.

But the film doesn’t really tackle the intimidation of journalists. One of the first journalists to take on Scientology, in the early 1970s, was a young freelance writer named Paulette Cooper. Scientology’s retaliation was astounding. It framed her for supposedly sending bomb threats to the church. The documents it forged were so convincing that she was indicted in 1973 and was fully exonerated only when the F.B.I., acting on a tip, raided Scientology offices and discovered the plot against her in 1977.

Over the course of the next three decades-plus, there were a handful — though only a handful — of tough-minded articles like Behar’s. “Everybody who wrote about Scientology knew they were taking a risk,” Wright told me. You’ve heard of the “chilling effect?” Scientology offered a prime example of how it works.

Then, in 2009, The Tampa Bay Times (then The St. Petersburg Times) published an important series about Scientology, based on interviews with high-ranking defectors, including Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who had been Scientology’s top spokesman. The series was the first to suggest that Scientology had a longstanding culture of abuse. Amazingly, the church did not sue.

Vanity Fair published a big piece about Scientology. (This was after the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; Cruise, of course, is the most famous Scientologist of them all.) No lawsuit. Anderson Cooper did a series on CNN. The BBC weighed in. Ditto and ditto.

Sure enough, when I spoke to Wright and Gibney, they said that the pushback they had gotten was nothing they couldn’t handle. A Scientology website has posted a video attacking the two men, and the church has also taken out full-page newspaper ads denouncing “Going Clear.” “I didn’t expect quite this much venom,” Gibney told me, but, he added, “I regard it as good publicity.”

(In a lengthy statement, a Scientology spokesperson said that Gibney had “lied to us repeatedly,” that Marty Rathbun had “destroyed evidence and lied under oath,” that a judge had described Behar as “biased,” and that in defending itself against Gibney’s “propaganda and bigotry,” it was speaking “for those who are subjected to religious persecution and hatred.”)

Gibney also noted that the people who are really harassed these days aren’t journalists but those who have left the church, like Rathbun, who told me that, with more people leaving and talking about the church, it no longer has the resources to sic private eyes on all its critics. He also thinks the Internet has hurt the church, because it is far easier to find out information about it — and many of its supposed secrets are posted online for all to see.

“Part of the message here is that you don’t need to fear Scientology anymore,” says Wright. It’s long overdue.

Brooks and Krugman

February 20, 2015

Bobo has now decided that he’s the go-to expert on Islamic extremism.  He tells us that alienated young men will continue to be drawn to violent extremism unless and until we provide a compelling heroic alternative.  “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY begins her comment with this:  “The only extremism we have to fear is that of the predatory ideologues who decided it would be a great idea to plunder and nation-build in Iraq and other middle Eastern regions. These same ideologues continue to roam free and grow rich, attaching themselves like leeches to such corrupt pols as Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. They want to keep the endless wars going, start new ones, and ensure that the most extreme wealth inequality in modern times continues.”  In “Cranking Up for 2016″ Prof. Krugman tells us that as any ambitious Republican must do, the early contenders in the presidential race are courting the charlatan caucus.  Here’s Bobo:

The struggle against Islamic extremism has been crippled by a failure of historical awareness and cultural understanding. From the very beginning, we have treated the problem of terrorism through the prism of our own assumptions and our own values. We have solipsistically assumed that people turn to extremism because they can’t get what we want, and fail to realize that they don’t want what we want, but want something they think is higher.

The latest example of this is the speech President Obama gave at this week’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. It was a bad speech, but its badness is no reflection on President Obama, for it was the same sort of bad speech that all American presidents have been giving for the past generation.

Religious extremism exists on three levels. It grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fueled by perverted spiritual ardor. It is organized by theological conviction. American presidents focus almost exclusively on the economic and political level because that’s what polite people in Western capitals are comfortable talking about.

At the summit meeting, President Obama gave the conventional materialistic explanation for what turns people into terrorists. Terrorism spreads, he argued, where people lack economic opportunity and good schools. The way to fight terror, he concluded, is with better job-training programs, more shared wealth, more open political regimes, and a general message of tolerance and pluralism.

In short, the president took his secular domestic agenda and projected it as a way to prevent young men from joining ISIS and chopping off heads.

But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end.

They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.

On Thursday, Mona El-Naggar of The Times profiled a young Egyptian man, named Islam Yaken, who grew up in a private school but ended up fighting for the Islamic State and kneeling proudly by a beheaded corpse in Syria.

He was marginalized by society. He seems to have rejected the whole calculus of what we call self-interest for the sake of an electrifying apocalyptic worldview and what he imagines to be some illimitable heroic destiny.

People who live according to the pure code of honor are not governed by the profit motive; they are governed by the thymotic urge, the quest for recognition. They seek the sort of glory that can be won only by showing strength in confrontation with death.

This heroic urge is combined, by Islamist extremists, with a vision of End Times, a culmination to history brought about by a climactic battle and the purification of the earth.

Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.

In other times, nationalism has offered that compelling vision. We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be. But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.

Walt Whitman was inspired by the thought that his country was involved in a great project, “making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf … inaugurating largeness, culminating time.” Lincoln committed himself to the sacred truth that his country represented the “last best hope” of mankind. Millions have been inspired by an American creed that, the late great historian Sacvan Bercovitch wrote, “has succeeded in uniting nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, sacred and secular history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single transcendent ideal.”

Young Arab men are not going to walk away from extremism because they can suddenly afford a Slurpee. They will walk away when they can devote themselves to a revived Egyptian nationalism, Lebanese nationalism, Syrian nationalism, some call to serve a cause that connects nationalism to dignity and democracy and transcends a lifetime.

Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology. Muslim clerics can fix the theology. The rest of us can help redirect the spiritual ardor toward humane and productive ends.

It also might help if we stopped bombing the crap out of them, and droning various wedding parties…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is said to be a rising contender for the Republican presidential nomination. So, on Wednesday, he did what, these days, any ambitious Republican must, and pledged allegiance to charlatans and cranks.

For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “charlatans and cranks” is associated with N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor at Harvard who served for a time as George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser. In the first edition of his best-selling economics textbook, Mr. Mankiw used those words to ridicule “supply-siders” who promised that tax cuts would have such magic effects on the economy that deficits would go down, not up.

But, on Wednesday, Mr. Walker, in what was clearly a rite of passage into serious candidacy, spoke at a dinner at Manhattan’s “21” Club hosted by the three most prominent supply-siders: Art Laffer (he of the curve); Larry Kudlow of CNBC; and Stephen Moore, chief economist of the Heritage Foundation. Politico pointed out that Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, attended a similar event last month. Clearly, to be a Republican contender you have to court the powerful charlatan caucus.

So a doctrine that even Republican economists consider dangerous nonsense has become party orthodoxy. And what makes this political triumph especially remarkable is that it comes just as the doctrine’s high priests have been setting new standards for utter, epic predictive failure.

I’m not talking about the fact that supply-siders didn’t see the crisis coming, although they didn’t. Mr. Moore published a 2004 book titled “Bullish on Bush,” asserting that the Bush agenda was creating a permanently stronger economy. Mr. Kudlow sneered at the “bubbleheads” asserting that inflated home prices were due for a crash. Still, you could argue that few economists of any stripe fully foresaw the coming disaster.

You can’t say the same, however, about postcrisis developments, where the people Mr. Walker was courting have spent years warning about the wrong things. “Get ready for inflation and higher interest rates” was the title of a June 2009 op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal by Mr. Laffer; what followed were the lowest inflation in two generations and the lowest interest rates in history. Mr. Kudlow and Mr. Moore both predicted 1970s-style stagflation.

To be fair, Mr. Kudlow and Mr. Laffer eventually admitted that they had been wrong. Neither has, however, given any indication of reconsidering his views, let alone conceding the possibility that the much-hated Keynesians, who have gotten most things right even as the supply-siders were getting everything wrong, might be on to something. Mr. Kudlow describes the failure of runaway inflation to materialize — something he has been predicting since 2008 — as “miraculous.”

Something else worth noting: as befits his position at Heritage, Mr. Moore likes to publish articles filled with lots of numbers. But his numbers are consistently wrong; they’re for the wrong years, or just plain not what the original sources say. And somehow these errors always run in the direction he wants.

So what does it say about the current state of the G.O.P. that discussion of economic policy is now monopolized by people who have been wrong about everything, have learned nothing from the experience, and can’t even get their numbers straight?

The answer, I’d suggest, runs deeper than economic doctrine. Across the board, the modern American right seems to have abandoned the idea that there is an objective reality out there, even if it’s not what your prejudices say should be happening. What are you going to believe, right-wing doctrine or your own lying eyes? These days, the doctrine wins.

Look at another issue, health reform. Before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, conservatives predicted disaster: health costs would soar, the deficit would explode, more people would lose insurance than gain it. They were wrong on all counts. But, in their rhetoric, even in the alleged facts (none of them true) people like Mr. Moore put in their articles, they simply ignore this reality. Reading them, you’d think that the dismal failure they wrongly predicted had actually happened.

Then there’s foreign policy. This week Jeb Bush tried to demonstrate his chops in that area, unveiling his team of expert advisers — who are, sure enough, the very people who insisted that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators.

And don’t get me started on climate change.

Along with this denial of reality comes an absence of personal accountability. If anything, alleged experts seem to get points by showing that they’re willing to keep saying the same things no matter how embarrassingly wrong they’ve been in the past.

But let’s go back to those economic charlatans and cranks: Clearly, failure has only made them stronger, and now they are political kingmakers. Be very, very afraid.

Oh, I am…

Solo Bobo

February 17, 2015

Mr. Nocera is off today, so we’re faced with Bobo, who’s decided to babble on about something he knows little to nothing about.  Again.  But he read a book about it…  In “The Moral Injury” he gurgles that the horrors of PTSD are more complex than most of us know. Sufferers feel exile, and healing must be moral as well as psychological.  This from someone who was a drum major for the Iraq war…  “Rich in Atlanta,” an infantry veteran from Decatur, GA, opened his comment with these words:  “Thank you, Mr. Brooks, for a facile conclusion on something you’ve never experienced.”  Here’s Bobo:

David J. Morris returned from Iraq with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The former Marine turned war correspondent was plagued by nightmares. His imagination careened out of control; he envisioned fireballs erupting while on trips to the mall. His emotions could go numb, but his awareness was hypervigilant. Images and smells from the war were tattooed eternally fresh on his brain, and he circled back to them remorselessly.

“Trauma destroys the fabric of time,” Morris writes in his book, “The Evil Hours.” “In normal time you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death. After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy or bouncing like a rubber ball from now to then to back again. … In the traumatic universe the basic laws of matter are suspended: ceiling fans can be helicopters, car exhaust can be mustard gas.”

Morris’s book is so good because it relies on literature, history and psychology to communicate the reality of PTSD, both to those who live with it and those who never have. But this book is also important because it’s part of a broader re-evaluation of trauma.

Most discussion about PTSD thus far has been about fear and the conquering of fear. But, over the past few years, more people have come to understand PTSD is also about exile — moral exile.

We don’t think about it much, but in civilian life we live enmeshed in a fabric of moral practices and evaluations. We try to practice kindness and to cause no pain.

People who have been to war have left this universe behind. That’s because war — no matter how justified or unjustified, noble or ignoble — is always a crime. It involves accidental killings, capricious death for one but not another, tainted situations where every choice is murderously wrong.

Many veterans feel guilty because they lived while others died. Some feel ashamed because they didn’t bring all their men home and wonder what they could have done differently to save them. When they get home they wonder if there’s something wrong with them because they find war repugnant but also thrilling. They hate it and miss it.

Many of their self-judgments go to extremes. A comrade died because he stepped on an improvised explosive device and his commander feels unrelenting guilt because he didn’t go down a different street. Insurgents used women and children as shields, and soldiers and Marines feel a totalistic black stain on themselves because of an innocent child’s face, killed in the firefight. The self-condemnation can be crippling.

The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened. They find themselves unable to communicate their condition to those who remained at home, resenting civilians for their blind innocence.

People generally don’t suffer high rates of PTSD after natural disasters. Instead, people suffer from PTSD after moral atrocities. Soldiers who’ve endured the depraved world of combat experience their own symptoms. Trauma is an expulsive cataclysm of the soul.

We now have a growing number of books and institutions grappling with this reality, including Phil Klay’s novel “Redeployment,” which won the National Book Award; Nancy Sherman’s forthcoming “Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers”; and therapy programs like the one on moral injury found at the San Diego Naval Medical Center. These writers and therapists suggest that there has to be a moral reckoning, a discernment process that doesn’t whitewash what happened but does lead to merciful judgments about how much guilt should be borne; settled and measured conclusions about how responsibility for terrible things should be apportioned.

Sherman, who is a philosopher at Georgetown University, emphasizes that most of the work will have to be done at the micro level — through individual conversations between veterans and civilians that go beyond the cheap grace of “thank you for your service.” The conversations have to deal with the individual facts of each case. The goal is to get veterans to adopt the stance of a friendly observer, to make clear how limited choices are when one is caught in a random, tragic situation, to arrive at catharsis and self-forgiveness about what was actually blameworthy and what wasn’t.

The civilian enters into the world the veteran actually inhabited during those awful crowded hours and expands his own moral awareness. The veteran feels trusted, respected and understood — re-integrated into the fabric of his or her homeland.

We live in a culture that emphasizes therapy, but trauma often has to be overcome morally, through rigorous philosophical autobiography, nuanced judgment, case by case.

Brooks and Krugman

February 13, 2015

In “Larry vs. Marco” Bobo gets all economist-ish and tries to ‘splain to us how Marco Rubio and Larry Summers give us a glimpse of the economic options likely to be on offer in 2016.  Well, at least he’s not playing rabbi today…  Prof. Krugman, in “Money Makes Crazy,” points out the obvious:  That monetary policy madness is pervasive in today’s Republican Party.  Here’s Bobo:

Pride goeth before a fall. Capitalism’s great triumph over socialism has been followed by a series of humbling setbacks since. Capitalism is not necessarily self-regulating, as we learned during the financial crisis. Capitalism does not necessarily lead to democracy abroad. Capitalism does not automatically produce sufficient social mobility.

Both Democrats and Republicans are adapting to these realities. Both are moving away from the orthodoxies that dominated the parties in the 1990s. We now have before us two documents that give us a sense of how each party is shifting.

On the Republican side, Marco Rubio, who has become the most intellectually creative of the presidential contenders, has given us a book, “American Dreams.” He moves beyond the Reagan-era emphasis on top marginal tax rates. He moves beyond the Mitt Romney distinction between makers and takers. Drawing on work by Yuval Levin, Peter Wehner and the YG Network, he gives us the clearest picture of how Republicans might use government to enhance middle-class prospects.

On the Democratic side, Lawrence Summers and the British politician Ed Balls have given us the “Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity.” This report smashes the New Democratic approach that defined Bill Clinton’s (and an earlier Larry Summers’s) economic approach. It shows how boldly the Democrats have moved leftward and can be profitably read as a blueprint for a Hillary Clinton presidency.

The Rubio and Summers documents have some overlap. They have a similar sense of the core of the problem: The forces unleashed by globalization and technological change have hit middle-class earnings. Both plans would increase the earned-income tax credit or create similar subsidies. Both would take bold measures to make college affordable, though the Rubio plan is private sector and the Summers plan is public.

In other ways the two visions are different. The Summers document uses the language of social fairness; the Rubio document uses the language of individual virtue. The Summers document puts a bit more emphasis on the demand side of the economy — pumping up middle-class spending — while the Rubio document puts more emphasis on the supply side — incentives to increase investment.

Summers believes that middle-class wages have been hurt because of changes in the way corporations work; Rubio doesn’t. The progressive document implies that finance and corporate boards have rigged the game against the middle class, while Rubio argues that corporate lobbyists have used government to rig the game against small companies. While Summers would make parts of college free, Rubio has a more aggressive plan to reform higher education itself, using online learning.

The contrasts on family policy are fascinating. For a progressive document, the Summers report is clear that two-parent families are important for social mobility. But the proposals would push families toward the sorts of day care arrangements progressives like, encouraging women to stay in the work force. Rubio is more comfortable talking about family structure. His increased child tax credit would give parents greater leeway in how they want to make choices about child care and work.

The biggest philosophical difference between Rubio and Summers is this: Rubio sees government as a bridge helping people to get into the marketplace, while the Summers document argues that the marketplace is structurally flawed throughout and that government has to be a partner all the way along.

Rubio wants to transition to an immigration policy built around drawing high-level skills. He argues that employers should be allowed to immediately deduct every dollar they invest back in their business. He would simplify the tax code into two income tax rates: 15 percent and 35 percent. These proposals reshape the economic landscape but don’t get inside business decisions.

The Summers proposals get into the very gears of corporate governance and reshape workplaces on an intimate level. Summers would regulate executive compensation and use government power to encourage long-term investing. He would encourage employee ownership of companies and create mandatory work councils to bring employees into the decision-making process. He would have government ensure that employees have access to paid vacation, sick leave and generous family leave.

The questions for Rubio are: Is his approach sufficient? Will giving people access to contemporary capitalism lead to social mobility or is modern capitalism structurally flawed? The questions for Summers are: Have we forgotten the lessons of the last quarter-century? Do we think government is smart enough to intrude into millions of business decisions? Do we worry that in making hiring more expensive we will get less of it, and wind up with European-style sclerosis and unemployment levels?

This big hairy problem — insufficient social mobility — has landed in our lap. We don’t know what to do. But we are getting some alternatives.

Sweet baby Jesus on a seesaw but he’s a horse’s patoot.  Here’s Prof. Krugman, who actually knows what the eff he’s talking about:

Monetary policy probably won’t be a major issue in the 2016 campaign, but it should be. It is, after all, extremely important, and the Republican base and many leading politicians have strong views about the Federal Reserve and its conduct. And the eventual presidential nominee will surely have to endorse the party line.

So it matters that the emerging G.O.P. consensus on money is crazy — full-on conspiracy-theory crazy.

Right now, the most obvious manifestation of money madness is Senator Rand Paul’s “Audit the Fed” campaign. Mr. Paul likes to warn that the Fed’s efforts to bolster the economy may lead to hyperinflation; he loves talking about the wheelbarrows of cash that people carted around in Weimar Germany. But he’s been saying that since 2009, and it keeps not happening. So now he has a new line: The Fed is an overleveraged bank, just as Lehman Brothers was, and could experience a disastrous collapse of confidence any day now.

This story is wrong on so many levels that reporters are having a hard time keeping up, but let’s simply note that the Fed’s “liabilities” consist of cash, and those who hold that cash have the option of converting it into, well, cash. No, the Fed can’t fall victim to a bank run. But is Mr. Paul being ostracized for his views? Not at all.

Moreover, while Mr. Paul may currently be the poster child for off-the-wall monetary views, he’s far from alone. A lot has been written about the 2010 open letter from leading Republicans to Ben Bernanke, then the Fed chairman, demanding that he cease efforts to support the economy, warning that such efforts would lead to inflation and “currency debasement.” Less has been written about the simultaneous turn of seemingly respectable figures to conspiracy theories.

There was, for example, the 2010 op-ed article by Representative Paul Ryan, who remains the G.O.P.’s de facto intellectual leader, and John Taylor, the party’s favorite monetary economist. Fed policy, they declared, “looks an awful lot like an attempt to bail out fiscal policy, and such attempts call the Fed’s independence into question.” That statement looks an awful lot like a claim that Mr. Bernanke and colleagues were betraying their trust in order to help out the Obama administration — a claim for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

Oh, and suppose you believe that the Fed’s actions did help avert what would otherwise have been a fiscal crisis. This is supposed to be a bad thing?

You may think that at least some of the current presidential aspirants are staying well clear of the fever swamps, but don’t be so sure. Jeb Bush appears to be getting his economic agenda, such as it is, from the George W. Bush Institute’s 4% Growth Project. And the head of that project, Amity Shlaes, is a prominent “inflation truther,” someone who claims that the government is greatly understating the true rate of inflation.

So monetary crazy is pervasive in today’s G.O.P. But why? Class interests no doubt play a role — the wealthy tend to be lenders rather than borrowers, and they benefit at least in relative terms from deflationary policies. But I also suspect that conservatives have a deep psychological problem with modern monetary systems.

You see, in the conservative worldview, markets aren’t just a useful way to organize the economy; they’re a moral structure: People get paid what they deserve, and what goods cost is what they are truly worth to society. You could say that to the free-market true believer, to know the price of everything is also to know the value of everything.

Modern money — consisting of pieces of paper or their digital equivalent that are issued by the Fed, not created by the heroic efforts of entrepreneurs — is an affront to that worldview. Mr. Ryan is on record declaring that his views on monetary policy come from a speech given by one of Ayn Rand’s fictional characters. And what the speaker declares is that money is “the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. … Paper is a check drawn by legal looters.”

Once you understand that this is how many conservatives really think, it all falls into place. Of course they predict disaster from monetary expansion, no matter the circumstances. Of course they are undaunted in their views no matter how wrong their predictions have been in the past. Of course they are quick to accuse the Fed of vile motives. From their point of view, monetary policy isn’t really a technical issue, a question of what works; it’s a matter of theology: Printing money is evil.

So as I said, monetary policy should be an issue in 2016. Because there’s a pretty good chance that someone who either gets his monetary economics from Ayn Rand, or at any rate feels the need to defer to such views, will get to appoint the next head of the Federal Reserve.

Brooks and Nocera

February 10, 2015

In “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving” Bobo (who seems to want to become a rabbi, given all his recent posts) gurgles that every scandal is an opportunity either strengthen the national fabric through the process of contrition and forgiveness or to further shred it. In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “What a surprise.  Mr. Brooks passed on using his hero Ronald Reagan telling a real whopper of a lie as an example.  Reagan, the Eureka College guy cheerleader, told a story about having been at the liberation of a concentration camp, running a film crew.  Of course Reagan, the WW II dodger, never got closer to combat than a film set in Culver City.  But he continued on his path of great destruction arming what became the Taliban, arming Saddam Hussein, funding slaughter all over Central America.  That is unforgivable.”  But according to Republicans St. Reagan was perfect…  Mr. Nocera ponders “The Riddle of Powering Electric Cars” and says a new book goes inside the race to build the perfect electric car.  Here’s Rabbi Brooks:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures and something barbaric in the public response.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry. Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler.

The barbaric part is the way we respond to scandal these days. When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. A sort of coliseum culture takes over, leaving no place for mercy. By now, the script is familiar: Some famous person does something wrong. The Internet, the most impersonal of mediums, erupts with contempt and mockery. The offender issues a paltry half-apology, which only inflames the public more. The pounding cry for resignation builds until capitulation comes. Public passion is spent and the spotlight moves on.

I’ve only spoken with Williams a few times, and can’t really speak about the man (though I often appear on NBC News’s “Meet the Press”), but I do think we’d all be better off if we reacted to these sorts of scandals in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling.

Forgiveness is often spoken of in sentimental terms — as gushy absolution for everything, regardless of right or wrong. But many writers — ranging from Hannah Arendt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to modern figures like Jeffrie Murphy and L. Gregory Jones — have tried to think hard about rigorous forgiveness, which balances accountability with compassion.

They’ve generally described four different processes involved in forgiveness:

Pre-emptive mercy. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that forgiveness isn’t an act; it’s an attitude. We are all sinners. We expect sin, empathize with sin and are slow to think ourselves superior. The forgiving person is strong enough to display anger and resentment toward the person who has wronged her, but she is also strong enough to give away that anger and resentment.

In this view, the forgiving person makes the first move, even before the offender has asked. She resists the natural urge for vengeance. Instead, she creates a welcoming context in which the offender can confess.

Judgment. A wrong is an occasion to re-evaluate. What is the character of the person in question? Should a period of stupidity eclipse a record of decency?

It’s also an occasion to investigate each unique circumstance, the nature of each sin that was committed and the implied remedy to that sin. Some sins, like anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint. Some sins like bigotry are like stains. They can only be expunged by apology and cleansing. Some like stealing are like a debt. They can only be rectified by repaying. Some, like adultery, are more like treason than like crime; they can only be rectified by slowly reweaving relationships. Some sins like vanity — Williams’s sin — can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.

During the judgment phase, hard questions have to be asked so that in forgiving we don’t lower our standards.

Confession and Penitence. At some point the offender has to get out in front of the process, being more self-critical than anyone else around him. He has to probe down to the root of his error, offer a confession more complete than expected. He has to put public reputation and career on the back burner and come up with a course that will move him toward his own emotional and spiritual recovery, to become strongest in the weakest places.

Reconciliation and re-trust. After judgments have been made and penitence performed, both the offender and offended bend toward each other. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, trust doesn’t have to be immediate, but the wrong act is no longer a barrier to a relationship. The offender endures his season of shame and is better for it. The offended are free from mean emotions like vengeance and are uplifted when they offer kindness. The social fabric is repaired. Community solidarity is strengthened by the reunion.

I guess I think Brian Williams shouldn’t have to resign, for the reason David Carr emphasized in The Times: Williams’s transgressions were not part of his primary job responsibilities. And because I think good people are stronger when given second chances.

But the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?

Gawd, but he’s getting more and more tiresome.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Steve LeVine became interested in batteries in the wake of the financial crisis. LeVine is the Washington correspondent for Quartz, a news site covering the global economy, and he sensed, he told me recently, “a loss of confidence in the U.S. in our ability to create a real economy” — one based not on financial instruments or a real estate boom, but real products that would help create entire new industries.

The battery could be such a product. Not just any battery, of course, but a battery designed for electric cars and capable of powering them for 200 miles or even 300 miles per charge. A battery that could compete with — and eventually replace — the internal combustion engine and transform the electric car from a niche product to a mass-market automobile.

Such a battery does not yet exist. But if such a thing could be invented, it might well develop into a $100 billion-plus market in its first five or six years of existence, according to LeVine. A battery like that could vastly improve energy security. And with so much less exhaust spewed into the air, the effect on climate change could be lowered. The United States is trying to develop such a battery, and so are many other countries.

That interest led LeVine to the Argonne National Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy’s 17 national labs. For the better part of two years he was given access to its Battery Department, emerging with a captivating book entitled “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World.”

With the closure or winnowing of many of corporate America’s industrial labs — not least the famed Bell Labs, which is a shadow of its once-mighty self — industry now relies heavily on the federal government’s national labs for basic scientific research. Thus it was that scientists at Argonne, which is in the Chicago suburbs, discovered a battery chemistry that greatly improved electric car performance, called NMC (for nickel-manganese-cobalt). The Chevrolet Volt uses a version of NMC, as will, reportedly, the next generation of Nissan Leafs. Which also suggests its drawback: the Volt only gets about 40 miles on pure battery power alone before it switches to its gasoline-powered engine.

The core of LeVine’s book is about the effort to take the next big step: create a battery that can achieve five times that mileage, while still remaining stable — stability is always a big issue with batteries — and affordable. The scientists at Argonne — some of them larger-than-life figures in the battery world — labeled this effort NMC 2.0. Though the writing can get technical at times, LeVine still tells a rollicking good tale. The scientists make a number of painstaking advances, inching the chemistry forward, only to discover problems. One such problem is called “voltage fade” — an instability that is serious enough to make the battery unusable in an electric vehicle.

There is also a private company in LeVine’s narrative, a start-up called Envia Systems. Licensing the advances made by Argonne, it claims to have solved the rest of the puzzle. Its executives are persuasive enough that General Motors contracts with them to create the battery for an electric car it is calling, internally, the Bolt, which is supposed to get 200 miles per charge.

LeVine told me that, for a long time, he fully expected that his book would end with Envia solving the riddle of NMC 2.0, and having a wildly successful public offering. But that’s not what happens. As G.M., Argonne, and LeVine eventually discover, the Envia claims were wildly exaggerated. After G.M. found out that the company wouldn’t be able to deliver after all, it ended its contract with the company and looked to LG Chem Ltd., the big South Korean company, to supply the battery.

Indeed, by the end of the book, scientists still haven’t solved the voltage fade problem, and NMC 2.0 seems as far away as ever. Argonne wins a competition set up by the Department of Energy to create a “Battery Hub,” in which more than a dozen national labs, universities and corporate partners will work together to completely rethink their approach to the conceptual leap the government — and everyone else — is hoping for. In effect, they’re starting over.

There is grist in “The Powerhouse” for critics of President Obama. He pushed for battery innovation just as he pushed for solar innovation. The latter gave us Solyndra; the former gave us Envia. Financing efforts to invent a new battery is, without question, a form of industrial policy.

But LeVine thinks this view is misguided, and so do I. “France and Germany and China have renewed their push for electric cars,” he says. “The stakes are so high and the dividends so rich that they keep going” — even if the quest seems, at times, quixotic.

Besides, batteries are, as LeVine puts it, “a hard problem.” If the government won’t try to solve that problem, who will?

The Great Invisible Free Hand, that’s who.  [snort]


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