Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

January 23, 2015

Oh, Jesus…  Bobo’s here with dating advice.  Just shoot me now.  In “The Devotion Leap” he babbles that the ability to move from the self-centeredness of dating to the self-sacrifice of love requires one to lower the boundaries between self and self.  Whatever the crap that means.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston says “Part of the fun when reading a David Brooks column is to try to find the conservative political tie-in. It’s possible that in this case there isn’t one, but if that’s true we’re just taking dating advice from a conservative Republican.”  Gah.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Much Too Responsible:”  Why is the United States experiencing a solid recovery while Europe is sinking ever deeper into deflationary quicksand?  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

The online dating site OkCupid asks its clients to rate each other’s attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 5. When men rated the women, the median score was about 3 and the ratings followed a bell curve — a few really attractive women and an equal number of women rated as unattractive.

But when women rated men, the results were quite different. The median score was between 1 and 2. Only 1 in 6 of the guys was rated as having above average looks. Either the guys who go to places like OkCupid, Tinder and other sites are disproportionately homely, or women have unforgiving eyes.

Looks, unsurprisingly, dominate online dating. But I learned some details from “Dataclysm,” the book by Christian Rudder, who is the co-founder and president of OkCupid.

There’s a gigantic superstar effect. Women who are rated in the top 5 percent of attractiveness get a vast majority of the approaches. The bottom 95 percent get much less. For men, looks barely matter at all unless you are in the top 3 percent or so. The hunks get barraged with approaches.

It’s better to have a polarizing profile than a bland one. People who generate high levels of disapproval — because they look like goths or bikers or just weird — often also generate higher levels of enthusiasm.

Racial bias is prevalent. When Asian men are looking at Asian women they rate them as 18 percent more attractive than average. But when they are looking at black women, they rate them as 27 percent less attractive. White and Latino men downgrade black women by nearly the same percentage. White, Latino and Asian women have similar preferences.

When people start texting or tweeting to each other, they don’t turn into a bunch of Einsteins. Rudder looked into the most common words and phrases used on Twitter. For men they include: good bro, ps4, my beard, in nba, hoopin and off-season. For women they include: my nails done, mani pedi, retail therapy, and my belly button.

People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work. OkCupid took down the pictures one day. The people who interacted on this day exchanged contact info at twice the rate as on a regular day.

The dating sites have taken the information available online and tried to use it to match up specific individuals. They’ve failed. An exhaustive review of the literature by Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern and others concluded, “No compelling evidence supports matching sites’ claims that mathematical algorithms work.” That’s because what creates a relationship can’t be expressed in data or photographs. Being in love can’t be done by a person in a self-oriented mind-set, asking: Does this choice serve me? Online dating is fascinating because it is more or less the opposite of its object: love.

When online daters actually meet, an entirely different mind-set has to kick in. If they’re going to be open to a real relationship, they have to stop asking where this person rates in comparison to others and start asking, can we lower the boundaries between self and self. They have to stop thinking in individual terms and start feeling in rapport terms.

Basically, they have to take the enchantment leap. This is when something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable and devotional. Sometimes a student becomes enraptured by the beauty of math, and becomes a mathematician. Soldiers doing the drudgery of boot camp are gradually bonded into a passionate unit, for which they will risk their lives. Anybody who has started a mere job and found in it a vocation has taken the enchantment leap.

In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. The people involved move from selfishness to service, from prudent thinking to poetic thinking, from a state of selection to a state of need, from relying on conscious thinking to relying on their own brilliant emotions.

When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.

I have to guess some cultures are more fertile for enchantment — that some activities, like novel-reading or music-making, cultivate a skill for it, and that building a capacity for enchantment is, these days, a countercultural act and a practical and fervent need.

The horrible thought just struck me that, now that Bobo’s marriage is on the rocks, he’s dipping his toe back into the dating pool.  Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to date Bobos.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

The United States and Europe have a lot in common. Both are multicultural and democratic; both are immensely wealthy; both possess currencies with global reach. Both, unfortunately, experienced giant housing and credit bubbles between 2000 and 2007, and suffered painful slumps when the bubbles burst.

Since then, however, policy on the two sides of the Atlantic has diverged. In one great economy, officials have shown a stern commitment to fiscal and monetary virtue, making strenuous efforts to balance budgets while remaining vigilant against inflation. In the other, not so much.

And the difference in attitudes is the main reason the two economies are now on such different paths. Spendthrift, loose-money America is experiencing a solid recovery — a reality reflected in President Obama’s feisty State of the Union address. Meanwhile, virtuous Europe is sinking ever deeper into deflationary quicksand; everyone hopes that the new monetary measures announced Thursday will break the downward spiral, but nobody I know really expects them to be enough.

On the U.S. economy: No, it’s not morning in America, let alone the kind of prosperity we managed during the Clinton years. Recovery could and should have come much faster, and family incomes remain well below their pre-crisis level. Although you’d never know it from the public discussion, there’s overwhelming agreement among economists that the Obama stimulus of 2009-10 helped limit the damage from the financial crisis, but it was too small and faded away far too fast. Still, when you compare the performance of the American economy over the past two years with all those Republican predictions of doom, you can see why Mr. Obama is strutting a bit.

Europe, on the other hand — or more precisely the eurozone, the 18 countries sharing a common currency — did almost everything wrong. On the fiscal side, Europe never did much stimulus, and quickly turned to austerity — spending cuts and, to a lesser extent, tax increases — despite high unemployment. On the monetary side, officials fought the imaginary menace of inflation, and took years to acknowledge that the real threat is deflation.

Why did they get it so wrong?

To some extent, the turn toward austerity reflected institutional weakness: In the United States, federal programs like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps helped support states like Florida with especially severe housing busts, whereas European nations in similar straits, like Spain, were on their own. But European austerity also reflected willful misdiagnosis of the situation. In Europe as in America, the excesses that led to crisis overwhelmingly involved private rather than public debt, with Greece very much an outlier. But officials in Berlin and Brussels chose to ignore the evidence in favor of a narrative that placed all the blame on budget deficits, and simultaneously rejected the evidence suggesting — correctly — that trying to slash deficits in a depressed economy would deepen the depression.

Meanwhile, Europe’s central bankers decided to worry about inflation in 2011 and raise interest rates. Even at the time it was obvious that this was foolish — yes, there had been an uptick in headline inflation, but measures of underlying inflation were too low, not too high.

Monetary policy got much better after Mario Draghi became president of the European Central Bank in late 2011. Indeed, Mr. Draghi’s heroic efforts to provide liquidity to nations facing speculative attack almost surely saved the euro from collapse. But it’s not at all clear that he has the tools to fight off the broader deflationary forces set in motion by years of wrongheaded policy. Furthermore, he has to function with one hand tied behind his back, because Germany remains adamantly opposed to anything that might make life easier for debtor nations.

The terrible thing is that Europe’s economy was wrecked in the name of responsibility. True, there have been times when being tough meant reducing deficits and resisting the temptation to print money. In a depressed economy, however, a balanced-budget fetish and a hard-money obsession are deeply irresponsible. Not only do they hurt the economy in the short run, they can — and in Europe, have — inflict long-run harm, damaging the economy’s potential and driving it into a deflationary trap that’s very hard to escape.

Nor was this an innocent mistake. The thing that strikes me about Europe’s archons of austerity, its doyens of deflation, is their self-indulgence. They felt comfortable, emotionally and politically, demanding sacrifice (from other people) at a time when the world needed more spending. They were all too eager to ignore the evidence that they were wrong.

And Europe will be paying the price for their self-indulgence for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Brooks and Nocera

January 20, 2015

In “Support Our Students” Bobo gurgles that President Obama’s well-intentioned plan on free community-college tuition misunderstands students’ genuine obstacles.  Of which Bobo knows less than nothing.  He should read Mr. Blow’s piece from a few days ago.  Mr. Nocera, in “A Detainee’s Diary,” says one prisoner has written a memoir of life at Guantánamo that every American should read.  Here’s Bobo:

All college commencements are happy, but community-college commencements are the happiest of all. Many of the graduates are the first in their extended family to have earned degrees. When their name is read, big cheering sections erupt with horns and roars from the stands. Many students are older; you’ll see 50- or 60-year-old women grasping their diplomas awash in happy tears. The graduates often know exactly where they’re going to work; they walk with an extra sense of security as they head off campus.

These bright days serve as evidence that America can live up to its dream of social mobility, that there is hope at a time when the ladder upward seems creaky and inadequate.

So when President Obama unveils his community-college plan in the State of the Union address Tuesday night, it represents an opportunity — an opportunity to create days like that for more students.

Obama’s headline idea is to make community college free. It would reduce two years of tuition costs to zero for students with decent grades and who graduate within three years.

The evidence from a similar program in Tennessee suggests that the simple free label has an important psychological effect. Enrollment there surged when high school students learned that they could go to community college for nothing.

The problem is that getting students to enroll is neither hard nor important. The important task is to help students graduate. Community college drop out rates now hover somewhere between 66 percent and 80 percent.

Spending $60 billion over 10 years to make community college free will do little to reduce that. In the first place, community college is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid. In 2012, 38 percent of community-college students had their tuition covered entirely by grant aid and an additional 33 percent had fees of less than $1,000.

The Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead.

The smart thing to do would be to scrap the Obama tuition plan. Students who go to community college free now have tragically high dropout rates. The $60 billion could then be spent on things that are mentioned in President Obama’s proposal — but not prioritized or fleshed out — which would actually increase graduation rates.

First, you’d focus on living expenses. Tuition represents only a fifth of the costs of community-college life. The bulk is textbooks, housing, transportation and so on. Students often have to take on full-time or near-full-time jobs to cover the costs, and, once they do that, they’re much more likely to lose touch with college.

You’d subsidize guidance counselors and mentors. Community colleges are not sticky places. Many students don’t have intimate relationships with anyone who can guide them through the maze of registration, who might help bond them to campus.

You’d figure out the remedial education mess. Half of all community-college students arrive unprepared for college work. Remedial courses are supposed to bring them up to speed, but it’s not clear they work, so some states are dropping remediation, which could leave even more students at sea.

You’d focus on child care. A quarter of college students nationwide have dependent children. Even more students at community colleges do. Less than half of community colleges now have any day-care facilities. Many students drop out because something happens at home and there’s no one to take care of the kids.

In short, you wouldn’t write government checks for tuition. You’d strengthen structures around the schools. You’d focus on the lived environment of actual students and create relationships and cushions to help them thrive.

We’ve had two generations of human capital policies. Human Capital 1.0 was designed to give people access to schools and other facilities. It was based on the 1970s liberal orthodoxy that poor people just need more money, that the government could write checks and mobility will improve.

Human Capital 2.0 is designed to help people not just enroll but to complete school and thrive. Its based on a much more sophisticated understanding of how people actually live, on the importance of social capital, on the difficulty of living in disorganized circumstances. The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment — and how to use policy levers to boost these things.

The tuition piece of the Obama proposal is Human Capital 1.0. It is locked in 1970s liberal orthodoxy. Congress should take the proposal, scrap it and rededicate the money toward programs that will actually boost completion, that will surround colleges, students and their families with supporting structures. We don’t need another program that will lure students into colleges only to have them struggle and drop out.

“1970s liberal orthodoxy” my butt.  The 1970s were the era when community college (and ALL of City University of New York) and many state universities, STOPPED being tuition free. Bobo, you disgusting hack, you can thank your party’s icon Ronald Reagan who, as Governor of California in the 1960s, started the trend when he killed free tuition in the University of California system.  Bobo is so full of shit his eyes are brown.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Last week, several Republican senators, including John McCain, called on President Obama to stop releasing detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Their argument was that after the terror attacks in Paris, the 122 prisoners still in Guantánamo should be made to stay right where they are, where they can do the West no harm.

On Tuesday, one of those detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was sent to Guantánamo in 2002 and remains there to this day, is poised to offer a powerful rejoinder. Three years into his detention — years during which he was isolated, tortured, beaten, sexually abused and humiliated — Slahi wrote a 466-page, 122,000-word account of what had happened to him up to that point.

His manuscript was immediately classified, and it took years of litigation and negotiation by Slahi’s pro bono lawyers to force the military to declassify a redacted version. Even with the redactions, “Guantánamo Diary” is an extraordinary document — “A vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka,” as John le Carré aptly describes it in a back cover blurb — that every American should read.

A native of Mauritania, Slahi, 44, is fluent in several languages — he learned English while in Guantánamo — and lived in Canada and Germany as well as the Muslim world. He came under suspicion because an Al Qaeda member, who had been based in Montreal — where Slahi had also lived — was arrested and charged with plotting to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. Slahi was questioned about this plot several times, but he was always released. After 9/11, Slahi was detained again for questioning. That time, he was turned over to the American authorities, in whose captivity he has been ever since.

What was he accused of? Slahi asked this question of his captors often and was never given a straight answer. This, of course, is part of the problem with Guantánamo, a prison where being formally charged with a crime is a luxury, not a requirement. His efforts to tell the truth — that he had no involvement in any acts of terrorism — only angered his interrogators. “Looks like a dog, walks like a dog, smells like a dog, barks like a dog, must be a dog,” one interrogator used to say. That was the best his captors could do to explain why he was there. Yet the military was so sure he was a key Al Qaeda player that he was subjected to “special interrogation” techniques that had been signed off by the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, himself.

“Special interrogation techniques,” of course, is a euphemism for torture. The sections of the book that describe his torture make for harrowing reading. Slahi was so sleep-deprived that he eventually started to hallucinate. Chained to the ground, he was forced to “stand” in positions that were extremely painful. Interrogators went at him in shifts — 24 hours a day. Sometimes during interrogations, female interrogators rubbed their breasts over his body and fondled him.

It is hard to read about his torture without feeling a sense of shame.

Does Slahi crack? Of course: to get the torture to stop, he finally lied, telling his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear, just as torture victims have done since the Inquisition. “Torture doesn’t guarantee that the detainee cooperates,” writes Slahi. “In order to stop torture, the detainee has to please his assailant, even with untruthful, and sometime misleading [intelligence].” McCain, who was tortured in Vietnam, knows this; last month, he made a powerful speech in which he condemned America’s use of torture, saying, “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” That is also why it is so disheartening that McCain has allied himself with those who want to keep Guantánamo open.

In 2010, a federal district judge ruled in favor of Slahi’s habeas corpus petition because the evidence against him was so thin. The government appealed, and the order remains in limbo.

I asked Nancy Hollander, one of Slahi’s lawyers, to describe her client. “He is funny, smart, compassionate and thoughtful,” she said. All of these qualities come through in his memoir, which is surprisingly without rancor. “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” he writes toward the end of his book. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself.” One of the wonders of the book is that he does come across as fair to all, even his torturers.

But the quote that sticks with me most is something that one of his guards told him, something that could stand as a fitting epitaph for Guantánamo itself: “I know I can go to hell for what I did to you.”

Brooks and Krugman

January 16, 2015

Okay, let’s start the day off with a howler.  Bobo is “Rating the Republicans” and, having pondered deeply and peered into his crystal ball, tells us that John Kasich is easily the most underestimated Republican this year, but Chris Christie is close behind.  My cats are LOLing…  Prof. Krugman, in “Francs, Fear and Folly,” says Switzerland shows us how hard it is to fight the deflationary vortex that’s dragging down the world economy.  Here’s Bobo.  Pro tip — swallow all liquids before reading:

If the Republican presidential campaign were “American Idol” or “The Voice,” this would be the out-of-town auditions phase. Governors across the country are giving State of the State addresses, unveiling their visions. Let’s spin the chairs and grade the contenders, to see who deserves a shot at the big show.

John Kasich: A. The Ohio governor is easily the most underestimated Republican this year. He just won a landslide victory in the swingiest of the swing states. He carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties. He won Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and which President Obama won by 40 points in 2012.

Kasich is the Republican version of Jerry Brown: experienced but undisciplined in an honest, unvarnished way. If he shows he can raise money, and if voters want someone fresh but seasoned and managerial, he might be the guy.

The inaugural address he delivered on Monday was a straight-up values speech. But it wasn’t about values the way Pat Robertson used to define them. It was traditional values expressed in inclusive, largely secular form. “I think the erosion of basic values that made our nation great is the most serious problem facing our state and our nation today,” he said. “And I’m not talking about those volatile issues.”

He built his speech around empathy, resilience, responsibility and other virtues: “You know why this happened? Too fixated on ourselves. It’s all about me. And somehow we have lost the beautiful sound of our neighbors’ voices. Moving beyond ourselves and trying to share in the experience of others helps us open our minds, allows us to grow as people. It helps us become less self-righteous. Did you ever find that in yourself? I do … self-righteous.”

Kasich has a long conservative record, but in his speech he celebrated government workers, like the woman who runs his job and family services department. He argued that economic growth is not an end unto itself, especially when it’s not widely shared.

Kasich, a working-class kid, spoke as a small government conservative who sometimes uses government to advance Judeo-Christian values. His mantra is, “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”

Chris Christie: A-minus. Bridgegate did some damage, but it clearly wasn’t fatal. Whatever can be said about Christie, he grabs attention — essential in a crowded field.

Like all smart Republicans in the post-Romney era (yes, we’re in it), Christie is working hard to prove he understands the everyday concerns of the poor and the middle class. He spent a good chunk of his address describing his efforts to work with the Democratic mayor of Camden to bring in jobs, fight poverty and reduce crime in that city. It was a bipartisan, government-efficiency pitch: “We terminated the city police department and, partnering with the county, put a new metro division on the streets with 400 officers for the same price we were paying for 260. … What are the results? Murder down 51 percent, in what was once called the most dangerous city in America.”

As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post noticed, Christie defined anxiety as America’s most daunting problem. He said that as he traveled the country, “anxiety was the most palpable emotion that I saw and felt. More than anger, more than fear.” Christie hasn’t quite nailed down the nature of that anxiety, or what to do about it, but he’s clearly hit on an essential theme for an era of economic growth but dissatisfaction.

Scott Walker and Mike Pence: B-plus. The Wisconsin and Indiana governors are both versions of what used to be called working-class, Sam’s Club Republicanism. Walker never graduated from college.

In their State of the State addresses, both boasted about the same sorts of accomplishments: dropping unemployment rates, state surpluses, rising graduation rates, lower taxes. Walker mentioned jobs programs for people with disabilities. Pence, who has devoted more effort to fighting poverty, touted his new pre-K education program. Both have good records, but neither speech had anything that was narratively or thematically innovative or of much interest to people outside their states.

At this stage in the race it’s best to evaluate candidates the way you evaluate pitchers during the first week of spring training. Don’t think about polls, donor gossip or who has the front-runner label. Ask who makes the catcher’s glove pop loudest. Who has the stuff that makes you do a double take?

Among the governors, Kasich and Christie have shown they can take the values of religious conservatives and use them to inform Republican economic and domestic priorities. That’s essential if the party is going retain its business and religious base and also reach the struggling and disaffected.

Let us all bear in mind that this is the party that has picked Joni Ernst, pig castrator extroardinaire, to give the reply to the State of the Union address.  What else needs to be said?  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Ah, Switzerland, famed for cuckoo clocks and sound money. Other nations may experiment with radical economic policies, but with the Swiss you don’t get surprises.

Until you do. On Thursday the Swiss National Bank, the equivalent of the Federal Reserve, shocked the financial world with a double whammy, simultaneously abandoning its policy of pegging the Swiss franc to the euro and cutting the interest rate it pays on bank reserves to minus, that’s right, minus 0.75 percent. Market turmoil ensued.

And you should feel a shiver of fear, even if you don’t have any direct financial stake in the value of the franc. For Switzerland’s monetary travails illustrate in miniature just how hard it is to fight the deflationary vortex now dragging down much of the world economy.

What you need to understand is that all the usual rules of economic policy changed when financial crisis struck in 2008; we entered a looking-glass world, and we still haven’t emerged. In many cases, economic virtues became vices: Willingness to save became a drag on investment, fiscal probity a route to stagnation. And in the case of the Swiss, having a reputation for safe banks and sound money became a major liability.

Here’s how it worked: When Greece entered its debt crisis at the end of 2009, and other European nations found themselves under severe stress, money seeking a safe haven began pouring into Switzerland. This in turn sent the Swiss franc soaring, with devastating effects on the competitiveness of Swiss manufacturing, and threatened to push Switzerland — which already had very low inflation and very low interest rates — into Japanese-style deflation.

So Swiss monetary officials went all out in an effort to weaken their currency. You might think that making your currency worth less is easy — can’t you just print more bills? — but in the post-crisis world it’s not easy at all. Just printing money and stuffing it into the banks does nothing; it just sits there. The Swiss tried a more direct approach, selling francs and buying euros on the foreign exchange market, in the process acquiring a huge hoard of euros. But even that wasn’t doing the trick.

Then, in 2011, the Swiss National Bank tried a psychological tactic. “The current massive overvaluation of the Swiss franc,” it declared, “poses an acute threat to the Swiss economy and carries the risk of a deflationary development.” And it therefore announced that it would set a minimum value for the euro — 1.2 Swiss francs — and that to enforce this minimum it was “prepared to buy foreign currency in unlimited quantities.” What the bank clearly hoped was that by drawing this line in the sand it would limit the number of euros it actually had to buy.

And for three years it worked. But on Thursday the Swiss suddenly gave up. We don’t know exactly why; nobody I know believes the official explanation, that it’s a response to a weakening euro. But it seems likely that a fresh wave of safe-haven money was making the effort to keep the franc down too expensive.

If you ask me, the Swiss just made a big mistake. But frankly — francly? — the fate of Switzerland isn’t the important issue. What’s important, instead, is the demonstration of just how hard it is to fight the deflationary forces that are now afflicting much of the world — not just Europe and Japan, but quite possibly China too. And while America has had a pretty good run the past few quarters, it would be foolish to assume that we’re immune.

What this says is that you really, really shouldn’t let yourself get too close to deflation — you might fall in, and then it’s extremely hard to get out. This is one reason that slashing government spending in a depressed economy is such a bad idea: It’s not just the immediate cost in lost jobs, but the increased risk of getting caught in a deflationary trap.

It’s also a reason to be very cautious about raising interest rates when you have low inflation, even if you don’t think deflation is imminent. Right now serious people — the same serious people who decided, wrongly, that 2010 was the year we should pivot from jobs to deficits — seem to be arriving at a consensus that the Fed should start hiking very soon. But why? There’s no sign of accelerating inflation in the actual data, and market indicators of expected inflation are plunging, suggesting that investors see deflationary risk even if the Fed doesn’t.

And I share that market concern. If the U.S. recovery weakens, either through contagion from troubles abroad or because our own fundamentals aren’t as strong as we think, tightening monetary policy could all too easily prove to be an act of utter folly.

So let’s learn from the Swiss. They’ve been careful; they’ve maintained sound money for generations. And now they’re paying the price.

Brooks and Nocera

January 13, 2015

In “The Child in the Basement” Bobo says that in sweet and pleasant prose, Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas parable reveals the ugly moral dilemma at the heart of our social contract.  In the comments “Mark Thomasen” from Clawson, MI said this:  “It is terrible that Brooks can write this, so clearly understand what this means, and yet still promote the politics which he does.”  Mr. Nocera, in “Playing College Moneyball,” says the first ever “true” national championship college football game created many winners other than the two teams that played the game.  Here’s Bobo:

Maybe you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music.

The people in the city are genuinely happy. They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market.

Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”

It is an idyllic, magical place.

But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. It looks about 6, but, actually, the child is nearly 10. “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.”

Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness.

But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don’t want to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”

In one reading this is a parable about exploitation. According to this reading, many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement. When we buy a cellphone or a piece of cheap clothing, there is some exploited worker — a child in the basement. We tolerate exploitation, telling each other that their misery is necessary for overall affluence, though maybe it’s not.

In another reading, the story is a challenge to the utilitarian mind-set so prevalent today.

In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.

And yet we don’t actually live according to that moral imperative. Life is filled with tragic trade-offs. In many different venues, the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.

Companies succeed because they fire people, even if a whole family depends on them. Schools become prestigious because they reject people — even if they put a lifetime of work into their application. Leaders fighting a war on terror accidentally kill innocents. These are children in the basement of our survival and happiness.

The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity.

The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all.

In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.

Moral Hazard should tear his throat out.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Writing this column on Monday afternoon, I can only guess at the final score of the big game between Ohio State and Oregon. But I certainly know who the winners are in this first ever “true” national championship college football game.

ESPN, which bought the rights to the four-team College Football Playoff ($7.3 billion for 12 years) is a winner. The two bowl games in the first round of the playoffs, which were played on New Year’s Day, were the two highest-rated shows in the history of cable television. For Monday night’s championship game, ESPN charged $1 million for a 30-second ad.

The five “power conferences” are winners. For years, they resisted a playoff system, partly because they feared it would lessen the importance of the regular season. It is already obvious that the College Football Playoff has made this season more exciting and — to sweeten the deal — far more lucrative, netting each conference some $50 million a year.

The coaches for the two teams are winners: Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, who makes $2 million a year, plus up to $1.1 million in bonuses, will get an extra $250,000 if his Ducks win. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, who makes $4.5 million a year, got a big bonus just for making the four-team playoff. Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, is a winner. Both Ohio State and Oregon wear Nike gear. Plus, Knight has spent more than $300 million over the years ensuring that his beloved Ducks — he’s an Oregon native — have the best of everything. The game Monday night was his reward.

In the long march to maximize revenue in college sports, there has never been an event quite so nakedly about money as the College Football Playoff. Even the March Madness basketball championship tournament, which nets the N.C.A.A. around $800 million annually, has a certain charm that arises from those inevitable, and wonderful, early-round upsets.

On media day — yes, the College Football Playoff held a media day, just like the pros do in advance of the Super Bowl — several players noted all the money swirling around them, and wondered why they weren’t getting any of it. Bill Plaschke, the longtime sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote afterward that the playoff system had changed his view that a college education was reward enough for college athletes. He described media day as “the day college football officially turned pro,” and he added that it “truly seems ridiculous that the players are not sharing even a small piece of this value they create.”

Paradoxically, this emphasis on money-above-all-else, while creating unimaginable riches for the people who administer college sports, has also created a sense of crisis. Idealistic reformers are calling for universities to re-emphasize education. These reformers appear to have the ear of the White House. (Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, who played basketball at Harvard, is allied with this group.) There is talk of a presidential commission on college sports.

Meanwhile, USA Today reports that the conference commissioners, and other members of the college sports industrial complex, have formed a group called the Coalition to Save College Sports. Its goal is to get out the message that college athletes already have a good deal — without compensation. “Thanks to the way college sports are run,” their leaders wrote in an email, “student-athletes gain an education, learn skills, and have opportunities in life.” In other words, now that we’ve gotten ours, we want to make sure the players don’t get theirs.

The central conundrum is that universities are simply not built to run a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry. The only way they can do it is by looking the other way at certain practices, and making allowances for good athletes who don’t care much about college itself. One of the reasons I advocate paying football and men’s basketball players is that it would at least ensure that they got something for their efforts.

The starting quarterback for Ohio State in Monday night’s championship game was Cardale Jones. He would seem to be exactly the kind of athlete that the college sports industrial complex points to when it talks about how a college scholarship can help a “student athlete” better his life.

Cardale, a sophomore at Ohio State, grew up in a rough neighborhood in Cleveland, the youngest of six children raised by a single mother. Until recently, he was the team’s third-string quarterback; indeed, the only reason he was starting the game was because the two quarterbacks in front of him were hurt. Unlikely to have a pro career, you’d think he would embrace the opportunity to get a free education.

Yet a few years ago, Jones tweeted, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.”

That is the circle that can’t be squared, no matter how many presidential commissions — or coalitions to save college sports — try.

Brooks and Krugman

January 9, 2015

Bobo has taken to his fainting couch, clutching his pearls.  In “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” he moans that the attack in France reminds us to look closely at our own speech codes, and to remember that offensive speech should be discouraged socially but never legally.  In the comments “P Catalano” from Helena, MT points out the obvious:  “The title of this op-ed should be not “I am not Charlie” but “I Do False Equivalences.””  Prof. Krugman, in “Voodoo Time Machine,” says that leaders in the Republican Party seem to be wrong on everything that counts, but no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds.  Here’s Bobo:

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.

The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.

Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.

Moreover, provocateurs and ridiculers expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of the deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird. Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.

In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.

If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation. It’s almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes and disinvite speakers.

Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes. Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

And Bobo can go and eat his huge plate of salted dicks out on the porch, since he’s not fit to sit at the kids’ table.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Many of us in the econ biz were wondering how the new leaders of Congress would respond to the sharp increase in American economic growth that, we now know, began last spring. After years of insisting that President Obama is responsible for a weak economy, they couldn’t say the truth — that short-run economic performance has very little to do with who holds the White House. So what would they say?

Well, I didn’t see that one coming: They’re claiming credit. Never mind the fact that all of the good data refer to a period before the midterm elections. Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, says that he did it, that growth reflected “the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”

The response of the Democratic National Committee — “Hahahahahahaha” — seems appropriate. I mean, talk about voodoo economics: Mr. McConnell is claiming not just that he can create prosperity without, you know, actually passing any legislation, but that he can reach back in time and create prosperity before even taking power. But while Mr. McConnell’s self-aggrandizement is funny, it’s also scary, because it’s a symptom of his party’s epistemic closure. Republicans know many things that aren’t so, and no amount of contrary evidence will get them to change their minds.

At least Mr. McConnell didn’t do what many of his colleagues have done when faced with inconvenient facts: resort to conspiracy theories.

Consider, for example, how some Republicans dealt with good news about health reform. Before Obamacare went into effect, they overwhelmingly insisted that it would be a disaster, that more people would lose insurance than would gain it. They were, of course, delighted by the technical problems that initially crippled the program’s website. But those problems were fixed, and enrollment soared. Their response? “They are cooking the books,” declared Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who now leads the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

But that was then. At this point we have multiple independent confirmations — most recently from Gallup — that Obamacare has dramatically expanded insurance coverage. So what do they say now? The law “will collapse under its own weight,” says Representative Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Speaking of Mr. Ryan: Almost four years have passed since he and many others in his party lambasted Ben Bernanke, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve, for policies that they claimed would lead to high inflation and “debase the dollar.” The inflation never materialized, and the dollar proceeded to strengthen, but Mr. Ryan gave no sign of having been chastened — and many conservatives, including favorite intellectuals like Niall Ferguson of Harvard, became “inflation truthers,” insisting that the government is hiding price rises.

Oh, and Europe — whose central bank, unlike the Fed under Bernanke’s leadership, took those inflation warnings to heart and raised interest rates in 2011is now experiencing outright deflation, with terrifying implications for its economic and political outlook.

Then there’s climate change. It appears that 2014 was the hottest year yet, which should close the door on silly claims that global warming has stopped. But it won’t matter to Senator James Inhofe, who now leads a crucial environmental committee and has long insisted that all the science in this field is a liberal hoax.

Now, everyone makes predictions that turn out to have been wrong; it’s a complicated world out there, and nobody’s perfect. The point, however, is that Congress is now controlled by men who never acknowledge error, let alone learn from their mistakes.

In some cases, they may not even know that they were wrong. After all, conservative news media are not exactly known for their balanced coverage; if your picture of how health reform is working is based on Fox News, you probably have a sense that it has been a vast disaster, even though the reality is one of success that has surprised even the law’s supporters.

The main point, however, is that we’re looking at a political subculture in which ideological tenets are simply not to be questioned, no matter what. Supply-side economics is valid no matter what actually happens to the economy, guaranteed health insurance must be a failure even if it’s working, and anyone who points out the troubling facts is ipso facto an enemy.

And we’re not talking about marginal figures. You sometimes hear claims that the old-fashioned Republican establishment is making a comeback, that Tea Party extremists are on the run and we can get back to bipartisan cooperation. But that is a fantasy. We can’t have meaningful cooperation when we can’t agree on reality, when even establishment figures in the Republican Party essentially believe that facts have a liberal bias.

Brooks and Krugman

January 2, 2015

Now Bobo has seen fit to weigh in on things Middle Eastern.  In “The Age of Bibi” he gurgles that bellicose in words yet cautious in action, Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of contrasts, and he is subtly reshaping Israel.  In the comments “Joknecht” from NYC points out a few things:  “I find it very interesting that Mr. Brooks describes Mr. Netanyahu’s father as a “medeval scholar”, when in fact he was an extreme right wing Irgunist. His vision of a “Greater Israel,” stretching from Damascus to the sea, is what Bibi grew up with. The local Arab population was considered an inconvience at best. I find it equally interesting that Mr. Brook’s son is in the IDF instead of joining his own nation’s armed forces, and why Mr. Brooks thinks anything he writes about the region can be taken as either unbiased or factual.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Twin Peaks Planet,” says our current global setup isn’t working for everyone. He has a question: What consequences from that are ahead if we don’t do something about it?  Here’s Bobo:

If I were a political novelist, I’d try to write a novel about Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.

The story would be partly Nixonian. Netanyahu is surpassingly brilliant, as even his opponents here concede. He knows the minute guts of Israeli politics and has read deeply into big history and grand strategy. He is also said to be suspicious, solitary and insular. It is hard to stay on good terms with him, whether you are on his staff, or his nation’s closest ally.

The story would be partly Kennedyesque. The Netanyahu clan was presided over by Benjamin’s brilliant father Benzion, the great medieval historian. The eldest brother Jonathan was the golden child. When Jonathan died in the raid on Entebbe in 1976, hopes shifted to Benjamin, who is known as Bibi. Political analysts have spent decades psychoanalyzing the family dynamic, with mixed results, but a novelist who studied Sophocles or Tolstoy might be able to make some sense of it.

The story would be partly Churchillian. Netanyahu sees himself in world historical terms, and admires Theodor Herzl and Winston Churchill — two men who saw dangers ahead of other people. Netanyahu obviously lacks many of Churchill’s qualities, like playful charm, but he has a profound nationalist passion and a consuming historical consciousness.

Like Churchill, he is wisest when things are going wrong. He has been a pessimist about the Arab world. As the Arab Spring has deteriorated, as Palestinian democracy led to Hamas, as run of the mill extremists have lost ground to the Islamic State, Bibi’s instincts have basically been proved correct.

The story would be part Shakespearean. Nearly every political leader has one close friend or spouse, often female, who is widely hated. People can’t blame the leader for slights, so they blame her. In Israel, the role is played by Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who has been the subject of fascination and scorn for decades: She is often described as Lady Macbeth. Few know her exact role, but, it is said, she exiles the disloyal, shapes his politics, mistreats servants and distracts him when he is supposed to be running the country. Obviously, any novel about Netanyahu and modern Israel would have to be told from her vantage point. The narrative voice would be electric.

The story would be part “Citizen Kane.” Netanyahu rose to fame via CNN. His rise and survival are intertwined with changes in media, with the decline of old newspapers that are generally hostile, and the rise of new cable networks and outlets that are often his allies. Ferociously tending his image, his wars with his foes in the Israeli press have been epic.

Finally, the story would be part Machiavelli. The great Renaissance philosopher argued that it is best to be both loved and feared, but if you have to choose one, it is better to be feared. Netanyahu is not loved, especially by those in his party. But he is feared and acknowledged, the way any large, effective object is feared and respected.

I’m visiting Israel for the 18th or 19th time (my son is currently a member of the Lone Soldiers Program, which allows people from around the world to serve in the Israeli military). I asked a couple of smart Israelis what their coming elections are about. They said that the elections are about one thing: What do you think of Netanyahu? Such is the outsized role he plays in the consciousness of this nation.

No one has a simple view of him. To some, he is a monster who has expanded the settlements on the West Bank, which are a moral stain and do calamitous damage to Israel’s efforts to win support around the world. To some, he is the necessary man in hard times, the vigilant guardian as the rest of the Middle East goes berserk.

Both viewpoints have some truth. To me, his caution is most fascinating. For all his soaring rhetoric and bellicosity, he has been a defensive leader. He seems to understand that, in his country’s situation, the lows are lower than the highs are high. The costs of a mistake are bigger than the benefits of an accomplishment. So he is loath to take risks. He doesn’t do some smart things, like improve life for Palestinians on the West Bank, but he doesn’t do unpredictable dumb things, like prematurely bomb Iran. He talks everything through, and his decisions shift and flip as the discussions evolve.

If you think trends in the Middle East will doom Israel unless it acts, then this defensiveness is a disaster. If you think, as I do, that Israel has to wait out the current spasm of Islamist radicalism, then this caution has its uses.

Israeli voters haven’t warmed to Netanyahu over the past quarter-century. But they have come to think more like him, accepting that this conflict will endure, digging in for a dogged struggle. For good and ill, he has refashioned the national mind.

It’s for ill, Bobo.  And I see that your kid loves being in the military.  We all assume he’ll join ours as soon as he gets home…  (Sometimes I just crack myself up.)  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

In 2014, soaring inequality in advanced nations finally received the attention it deserved, as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” became a surprise (and deserving) best seller. The usual suspects are still in well-paid denial, but, to everyone else, it is now obvious that income and wealth are more concentrated at the very top than they have been since the Gilded Age — and the trend shows no sign of letting up.

But that’s a story about developments within nations, and, therefore, incomplete. You really want to supplement Piketty-style analysis with a global view, and when you do, I’d argue, you get a better sense of the good, the bad and the potentially very ugly of the world we live in.

So let me suggest that you look at a remarkable chart of income gains around the world produced by Branko Milanovic of the City University of New York Graduate Center (which I will be joining this summer). What Mr. Milanovic shows is that income growth since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been a “twin peaks” story. Incomes have, of course, soared at the top, as the world’s elite becomes ever richer. But there have also been huge gains for what we might call the global middle — largely consisting of the rising middle classes of China and India.

And let’s be clear: Income growth in emerging nations has produced huge gains in human welfare, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty and giving them a chance for a better life.

Now for the bad news: Between these twin peaks — the ever-richer global elite and the rising Chinese middle class — lies what we might call the valley of despond: Incomes have grown slowly, if at all, for people around the 20th percentile of the world income distribution. Who are these people? Basically, the advanced-country working classes. And although Mr. Milanovic’s data only go up through 2008, we can be sure that this group has done even worse since then, wracked by the effects of high unemployment, stagnating wages, and austerity policies.

Furthermore, the travails of workers in rich countries are, in important ways, the flip side of the gains above and below them. Competition from emerging-economy exports has surely been a factor depressing wages in wealthier nations, although probably not the dominant force. More important, soaring incomes at the top were achieved, in large part, by squeezing those below: by cutting wages, slashing benefits, crushing unions, and diverting a rising share of national resources to financial wheeling and dealing.

Perhaps more important still, the wealthy exert a vastly disproportionate effect on policy. And elite priorities — obsessive concern with budget deficits, with the supposed need to slash social programs — have done a lot to deepen the valley of despond.

So who speaks for those left behind in this twin-peaked world? You might have expected conventional parties of the left to take a populist stance on behalf of their domestic working classes. But mostly what you get instead — from leaders ranging from François Hollande of France to Ed Milliband of Britain to, yes, President Obama — is awkward mumbling. (Mr. Obama has, in fact, done a lot to help working Americans, but he’s remarkably bad at making his own case.)

The problem with these conventional leaders, I’d argue, is that they’re afraid to challenge elite priorities, in particular the obsession with budget deficits, for fear of being considered irresponsible. And that leaves the field open for unconventional leaders — some of them seriously scary — who are willing to address the anger and despair of ordinary citizens.

The Greek leftists who may well come to power there later this month are arguably the least scary of the bunch, although their demands for debt relief and an end to austerity may provoke a tense standoff with Brussels. Elsewhere, however, we see the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties like France’s National Front and the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, in Britain — and there are even worse people waiting in the wings.

All of this suggests some uncomfortable historical analogies. Remember, this is the second time we’ve had a global financial crisis followed by a prolonged worldwide slump. Then, as now, any effective response to the crisis was blocked by elite demands for balanced budgets and stable currencies. And the eventual result was to deliver power into the hands of people who were, shall we say, not very nice.

I’m not suggesting that we’re on the verge of fully replaying the 1930s. But I would argue that political and opinion leaders need to face up to the reality that our current global setup isn’t working for everyone. It’s great for the elite and has done a lot of good for emerging nations, but that valley of despond is very real. And bad things will happen if we don’t do something about it.

Brace yourself, Maggie.  Bad times are a’comin’…

Brooks and Nocera

December 30, 2014

We missed Part 1 of Bobo’s list of the best essays of the year while I was on hiatus, but it’s Bobo so I’m sure we didn’t miss much.  (Fear not — he supplied a link to himself.)  Today in “The Sidney Awards, Part 2″ he says here are the rest of the Sidney Awards for the outstanding essays of 2014.  Joe “Gunga Din” Nocera has gone into the prognostication business.  In “Four Questions for 2015″ he looks at some topics explored this year and makes some predictions.  Here’s Bobo:

The most powerful woman in the world may also be the most effective leader in the world. We kick off the second volley of the year’s best magazine essays by giving a Sidney Award to George Packer’s “The Quiet German,” a superb profile of Angela Merkel, which appeared in The New Yorker. (For Part 1 of the Sidney Awards, click here.)

Packer traces the psychological development of this slow, steady, but relentless political operator. As a girl, Packer writes, “Angela was physically clumsy — she later called herself ‘a little movement idiot.’ At the age of five, she could barely walk downhill without falling. ‘What a normal person knows automatically I had to first figure out mentally, followed by exhausting exercise,’ she has said.”

She also grew up in East Germany, under Communist rule, where the truth could not be shouted; it had to be whispered. Once the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was unified, this kind of Ossi might have a certain profile: As one of Packer’s sources tells him, “The whisperer might find it easier to learn in this new life, to wait and see, and not just burst out at once — to think things over before speaking. The whisperer thinks, How can I say this without damaging myself?”

She also had the advantages of a scientific background: “Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.”

Packer is not only capturing the evolution of a leader; he’s portraying a different type of leader. Not the hero on horseback, or the romantic visionary, but the meticulous, practical plodder.

The Sidney Award judges have a soft spot for essays that develop a bold theory of everything. In Nils Gilman’s “The Twin Insurgency,” which appeared in The American Interest, the associate chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, argues that two political forces are squeezing the middle class. At the top, there is the global plutocracy: rich elites, often in tech and finance who are disengaged from national obligations and common life. At the bottom, there are the deviant entrepreneurs: corrupt oligarchs in the developing world, drug dealers, black-market millionaires.

These two blocks secede from common life. They try to carve out space above and below the reach of the traditional state apparatus. They weaken the welfare states, which have provided stability for the middle class. “What both insurgencies represent,” Gilman writes, “is the replacement of the liberal ideal of uniform authority and rights within national spaces by a kaleidoscopic array of de facto and even de jure microsovereignties.”

You may not agree with it all, but Gilman gets you thinking about the erosion of political authority that we see pretty much everywhere around the globe.

Hanna Rosin gets a Sidney Award for a complex, searing essay she wrote in New York magazine, “By Noon They’d Both Be in Heaven.”

It is about a mom whose daughter often flew into unstoppable rages. Treatments failed. Life at home descended into a nightmare. “I’ve been bruised from head to toe, knocked unconscious, suffered injuries that were visible and others that weren’t.” Kelli Stapleton wrote in a blog post.

Eventually she tried to kill both her daughter and herself, and failed. It looks superficially like the story of a woman overwhelmed. But family tragedies happen to real, idiosyncratic human beings. Stapleton was also a product of the age of reality TV. She had a flair for publicity that would make her, among other things, the subject of a two-part special on Dr. Phil. This is a story about the confluence of unbearable stress with modern media narcissism.

The final Sidney Award of 2014 goes to Yuval Levin’s moral meditation, “Taking the Long Way,” in First Things, a journal of religion and public life. Levin argues that both left and right are committed to flawed visions of liberty. The left is committed to the ideal of the freely choosing individual, while conservatives are committed to an ideal based on secure rights, especially property rights.

“As a consequence, both seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way. They take the human person largely for granted.”

This is an error. Citizens are formed, not born: “A liberal society depends on the long way of moral formation,” Levin continues. “Real progress very rarely looks like social transformation.” Theories from left and right are inarticulate about this, but the most effective political projects nurture soul-forming institutions, like work, family, faith, learning and community, and require a moral political language.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Will President Obama approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline? Up until recently, I always assumed that Obama would, sooner or later, despite the protests of the environmental community. In March 2012, for instance, he spoke positively about the proposed pipeline, which would bring oil mined from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, approval of the pipeline is important to the government of Canada, our neighbor and ally.

But several things happened in 2014 that now make me think he will turn it down. The first is that the glut of oil — largely because of the increase in production in the United States — has made the oil from the tar sands unnecessary, at least for now. Second, as the president moves into legacy mode, saying no to Keystone could firm up his credentials as a leader who tried to do something about climate change. And, finally, Republicans, who will control both the House and the Senate in January, have vowed to send the president a bill approving construction of the pipeline. Vetoing that bill would be very much in keeping with the bolder, more confrontational persona Obama has displayed since the midterm elections.

Will insider-trading prosecutions disappear? Thanks to a recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, they just might. The ruling overturned the convictions of two hedge fund managers who had made stock trades based on information they received, third- or fourth-hand, from corporate insiders. Because they didn’t know the identity of the insiders — or whether those insiders were receiving any tangible benefit for leaking information — the court ruled that the fund managers had not committed a crime. Thus did the appeals court define insider trading narrowly, making it difficult to charge anybody who did not directly pay off a source for information.

To some degree, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are reaping what they sowed. There is no law that defines the crime of insider trading; instead the rules for what is, or is not, illegal have evolved through court cases. For years, that suited the government, which could try to stretch the definition from case to case. But now the judiciary is drastically shrinking that definition. James B. Stewart, the Times business columnist, recently wrote that the country needs an insider-trading statute to define the crime, once and for all. He’s right.

Will the average college football coach make more than the average professional football coach? Well, it probably won’t happen in 2015, but we are headed in that direction. As of this fall, the average pay for the head coaches in the five wealthiest football conferences (the “power five”) was $2.96 million. Professional coaches made nearly twice as much, $4.85 million. But more and more, colleges are luring top coaches by offering them pro-like salaries. The most recent example is Jim Harbaugh. Paid $5 million a year to coach the San Francisco 49ers, he has reportedly agreed to leave the pro ranks for the University of Michigan Wolverines for $8 million a year. No doubt, the Michigan trustees calculated that he would be worth that much if he returned the school to its former football glory. But it’s another reminder that college football is every bit the multibillion-dollar business that the N.F.L. is. Except, of course, that the players don’t get paid. (By the way, the upcoming issue of The Washington Monthly has an illuminating article about the controversy that ensued a century ago when college coaches first began to be paid.)

Will Uber survive? I’m only being partly facetious. Uber has an enormous war chest and is a popular service that now operates in 255 cities. But it has a serious problem: It keeps bumping into government resistance. When a company like, say, Skype began offering free phone calls, it disrupted the telephone industry. But the phone companies couldn’t do much about it. Uber, however, is disrupting services that are controlled and regulated by governments. Uber can argue all it wants that those government regulations are outmoded. It can even be right.

But it doesn’t matter. Governments have the power to push back. Uber has been ruled illegal in Nevada. South Korea went so far as to indict Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, charging that the company violated “local licensing laws,” according to The Times. There are lots more examples.

Compare Uber’s hyperaggressive business practices to those of Airbnb, the company that is disrupting the hotel industry. Facing much the same kind of government resistance, Airbnb has lowered its rhetoric and taken steps to comply with local regulations. That approach seems to be working.

They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Uber should try it sometime.

Brooks and Nocera

December 23, 2014

Oh, cripes.  It seems that Bobo’s read another book…  In “The Subtle Sensations of Faith” he gurgles that the experience of faith is properly understood as an ever-evolving longing rooted in an experience, large or small, of the transcendent.  In the comments “Michael O’Neill” from Bandon, Oregon had this to say:  “What in the world are you talking about? Talk about a lost thread, this particular column is little more then a tattered ball of lint.”  Mr. Nocera, as usual, considers oil.  In “Shale and the Falling Price of Oil” he wrings his hands and says with global oil prices falling and falling some more, the Saudis don’t want a repeat of 2008.  Here’s Bobo:

With Hanukkah coming to an end, Christmas days away, and people taking time off work, we are in a season of quickened faith. When you watch people exercise that faith, whether lighting candles or attending Midnight Mass, the first thing you see is how surprising it is. You’d think faith would be a simple holding of belief, or a confidence in things unseen, but, in real life, faith is unpredictable and ever-changing.

It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?

Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith. As Wiman writes, “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget. Their spirits go dry and they doubt anything ever happened. But believers try, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, to stay faithful to those events. They assent to some spiritual element they still sense planted in themselves.

The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.

In his famous fourth footnote in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.”

Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”

All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is complex and arduous: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

Christ, what twaddle.  (And for what it’s worth, “faith” is not the same thing as “religious belief,” as Bobo seems to think.)  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Six years ago, the price of oil went on an incredible roller-coaster ride. In January 2008, oil hovered around $90 a barrel. By July, it had reached $147 a barrel. By the end of the year, it had plunged to under $35 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia, and the other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, hate that kind of volatility. When prices are too high, OPEC’s customers, the petroleum importing countries, suffer economically, which means they cut back on energy use and search for alternatives to oil. But if prices go too low, many exporting countries face enormous financial problems because their economies depend on oil staying in the $100 to $130 range, according to 2015 projections.

We tend to think of OPEC as a cartel whose goal is to set the price of oil — and set it high. But stability is also an important goal. Without a cartel controlling supply, oil can be the most volatile of commodities.

Which, of course, we are learning anew, as we’ve watched oil fall from $115 a barrel to about $60 in the last six months. In 2008, Saudi Arabia stepped in both when the price was rising rapidly and again when it dropped. And guess what happened? Nothing. Most of the rest of OPEC didn’t follow Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis were exposed as having lost their ability to single-handedly control the price of oil.

This time around, what has been most noticeable as the price of oil has dropped is that the Saudis seem completely uninterested in trying to prop it up. The Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, gave an interview to CNN in which he declared that Saudi Arabia would “never” cut production, despite the steep drop this year. “We are going to continue to produce what we are producing,” he said. “We are going to continue to welcome additional production if customers come and ask for it.”

Part of the reason for this new Saudi attitude is that the country’s leaders are tired of doing all the heavy lifting for the other OPEC members — who then keep their spigots completely open and take advantage of the high prices the Saudis are making possible. Part of it is that the Saudis are unwilling to lose market share to other countries, and they have the wherewithal to withstand lower prices for a much longer period than virtually any other exporter. But part of it is also that Saudi Arabia doesn’t want a repeat of 2008.

“The worst thing from the Saudi point of view would be to announce a production cut, and the prices keep falling,” said Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. It doesn’t want to be seen as the emperor with no clothes.

And then, of course, there is the effect of the shale revolution in the United States, where oil production has nearly doubled, to nine million barrels a day from five million a day, in the space of six years. The conventional wisdom holds that the Saudis “fear” the influx of shale oil onto the market — as The Wall Street Journal put it on Monday — and that they want to see the price go down in order to drive out some of that shale production.

But the Saudis don’t really fear shale oil. “I’ve heard officials in Saudi Arabia call shale a blessing,” said Robert McNally, the founder and president of The Rapidan Group, who is also affiliated with the Center on Global Energy Policy. “Shale oil is light,” he added. “Saudi oil is medium and heavy, and their real competitors are the Iraqis and the Iranians.” The Saudis can adjust to shale oil more easily than many other countries.

In effect, shale has the potential to play the role of the “swing supplier,” which is the role the Saudis used to play. At a certain price, it will be uneconomical to drill for shale oil, at which point the price will stabilize. But the shale revolution is still too new for anybody to know what that price is. In a sense, what is going on now is an effort to discover how low oil has to go before shale production declines and the floor is found for the price of oil.

OPEC, McNally reminded me the other day, is hardly the first group to try to control the price of oil. In the early years of the industry, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled the price. For decades before the formation of OPEC, the Railroad Commission of Texas (now the Texas Railroad Commission) would have a monthly meeting to set production quotas.

More than anything else, the events of these past months, as oil has dropped and dropped again, shows that it is the market, rather than a cartel, that will dictate the price of oil for the foreseeable future.

Hold onto your seatbelt.

Jeez, Joe — give it a rest already.

Brooks and Krugman

December 19, 2014

In “The Union Future” Bobo has the gall to ask a question:  Do the people who have marched over the Brown and Garner cases have the stamina to force change?  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “This is really quite an amazing column.  The title and first paragraph lead one to believe that Mr. Brooks, of all people, is intent on starting a serious conversation on how to address the horrific income and wealth inequality in the US, and the possible role of Labor Unions in that process.  But then, very quickly, Mr. Brooks reverts to character and concentrates on lambasting public sector unions, one of the favorite targets of some of the more odious GOP Governors. The little snipe, almost as an aside, at the Teachers Unions is just a warm up. He then has the audacity to blame the Police Unions for the racial tensions, which are really the remnants pervasive racism in the US in general.”  So it’s typical Bobo crap.  Prof. Krugman, in “Putin’s Bubble Bursts,” says the global plunge in oil prices and the falling ruble have wreaked havoc on the Russian economy. It’s been quite a comedown for the strongman.  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past decades, the case for enhancing union power has grown both stronger and weaker. On the one hand, as wages have stagnated while profits have soared, it does seem that there is something out of whack in the balance of power between labor and capital. Workers need some new way to collectively bargain for more money.

On the other hand, unions, and especially public-sector unions, have done a lot over the past decades to rigidify workplaces, especially government. Teachers’ unions have become the single biggest impediment to school reform. Police unions have become an impediment to police reform.

If you look at all the proposals that have been discussed since the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, you find that somewhere or other around the country, police unions have opposed all of them:

GETTING RID OF BAD COPS A small percentage of cops commit most of the abuses. A study by WNYC News in New York found that, since 2009, 40 percent of the “resisting arrest” charges were filed by just 5 percent of New York Police Department officers. In other words, most officers rarely get in a confrontation that leads to that charge, but a few officers often get in violent confrontations.

But it’s very hard to remove the bad apples from the force. Trying to protect their members, unions have weakened accountability. The investigation process is softer on police than it would be on anyone else. In parts of the country, contract rules stipulate that officers get a 48-hour cooling-off period before having to respond to questions. They have access to the names and testimony of their accusers. They can be questioned only by one person at a time. They can’t be threatened with disciplinary action during questioning.

More seriously, cops who are punished can be reinstated through a secretive appeals process that favors job retention over public safety. In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a riveting piece with egregious stories of cops who have returned to the force after clear incompetence. Hector Jimenez was an Oakland, Calif., cop who shot and killed an unarmed 20-year-old man in 2007. Seven months later, he killed another unarmed man, shooting him in the back three times while he ran away. The city paid damages. Jimenez was fired. But he appealed through his union and was reinstated with back pay.

CAMERAS There’s long been talk about equipping cops with wearable cameras. In Miami, Boston, and Wichita, Kan., city officials bandied about such plans, but the local unions moved to thwart them, arguing, in one case, that wearing cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations.”

DEMILITARIZATION After riots in Ferguson, there was basically a national consensus that police don’t need mine-resistant, ambush-protected monster vehicles and military-style grenade launchers. But there’s support for the program in Washington among the defense industry and the unions. A union executive told Bloomberg News earlier this month that representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police reached out to “maybe 80 percent of senators and half the House” to defend the program. A representative of the International Union of Police Associations wrote in August after the shooting death of Brown, “I believe that law enforcement officers should have available to them any and all tools necessary to do their job and protect their community.”

STOP-AND-FRISK In New York, a court order mandated that there be federal oversight of the New York Police Department to monitor stop-and-frisk practices, a procedure that disproportionately affects minority men. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association moved to stall the ruling and questioned its impact. “We continue to have serious concerns about how these remedies will impact our members and the ability to do their jobs,” the president of the association said.

COMMUNITY RELATIONS In Philadelphia, a civilian oversight commission suggested that police officers apologize to citizens who complain of being mistreated. The local chief of the Fraternal Order of Police responded with a hysterical letter in March 2012 claiming that the commission was trying “to further weaken and demoralize the Philadelphia Police Department in a time of crisis with a significantly growing crime problem in this city. … Your group poses a direct threat to public safety in this city. A threat which should no longer be tolerated by our citizens or their government.”

We get mad at racism, but most government outrages have structural roots. The left doesn’t want to go after police unions because they’re unions. The right doesn’t want to because they represent law and order. Politicians of all stripes shy away because they are powerful.

Now we have a test case to see if the people who march about the Garner case have the stamina to force change. Legitimate union advocacy has become extreme because it has gone unchecked. Most cops do hard jobs well, but right now there’s a crisis of accountability.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.

But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis — a vulnerability that has a lot to do with the nature of the Putin regime.

For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures, including a huge rise in interest rates and pressure on private companies to stop holding dollars, have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.

The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices, which, in turn, reflects factors — growing production from shale, weakening demand from China and other economies — that have nothing to do with Mr. Putin. And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that, as I said, doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage.

But Russia’s difficulties are disproportionate to the size of the shock: While oil has indeed plunged, the ruble has plunged even more, and the damage to the Russian economy reaches far beyond the oil sector. Why?

Actually, it’s not a puzzle — and this is, in fact, a movie currency-crisis aficionados like yours truly have seen many times before: Argentina 2002, Indonesia 1998, Mexico 1995, Chile 1982, the list goes on. The kind of crisis Russia now faces is what you get when bad things happen to an economy made vulnerable by large-scale borrowing from abroad — specifically, large-scale borrowing by the private sector, with the debts denominated in foreign currency, not the currency of the debtor country.

In that situation, an adverse shock like a fall in exports can start a vicious downward spiral. When the nation’s currency falls, the balance sheets of local businesses — which have assets in rubles (or pesos or rupiah) but debts in dollars or euros — implode. This, in turn, inflicts severe damage on the domestic economy, undermining confidence and depressing the currency even more. And Russia fits the standard playbook.

Except for one thing. Usually, the way a country ends up with a lot of foreign debt is by running trade deficits, using borrowed funds to pay for imports. But Russia hasn’t run trade deficits. On the contrary, it has consistently run large trade surpluses, thanks to high oil prices. So why did it borrow so much money, and where did the money go?

Well, you can answer the second question by walking around Mayfair in London, or (to a lesser extent) Manhattan’s Upper East Side, especially in the evening, and observing the long rows of luxury residences with no lights on — residences owned, as the line goes, by Chinese princelings, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs. Basically, Russia’s elite has been accumulating assets outside the country — luxury real estate is only the most visible example — and the flip side of that accumulation has been rising debt at home.

Where does the elite get that kind of money? The answer, of course, is that Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.

How does it end? The standard response of a country in Russia’s situation is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own, among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone.

It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies.

Brooks and Nocera

December 16, 2014

In “Warren Can Win” Bobo gurgles that Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive ethos speaks to the disillusionment of the Democratic left wing, and that she may yet be their nominee.  In “When Football Gets the Ax” Mr. Nocera says that at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, it became too expensive to keep up with the big boys.  Here’s Bobo:

Elizabeth Warren’s memoir begins with the story of a family in collapse. She was 12 years old when her father had a heart attack.

His recovery was slow. Unable to work, the family’s finances tanked. The Studebaker was repossessed. When he was able to return to work, Montgomery Ward took away his job selling carpeting and gave him a job selling lawn mowers on commission. Warren asked her mother why the old job was gone. “In her view, his company had robbed him of something he’d worked for. And now, she said, ‘They think he’s going to die.’ ”

The financial spiral had the predictable effect on the family’s emotional life. “Sometimes that spring I would overhear my parents arguing,” Warren remembers, “I guess I shouldn’t describe it as arguing; my father never said much of anything, while my mother yelled louder. They drank more, a lot more. . . . I knew that my mother blamed my daddy for not doing ‘what a man is supposed to do’ and taking care of us.”

Her mother ended up getting a job at Sears, her father got a job as a maintenance man and the family finances stabilized — at a low level. Warren concluded the episode this way: “My mother never had it easy. She fought for everything she and my daddy ever had.”

The memoir is called “A Fighting Chance.” The words “fight” or “fighting” appear in the book 224 times. In high school, Warren writes, she couldn’t play a musical instrument or a sport, “but I did have one talent. I could fight — not with my fists, but with my words. I was the anchor on the debate team.” Of her tennis game she writes, “Once I had a weapon in my hand, I gave it everything I had.”

With relish, she describes a fight she later had with a judge on a panel discussion over bankruptcy law. “The judge probably had a hundred pounds on me, and he started shifting himself closer to the microphone and edging me out of his way. I grabbed the table for leverage and pushed my way to the microphone, going shoulder to shoulder with the judge as I hit back with arguments. . . . I glanced over and noticed with satisfaction that the veins in his neck were throbbing and his face was red and sweating. I wondered briefly whether he might have a stroke right there on the small stage.”

Her biggest adult fight has been against the banks, against what she saw as their rapacious exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. The crucial distinction Warren makes is this one: It’s not just social conditions like globalization and technological change that threaten the middle class. It’s an active conspiracy by the rich and powerful. The game is rigged. The proper response is not just policy-making; it’s indignation and combat.

The political class has been wondering if Warren, a United States senator from Massachusetts, will take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. This speculation is usually based on the premise that Warren couldn’t actually win, but that she could move the party in her direction. But, today, even for those of us who disagree with Warren fundamentally, it seems clear that she does have a significant and growing chance of being nominated.

Her chances are rising because of that word “fight.” The emotional register of the Democratic Party is growing more combative. There’s an underlying and sometimes vituperative sense of frustration toward President Obama, and especially his supposed inability to go to the mat.

Events like the Brown case in Ferguson and the Garner case in New York have raised indignation levels across the progressive spectrum. Judging by recent polls, the midterm defeat has not scared Democrats into supporting the safe option; it’s made them angrier about the whole system. As the party slips more into opposition status, with the next Congress, this aggressive outsider spirit will only grow.

In this era of bad feelings, parties are organized more around what they oppose rather than what they are for. Republicans are against government. Democrats are coalescing around opposition to Wall Street and corporate power. In 2001, 51 percent of Democrats were dissatisfied with the rise of corporate power, according to Gallup surveys. By 2011, 79 percent of Democrats were. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, 58 percent of Democrats said they believed that the economic and political systems were stacked against them.

Clinton is obviously tough, but she just can’t speak with a clear voice against Wall Street and Washington insiders. Warren’s wing shows increasing passion and strength, both in opposing certain Obama nominees and in last week’s budget fight.

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

The most unpopular man in Birmingham, Ala., these days is Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Earlier this month, Watts announced that the school was going to eliminate its football team. You can just imagine what happened next.

When Watts told the team that this would be their last season, one player, Tristan Henderson, angrily challenged him in a video that quickly went viral. Later, several hundred supporters chanted and cheered for the coach, and heckled and chased Watts and his police escort, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com.

Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., described Watts’s decision as “unfortunate.” A group of important donors wrote a letter to the chancellor of the Alabama university system, calling for an investigation into Watts’s decision. Another big supporter, a Birmingham restaurateur, canceled his $45,000 sponsorship of a television network that aired U.A.B. games and ended the use of his restaurant as the locale for the basketball coach’s weekly radio show. “This is so tragic,” he told a reporter. “It’s like a death.”

Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

“Our athletic budget is $30 million,” he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.

“We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he said. Then he added, “This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.”

Ah, yes, the changing landscape. Let me explain. For the last year or more, the big boys in college athletics — the 64 schools that make up the top five conferences, plus Notre Dame — have been agitating for more freedom to make their own rules. They want, for instance, to be able to give their athletes a stipend that goes beyond a scholarship and more fully reflects the “full cost of attendance.” And through their conference commissioners, the power schools issued a series of veiled threats that if they didn’t get more autonomy, they just might bolt from the N.C.A.A.

Not surprisingly, they got their autonomy. The additional benefits will probably cost each of these schools several million additional dollars per year. But universities like Michigan and Auburn and Notre Dame can afford it. It’s the U.A.B.’s of the world — the so-called mid-majors — that have to decide whether to match the benefits the big schools are giving to athletes or go in another direction.

I have no problem with the power schools giving athletes more benefits; indeed, I’m in favor of it. But what I always thought would happen when this day came — when the financial difference between the power schools and everybody else became overwhelming — is that the smaller schools in Division 1 would be forced to rethink their priorities, just as U.A.B. has. Maybe not get out of football altogether, but de-emphasize it so that the tail finally stops wagging the dog.

But so far, at least, that is not turning out to be the case. At a college sports conference last week in New York, nobody gave U.A.B. any credit for pulling out of football. On the contrary: most of the athletic directors in the room were adamant that they would pay whatever they had to pay to keep pace with the big boys.

“Our board is totally committed to athletics and competing at the highest level,” said Chris May, the athletic director at Saint Louis University. “We are going to be very aggressive.”

“There is no pressure to drop football,” said Mike O’Brien of the University of Toledo. “It is too important to our university.”

When you ask people why it is so important, you get similar responses: a good football team means more applications; it helps generate donations; it is something the community can rally around. “In many ways, football is our front porch,” said Nagi Naganathan, the interim president of the University of Toledo.

Yet schools that have dropped football have lived to tell the tale. In 1995, the University of the Pacific dropped football — the last major school to do so before U.A.B. “Since then, their enrollment has actually gone up,” emailed David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University.

“Football,” he added, “doesn’t define a university.”

Unfortunately, for too many schools, it does.

Bread and circuses…


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