Archive for the ‘Brooks’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

June 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Krugman

June 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus does the cart come before the horse.

Brooks and Krugman

June 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s time to shift course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Krugman

May 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Nocera

May 26, 2015

In “Talent Loves English” Bobo babbles that as the world grows more prosperous, immigration is changing, and our ideas need to change with it.  In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “Finally David Brooks tells the truth.  “The republican party is insane…”  Not only on immigration, but taxes, man made climate change, perpetual war in the Middle East, the need for and sanity of universal healthcare, a woman’s right to choose, equal pay for equal work, marriage equality and our crumbling 20th century infrastructure.”  In “Smoking, Vaping and Nicotine” Mr. Nocera says the different ways of delivering nicotine come with different risks and need to be addressed.  Here’s Bobo:

Eight hundred years ago next month, English noblemen forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. It’s still having amazing effects on the world today. The Magna Carta helped usher in government with a separation of powers. It helped create conditions in which centralized authority could not totally control fiscal, political, religious or intellectual life. It helped usher in the modern Anglo-Saxon state model, with its relative emphasis on the open movement of people, ideas and things.

The Anglo-Saxon model has its plusses and minuses, but it is very attractive to people around the world. Today, as always, immigrants flock to nations with British political heritage. Forty-six million people in the United States are foreign born, almost 1 in 6. That’s by far the highest number of immigrants in any country in the world.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also immigrant magnets. The British political class was a set abuzz last week by a government reportshowing a 50 percent increase in net immigration in 2014 compared with 2013. The government has a goal of limiting immigration to 100,000 a year, but, in 2014, net inbound migration was estimated to be 318,000. Britain has the most diverse immigrant community of any nation on earth.

Some of the those people went to Britain from outside of Europe, but a great many flow from the sclerotic economies in the European Union: Italy, Spain and France. Compared with many other European countries, Britain is a job-creating paragon.

Across the English-speaking world, immigrants are drawn by the same things: relatively strong economies, good universities, open cultures and the world’s lingua franca.

The nature of global migration is slowly evolving, too. We have an image of immigrants as the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. According to this stereotype, immigrants are driven from their homes by poverty and move elsewhere to compete against the lowest-skilled workers.

But immigrants do not come from the poorest countries. Nations like Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger — some of the poorest countries in the world — have some of the lowest outmigration rates. Less than 3 percent of their populations live outside their borders. Their citizens don’t have the resources to move.

Instead, immigrants tend to come from middle-class countries, and they migrate to rich, open ones. You might have thought that as the world gets more middle class, global immigration would decline because of more opportunity at home. In fact, the reverse is happening. As the developing world gets more middle class, immigration has increased because educational and income gains have led to ever higher aspirations.

The situation is complex. Less than a decade ago, six Mexicans migrated to the United States for every Indian or Chinese. But as Mexico has prospered, immigration has dropped. Meanwhile, as India and China have gotten richer, the number of Indians and Chinese living abroad has doubled.

Some of the Asian immigrants are quite wealthy. According to the China International Immigration Report, among Chinese with assets of more than $16 million, 27 percent had emigrated abroad and an additional 47 percent were considering such a move. The real estate website Soufun.net surveyed 5,000 people and found that 41 percent of such people were drawn to move abroad for better living conditions, 35 percent for better educational opportunities for their children and 15 percent for better retirement conditions.

And this talent pool has barely been tapped. According to a Gallup surveyin 2012, 22 million Chinese wanted to move to the U.S., as did 10 million Indians, 3 million Vietnamese and a surprising 5 million Japanese.

In short, it might be time to revise our stereotypes about the immigration issue. A thousand years ago, a few English noblemen unwittingly heralded in a decentralized political and intellectual model. This model was deepened over the centuries by people ranging from Henry VIII to the American founding fathers. It’s a model that is relatively friendly to outsider talent. We didn’t earn this model; we’re the lucky inheritors.

Meanwhile, globalization, with all its stresses and strains, has created a large international class of middle-class dreamers: university graduates who can’t fulfill their aspirations at home and who would enrich whatever nation is lucky enough to have them.

In this context, Hillary Clinton’s daring approach to immigration, supporting a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants already in the United States, is clearly the right one. The Republican Party is insane if its conducts a 21st-century immigration policy based on stereotypes from the 1980s.

Bobo — letting his freak flag fly.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

“We need a national debate on nicotine,” said Mitch Zeller.

Zeller is the director of the Center for Tobacco Products, a division of the Food and Drug Administration created in 2009 when Congress passed legislation giving the F.D.A. regulatory authority — at long last! — over cigarettes. In addition, the center will soon have regulatory authority over other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, which have become enormously controversial even as they have gained in use. Through something called a “deeming rule,” the center is in the process of asserting that oversight over e-cigarettes.

Opponents of electronic cigarettes, which include many public health officials, hope that the center will treat these new devices like it treats cigarettes: taking steps to discourage teenagers from “vaping,” for instance, and placing strict limits on the industry’s ability to market its products.

Proponents, meanwhile, hope that the center will view e-cigarettes as a “reduced harm” product that can save lives by offering a nicotine fix without the carcinogens that are ingested through a lit cigarette. In this scenario, e-cigarette manufacturers would be able to make health claims, and adult smokers might even be encouraged to switch from smoking to vaping as part of a reduced harm strategy.

When I requested an interview with Zeller, I didn’t expect him to tip his hat on which direction he wanted the center to go, and he didn’t. Indeed, one of the points he made was that the F.D.A. was conducting a great deal of scientific research — more than 50 studies in all, he said — aimed at generating the evidence needed to better understand where to place e-cigarettes along what he calls “the continuum of risk.”

Zeller is a veteran of the “tobacco wars” of the 1990s, working alongside then-F.D.A. Commissioner David Kessler, who had audaciously labeled cigarettes a “drug-delivery device” (the drug being nicotine) and had claimed regulatory authority. Zeller left the F.D.A. in 2000, after theSupreme Court ruled against Kessler’s interpretation, and joined the American Legacy Foundation, where he helped create its hard-hitting, anti-tobacco “Truth campaign.” After a stint with a consulting firm, Pinney Associates, he returned to the F.D.A. in early 2013 to lead the effort to finally regulate the tobacco industry.

“I am fond of quoting Michael Russell,” Zeller said, referring to an important South African tobacco scientist who died in 2009. In the early 1970s, Russell was among the first to recognize that nicotine was the reason people got addicted to cigarettes. “He used to say, ‘People smoke for the nicotine but die from the tar,’ ” Zeller recalled.

This is also why Zeller found e-cigarettes so “interesting,” as he put it, when they first came on the market. A cigarette gets nicotine to the brain in seven seconds, he said. Nicotine gum or patches can take up to 60 minutes or longer, which is far too slow for smokers who need a nicotine fix. But e-cigarettes can replicate the speed of cigarettes in delivering nicotine to the brain, thus creating real potential for them to become a serious smoking cessation device.

But there are still many questions about both their safety and their efficacy. For instance, are smokers using e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes, or they using them to get a nicotine hit at times when they can’t smoke cigarettes? And beyond that there are important questions about nicotine itself, and how it should be dealt with.

“When nicotine is attached to smoke particles, it will kill,” said Zeller. “But if you take that same drug and put it in a patch, it is such a safe medicine that it doesn’t even require a doctor’s prescription.” That paradox helps explain why he believes “there needs to be a rethink within society on nicotine.”

Within the F.D.A., Zeller has initiated discussions with “the other side of the house” — the part of the agency that regulates drugs — to come up with a comprehensive, agency-wide policy on nicotine. But the public health community — and the rest of us — needs to have a debate as well.

“One of the impediments to this debate,” Zeller said, is that the e-cigarette opponents are focused on all the flavors available in e-cigarettes — many of which would seem aimed directly at teenagers — as well as their marketing, which is often a throwback to the bad-old days of Big Tobacco. “The debate has become about these issues and has just hardened both sides,” Zeller told me.

It’s not that Zeller believes nicotine is perfectly safe (he doesn’t) or that we should shrug our shoulders if teenagers take up vaping. He believes strongly that kids should be discouraged from using e-cigarettes.

Rather, he thinks there should be a recognition that different ways of delivering nicotine also come with different risks. To acknowledge that, and to grapple with its implications, would be a step forward.

“This issue isn’t e-cigarettes,” said Mitch Zeller. “It’s nicotine.”

Brooks and Krugman

May 22, 2015

This morning Rabbi Bobo’s sermon is all about “Building Spiritual Capital.”  He babbles that spiritual awareness is innate, and it is an important component in human development.  In the comments “Joseph Huben” from upstate New York had this to say:  “It is a bit offensive to be preached to by a proponent of incentivizing the poor by cutting food stamps, unemployment benefits and Social Security. ”  In “Trade and Trust” Prof. Krugman says all the bad arguments for the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggest that it isn’t a deal we should support.  Here’s Rabbi Bobo:

Lisa Miller is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. One day she entered a subway car and saw that half of it was crowded but the other half was empty, except for a homeless man who had some fast food on his lap and who was screaming at anybody who came close.

At one stop, a grandmother and granddaughter, about 8, entered the car. They were elegantly dressed, wearing pastel dresses and gloves with lace trim. The homeless man spotted them and screamed, “Hey! Do you want to sit with me?” They looked at each other, nodded and replied in unison, “Thank you” and, unlike everybody else, sat directly next to him.

The man offered them some chicken from his bag. They looked at each other and nodded and said, “No, thank you.” The homeless man offered several more times, and each time they nodded to each other and gave the same polite answer. Finally, the homeless man was calmed, and they all sat contentedly in their seats.

Miller was struck by the power of that nod. “The nod was spirituality shared between child and beloved elder: spiritual direction, values, taught and received in the loving relationship,” she writes in her book “The Spiritual Child.” The grandmother was teaching the granddaughter the wisdom that we were once all strangers in a strange land and that we’re judged by how we treat those who have the least.

Miller’s core argument is that spiritual awareness is innate and that it is an important component in human development. An implication of her work is that if you care about social mobility, graduation rates, resilience, achievement and family formation, you can’t ignore the spiritual resources of the people you are trying to help.

Miller defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding.” Different people can conceive of this higher power as God, nature, spirit, the universe or just a general oneness of being. She distinguishes spirituality, which has a provable genetic component, from religious affiliation, which is entirely influenced by environment.

I’d say Miller doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the many secular, this-world ways people find to organize their lives. Still, it does seem true that most children are born with a natural sense of the spiritual. If they find a dead squirrel on the playground, they understand there is something sacred there, and they will most likely give it a respectful burial. They have a natural sense of the oneness of creation, and a sense of a transcendent, nonmaterial realm. Miller cites twin studies that suggest that the strength of a child’s spiritual awareness is about 29 percent because of broad genetic heritability, 24 percent because of family environment and 47 percent because of a person’s unique individual environment.

Spiritual awareness, she continues, surges in adolescence, at about the same time as depression and other threats to well-being. Some level of teenage depression, she says, should be seen as a normal part of the growth process, as young people ask fundamental questions of themselves. The spiritual surge in adolescence is nature’s way of responding to this normal crisis.

Taken together,” Miller writes, “research supports the idea of a common physiology underlying depression and spirituality.” In other words, teenagers commonly suffer a loss of meaning, confidence and identity. Some of them try to fill the void with drugs, alcohol, gang activity and even pregnancy. But others are surrounded by people who have cultivated their spiritual instincts. According to Miller’s research, adolescents with a strong sense of connection to a transcendent realm are 70 percent to 80 percent less likely to engage in heavy substance abuse. Among teenage girls, having a strong spiritual sense was extremely protective against serious depression. Adults who consider themselves highly spiritual at age 26 are, according to her research, 75 percent protected against recurrence of depression.

Innate spiritual capacities can wither unless cultivated — the way innate math faculties can go undeveloped without instruction. Loving families nurture these capacities, especially when parents speak explicitly about spiritual quests. The larger question, especially in this age of family disruption, is whether public schools and other institutions should do more to nurture spiritual faculties.

Public schools often give short shrift to spirituality for fear that they would be accused of proselytizing religion. But it should be possible to teach the range of spiritual disciplines, in order to familiarize students with the options, without endorsing any one.

In an era in which so many people slip off the rails during adolescence, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring a resource that, if cultivated, could see them through. Ignoring spiritual development in the public square is like ignoring intellectual, physical or social development. It is to amputate people in a fundamental way, leading to more depression, drug abuse, alienation and misery.

I think “Joseph Huben” said everything about this that needs to be said.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

One of the Obama administration’s underrated virtues is its intellectual honesty. Yes, Republicans see deception and sinister ulterior motives everywhere, but they’re just projecting. The truth is that, in the policy areas I follow, this White House has been remarkably clear and straightforward about what it’s doing and why.

Every area, that is, except one: international trade and investment.

I don’t know why the president has chosen to make the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership such a policy priority. Still, there is an argument to be made for such a deal, and some reasonable, well-intentioned people are supporting the initiative.

But other reasonable, well-intentioned people have serious questions about what’s going on. And I would have expected a good-faith effort to answer those questions. Unfortunately, that’s not at all what has been happening. Instead, the selling of the 12-nation Pacific Rim pact has the feel of a snow job. Officials have evaded the main concerns about the content of a potential deal; they’ve belittled and dismissed the critics; and they’ve made blithe assurances that turn out not to be true.

The administration’s main analytical defense of the trade deal came earlier this month, in a report from the Council of Economic Advisers. Strangely, however, the report didn’t actually analyze the Pacific trade pact. Instead, it was a paean to the virtues of free trade, which was irrelevant to the question at hand.

First of all, whatever you may say about the benefits of free trade, most of those benefits have already been realized. A series of past trade agreements, going back almost 70 years, has brought tariffs and other barriers to trade very low to the point where any effect they may have on U.S. trade is swamped by other factors, like changes in currency values.

In any case, the Pacific trade deal isn’t really about trade. Some already low tariffs would come down, but the main thrust of the proposed deal involves strengthening intellectual property rights — things like drug patents and movie copyrights — and changing the way companies and countries settle disputes. And it’s by no means clear that either of those changes is good for America.

On intellectual property: patents and copyrights are how we reward innovation. But do we need to increase those rewards at consumers’ expense? Big Pharma and Hollywood think so, but you can also see why, for example, Doctors Without Borders is worried that the deal would make medicines unaffordable in developing countries. That’s a serious concern, and it’s one that the pact’s supporters haven’t addressed in any satisfying way.

On dispute settlement: a leaked draft chapter shows that the deal would create a system under which multinational corporations could sue governments over alleged violations of the agreement, and have the cases judged by partially privatized tribunals. Critics like Senator Elizabeth Warren warn that this could compromise the independence of U.S. domestic policy — that these tribunals could, for example, be used to attack and undermine financial reform.

Not so, says the Obama administration, with the president declaring that Senator Warren is “absolutely wrong.” But she isn’t. The Pacific trade pact could force the United States to change policies or face big fines, and financial regulation is one policy that might be in the line of fire. As if to illustrate the point, Canada’s finance minister recently declared that the Volcker Rule, a key provision of the 2010 U.S. financial reform, violates the existing North American Free Trade Agreement. Even if he can’t make that claim stick, his remarks demonstrate that there’s nothing foolish about worrying that trade and investment pacts can threaten bank regulation.

As I see it, the big problem here is one of trust.

International economic agreements are, inevitably, complex, and you don’t want to find out at the last minute — just before an up-or-down, all-or-nothing vote — that a lot of bad stuff has been incorporated into the text. So you want reassurance that the people negotiating the deal are listening to valid concerns, that they are serving the national interest rather than the interests of well-connected corporations.

Instead of addressing real concerns, however, the Obama administration has been dismissive, trying to portray skeptics as uninformed hacks who don’t understand the virtues of trade. But they’re not: the skeptics have on balance been more right than wrong about issues like dispute settlement, and the only really hackish economics I’ve seen in this debate is coming from supporters of the trade pact.

It’s really disappointing and disheartening to see this kind of thing from a White House that has, as I said, been quite forthright on other issues. And the fact that the administration evidently doesn’t feel that it can make an honest case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership suggests that this isn’t a deal we should support.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

May 19, 2015

In “Learning From Mistakes” Bobo tells us that the question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable. He says the question is: What wisdom have you learned that will help you going forward?  Mr. Cohen, in “The Presence of the Past,” says not o remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.  Mr. Nocera says we need “Chemo for the Planet,” and that instead of focusing on human behavior to reduce global warming, try using technology.  Of course the “technology” he’s touting is, at this point, pie in the sky with rafts of unintended consequences such as ocean acidification which he glosses over.  Here’s Bobo:

If you could go back to 1889 and strangle Adolf Hitler in his crib, would you do it? At one level, the answer is obvious. Of course, you should. If there had been no Hitler, presumably the Nazi Party would have lacked the charismatic leader it needed to rise to power. Presumably, there would have been no World War II, no Holocaust, no millions dead on the Eastern and Western fronts.

But, on the other hand, if there were no World War II, you wouldn’t have had the infusion of women into the work force. You wouldn’t have had the G.I. Bill and the rapid expansion of higher education. You wouldn’t have had the pacification of Europe, Pax-Americana, which led to decades of peace and prosperity, or the end of the British and other empires.

History is an infinitely complex web of causations. To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river twice.  [How very Baba Ram Dass of Bobo…]

So it’s really hard to give simple sound-bite answers about past mistakes. The question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable. It’s only useful to ask, what wisdom have you learned from your misjudgments that will help you going forward?

Which brings us to Iraq. From the current vantage point, the decision to go to war was a clear misjudgment, made by President George W. Bush andsupported by 72 percent of the American public who were polled at the time. I supported it, too.

What can be learned?

The first obvious lesson is that we should look at intelligence products with a more skeptical eye. There’s a fable going around now that the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was all cooked by political pressure, that there was a big political conspiracy to lie us into war.

That doesn’t gibe with the facts. Anybody conversant with the Robb-Silberman report from 2005 knows that this was a case of human fallibility. This exhaustive, bipartisan commission found “a major intelligence failure”: “The failure was not merely that the Intelligence Community’s assessments were wrong. There were also serious shortcomings in the way these assessments were made and communicated to policy makers.”

The Iraq war error reminds us of the need for epistemological modesty. We don’t know much about the world, and much of our information is wrong. A successful president has to make decisions while radiating hesitancy, staying open-minded in the face of new evidence, not falling into the traps that afflict those who possess excessive self-confidence.

The second lesson of Iraq concerns this question: How much can we really change other nations? Every foreign policy dilemma involves a calibration. Should we lean forward to try to influence this or that region? Or should we hang back figuring we’ll just end up making everything worse.

After the 1990s, many of us were leaning in the interventionist direction. We’d seen the fall of the apartheid regime, which made South Africa better. We’d seen the fall of communist regimes, which made the Eastern bloc nations better. Many of us thought that, by taking down Saddam Hussein, we could end another evil empire, and gradually open up human development in Iraq and the Arab world.

Has that happened? In 2004, I would have said yes. In 2006, I would have said no. In 2015, I say yes and no, but mostly no.

The outcome, so far, in Iraq should remind us that we don’t really know much about how other cultures will evolve. We can exert only clumsy and indirect influence on how other nations govern themselves. When you take away basic order, people respond with sectarian savagery.

If the victory in the Cold War taught us to lean forward and be interventionist, the legacy of the 2003 Iraq decision should cause us to pull back from the excesses of that mentality, to have less faith in America’s ability to understand other places and effect change.

These are all data points in a larger education — along with the surge and the recent withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. I wind up in a place with less interventionist instincts than where George W. Bush was in 2003, but significantly more interventionist instincts than where President Obama is inclined to be today.

Finally, Iraq teaches us to be suspicious of leaders who try to force revolutionary, transformational change. It teaches us to have respect for trimmers, leaders who pay minute attention to context, who try to lead gradual but constant change. It teaches us to honor those who respect the unfathomable complexity of history and who are humble in the face of consequences to their actions that they cannot fully predict or understand.

Gawd, I wish he’d go back to politics.  His recent crap is cringe-inducing.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility.

It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.

The future may seem wan by comparison and, for each of us, we know more or less where it ends. With a bang or a whimper, Henry James’s “distinguished thing” awaits us.

Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89.

Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option.

So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.

Yet as Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, “The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.”

The past is potent, subject to manipulation. Wars nearly always involve memory trafficked into inflammatory myth.

I am a newspaperman. I try to understand, evoke and make vivid the present. That is not possible without understanding the past. We are the sum of our lived moments. It is worth turning time’s arrow backward.

I had always wanted to tell stories, the inner within the outer, the intimate secreting the universal. I liked to be the outsider looking in.

Often the stories were about lives swept away in the gale of history: the children of Beirut in 1983 who could not sleep without the familiar and so reassuring sound of gunfire; a Polish priest who discovered in middle age that he was a Jew entrusted by his Nazi-murdered parents to a Catholic family; Argentine twins stolen at birth from their murdered student mother by a childless junta army officer; mixed Bosnian families broken asunder by the boozy Serb killers who injected the virus of sectarian hatred into Sarajevo; a German woman loath to contemplate her beautiful blue eyes because they reminded her of a former Nazi concentration camp commander — her father.

Mirages, shadows, specters: the stuff of memory. How we remember, as nations and as individuals, is critical.

I first began to think seriously about the ferocious force of the past as a war correspondent covering Yugoslavia’s destruction. The Serbs who threw hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes had been whipped into a nationalist frenzy. They had been convinced by a cynical leader that these secular Bosnian Muslims, so recently part of the same country called Yugoslavia, indistinguishable in fact, were a reincarnation of the Turks of old, latter-day Ottomans determined to affix the crescent moon of Islam to the church spires of Christian Europe.

When the past is suppressed, memory becomes explosive. Bosnians, Serbs and Croats re-enacted, in the 1990’s, the civil-war horrors of the 1940’s whose mention had become taboo under the clamp of Tito’s postwar Communist dictatorship.

When the past is cultivated at the expense of the present, memory becomes a blind alley. Those keys to long-lost Palestinian olive groves are now open-sesames only to further violence.

When the past overwhelms, it can turn victim into oppressor behind a shield called “Never Again.”

History illuminates. It can also blind.

The world may broadly be divided into areas that are captive of their pasts — the Balkans, the Middle East for example — and areas that are hard-wired to their futures — the United States and most of Asia. Europe, I think, lies somewhere in between.

One of my sons lives in Vietnam. Whenever I am there I marvel at the graves among the rice paddies. It is a powerful symbol of the living and the dead mingling, present and past. It is an image of acceptance. Nobody wants to talk about the war in Vietnam that ended 40 years ago.

How different from the dead of the Middle East, venerated as martyrs, martyrs of Islam demanding further sacrifice of life. Those celestial virgins have a lot to answer for.

I love the lines of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai about peace only coming to the Holy Land when a Jerusalem guide tells his tour group: “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Fruit and vegetables, unlike that ancient arch, nourish a future.

The past is there. We must understand it, our own, our community’s and our nation’s. Suppressing it will only be achieved at a price. That price is often bloodshed. But nor can we be consumed by the past, re-fight its battles or succumb to the sterility of vengeance.

Not to remember, or to be overwhelmed by memory, are equally dangerous.

Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

What’s the best way to reduce the chances of climate change wreaking havoc on Earth?

The most obvious answer — one we’ve known for years now — is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re pumping into the atmosphere. This can be done, for instance, by putting a price on carbon and thus create powerful market incentives for industries to lower their carbon footprint. Or by moving to renewable energy sources. Or by changing people’s behavior so that our collective actions radically reduce the amount of fossil fuel the world needs to power itself.

Despite this knowledge, however, few policies have been put in place to spur any of that. In the United States, the effective price of carbon, as Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman point out in their new book, “Climate Shock” is “about zero” (aside from California). Fossil fuels remain the world’s default energy source, and — despite the impressive growth of global solar capacity over the last decade — that’s likely to be the case for decades to come. A carbon tax on the worst emitters has gotten nowhere.

So maybe we need to start thinking about coming at the climate-change problem from a different direction. Instead of hoping that humans will start reducing their carbon use, maybe it’s time to at least consider using technology to keep climate change at bay.

The deliberate use of technology to manipulate the environment — usually in the context of fighting climate change — is called geoengineering. One method is carbon capture, traditionally conceived as a process that sucks up carbon from the air and buries it in the ground. A second is called solar radiation management, which uses techniques like shooting sulfate particles into the stratosphere in order to reflect or divert solar radiation back into space. This very effect was illustrated after the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. Spewing 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide in the air, the volcano caused global temperatures to fall, temporarily, by about 0.5 degrees Celsius, according to Wagner and Weitzman.

Somewhat to my surprise, a good portion of Wagner’s and Weitzman’s book is devoted to the subject of geoengineering, especially solar radiation management, which they describe as relatively inexpensive and technologically feasible, with a serious bang for the buck. The reason I was surprised is that the authors have solid environmental credentials — Weitzman is an environmental economist at Harvard, and Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund — and many environmental groups object to the very idea of geoengineering. They even object to research into the subject, viewing the desire to manipulate nature as immoral. Ben Schreiber of Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group, recently described discussions about geoengineering as a “dangerous distraction.”

“Geoengineering presumes that we can apply a dramatic technological fix to climate disruption,” he said, “instead of facing the reality that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions.”

Schreiber was reacting to two reports by a National Academy of Sciences panel that came out just a week before “Climate Shock.” The reports concluded that, while “climate intervention is no substitute for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions,” the politics around carbon reduction have been so fractious that the day could well come when geoengineering was needed as part of a “portfolio” of responses to global warming. It urged further study for both methods, and, in particular, called for the establishment of a research program to examine the possible risks of solar radiation management.

Wagner and Weitzman do not deny the potential risks; indeed, they write quite cautiously about geoengineering. Wagner told me that it should be thought of as a last resort — something the world could turn to if it had to. He described it as a kind of “chemotherapy for the planet” — something you hope you don’t have to use, but you are ready to use if the need arises. And that requires doing research now to prepare for the future.

David Keith, a scientist who is perhaps the foremost proponent of geoengineering, told me that he believes that solar radiation management should be used even if decent carbon policies became law. “It has substantial benefits,” he said. “That would be true whether we were cutting emissions or not.”

But he also acknowledged that more research is needed. “If you put sulfur into the atmosphere, will there be a risk of ozone loss?” he said, as an example of the kind of risk that needed to be studied.

There is another kind of risk, of course: the risk that if people thought a technological solution were available to “solve” climate change, it would make it even less likely that they would collectively agree to do what is needed to be done to reduce carbon emissions. It is yet another reason that many environmentalists object to geoengineering.

Still, if disaster is truly approaching, wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?

I’d also like to be sure that what I was doing today wouldn’t guarantee a worse problem for my grandchildren.

Brooks and Nocera

May 12, 2015

In “The Center-Right Moment” Bobo informs us that across the globe, voters are electing center-right leaders with fairly similar platforms. He then whines that the notable exception is the United States.  In the comments “Tim Berry” from Mount Vernon, NH had this to say:  “Brooks is just a well spoken propagandist for the rich and powerful who are most definitely winning a long running war to destroy the common good.”  Mr. Nocera says “At Rutgers, It’s Books vs. Ballgames,” and that a fight ensues on the New Jersey campus over money spent on big-time athletics instead of academics.  Here’s Bobo:

The most surprising event of this political era is what hasn’t happened. The world has not turned left. Given the financial crisis, widening inequality, the unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration, you would have thought that progressive parties would be cruising from win to win.

But, instead, right-leaning parties are doing well. In the United States, Republicans control both houses of Congress. In Israel, the Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled off a surprising win in an election that was at least partly about economic policy. In Britain, the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister David Cameron won a parliamentary majority.

What’s going on here?

Well, there are some issues in each election specific to that country, but there are a few broader trends to be observed. The first is that the cutting-edge, progressive economic arguments do not seem to be swaying voters.

Over the past few years, left-of-center economic policy has moved from opportunity progressivism to redistributionist progressivism. Opportunity progressivism is associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago today. This tendency actively uses government power to give people access to markets, through support for community colleges, infrastructure and training programs and the like, but it doesn’t interfere that much in the market and hesitates before raising taxes.

This tendency has been politically successful. Clinton and Blair had long terms. This year, Emanuel won by 12 percentage points against the more progressive candidate, Chuy Garcia, even in a city with a disproportionate number of union households.

Redistributionist progressivism more aggressively raises taxes to shift money down the income scale, opposes trade treaties and meddles more in the marketplace. This tendency has won elections in Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren) and New York City (Bill de Blasio) but not in many other places. Ed Balls, the No. 2 figure in the Labour Party in Britain, co-led the group from the Center for American Progress that wrote the most influential statement of modern progressivism, a report on “inclusive prosperity.” Balls could not even retain his own parliamentary seat in the last election.

The conservative victories probably have more to do with the public’s skepticism about the left than with any positive enthusiasm toward the right. Still, there are a few things center-right parties have done successfully.

First, they have loudly (and sometimes offensively) championed national identity. In this era of globalization, voters are rewarding candidates who believe in their country’s exceptionalism.

Second, they have been basically sensible on fiscal policy. After the financial crisis, there was a big debate over how much governments should go into debt to stimulate growth. The two nations most associated with the “austerity” school — those who were suspicious of debt-based stimulus — were Germany and Britain. This will not settle the debate, but these two nations now have some of the strongest economies in Europe and their political leaders are in good shape.

Third, these leaders did not overread their mandate. Cameron in Britain promised to cut the size of government, and he did, from 45.7 percent of G.D.P. in 2010 to 40.7 percent today, according to The Economist. The number of public-sector jobs there has gone down by 1 million.

But he made these cuts without going overboard. Public satisfaction with government services has gone up. And there have been some sensible efforts to boost those at the bottom. As The Economist pointed out, “The richest 10 percent have borne the greatest burden of extra taxes. Full-time workers earning the minimum wage pay a third as much income tax as in 2010. Overall, inequality has not widened — in contrast to America.”

The British electorate and the American electorate sometimes mirror each other. Trans-Atlantic voters went for Reagan and Thatcher together and Clinton and Blair together. In policy terms, Cameron is a more conservative version of President Obama.

Cameron’s win suggests the kind of candidate that would probably do well in a general election in this country. He is liberal on social policy, green on global warming and pragmatically conservative on economic policy. If he’s faulted for anything, it is for not being particularly ideological, though he has let his ministers try some pretty bold institutional reforms to modernize the welfare state.

Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labor markets as a path to prosperity.

For some reason, American politicians are fleeing from this profile, Hillary Clinton to the further left and Republicans to the right.

He’s so very, very tiresome…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

It’s not exactly a secret that big-time college sports often distort priorities on university campuses. But every once in a while, something bursts into public view to put those priorities in glaring relief. A recent example is a fight that is taking place at Rutgers University. The dispute pits faculty members who want to restrain the athletic department’s out-of-control costs against some powerful alumni who want the Rutgers athletic department to spend even more money to better compete in its new conference, the Big Ten.

Guess who’s likely to win?

Although Rutgers is said to have played the first American college football game ever — against Princeton, in 1869 — it has never been an athletic powerhouse. In the 1990s, yearning to join the elite, Rutgers became part of the Big East Conference. But, with the exception of women’s basketball, its overall athletic performance has generally remained mediocre.

What’s more, the Rutgers athletic department has consistently run large deficits; indeed, since the 2005-6 academic year, deficits have exceeded $20 million a year. In the last academic year, Rutgers athletics generated $40.3 million in revenue, but spent $76.7 million, leaving a deficit of more than $36 million. In other words, revenue barely covered half the department’s expenses.

And how did the university cover this shortfall? Partly, it used its own funds, to the tune of $26 million last year, money that might have gone to professors’ salaries or other academic needs. It also took it out of the hide of the students themselves, who have been assessed steadily rising fees to help cover the athletic department’s deficit. Last year, fees that went to athletics amounted to $10 million.

A few years ago, in an effort to relieve the financial pressure, Rutgers accepted an invitation to join the Big Ten, perhaps the wealthiest conference in the country. With football powers like Ohio State and Michigan, the Big Ten not only has lucrative deals with ABC and ESPN, it also has its own TV network. Thanks to those TV deals, last year the Big Ten paid out some $27 million to its 11 qualifying universities.

Yet even with the Big Ten’s money (and to be fair, as a new member, Rutgers won’t reap the full rewards for six years), the Rutgers athletic department is projecting deficits at least through the 2021-22. Indeed, according to figures compiled by a faculty committee, Rutgers athletics is projecting a total deficit of $183 million between now and 2022.

You can see, of course, why this would infuriate faculty members — or, for that matter, anyone who cares about academics. Like most state schools, Rutgers has seen its state financing shrink drastically over the last decade,while tuition and fees have been going up. Academic departments have had multiple rounds of belt-tightening. “At the school of arts and sciences,” said Mark Killingsworth, a Rutgers economics professor who has been a leading voice against the athletic department’s costs, “we have been told that we can hire one person for every two who leave.” The library, he noted, recently had its budget cut by more than $500,000. Meanwhile, Kyle Flood, the football coach, is getting a $200,000 raise next year, taking his salary to $1.25 million.

In late March, the Rutgers faculty senate approved, by a wide margin, a report written by its Budget and Finance Committee that called on the athletic department to eliminate its losses within five years; to end the use of student fees to cover the athletic budget; and to treat the use of discretionary funds as loans.

Almost immediately afterward, a powerful Rutgers alumnus, State Senator Raymond Lesniak, commissioned a study aimed at showing that Rutgers needed to invest more in athletics, not less. Why? One reason is the supposed economic benefits that come with a successful sports program. Another rationale is that now that Rutgers is in the Big Ten, it will have to step up its game to compete — which, of course, would require lavish facilities, just like those at Ohio State and Michigan.

Lesniak, who just filed a bill that would give Rutgers $25 million in tax credits for infrastructure projects, clearly relishes the idea of Rutgers becoming, as he puts it, “Big Ten-ready.” So do other alums, including Greg Brown, the chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors. “We weren’t interested in joining the Big Ten,” Brown said after one board meeting. “We were interested in competing and winning in the Big Ten.” And if that requires spending money, well, that’s what the big boys do.

Responds Killingsworth: “The mantra has always been that if we spend enough money, we’ll have good teams, and generate more revenue. It’s never happened.”

Rutgers is an enormous public institution, with an annual budget of $3.6 billion. It is responsible for educating 65,000 students. Why isn’t that more important that competing in the Big Ten?

Why does the tail always wag the dog?

Bread and circuses, Mr. Nocera, bread and circuses…

Brooks and Krugman

May 1, 2015

Oh, sweet God…  Bobo has decided to take it upon himself to educate us all on “The Nature of Poverty.”  He informs us that our efforts to fight urban poverty will continue to fail unless we change the fundamental lens through which we view the problem.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “I was wondering when we were going to get tough on victims. They’ve had it easy for far too long, and it’s good to see Mr. Brooks taking them to task.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Ideology and Integrity,” says if character is going to be a part of the 2016 campaign, let’s make sure to focus on the right things.  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Lately it seems as though every few months there’s another urban riot and the nation turns its attention to urban poverty. And in the midst of every storm, there are people crying out that we should finally get serious about this issue. This time it was Jon Stewart who spoke for many when he said: “And you just wonder sometimes if we’re spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, like, we can’t build a little taste down Baltimore way. Like is that what’s really going on?”

The audience applauded loudly, and it’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not really relevant.

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money. Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

In addition, American public spending on schools is high by global standards. As Peter Wehner pointed out in Commentary, in 2011 Baltimore ranked second among the nation’s largest 100 school districts in how much it spent per pupil, $15,483 per year.

The Sandtown-Winchester area of Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lived, has not lacked for attention either. In the late 1980s, Baltimore’s then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke decided he would make the neighborhood a model of urban restoration. He gathered public and private actors like developer James Rouse and Habitat for Humanity. They raised more than $130 million and poured it into everything from new homes, new school curriculums, new job training programs and new health care centers. Townhouses were built for $87,000 and sold to residents for $37,000.

The money was not totally wasted. By 2000, the poverty rate in the area had dropped by 4.4 percent. The share of residents who lived in owner-occupied homes had risen by 8.3 percent, according to a thorough study by The Abell Foundation. But the area was not transformed. Today there are no grocery stores in the neighborhood and no restaurants. Crime is rampant. Unemployment is high.

Despite all these efforts, there are too many young men leading lives like the one Gray led. He was apparently a kind-hearted, respectful, popular man, but he was not on the path to upward mobility. He won a settlement for lead paint poisoning. According to The Washington Post, his mother was a heroin addict who, in a deposition, said she couldn’t read. In one court filing, it was reported that Gray was four grade levels behind in reading. He was arrested more than a dozen times.

It is wrong to say federal efforts to tackle poverty have been a failure. The $15 trillion spent by the government over the past half-century has improved living standards and eased burdens for millions of poor people. But all that money and all those experiments have not integrated people who live in areas of concentrated poverty into the mainstream economy. Often, the money has served as a cushion, not a ladder.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

Jane Jacobs once wrote that a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.

In a fantastic interview that David Simon of “The Wire” gave to Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, he describes that, even in poorest Baltimore, there once were informal rules of behavior governing how cops interacted with citizens — when they’d drag them in and when they wouldn’t, what curse words you could say to a cop and what you couldn’t. But then the code dissolved. The informal guardrails of life were gone, and all was arbitrary harshness.

That’s happened across many social spheres — in schools, families and among neighbors. Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted. It is phenomenally hard for young people in such circumstances to guide themselves.

Yes, jobs are necessary, but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The 2016 campaign should be almost entirely about issues. The parties are far apart on everything from the environment to fiscal policy to health care, and history tells us that what politicians say during a campaign is a good guide to how they will govern.

Nonetheless, many in the news media will try to make the campaign about personalities and character instead. And character isn’t totally irrelevant. The next president will surely encounter issues that aren’t currently on anyone’s agenda, so it matters how he or she is likely to react. But the character trait that will matter most isn’t one the press likes to focus on. In fact, it’s actively discouraged.

You see, you shouldn’t care whether a candidate is someone you’d like to have a beer with. Nor should you care about politicians’ sex lives, or even their spending habits unless they involve clear corruption. No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course.

And that’s a virtue in very short supply.

As you might guess, I’m thinking in particular about the sphere of economics, where the nasty surprises just keep coming. If nothing that has happened these past seven years or so has shaken any of your long-held economic beliefs, either you haven’t been paying attention or you haven’t been honest with yourself.

Times like these call for a combination of open-mindedness — willingness to entertain different ideas — and determination to do the best you can. As Franklin Roosevelt put it in a celebrated speech, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

What we see instead in many public figures is, however, the behaviorGeorge Orwell described in one of his essays: “Believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.” Did I predict runaway inflation that never arrived? Well, the government is cooking the books, and besides, I never said what I said.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for an end to ideology in politics, because that’s impossible. Everyone has an ideology, a view about how the world does and should work. Indeed, the most reckless and dangerous ideologues are often those who imagine themselves ideology-free — for example, self-proclaimed centrists — and are, therefore, unaware of their own biases. What you should seek, in yourself and others, is not an absence of ideology but an open mind, willing to consider the possibility that parts of the ideology may be wrong.

The press, I’m sorry to say, tends to punish open-mindedness, because gotcha journalism is easier and safer than policy analysis. Hillary Clinton supported trade agreements in the 1990s, but now she’s critical. It’s a flip-flop! Or, possibly, a case of learning from experience, which is something we should praise, not deride.

So what’s the state of intellectual integrity at this point in the election cycle? Pretty bad, at least on the Republican side of the field.

Jeb Bush, for example, has declared that “I’m my own man” on foreign policy, but the list of advisers circulated by his aides included the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, who predicted that Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, and shows no signs of having learned from the blood bath that actually took place.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admittedthat none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened.

The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.

Think about it. Suppose, as is all too possible, that the next president ends up confronting some kind of crisis — economic, environmental, foreign — undreamed of in his or her current political philosophy. We really, really don’t want the job of responding to that crisis dictated by someone who still can’t bring himself to admit that invading Iraq was a disaster but health reform wasn’t.

I still think this election should turn almost entirely on the issues. But if we must talk about character, let’s talk about what matters, namely intellectual integrity.


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