Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Blow, Cohen and Kristof

August 27, 2015

In “Enough Is Enough” Mr. Blow says that when people refer to the press as the fourth estate, it shouldn’t be confused with a Trump property.  Mr. Cohen, in “Middle Eastern Zen,” says don’t worry about the Middle East. Worry about China. The Middle East (unlike a large chunk of your portfolio) will still be around tomorrow.  Mr. Kristof ponders “Lessons From the Murders of TV Journalists in the Virginia Shooting” and says Wednesday’s killings provide further evidence of the need for more restrictive gun policies in the United States.  Which will happen, Nick, when pigs fly.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

When Donald Trump’s security escorted the Univision anchor Jorge Ramos out of a news conference on Tuesday, I decided that I was officially done.

Maybe I should have been long before that.

Maybe I should have been done the one and only time I ever met Trumpand his first words to me were a soliloquy about how black people loved him, and he was the most popular white man among black people.

Maybe I should have been done when Trump demanded to see the president’s birth certificate.

Maybe I should have been done any number of times over the years when Trump made any number of racist, sexist comments.

Earlier this month, Politico rounded up 199 of his greatest — and vilest — hits. Here are just a few from the magazine:

9. “I have black guys counting my money. … I hate it. The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” (USA Today, May 20, 1991)

23. “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’ ” (“Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life,” 2008)

32. “… she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” (ABC’s “The View,” March 6, 2006)

35. “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (Twitter, April 16, 2015)

117. “Rosie’s a person that’s very lucky to have her girlfriend. And she better be careful or I’ll send one of my friends over to pick up her girlfriend. Why would she stay with Rosie if she had another choice?” (“Entertainment Tonight,” Dec. 21, 2006)

121. Arianna Huffington is “a dog.” (Twitter, April 6, 2015)

Need I go on? (Thanks, Politico!)

Maybe I should have been done when Trump announced his candidacy this year with an attack on Mexican immigrants, saying:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best — they’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems … drugs … crime … rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

The Ramos episode wasn’t worse than these; it was just the last straw. A member of the media who dared to raise a truly substantive issue, even out of turn, was dismissed and removed. And yet the band played on. The live coverage continued. In that moment, I was disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy. Trump is addicted to press, but the press is also addicted to him, and the entire spectacle is wide and shallow.

(Ramos was allowed back in and permitted to ask his question. I had to see this later, because when he was ejected, I stopped watching.)

Yes, the Republican Party created this Frankenstein of hatred, hubris, narcissism and nativism, but the media is giving it life.

The never-ending, exhaustive, even breathless coverage of every outrage that issues forth from this man’s mouth is not news. Every offense and attack is not news.

Every morning that Trump rolls out of bed and calls in to a news show is not news.

Covering a political phenomenon as news is one thing. See the coverage of Bernie Sanders. Creating a political phenomenon and calling it news is quite another.

I reasoned in a 2010 column that Sarah Palin was no longer an elected official and wasn’t seeking elected office, and was therefore not worthy of constant attacks. But more important, the attacks were elevating her profile, not diminishing it. As I wrote:

“This is it. This is the last time I’m going to write the name Sarah Palin until she does something truly newsworthy, like declare herself a candidate for the presidency. Until then, I will no longer take part in the left’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with her, which is both unhealthy and counterproductive.”

I kept that promise. The only other time she appeared by name in one of my columns was in a passing reference to her speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013. This column is only the second reference.

The same is true of Trump. The constant harping on him only helps him.

He is different from Palin in 2010, however. He is not only running for office, he’s leading in the polls among Republican candidates. He can’t be ignored. But coverage is not the same as drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue.

I will cover Trump as he addresses issues with specific policy prescriptions and details, like answers to the question Ramos asked.

Until then, this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering. We in the media have to own our part in this. We can’t say he’s not serious and then cover him in a way that actually demonstrates that we are not serious.

Is he an easy target for righteous criticism? Of course he is. But is he aware that criticism from the mainstream media is invaluable among certain segments of the political right? Of course he is. Is he also aware that he’s getting more free publicity for being outrageous than he would ever be willing to buy? Of course he is.

The media is being trolled on a massive scale and we look naïve and silly to have fallen for it, even if he draws readers and viewers. When people refer to the press as the fourth estate, it shouldn’t be confused with a Trump property.

Allow me to share one more of Trump’s quotes from Politico:

89. “My brand became more famous as I became more famous, and more opportunities presented themselves.” (Amazon.com, 2007)

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

In case the gyrations in global markets have you confused, here’s anupdated Middle Eastern primer that will make you feel better:

1) The United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East. This infuriated Sunni Saudi Arabia, America’s ally, in theory.

2) The wealthy Saudi royal family underwrites a conservative Wahhabi Islam whose teachings are fiercely anti-American (don’t ask about the Saudi-American alliance). The Saudis have backed Sunni Islamists in war-ravaged Syria against the country’s Iranian-backed despot, Bashar al-Assad, who is from the quasi-Shiite Alawite sect. This maneuver backfired. A barbaric, tech-savvy, knife-wielding Sunni group calling itself Islamic State swept across Syria and Iraq, beheading and raping and destroying great treasures in pursuit of a medieval caliphate that would stretch across territory including modern-day Saudi Arabia. Talk about unintended consequences! Meanwhile the Saudis have bankrolled the destruction of Sunni Islamists in Egypt. This other bad sort of Sunni extremist, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, committed the ultimate lèse-majesté of believing in the ballot box as a source of authority.

3) Sunni-Shiite tensions have become regional. Saudi Arabia and other gulf monarchies are now so convinced that the United States is pro-Shiite (read pro-Iran!), and so persuaded of Iran’s anti-Sunni imperial designs, that they have embarked on a bombing campaign in — you guessed it! — Yemen. The purported aim is to stop the Houthis, seen in Riyadh as Iranian proxies.

4) In the aftermath of the Arab Spring (see below) the main functioning, stable states in the Middle East are non-Arab: Israel, Turkey and Iran. Israel has been in a stop-go war with Arabs since 1948, but is most exercised about Iran, which is not Arab, not Sunni, not on its border and not nuclear armed (see below).

5) The old Middle Eastern order is in tatters. Post-Ottoman states that were not nations, with century-old borders drawn up by Europeans, have split along sectarian lines and made nonsense of those borders. A metastasizing jihadi ideology driven by hatred of Western modernity, colonialism and perceived decadence has proved of unquenchable appeal. An independent Kurdistan, omitted from the post-Ottoman order, is now pretty close to realization. Cocktail-party nugget: Kurds and Israelis are tight.

6) The Obama administration called Syria’s Assad toast without having the means to turn him into toast. This was a huge blunder. A void ensued. Nobody loves a void like a jihadi. Enter Islamic State. America is now in a half-war with Islamic State. Half-war is like half-pregnancy: an illusory impossibility. America is still casting around for palatable nonfundamentalist Syrian opposition groups — a fool’s errand. Syria is gone, baby, gone.

7) Saudi views are increasingly identical to Israeli views (don’t sweat the details), especially on Iran. Wahhabi Islam, however, views Zionism as its implacable enemy. Hence identity of view does not translate into diplomatic rapprochement.

8) The Middle East has a longstanding cottage industry called the peace process. Palestinians are represented by the Palestinian Authority, an authority that has no authority over Palestinians in Gaza, no democratic legitimacy, no obvious claim to represent anything but itself, and no determination to change the status quo. Israel has a right-wing government with no interest in peace and every interest in quashing the very notion of Palestinian statehood — even of Palestinians themselves! The status quo suits Israel, although it involves intermittent small wars.

9) Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The United States and Israel have agreed never to talk about the Jewish state’s alleged nuclear weapons (again, don’t ask).

10) Several despots were swept out in the Arab Spring in 2011. But instead of bringing empowerment and agency through new forms of citizenship, the revolutions folded into sectarianism. Sectarianism means favoring your own and brutalizing the rest (see Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).

11) Iran is a theocracy split between hard-liners and reformists. The United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany have reached a nuclear accord with Iran. It has stopped Iran’s nuclear program in its tracks. It is, on balance, the most effective way to keep Iran from a bomb. Still, every Republican member of Congress opposes the deal. They believe the White House, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany are all deluded and they know better! Yep, they do. Plunging oil prices and America’s energy revolution have opened new strategic possibilities in the Middle East. The nuclear deal, too, could in time open new avenues for America to pursue its Middle Eastern interests. A region of recast alliances is anathema to status quo powers like Israel and the Sunni monarchies.

12) Got it? If not, don’t worry. Be Zen. There’s only so much anyone can worry about. Focus on China for now. My guess is the Middle East (unlike a large chunk of your portfolio) will still be around tomorrow.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Kristof:

The slaying of two journalists Wednesday as they broadcast live to a television audience in Virginia is still seared on our screens and our minds, but it’s a moment not only to mourn but also to learn lessons.

The horror isn’t just one macabre double-murder, but the unrelenting toll of gun violence that claims one life every 16 minutes on average in the United States. Three quick data points:

■ More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

■ More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.

■ American children are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries, according to David Hemenway, a Harvard professor and author of an excellent book on firearm safety.

Bryce Williams, as the Virginia killer was known to viewers when he worked as a broadcaster, apparently obtained the gun used to murder his former co-workers Alison Parker and Adam Ward in response to the June massacre in a South Carolina church — an example of how gun violence begets gun violence. Williams may have been mentally disturbed, given that he videotaped Wednesday’s killings and then posted them on Facebook.

“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!!,” Williams reportedly wrote in a lengthy fax sent to ABC News after the killings.

Whether or not Williams was insane, our policies on guns are demented — not least in that we don’t even have universal background checks to keep weapons out of the hands of people waiting to go boom.

The lesson from the ongoing carnage is not that we need a modern prohibition (that would raise constitutional issues and be impossible politically), but that we should address gun deaths as a public health crisis. To protect the public, we regulate toys and mutual funds, ladders and swimming pools. Shouldn’t we regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has seven pages ofregulations concerning ladders, which are involved in 300 deaths in America annually. Yet the federal government doesn’t make what I would call a serious effort to regulate guns, which are involved in the deaths of more than 33,000 people in America annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (that includes suicides, murders and accidents).

Gun proponents often say things to me like: What about cars? They kill, too, but we don’t try to ban them!

Cars are actually the best example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. Over the decades, we have systematically taken steps to make cars safer: We adopted seatbelts and airbags, limited licenses for teenage drivers, cracked down on drunken driving and established roundabouts and better crosswalks, auto safety inspections and rules about texting while driving.

This approach has been stunningly successful. By my calculations, if we had the same auto fatality rate as in 1921, we would have 715,000 Americans dying annually from cars. We have reduced the fatality rate by more than 95 percent.

Yet in the case of firearms, the gun lobby (enabled by craven politicians) has for years tried to block even research on how to reduce gun deaths. The gun industry made a childproof gun back in the 19th century but today has ferociously resisted “smart guns.” If someone steals an iPhone, it requires a PIN; guns don’t.

We’re not going to eliminate gun deaths in America. But a serious effort might reduce gun deaths by, say, one-third, and that would be 11,000 lives saved a year.

The United States is an outlier, both in our lack of serious policies toward guns and in our mortality rates. Professor Hemenway calculates that the U.S. firearm homicide rate is seven times that of the next country in the rich world on the list, Canada, and 600 times higher than that of South Korea.

We need universal background checks with more rigorous screening, limits on gun purchases to one a month to reduce trafficking, safe storage requirements, serial number markings that are more difficult to obliterate, waiting periods to buy a handgun — and more research on what steps would actually save lives. If the federal government won’t act, states should lead.

Australia is a model. In 1996, after a mass shooting there, the country united behind tougher firearm restrictions. The Journal of Public Health Policy notes that the firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved.

Here in America, we can similarly move from passive horror to take steps to reduce the 92 lives claimed by gun violence in the United States daily. Surely we can regulate guns as seriously as we do cars, ladders and swimming pools.

When there’s bacon in the branches…

Cohen and Krugman

August 24, 2015

In “Politics Upended in Britain and America” Mr. Cohen says that Corbyn, Trump and Sanders are the authentic outsiders riding anger at politics as usual. It’s a season of radical discontent.  Yeah, Roger, Bernie Sanders is an “outsider,” having been a Congressman from 1991 – 2007, and a Senator since then.  Putz.  In “A Moveable Glut” Prof. Krugman explains what happens when too much money is chasing too few investment opportunities.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Very little appears to link Jeremy Corbyn, who has emerged from nowhere to become the favorite to lead the British Labour Party, with Donald Trump, the equally surprising front-runner for the Republican nomination.

Corbyn is a slight, quiet, parsimonious radical leftist who is anti-money, anti-meat, anti-war and pro-nationalization of banks. He has, to put it mildly, deep misgivings about America. Trump is a large, loud, self-promoting businessman who is pro-money, pro-market and wants to “Make America Great Again” by unleashing its animal entrepreneurial spirit and putting the red meat back in political discourse clogged by political correctness. He has spoken approvingly of John Bolton, hawk of neocon hawks among Republican foreign policy officials.

But the two men do have a couple of things in common. Both opposed the Iraq war (Trump thought Mexico might be a more sensible target). More importantly, both speak their minds at a time when a lot of people in Britain and the United States have had it with politics as usual and the mealy-mouthed, finger-to-the-wind calibration of the political persona.

Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted that Corbyn would probably triumph in the Labour Party leadership election for this reason: “Corbyn increasingly likely Labor winner. Seems only candidate who believes anything, right or wrong.” The result is to be announced Sept. 12 (elections in Britain are not multiyear affairs as in the United States).

This is a season of radical discontent. People believe the system is rigged. They have good reason. Rigged to favor the super-rich, rigged to accentuate inequality, rigged to hide huge increases in the cost of living, rigged to buy elections, rigged to put off retirement, rigged to eviscerate pensions, rigged to export jobs, rigged to sabotage equal opportunity, rigged to hurt the middle class and minorities and the poor. Increasingly unequal societies have spawned anger, an unsurprising development. The anger is diffuse, in search of somebody to articulate it, preferably in short declarative sentences.

It’s the same anger, in many respects, that produced the leftist Syriza government in Greece and the rise of the rightist National Front in France. Enter Corbyn and Trump and, of course, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Corbyn has been described as “attractive in a world-weary old sea-dog sort of way.” He’s against everything Tony Blair stood for: the slick, centrist makeover of the Labour Party that allowed it to win election after election, and also allowed Peter Mandelson, a guru of New Labour, to declare that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” Corbyn wants to go back to socialism. So does Sanders, a socialist in America who is drawing huge crowds.

As my colleague Jason Horowitz wrote of Sanders: “For someone who has always had a sweepingly macro, if not entirely Marxist, critique of America, having the largest crowds of the election cheering each description of income inequality, and each proposal to eradicate it, amounts to the validation of a career spent in relative obscurity. Mr. Sanders’s grumpy demeanor, his outsider status and his suspicion of all things ‘feel good’ are part of the attraction.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, grumpy is good in politics. Outsider is good. Plain talk is good. Trump’s “Deal with it,” is the phrase du jour.

Sanders wants to expand Social Security, take America to a single-payer European-style national health system, invest massively to restore America’s crumbling infrastructure, make public college tuition free, get rid of “starvation wages” for workers, tax Wall Street trading, end America’s wars, and break up banks that are too big to fail.

His message is important. It’s resonating because it precisely reflects the current unease. Hillary Clinton cannot ignore it.

Trump is not going away. His base of support is broad. America always wants to dream of some riveting reinvention; he’s captured that longing for now. In polls of Republicans he leads among women, despite his denigration of them; he leads among evangelical Christians; and he leads among the college-educated, not an obvious constituency for his populist anti-immigrant message. He has people nodding their heads, as when he calls his rival Jeb Bush a “low-energy” guy.

Corbyn, however, may well be the only one of the three outsiders who wins anything. He’s likely to be the next Labour leader. That would be a disaster.

He has almost no support among Labour members of Parliament; no experience of running anything; has called Hamas and Hezbollah “our friends” (but says he was misunderstood); forgot (before remembering) that he’s socialized with a Lebanese extremist who called 9/11 “sweet revenge” and has since been banned from Britain; wants Britain out of NATO; and has a European leftist’s de rigueur view of America as the source of the world’s problems. If he’s chosen, Labour could disintegrate. It certainly won’t win an election.

But Corbynmania shows no sign of abating. It’s a new season in politics. Anything could happen, either side of the pond.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

What caused Friday’s stock plunge? What does it mean for the future? Nobody knows, and not much.

Attempts to explain daily stock movements are usually foolish: a real-time survey of the 1987 stock crash found no evidence for any of the rationalizations economists and journalists offered after the fact, finding instead that people were selling because, you guessed it, prices were falling. And the stock market is a terrible guide to the economic future: Paul Samuelson once quipped that the market had predicted nine of the last five recessions, and nothing has changed on that front.

Still, investors are clearly jittery — with good reason. U.S. economic news has been good though not great lately, but the world as a whole still seems remarkably accident-prone. For seven years and counting we’ve lived in a global economy that lurches from crisis to crisis: Every time one part of the world finally seems to get back on its feet, another part stumbles. And America can’t insulate itself completely from these global woes.

But why does the world economy keep stumbling?

On the surface, we seem to have had a remarkable run of bad luck. First there was the housing bust, and the banking crisis it triggered. Then, just as the worst seemed to be over, Europe went into debt crisis and double-dip recession. Europe eventually achieved a precarious stability and began growing again — but now we’re seeing big problems in China and other emerging markets, which were previously pillars of strength.

But these aren’t just a series of unrelated accidents. Instead, what we’re seeing is what happens when too much money is chasing too few investment opportunities.

More than a decade ago, Ben Bernanke famously argued that a ballooning U.S. trade deficit was the result, not of domestic factors, but of a “global saving glut”: a huge excess of savings over investment in China and other developing nations, driven in part by policy reactions to the Asian crisis of the 1990s, which was flowing to the United States in search of returns. He worried a bit about the fact that the inflow of capital was being channeled, not into business investment, but into housing; obviously he should have worried much more. (Some of us did.) But his suggestion that the U.S. housing boom was in part caused by weakness in foreign economies still looks valid.

Of course, the boom became a bubble, which inflicted immense damage when it burst. Furthermore, that wasn’t the end of the story. There was also a flood of capital from Germany and other northern European countries to Spain, Portugal, and Greece. This too turned out to be a bubble, and the bursting of that bubble in 2009-2010 precipitated the euro crisis.

And still the story wasn’t over. With America and Europe no longer attractive destinations, the global glut went looking for new bubbles to inflate. It found them in emerging markets, sending currencies like Brazil’s real to unsustainable heights. It couldn’t last, and now we’re in the middle of an emerging-market crisis that reminds some observers of Asia in the 1990s — remember, where it all started.

So where does the moving finger of glut go now? Why, back to America, where a fresh inflow of foreign funds has driven the dollar way up, threatening to make our industry uncompetitive again.

What’s causing this global glut? Probably a mix of factors. Population growth is slowing worldwide, and for all the hype about the latest technology, it doesn’t seem to be creating either surging productivity or a lot of demand for business investment. The ideology of austerity, which has led to unprecedented weakness in government spending, has added to the problem. And low inflation around the world, which means low interest rates even when economies are booming, has reduced the room to cut rates when economies slump.

Whatever the precise mix of causes, what’s important now is that policy makers take seriously the possibility, I’d say probability, that excess savings and persistent global weakness is the new normal.

My sense is that there’s a deep-seated unwillingness, even among sophisticated officials, to accept this reality. Partly this is about special interests: Wall Street doesn’t want to hear that an unstable world requires strong financial regulation, and politicians who want to kill the welfare state don’t want to hear that government spending and debt aren’t problems in the current environment.

But there’s also, I believe, a sort of emotional prejudice against the very notion of global glut. Politicians and technocrats alike want to view themselves as serious people making hard choices — choices like cutting popular programs and raising interest rates. They don’t like being told that we’re in a world where seemingly tough-minded policies will actually make things worse. But we are, and they will.

Blow and Cohen

August 20, 2015

In “Activists Confront Hillary Clinton” Mr. Blow says liberals and conservatives alike must answer for how the criminal justice system has been unleashed upon black people in this country.  Mr. Cohen, in “California Dreaming,” says Technology’s thrill is no more than an ephemeral distraction from the unchanging puzzles of life in any age.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

A newly released video from Good magazine, showing Hillary Clinton in a meeting being confronted by young activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, thrilled me to no end. It also depressed me just as much.

The activists called on Clinton to answer for her and her husband’s part in the rise of mass incarceration in this country, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects black and brown people.

Julius Jones, a Black Lives Matter activist from Boston, said to Clinton:

“I genuinely want to know: You, and your family, have been in no uncertain way partially responsible for this, more than most.”

He then asked:

“Now, there may have been unintended consequences, but now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed, that’s going to change the direction of this country? What in you, like not your platform, not, not what you’re supposed to say, like how do you actually feel, that’s different than you did before? Like, what were the mistakes and how can those mistakes that you’ve made be lessons for all of America, or a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country?”

(Good magazine pointed out: “Hillary Clinton lobbied lawmakers to back the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Bill Clinton signed the act into law in 1994. The largest crime bill in history, it provided $9.7 billion in prison funding. From 1992 to 2000, the amount of prisoners in the U.S. increased almost 60 percent.”)

Clinton pointed to her record on civil rights work, but she never apologized for, or even acknowledged, her and her husband’s role in giving America the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate.

To me, the diversion was stunning, and telling.

Maggie Haberman noted in The New York Times that the exchange “showed Mrs. Clinton as even her admirers lament that she is seldom seen: spontaneous, impassioned and seemingly unconcerned about potential repercussions.”

Politically, that may be true. She was agile and evasive, for sure. She bobbed and weaved like Floyd Mayweather. But there was a moral issue, an accountability issue, that still hung rotting in the ring: What in her has changed, now that she has seen the devastation a policy she advocated has wrought?

(Last month, at the annual convention of the N.A.A.C.P., Bill Clinton did apologize, saying, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse.” He continued, “And I want to admit it.” His contrition makes Hillary’s nonapology all the more vexing.)

This is the part of the Black Lives Matter political protests that I love so much: The idea that you must test the fealty of your supposed friends in addition to battling the fury of your avowed foes.

The truth of America is that both liberals and conservatives alike have things for which they must answer, sins for which they must atone, when it comes to how the criminal justice system has been aimed at and unleashed upon black people in this country.

And it’s not just the Clintons who have things they must answer for on criminal justice and black people. As I have written about before, toward the end of his tenure, President George W. Bush drastically reduced funding for the Byrne Formula Grant Program, which had been established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to supercharge the war on drugs — a disastrous boondoggle that would come to be a war waged primarily against marijuana use by black men.

As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in 2011, “The racial disparities are staggering: despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.’”

A group of senators, mostly Democrats, wrote a letter demanding that the funding be restored. Barack Obama ran on a promise to restore that funding, and once elected, he did just that. As I wrote in 2010:

“The 2009 stimulus package presented these Democrats with the opportunity, and they seized it. The legislation, designed by Democrats and signed by President Obama, included $2 billion for Byrne Grants to be awarded by the end of September 2010. That was nearly a 12-fold increase in financing. Whatever the merits of these programs, they are outweighed by the damage being done. Financing prevention is fine. Financing a race-based arrest epidemic is not.”

And these sins exist not only at the federal level, but also at the local level.

Many of the recent cases have been in some of our most liberal cities — cities that, as Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly pointed out in January, were the very ones to which black Americans flocked during the Great Migration.

Eric Garner was choked and killed by police in New York. Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police in Cleveland. Charley Saturmin Robinet was shot and killed by police in Los Angeles.

In a way, these deadly interactions are connected to civic policies that not only implicate the police officers but the liberals who occupy these cities themselves. Stop-and-frisk existed, in obscene proportions, in New York. And yet, most white voters in the city said that they approved of the program, according to a 2012 Quinnipiac University poll.

People from both sides of the aisle have cast poor black people to the wolves and averted their gaze from the ensuing carnage. But in a way, asking liberals to answer for their complicity is even more important than asking conservatives.

More than nine in 10 blacks vote Democratic. That level of fidelity should give black people some leverage, at the very least, to demand accountability

At one point in one of the videos, Clinton said:

“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

But what if the same person saying that was partially responsible for changing the laws that allocated the resources that built up a system that operated as a tool of destruction?

These young activists, indeed all of us, should expect liberals to have more direct answers for their own actions — and inactions — than the one Clinton gave.

There can be no sacred cows when black people have been treated like sacrificial lambs.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, waxing rhapsodic or something:

To question change in the state whose companies have transformed the world by networking it may seem like California dreaming. Lives last long enough now for the reality of change to be manifest. The world is not what it was when much of existence drifted by in a disconnected state and productivity had not taken a 24/7 hold.

Undistracted immersion in place and mood was easier back in the 20th century. That could make for great journalism. On the other hand, communication was harder. That could make filing the journalism a nightmare.

On the one hand, on the other: That’s life in any century. It’s lived in the gray zone of uncertainty. Delusional certainty tends to be the domain of those with ambitions to lead the muddled crowd. Politics depends on the promise of change. That’s its elixir.

But I’ve been wondering. The more things change, say the French, the more they stay the same. Or as a similar idea is put in “The Leopard,” one of the greatest of Italian novels: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

They do change, sometimes with swift brutality. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia swept everything away — yet here is Vladimir Putin playing czar. Uprisings come and go but Egypt harkens for its pharaoh. We dreamed of paradise, lamented the leading East German protester of 1989 who would become Germany’s president, and woke up in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Scourges, from the plague to polio, are vanquished; others arise. The Medicis grow rich, become patrons of the arts, take a stab at just rule, before their inevitable fall; to be replaced in Florence-on-the-Pacific by the likes of Brin and Page and Omidyar and Thiel, who want to invest part of their dotcom fortunes in a more enlightened, healthier humanity.

The eternal puzzles of birth and love, death and beauty, injustice and poverty, persist. The search for happiness, and meaning, goes on. The same feelings exist in changed circumstances. Technology’s thrill may be no more than an ephemeral distraction from the immutable human condition, which constitutes the realm of art.

The catalyst to these musings was something I saw in Los Angeles, probably the last place I expected to see it because I think of the city as hot-wired to the new and inclined to the brittle. It was a bronze statue from the third century B.C. of a seated boxer, a life-size rendering of a bearded man who, to judge from the bruise on his cheek and his broken nose, has just emerged from a fight, or perhaps a series of fights. His body is strong, suggestive of the heroic, but his expression is excruciatingly human, full of stoicism and questioning.

Here I am, the boxer seems to say, and such is life: an unpredictable struggle for survival in which there is no escape from hard work and wisdom must be earned the hard way. You see, he murmurs across 2,300 years, I have done what I had to do and this is the state I find myself in: tired, battered but unflinching and alive.

The statue, found in Rome in 1885, is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum, part of an astonishing exhibition called “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World.” Astonishing for its beauty but perhaps above all for the range of expression evident in the statuary. Gods of imposing power are depicted, yet it is the emotion of human subjects in all its variety — from serenity to suffering, from elation to exhaustion — that is most unforgettable because all those emotions are recognizable as, well, contemporary.

The boxer made me think of one of my favorite paintings, Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome’s Doria Pamphilj Gallery, not in any particular detail but in the evocation of someone who has lived life to the full: the ruddy and weathered face of the pontiff, the shrewd eyes, the expression that says he sees through the pomp of his position and is aware that life, even at the summit of power, may be viewed as a cruel joke. “Troppo vero!” — “Too true!” — the pope is said to have exclaimed on seeing it.

My late uncle, Bert Cohen, was in Italy during World War II. On July 21, 1944, he reached Monte Cassino and wrote in his war diary: “Poor Cassino, wreck and desolation unbelievable, roads smashed and pitted, mines, booby traps and graves everywhere. Huge shell holes, craters filled with stagnant slime, smashed buildings, hardly outlines remaining, a silent sight of ghosts and shadows. Pictures should be taken of this monument to mankind’s worst moments and circulated through every school room in the world.”

Along with pictures of the Hellenistic boxer and the Italian pope to illustrate the illusions of power, the bruises of life, the persistence of hope and the limits of change. Relax — we’ve been here before.

Cohen and Nocera

August 18, 2015

In “Iran and American Jews” Mr. Cohen says Netanyahu makes another unsubtle pitch for Congress to undermine Obama.  Netanyahu is as subtle as a rubber crutch…  Mr. Nocera has found someone else to carry water for — the e-cig gang.  In “Lowering a Tobacco Tax to Save Lives” he babbles that we should learn from the Swedes’ approach to nicotine.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Earlier this month, Roland Moskowitz, a Cleveland physician, and Sandra Lippy, a retired health care executive of Boca Raton, Fla., got on the line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. As two people who have been active in major Jewish organizations, they were among thousands of American Jews invited to watch a webcast whose message was: oppose the Iran nuclear deal.

Moskowitz and Lippy listened as Netanyahu claimed the deal would give Iran “hundreds of bombs tomorrow”; turn any terrorist group backed by Iran into a “terrorist superpower”; allow Iran to “have its yellowcake and eat it, too”; cause a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; provide Iran with billions of dollars; and pave Iran’s path to a bomb.

The Israeli prime minister was contemptuous of the view, expressed by President Obama, that those who oppose the deal favor war, calling it “not just false, but outrageous.” Netanyahu insisted, against all evidence, that he rejects the deal “because I want to prevent war.”

Lippy was not impressed. She thought all the doomsday lines were tired. She’s not about to get on the phone to her representative to press for Congress to condemn the deal and then gather enough votes to override Obama’s inevitable veto of the resolution. That’s what Netanyahu wants to achieve, the deal’s demise, using American Jews as a vehicle.

“It’s not a great deal, but it’s enough of a deal to postpone the nuclear situation and maybe give us time to work things out,” Lippy told me. “While they’re being sharply reduced in their nuclear capacity, we can sit down again over the next several years and talk about the Holocaust, Israel and human rights, and that is why I go along with it.”

She’s right. A merit of this deal is that it would condemn the United States and Iran to a relationship — hostile, but still a framework for airing differences and doing business — over the next 15 years. Most young Iranians no more believe in “Death to America” than they believe the Hidden Imam is going to show up tomorrow.

Moskowitz was left feeling uneasy. On balance, not worrying enough for the United States to walk away. Nor does he want the family strife that would arise if he sided with his fears. His wife, Peta Moskowitz, is a firm supporter of the deal and a member of J Street, the largest Jewish organization to back Obama’s Iran diplomacy. These strains are not unusual. Within families and across the American Jewish community, discussion of the Iran deal is fiery.

A few things must be said. Netanyahu’s performance was of a piece with his habit of intervening in American politics, evident at the time of the last presidential election, when his preference for Mitt Romney was clear. His relations with Obama are bad. He tries to circumvent Obama, often in clumsy ways, further undermining the relationship. It’s enough to imagine Obama calling thousands of Israelis to encourage them to oppose a piece of sensitive legislation in the Knesset to gauge how inappropriate Netanyahu’s behavior is.

The Netanyahu webcast was co-sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (an umbrella organization so resistant to the age-old fertile cacophony of Jewish opinion that it rejected J Street’s application for membership last year) and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Several leading Jewish groups — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — have come out against the Iran deal. This is unsurprising; they tend to move in lock step with Israel. But it’s troubling because it’s unclear how representative of American Jews as a whole these organizations are.

Some polls have suggested a majority of Jews favor the Iran deal; certainly the community is divided. It’s no service to Jews, or Israel or Middle Eastern peace, for major Jewish organizations to be unreflective of this wide diversity of opinion within American Jewry — or for them to give airtime to Netanyahu on Iran rather than Obama.

The alternative to this deal, as Obama said, is war. Why? Because sanctions on Iran will fall apart as Russia and China conclude the United States is not serious about a compromise with Tehran that increases the distance between Iran and a bomb, ring-fences its nuclear program, and subjects it to intense international inspection. Centrifuges, slashed in number by America’s diplomacy, will increase again, as will Iran’s uranium stockpile. The war drumbeat will resume. Folly will loom.

Rather than listen to Netanyahu, American Jews should listen to the longest-serving Jewish member of the House, Sander M. Levin, who supports the agreement because it is “the best way to achieve” the goal of preventing Iran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon, so making the Middle East and Israel “far more secure.” They should note that five Jewish senators have come out in favor.

In the real world, this is the best achievable deal for America and the ally, Israel, it would never forsake.

Now here’s Gunga Din Mr. Cohen:

A smokeless tobacco product called snus, which a user puts between his gums and his upper lip, has a long history in Sweden. At the start of the last century, it was the most common way Swedes ingested nicotine. By the early 1950s, however, sales of snus had been overtaken by cigarettes, a trend that continued for two decades.

But in time, snus made a comeback, while cigarette use steadily declined. As of 2012, only 13 percent of adult Swedes smoked, less than half the European Union rate. Meanwhile, 19 to 21 percent of Swedish males use snus, which is now more prevalent than cigarettes. (Swedish women, for some reason, stuck with smokes.)

The result? Even though tobacco use in Sweden is comparable to its use in the rest of Europe, Sweden’s preference for snus means that it “has Europe’s lowest tobacco-attributable mortality among men,” according to a paper in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Indeed,a 2012 study by the World Health Organization found that tobacco caused 152 deaths per 100,000 men in Sweden, versus 467 deaths per 100,000 men in Europe.

It’s hard to know exactly what caused snus to regain its popularity. There was no explicit government policy promoting it. David Sweanor, one of the authors of the paper, told me that Sweden’s predominant tobacco company took it upon itself to market snus once the dangers of cigarettes had become irrefutable. (That company, Swedish Match, sells mainly snus today.) But another likely reason was a huge price differential between cigarettes and snus; at one point a pack of the former was taxed so heavily that it cost twice as much as a can of snus.

Sweanor, a tobacco policy expert at the University of Ottawa, and his co-authors, Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan economist specializing in public health, and Frank J. Chaloupka, an economist focused on public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, would label snus a “harm reduction” product. Although it contains tobacco and allows users to get their fix of addictive nicotine, snus poses far less risk than cigarettes, as the statistics amply show.

All three men are big believers in the virtue of harm reduction policies to reduce the illness and death caused by cigarettes. Thus the point of their paper: The tax policies that worked in Sweden — raise taxes on the killer product while lowering them on the harm reduction product — should be applied today to electronic cigarettes and other noncombustible nicotine delivery systems.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a terrific idea. Because it contains tobacco, snus has traces of nitrosamines, a cancer-causing agent found in tobacco. Electronic cigarettes, by contrast, contain no tobacco at all. Instead, they vaporize nicotine, which gets to the user’s brain far quicker than, say, a nicotine patch, thus more closely replicating the nicotine hit delivered by a cigarette.

As Warner pointed out to me, nobody can say for sure how much safer e-cigarettes are because the products haven’t been around long enough for long-term studies. But it is plain as day that they are far less risky than cigarettes. Countries use tax policy all the time to affect behavior. Using tax policy to move people from cigarettes to e-cigarettes would, to be blunt, save lives. The e-cigarette has the potential to be the greatest tobacco cessation device ever invented.

Yet, as the authors note, because most of the tobacco-control community believes that “all tobacco products are seriously deleterious to health, conventional wisdom … has long been that all products should be taxed similarly.” Indeed, the World Health Organization has described “comparable” taxation on all tobacco products as a “best practice for tobacco taxation.”

As irrational as this is, it is easy to understand where it stems from. Health claims about e-cigarettes remind anti-tobacco activists of the days when Big Tobacco marketed low-tar cigarettes as a “healthier” smoking choice. E-cigarettes come in many flavors, which could appeal to kids. Their marketing aims to make e-cigarettes look cool — just like Big Tobacco once did. Despite a complete lack of proof, the tobacco-control community fears that young people who use e-cigarettes will eventually gravitate to combustible cigarettes.

Which is all the more reason the authors’ tax idea deserves consideration: It puts the emphasis on moving smokers to e-cigarettes, which is where it should be. “Studies have … shown that changes in the relative price of tobacco products lead some tobacco users to switch to less expensive products,” the authors write. A big tax differential is a way to take advantage of the lower risk of e-cigarettes without ever having to acknowledge it.

Not that I expect rationality to take hold any time soon. After all, you know how the European Union reacted to the Swedish snus experience, don’t you?

It banned snus.

Blow, Cohen and Kristof

August 13, 2015

In “Police Abuse is a Form of Terror” Mr. Blow says it  inspires a sense of outrage that the people charged with protecting your life could become a threat to it.  In “Why ISIS Trumps Freedom” Mr. Cohen tells us that young European Muslims join Islamic State to escape alienation and the unbearable weight of individual choice.  Mr. Kristof, in “Mr. Obama, Try These Arguments for Your Iran Deal,” says the  Iranian deal is ugly and flawed, but infinitely better than the alternatives.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Writing about the wave of deadly encounters — many caught on video — between unarmed black people and police officers often draws a particular criticism from a particular subset of readers.

It is some variation of this:

“Why are you not writing about the real problem — black-on-black crime? Young black men are far more likely to be killed by another young black man than by the police. Why do people not seem to protest when those young people are killed? Where is the media coverage of those deaths?”

This to me has always felt like a deflection, a juxtaposition meant to use one problem to drown out another.

Statistically, the sentiment is correct: Black people are more likely to be killed by other black people. But white people are also more likely to be killed by other white people. The truth is that murders and other violent crimes are often crimes of intimacy and access. People tend to kill people they know.

The argument suggests that police killings are relatively rare and therefore exotic, and distract from more mundane and widespread community violence. I view it differently: as state violence versus community violence.

People are often able to understand and contextualize community violence and, therefore, better understand how to avoid it. A parent can say to a child: Don’t run with that crowd, or hang out on that corner or get involved with that set of activities.

A recent study by scholars at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale found that homicides cluster and overwhelmingly involve a tiny group of people who not only share social connections but are also already involved in the criminal justice system.

We as adults can decide whether or not to have guns in the home. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, having a gun may increase the chances of being the victim of homicide. We can report violent family members.

And people with the means and inclination can decide to move away from high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.

These measures are not 100 percent effective, but they can produce some measure of protection and provide individual citizens with some degree of personal agency.

State violence, as epitomized in these cases by what people view as police abuses, conversely, has produced a specific feeling of terror, one that is inescapable and unavoidable.

The difference in people’s reactions to these different kinds of killings isn’t about an exaltation — or exploitation — of some deaths above others for political purposes, but rather a collective outrage that the people charged with protecting your life could become a threat to it. It is a reaction to the puncturing of an illusion, the implosion of an idea. How can I be safe in America if I can’t be safe in my body? It is a confrontation with a most discomforting concept: that there is no amount of righteous behavior, no neighborhood right enough, to produce sufficient security.

It produces a particular kind of terror, a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability, a fear that makes people furious at the very idea of having to be afraid.

The reaction to police killings is to my mind not completely dissimilar to people’s reaction to other forms of terrorism.

The very ubiquity of police officers and the power they possess means that the questionable killing in which they are involved creates a terror that rolls in like a fog, filling every low place. It produces ambient, radiant fear. It is the lurking unpredictability of it. It is the any- and everywhere-ness of it.

The black community’s response to this form of domestic terror has not been so different from America’s reaction to foreign terror.

The think tank New America found in June that 26 people were killed by jihadist attacks in the United States since 9/11 — compared with 48 deaths from “right wing attacks.” And yet, we have spent unending blood and treasure to combat Islamist terrorism in those years. Furthermore,according to Gallup, half of all Americans still feel somewhat or very worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.

In one of the two Republican debates last week, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed to be itching for yet another antiterrorism war, saying at one point: “I would take the fight to these guys, whatever it took, as long as it took.”

Whatever, however, long. This is not only Graham’s position, it’s the position of a large segment of the population.

Responding to New America’s tally, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post in July:

“Americans have accepted an unprecedented expansion of government powers and invasions of their privacy to prevent such attacks. Since 9/11, 74 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists, according to the think tank New America. In that same period, more than 150,000Americans have been killed in gun homicides, and we have done … nothing.”

And yet, we don’t ask “Why aren’t you, America, focusing on the real problem: Americans killing other Americans?”

Is the “real problem” question reserved only for the black people? Are black people not allowed to begin a righteous crusade?

One could argue that America’s overwhelming response to the terror threat is precisely what has kept the number of people killed in this country as a result of terror so low. But, if so, shouldn’t black Americans, similarly, have the right to exercise tremendous resistance to reduce the number of black people killed after interactions with the police?

How is it that we can understand an extreme reaction by Americans as a whole to a threat of terror but demonstrate a staggering lack of that understanding when black people in America do the same?

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

What leads young European Muslims in their thousands to give up lives in France, Britain or Germany, enlist in the ranks of the movement calling itself Islamic State, and dedicate themselves to the unlikely aim of establishing a Caliphate backed by digital propaganda?

The honest answer is we don’t know why a 20-something Briton with a degree in computer engineering or a young Frenchman from a Norman village reaches a psychological tipping-point. Zealotry of any kind subsumes the difficulty of individual choices into the exalted collective submission of dedication to a cause. Your mission is suddenly set. It is presented as a great one with great rewards. Goodbye, tough calls. Goodbye, loneliness.

Islamic State has been adept in exploiting the alienation felt by many young Muslims, from the “quartiers” of Paris to the back streets of Bradford. It offers to give meaning, whether in this life or the next, to meaningless lives. The group has benefited from active support by online jihadi preachers and tacit backing, or at least acquiescence, from imams in some mosques who are inclined, in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, to “quietly condone.” It has manipulated anger over America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, over Shia ascendancy in the Middle East, over bleak existences on the margins of European society.

Still, the explanations fall short. Plenty of people experience great hardship or prejudice without opting to behead infidels and apostates, practice codified rape on teenage nonbelievers, and pursue the establishment of God’s rule on earth through his chosen caliph and in accordance with Shariah law.

Every effort of Western societies, particularly since 9/11, to curb the metastasizing jihadi ideology that threatens them has failed. Some of the organizations that grew out of that ideology have been hurt. But the ideas behind them, rooted in a violent rejection of modernity (but not all its tools, witness Islamic State’s slick use of the Internet) and in an extreme, literalist interpretation of certain teachings of Sunni Islam, have proved of unquenchable appeal. It’s a long way from Yorkshire to Raqqa in eastern Syria, yet some young British Muslims go. Other recruits arrive from Saudi Arabia and Russia, Libya and Australia. Islamic State has demonstrated very broad outreach.

It is clearly tapping into something deep. Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom. Western societies have been going ever further in freeing their citizens’ choices — in releasing them from ties of tradition or religion, in allowing people to marry whom they want and divorce as often as they want, have sex with whom they want, die when they want, and generally do what they want. There are few, if any, moral boundaries left.

In this context, radical Islam offers salvation, or at least purpose, in the form of a life whose moral parameters are strictly set, whose daily habits are prescribed, whose satisfaction of everyday needs is assured, and whose rejection of freedom is unequivocal. By taking away freedom, Islamic State lifts a psychological weight on its young followers adrift on the margins of European society.

Mark Lilla, in an essay earlier this year in The New York Review of Books on the French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission” (whose central character, a disaffected literature professor, ultimately chooses to convert to Islam) made this important point:

“The qualities that Houellebecq projects onto Islam are no different from those that the religious right ever since the French Revolution has attributed to premodern Christendom — strong families, moral education, social order, a sense of place, a meaningful death, and, above all, the will to persist as a culture. And he shows a real understanding of those — from the radical nativist on the far right to radical Islamists — who despise the present and dream of stepping back in history to recover what they imagine was lost.”

Lilla concluded of Houellebecq that he sees France in the grip of “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God.”

In Europe, right now, those speaking most ardently for God tend to be Muslims. Some of them have spoken out bravely against Islamic State. A majority sees the movement as a betrayal of their religion. But the jihadi temptation to escape from freedom into all-answering zealotry is there and will not soon be curbed.

It is interesting that another foe of the West, President Vladimir Putin, attacks its culture from a similar standpoint: as irreligious, decadent and relativist, and intent on globalizing these “subversive” values, often under the cover of democracy promotion, freedom and human rights.

The great victory in 1989 was of freedom. But every triumph stirs a counter-force. The road to Raqqa is the road from freedom’s burden.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

It would be a catastrophe for American influence in the world if Congress killed the Iranian nuclear deal.

Perhaps because the stakes are so high, the debate has become poisonous. Critics are (ludicrously) accusing President Obama of appealing to anti-Semitic tropes. And Obama (petulantly) suggested that some opponents were “alarmist,” “ignorant,” “not being straight” and “making common cause” with Iranians who chant “Death to America.”

Obama’s rhetoric was counterproductive. As former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, told me, “At this point, the president has made it impossible for a Republican to vote for it.” Constituent calls to congressional offices are overwhelmingly against the deal, and with Senator Chuck Schumer defying the White House by opposing it, the opposition is more bipartisan than the support is. That’s tragic, for killing the deal would infuriate many allies, isolate America rather than Iran and ultimately increase the risk of ayatollahs with nuclear weapons.

I’ve already explained why I’m strongly in favor of the deal, and I urge President Obama to start over with his sales job and focus on three points.

First: Sure, the deal is imperfect, but it’s the best way to achieve a goal we all share passionately — preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The great majority of arms experts support the deal, some enthusiastically, some grudgingly. They recognize shortcomings, but on balance, as 29 of America’s leading nuclear scientists and arms experts wrote in an open letter last week, it has “much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework.”

Likewise, three dozen retired American generals and admirals released a joint letter declaring the deal “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Iran would go from maybe a few months from a bomb to a year away. The agreement doesn’t solve the underlying problem, but it may buy us 15 years.

Yes, it would be nice if Iran gave up all its enriched uranium. But isn’t it better that it give up 98 percent of its stockpile than that it give up none?

Everyone knows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel opposes the deal, but not everyone realizes other Israelis with far more security expertise support it. Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, describes it as “the best possible alternative.” And Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, says, “What is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb?”

Second, it’s true that Iran may try to cheat, but it’s easier to catch and stop the cheating with the deal than without.

Critics sometimes note that President Bill Clinton reached an agreement on nuclear weapons with North Korea in 1994, only to see North Korea cheat. The lesson they draw is that it’s pointless to negotiate with untrustworthy rogue regimes.

I’ve covered North Korea since I was a young reporter in Asia in the 1980s, and the lesson is actually more like the opposite.

That 1994 agreement was indeed flawed, and North Korea violated it. But even so, in the eight years the agreement was in place, North Korea made zero nuclear weapons, according to American intelligence estimates. After the deal collapsed in 2002, the Bush administration turned to a policy of confrontation, and North Korea then made perhaps nine nuclear weapons.

Third, if all goes south, or if Iran is stalling us and after 15 years races to a weapon, we retain the option of a military strike.

I asked David Petraeus, retired four-star general and former head of the C.I.A., about that. “I strongly believe,” he told me, “that there will continue to be a viable military option should Iran seek to break out and construct a nuclear device after the expiration of many of the elements of the inspections regime at the 15-year mark of the agreement.”

To me, this deal is ugly and flawed — and infinitely better than the alternatives. The criticisms of the deal strike me as reasonable, but the alternatives that the critics propose seem unreasonable and incoherent.

So President Obama should hit the restart button. He should acknowledge that the deal has shortcomings but also emphasize that it must be judged not by a referendum on its terms but rather as a choice: deal or no deal.

He can also take steps to reassure doubters. We could boost funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency to make oversight more effective. We could do more to speak up for human rights in Iran and to counter Iranian meddling in the region, especially in Syria.

Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the patriarch of Republican security experts, tells me that he supports the Iran deal in part because it exemplifies American leadership on a crucial global issue. I agree, and for Congress to kill it will not just set back American leadership, it will also increase the odds that Iran gets the bomb.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

August 10, 2015

In “‘Black Lives Matter’ and the G. O. P.” Mr. Blow says the  discussion should be about more than police conduct. Officers are simply the agents of policy instituted by society as a whole.  Mr. Cohen, in “Europe’s Deepest Debt,” says at this critical moment, it is essential to recall the road traveled since 1945. Germany’s debt to Europe can never be repaid.  Prof. Krugman, in “G. O. P. Candidates and Obama’s Failure to Fail,” says despite their overall condemnation of the Obama record, Republican candidates are oddly short on specifics.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Only one candidate in last week’s Republican presidential debate was asked to directly address the Black Lives Matter movement and that candidate was Gov. Scott Walker.

Moderator Megyn Kelly asked Walker:

“Governor Walker, many in the Black Lives Matter movement, and beyond, believe that overly-aggressive police officers targeting young African-Americans is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree? And if so, how do you plan to address it? If not, why not?”

Walker responded with an answer about sufficient training of officers “not only on the way into their positions but all the way through their time” and about “consequences” for those who don’t properly perform their duties.

Both the question and the answer focused an inordinate amount of attention on police conduct and not enough on revealing that they are simply the agents of policy instituted by officials at the behest of the body politic.

This deficit of examining systems exists all across this debate. It fails to indict society as a whole, as I firmly believe it should. It puts all the focus on the tip of the spear rather than on the spear itself.

Look at it this way: Many local municipalities experience budgetary pressure. Rather than raise taxes or cut services in response, things that are often politically unpalatable, they turn to law enforcement and courts to make up the difference in tickets and fines. Some can also increase the number of finable offenses and stiffen the penalties.

Officers, already disproportionately deployed and arrayed in so-called “high-crime” neighborhoods — invariably poor and minority neighborhoods — are then charged with doing the dirty work. The increase in sheer numbers of interactions creates friction with targeted populations and ups the odds that individual biases will be introduced.

Without fail, something eventually goes horribly wrong.

We look at the end interaction, examining the officers for bias and the suspect for threatening behavior, rather than looking at the systems that necessitated the interactions.

Society itself is to blame. There is blood on everyone’s hands, including the hands still clutching the tax revenue that those cities needed but refused to solicit, instead shifting the mission of entire police departments “from ‘protect and serve’ to ‘punish and profit,’ ” as Mother Jones magazine recently put it in a fascinating article on this subject.

Is it a coincidence that many of the recent cases involving black people killed by the police began with stops for minor offenses?

This “fiscal menace,” as the magazine called it, is added to a system often already addicted to ever-improving crime numbers — a statistically unsustainable condition — and a ballooning prison population. To maintain the momentum, cities needed to crack down on lower and lower-level crimes, sacrificing more and more lives — largely poor and minority ones — to feed the beast. Public safety gave cover for a perversion of justice.

In another moment during the debate, Kelly asked Ben Carson about race relations in America and “how divided we seem right now.” She continued: “And what, if anything, you can do — you would do as the next president to help heal that divide.”

First, before the answer, I have a nit to pick with the question. The framing of the state of race relations as a “divide,” to my mind, creates a false impression, an equivalency. It suggests a lateral-ness. But this discussion is about vertical-ness, about hierarchy. It is about whether state power is being used disproportionately as an oppressive and deadly force against minorities — particularly black people — in this country.

Carson responded with a prelude that seemed to label those demanding justice and equality “purveyors of hatred” seeking a “race war,” an outrageously exaggerated use of incendiary rhetoric.

Then he said:

“What we need to think about instead — you know, I was asked by an NPR reporter once, why don’t I talk about race that often. I said it’s because I’m a neurosurgeon. And she thought that was a strange response. And you say — I said, you see, when I take someone to the operating room, I’m actually operating on the thing that makes them who they are. The skin doesn’t make them who they are. The hair doesn’t make them who they are. And it’s time for us to move beyond that.”

This was an eloquent exposition of the absurdity of race as a biological construct, but also an absurdly elementary avoidance of racism as a very real social construct. I wish it were that people could all simply “move beyond that” at will, that they were able to simply choose to slough off the cumulative accrual of centuries of systematic anti-black negativity. But, that is not a power people possess.

That is why when people respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” it grates. All Lives Matter may be one’s personal position, but until this country values all lives equally, it is both reasonable and indeed necessary to specify the lives it seems to value less.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

From time to time I am reminded of all that Europe lost. It can happen in the most unlikely places, in San Diego for example.

I was sitting the other day with a friend named Bonnie Richins. She told me that, as children, she and her sister were not allowed to wear striped clothes. They reminded her father, Kurt Lorig, of the pajama-like attire the Nazis forced him to wear in Auschwitz.

Kurt was born a German Jew. Unlike most of his family, he survived the Holocaust, became an American, settled in California and built a business in outdoor furniture. He always drove an American car. In the 1950s he would sometimes amuse himself by trying to force German-made Volkswagen Beetles off the road — or almost.

Shortly after he arrived in the United States, Kurt and his girlfriend eloped to Tijuana. The marriage lasted over 50 years. It was punctuated by a separation. During that time Bonnie’s sister, who was bipolar, died on an L.A. freeway. She had pulled over. Her car was still running. She had wandered into the road.

Like many survivors, Kurt did not speak of what had happened in Europe. What had happened was unspeakable. Auschwitz left no words. It overwhelmed the lexicon of the hitherto.

About 36.5 million Europeans died between 1939 and 1945 from war-related causes, over half of them civilians, some six million of them Jews targeted for extermination by the Third Reich and its accomplices from Vichy to Vilnius. As the late Tony Judt observed in “Postwar,” his magisterial history of Europe since 1945, “No other conflict in recorded history killed so many people in so short a time.”

This was the culmination of the 31-year European suicide that began in 1914. Europe lay in ruins. Millions of stunned refugees wandered among the charred vestiges of what had once been called European civilization. Borders were redrawn, whole populations moved like pawns on some diabolical chessboard, Germany cut in two and, at Yalta, Europe east of the Elbe ceded to Stalin’s totalitarian empire.

Europe had lost not only Kurt. It had lost almost everything. It had lost half itself. It had lost much of the mingling of which it was composed. In Germany at the end of the war, 21,450 of the country’s 600,000 Jews remained. This, for a long time, Europe chose not to recall in any detail. It had also lost its memory.

America, which had helped liberate Europe, inherited not only wounded young souls like Kurt who would live out their lives without ever quite being able to explain how they got to where they were. It had inherited the earth.

At this moment of European crisis, of European uncertainty, of potential European fracture, I always try to recall the road traveled since 1945. It is the least of considerations toward those 36.5 million dead of seven decades ago. It is the only way I know to assess the European achievement — the vast accumulation of interlinking accords the French call the European acquis — at its true value.

It also seems to me impossible to consider any of Europe’s current dilemmas — from the uses of German power, to Vladimir Putin’s new threat, to the fate of desperate refugees, to the survival of Europe’s common currency — without this reference point.

There is the euro. Then there is war and peace and that other kind of debt.

In “Reunion,” Fred Uhlman’s extraordinary novella exploring the Jewish loss of Germany, the teenage protagonist Hans Schwarz muses on his condition as Hitler rises to power: “All I knew then was that this was my country, my home, without a beginning and without an end, and that to be Jewish was fundamentally no more significant than to be born with dark hair and not with red. Foremost we were Swabians, then Germans and then Jews. How else could I feel?” His father, a doctor twice wounded in World War I, is convinced the rise of the Nazis “is a temporary illness.” The proud physician lambasts a Zionist who is trying to raise funds for a modern state of Israel: “Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish? How dare you insult the memory of twelve thousand Jews who died for our country? Für unsere Heimat?”

This book, with one of literature’s most shattering final sentences, is a reminder of the German Jewish devotion to the Heimat that was as fervent as it proved misplaced. Jews departed or went to their deaths. A few, like Kurt Lurig, came back from the camps.

In 2005, a decade after President Jacques Chirac broke a long taboo by acknowledging France’s role in the extermination of European Jews, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, then the French prime minister, declared on a visit to Israel that France was thereby “bound forever by the debt she has incurred.”

Germany’s debt to Europe can never be repaid. It is the real and deepest one.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

What did the men who would be president talk about during last week’s prime-time Republican debate? Well, there were 19 references to God, while the economy rated only 10 mentions. Republicans in Congress have voted dozens of times to repeal all or part of Obamacare, but the candidates only named President Obama’s signature policy nine times over the course of two hours. And energy, another erstwhile G.O.P. favorite, came up only four times.

Strange, isn’t it? The shared premise of everyone on the Republican side is that the Obama years have been a time of policy disaster on every front. Yet the candidates on that stage had almost nothing to say about any of the supposed disaster areas.

And there was a good reason they seemed so tongue-tied: Out there in the real world, none of the disasters their party predicted have actually come to pass. President Obama just keeps failing to fail. And that’s a big problem for the G.O.P. — even bigger than Donald Trump.

Start with health reform. Talk to right-wingers, and they will inevitably assert that it has been a disaster. But ask exactly what form this disaster has taken, and at best you get unverified anecdotes about rate hikes and declining quality.

Meanwhile, actual numbers show that the Affordable Care Act has sharply reduced the number of uninsured Americans — especially in blue states that have been willing to expand Medicaid — while costing substantially less than expected. The newly insured are, by and large, pleased with their coverage, and the law has clearly improved access to care.

Needless to say, right-wing think tanks are still cranking out “studies” purporting to show that health reform is a failure. But it’s a losing game, and judging from last week’s debate Republican politicians know it.

But what about side effects? Obamacare was supposed to be a job-killer — in fact, when Marco Rubio was asked how he would boost the economy, pretty much all he had to suggest was repealing health and financial reforms. But in the year and a half since Obamacare went fully into effect, the U.S. economy has added an average of 237,000 private-sector jobs per month. That’s pretty good. In fact, it’s better than anything we’ve seen since the 1990s.

Which brings us to the economy.

There was remarkably little economic discussion at the debate, although Jeb Bush is still boasting about his record in Florida — that is, his experience in presiding over a gigantic housing bubble, and providentially leaving office before the bubble burst. Why didn’t the other candidates say more? Probably because at this point the Obama economy doesn’t look too bad. Put it this way: if you compare unemployment rates over the course of the Obama administration with unemployment rates under Reagan, Mr. Obama ends up looking better – unemployment was higher when he took office, and it’s now lower than it was at this point under Reagan.

O.K., there are many reasons to qualify that assessment, notably the fact that measured unemployment is low in part because of a decline in the percentage of Americans in the labor force. Still, the Obama economy has utterly failed to deliver the disasters — hyperinflation! a plunging dollar! fiscal crisis! — that just about everyone on the right predicted. And this has evidently left the Republican presidential field with nothing much to say.

One last point: traditionally, Republicans love to talk about how liberals with their environmentalism and war on coal are standing in the way of America’s energy future. But there was only a bit of that last week — perhaps because domestic oil production has soared and oil imports have plunged since Mr. Obama took office.

What’s the common theme linking all the disasters that Republicans predicted, but which failed to materialize? If I had to summarize the G.O.P.’s attitude on domestic policy, it would be that no good deed goes unpunished. Try to help the unfortunate, support the economy in hard times, or limit pollution, and you will face the wrath of the invisible hand. The only way to thrive, the right insists, is to be nice to the rich and cruel to the poor, while letting corporations do as they please.

According to this worldview, a leader like President Obama who raises taxes on the 1 percent while subsidizing health care for lower-income families, who provides stimulus in a recession, who regulates banks and expands environmental protection, will surely preside over disaster in every direction.

But he hasn’t. I’m not saying that America is in great shape, because it isn’t. Economic recovery has come too slowly, and is still incomplete; Obamacare isn’t the system anyone would have designed from scratch; and we’re nowhere close to doing enough on climate change. But we’re doing far better than any of those guys in Cleveland will ever admit.

Blow, Cohen and Kristof

August 6, 2015

In “Darren Wilson’s Quest for Distance” Mr. Blow says Wilson must have made the calculation that a magazine profile would humanize and rehabilitate him in some way. He was wrong.  Mr. Cohen, in “Incurable American Excess,” says Europeans are hardwired to social protection, Americans to an individualism that rewards and ravages.  Mr. Kristof, in “Making Life Harder for Pimps,” says credit card companies have upended the business model of sex traffickers by eliminating a way they pay for advertising.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Leading up to the first anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — and the cultural convolutions that followed — The New Yorker has published an article including extensive interviews with Darren Wilson, the police officer who pulled the trigger.

A grand jury refused to indict Wilson in Brown’s death and the Justice Department cleared him of willfully violating Brown’s civil rights. (Brown’s family is now pursuing a civil suit against the city of Ferguson, the former police chief and Wilson.)

Still, the case remains a polarizing one, as some view it as an example of a needless escalation of hostility that too often leaves a person dead; others view Wilson as a hero and now also as a victim. (Wilson says in the interviews that he has been subject to death threats, can’t move freely without worry in his own community and can’t land another police job.)

The Justice Department issued two reports in the case. The one that cleared Wilson also contradicted some claims of vocal witnesses, claims that became central to the outrage that followed. It found that Brown was not shot in the back, and it deemed unreliable assertions that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was fatally shot.

But the second report, a comprehensive look at the Ferguson Police Department and courts, found widespread racial targeting of black citizens that permeated the system.

As Jake Halpern put it in The New Yorker article:

“Together, the two reports frustrated attempts to arrive at a clean moral conclusion. Wilson had violated no protocol in his deadly interaction with Brown, yet he was part of a corrupt and racist system.”

That is the backdrop against which Wilson’s comments in the article must stand.

Wilson and his attorneys must have made the calculation that a profile would humanize and rehabilitate him in some way, that the image that emerged of an isolated man being rebuffed by reticent police forces and barraged by threats would be empathetic and restorative. That effort, it seems to me, has backfired.

There is a calculated coldness, a willful obliviousness, a penchant for sweeping racial generalization that is unflattering, if not repugnant, in Wilson’s words.

Wilson admits that he hasn’t read the Justice Department report of systemic racism in Ferguson. (“I don’t have any desire,” he said. “I’m not going to keep living in the past about what Ferguson did. It’s out of my control.”) He also doesn’t seem to recognize or value Brown’s personhood. (“Do I think about who he was as a person? Not really, because it doesn’t matter at this point. Do I think he had the best upbringing? No. Not at all.”)

But to me, the most fascinating part of the interview was the portion where Wilson makes the false claim others often make: that the present is divorced from the past.

“People who experienced that, and were mistreated, have a legitimate claim,” he told me. “Other people don’t.” I asked him if he thought that young people in North County and elsewhere used this legacy as an excuse. “I think so,” he replied.

“I am really simple in the way that I look at life,” Wilson said. “What happened to my great-grandfather is not happening to me. I can’t base my actions off what happened to him.” Wilson said that police officers didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on the past. “We can’t fix in thirty minutes what happened thirty years ago,” he said. “We have to fix what’s happening now. That’s my job as a police officer. I’m not going to delve into people’s life-long history and figure out why they’re feeling a certain way, in a certain moment.” He added, “I’m not a psychologist.”

Ah, this is exactly why structural racism is so resilient: detachment. It requires a faith in individualism separate from systems and history, a faith in a lie. Both Wilson and Brown were operating in a cultural context informed by more than their own actions — it was born long before they were, it is ingrained, it is institutional, it is not only racially aware but racially conceived.

Nothing occurring in America can be divorced from America, the whole of America as it now exists and came to exist. Our present culture rests on historical context.

Yet this false detachment and distancing is what makes the predation of structural racism so perfect: It is an edifice without a single, maleficent architect or even a council thereof. It grows out of collective desire to perform a collective deed. It isn’t so much conscious brainchild as subliminal mind meld.

It is like the hive. No single bee need be aware of the hive’s entirety or its enormity. Just doing one seemingly innocuous task contributes to the whole. In fact, you needn’t participate at all to reap the benefits of the system.

It is as exquisite as it is insidious. It can also be deadly.

At another point, Wilson talks about the disproportionately black towns in what is called “North County” — where he chose to work, by the way, for career advancement reasons — as a kind of culturally degenerate morass. He is quoted as saying in the article of the citizens there: “They’re so wrapped up in a different culture than — what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”

Here is the exchange with the author that follows:

This sounded like racial code language. I pressed him: what did he mean by “a different culture”? Wilson struggled to respond. He said that he meant “pre-gang culture, where you are just running in the streets—not worried about working in the morning, just worried about your immediate gratification.” He added, “It is the same younger culture that is everywhere in the inner cities.”

Wilson speaks of these communities as riddled with pathology rather than ravaged by poverty and, again, as if history, design and systemic racial oppressions like the ones described in the second Justice Department report play no role.

The station from which we start in the world is not arbitrarily assigned by birth lottery but preordained by legacy. Our lives are built upon past lives, those of parents and ancestors. Our access and mobility are enabled or restricted by structures, both young and ancient. I maintain that there is valor in effort, that trying to overcome is indeed a form of overcoming, that holding fast to hope in a world that would strip one naked of it is itself a herculean effort and a moral victory.

Yet I refuse to allow my abiding self-determinism to blind me to systems designed and built on devaluation and destruction. I know as others do the frustration and fatigue of swimming against a current rather than being carried by it. There are realities that must not be ignored or minimized.

Wilson’s interview doesn’t make him appear more human. It reaffirms the degree to which the American mind can seek to divest others of humanity, and it lays bare how historical illiteracy and incuriousness creates the comfortable distance on which pernicious structural racism relies.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

A few years ago, Americans and Europeans were asked in a Pew Global Attitudes survey what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.” In the United States, 58 percent chose freedom and only 35 percent a state pledge to eradicate neediness. In Britain, the response was the opposite: 55 percent opted for state guarantees and just 38 percent for freedom. On the European Continent — in Germany, France and Spain — those considering state protection as more important than freedom from state interference rose to 62 percent.

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency. The French see the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights. Americans tend to see the state as a predator on those rights. The French ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.

To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.

In his intriguing new book, “The United States of Excess,” Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist, cites the 2011 Pew survey as he grapples with these divergent cultures. His focus is on American overconsumption of fuel and food. Why, he asks, is the United States an “outlier” in greenhouse gas emissions and obesity, and what, if anything, will it do about it? Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are about twice those of the other wealthy nations of the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. American obesity (just over a third of American adults are now obese) is running at about twice the European average and six times the Japanese.

Paarlberg argues persuasively that these American phenomena are linked. He finds their causes in demographic, cultural and political factors. A resource-rich, spacious nation, mistrustful of government authority, persuaded that responsibility is individual rather than collective, optimistic about the capacity of science and technology to resolve any problem, and living in a polarized political system paralyzed by its “multiple veto points,” tends toward “a scrambling form of adaptation” rather than “effective mitigation.”

Americans, in their majority, don’t want to increase taxes on fossil fuels or tax sugar-sweetened drinks because they see such measures as a regressive encroachment on individual freedoms — to drive an automobile and consume what you want. They won’t go the German route of promoting renewables like solar and wind power by guaranteeing higher fixed prices for those who generate it because higher electricity costs would result. Whether it comes to food or fuel, they don’t want measures where “voting-age adults are being coerced into a lifestyle change.”

Individualism trumps all — and innovation, it is somehow believed, will save the country from individualism’s ravages. Paarlberg notes that: “Americans eat alone while at work, alone while commuting to work in the car, alone at the food court while shopping, alone at home while watching TV, and alone in front of the refrigerator both before and after normal mealtime.”

But if all that eating continues to generate obesity — as it will — Americans tend to put their faith in “improved bariatric surgeries, and new blockbuster diet drugs” that “will be challenges welcomed by America’s innovative and responsive private market institutions.” Rather than cut back, they prefer to consume more — whether fuel or food — and then find ways to offset excess.

With the strong policy measures needed to control excess consumption — taxes, regulations and mandates — blocked, political leaders are “tempted to shift more resources and psychological energy toward the second-best path of adaptation,” Paarlberg writes: Easier, and potentially more profitable, to develop drought-resistant farm crops or improve coastal protection systems than tackle global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

His conclusions are pessimistic. The world should not expect America to change. Its response to overconsumption is inadequate. On global warming, the country adapts but does not confront, content “to protect itself, and itself alone.” On obesity, it shuns the kind of coordinated policy action that will help the less fortunate, particularly disadvantaged minorities.

The question, of course, is whether America’s virtues — its creative churn, vitality and energy — are intrinsic to these vices. My own pessimistic conclusion is that they probably are.

Last but not least we have Mr. Kristof:

In the long struggle against sex trafficking, we finally have a breakthrough!

It didn’t come from Congress, or the White House, from the courts or the police. Rather, it came from credit card companies: Pimps can no longer easily use American Express, Visa or MasterCard to pay for prostitution ads in which they sell 15-year-old girls as if they were pizzas.

That upended the business model of sex trafficking. Pimps all over the country are reduced to figuring out how to pay to promote their ads with, yes, Bitcoin!

Human trafficking is one of the most insidious human rights abuses in the United States — some 100,000 minors are trafficked into the sex trade each year in America. So let me explain how we came to enjoy a triumph over traffickers.

A website called Backpage.com has for years dominated the sex trade advertising business. In April alone it published more than 1.4 million ads in its adult services section in the United States. Almost every time a girl is rescued from traffickers, it turns out that she was peddled on Backpage.

Last year I wrote about a missing 15-year-old Boston girl whose parents were beside themselves with worry. In their living room, I pulled out my laptop, opened up Backpage and quickly found seminude advertisements for the girl, who turned out to be in a hotel room with an armed pimp.

Backpage is allowed to operate because of a loophole in the Communications Decency Act. Attorneys general from 48 states havepleaded with Backpage to stop this exploitation, to no effect. Girls who have been sold on Backpage when they were as young as 13 have sued the company, but haven’t succeeded because of the loophole.

Then suddenly this summer, the miracle of the market intervened.

Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill., wrote tough letters to Visa and MasterCard, calling on them to stop allowing their cards to pay for sex ads on Backpage. Both companies effectively agreed. To its great credit, American Express in April stopped working with Backpage for adult ads, so as of the beginning of July pimps had no easy way to pay for advertisements.

Flummoxed, Backpage responded by making its basic sex ads free, but, even with a fee to promote a free ad, that’s not a business model that can sustain it. Backpage is suing Sheriff Dart, but my sense is that pimps won’t be using their credit cards again on the site any time soon.

“If it’s down for six months, that’s six months of children who aren’t raped,” says Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

So bravo to American Express, MasterCard and Visa — and to Sheriff Dart — for getting results where Congress failed.

There will still be human trafficking, of course, and pimps will find other ways to peddle kids. But it may not be quite so easy for traffickers as it was.

“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike,” one girl told me late last year. She said she was advertised at the age of 15 and 16 and raped 1,000 times as a result.

My guess is that a majority of sex ads on Backpage are for consenting adults. But a significant minority are for sex with children or with women who are coerced — representing some of the largest and most mistreated classes of human rights victims in America. We don’t have the moral authority to tell other countries to end modern forms of slavery when we don’t clean up our own act.

There has also been progress in other areas. The police in America are going after pimps more, and sometimes johns, as well (that still needs to happen more).

The Nordic model to combat trafficking and exploitation, pioneered in Sweden, has been gaining ground, too. It provides for the arrest of johns while offering help rebuilding the lives of women who were selling sex. Nothing works all that well in curbing sex trafficking, but this model has succeeded better than other approaches.

Yet in some quarters, there’s still a myopia about the degree to which this is a human rights issue. Amnesty International will consider a proposal in the coming days that would call for full decriminalization of the sex trade, including for johns, on the theory that this would benefit sex workers. Nice theory, but a failed one. It has been tried repeatedly and it invariably benefited johns while exacerbating abuse of women and girls: A parallel underground market emerges for underage girls.

Let’s hope Amnesty comes to its senses and, as Swanee Hunt of Harvard put it, avoids “endorsing one of the most exploitative human rights abuses of our time.” Then we can go back to celebrating the struggles of America’s sex traffickers as their business model is upended.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

August 4, 2015

Bobo, in “Donald Trump’s Allure: Ego as Ideology,” carefully explains to us that Mr. Trump’s appeal fits today’s core political undercurrents: alienation, economic uncertainty and a craving for extremely confident leadership.  All the comments are wonderful, but here’s “Sally” from Switzerland:  “Donald Trump merely proves that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Why be surprised, the Republicans have been courting them long enough, and now there are so many of them that they direct the show.”  Mr. Cohen says “The Migrant Crisis in Calais Exposes a Europe Without Ideas.”  He says piecemeal small-mindedness, in 28 national iterations, has been the name of the game.  In “Obama’s Flexible Fix to Climate Change” Mr. Nocera says the president takes a successful 1990 approach to a 2015 environmental problem.  Now here’s Bobo:

When America is growing and happy, the country is sort of like a sprinter’s track. As Robert H. Wiebe put it in his classic book “The Segmented Society,” when things were going well the diverse country comprised “countless isolated lanes where Americans, singly or in groups, dashed like rows of racers toward their goals.”

In times of scarcity and alienation, it’s more like bumper cars. Different groups feel their lanes are blocked, so they start crashing into one another. The cultural elites start feuding with the financial elites. The lower middle class starts feuding with the poor.

A few decades ago the sociologist Jonathan Rieder studied what was then the white working-class neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn. People there were hostile both to their poorer black neighbors, who they felt threatened their community, and to the Manhattan elites, who they felt sold them out from above.

We are now living in a time of economic anxiety and political alienation. Just three in 10 Americans believe that their views are represented in Washington, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Confidence in public institutions like schools, banks and churches is near historic lows, according to Gallup. Only 29 percent of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to Rasmussen.

This climate makes it hard for the establishment candidates who normally dominate our politics. Jeb Bush is swimming upstream. Hillary Clinton may win through sheer determination, but she’s not a natural fit for this moment. A career establishment figure like Joe Biden doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a wonderful man and a great public servant, but he should not run for president this year, for the sake of his long-term reputation.

On the other hand, bumper-car politicians thrive. Bernie Sanders is swimming with the tide. He’s a conviction politician comfortable with class conflict. Many people on the left have a generalized, vague hunger for fundamental systemic change or at least the atmospherics of radical change.

The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.

Trump’s populism is pretty standard. He appeals to people who, as Walter Lippmann once put it, “feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row. … He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. … [But] these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. … In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern.”

When Trump is striking populist chords, he appeals to people who experience this invisibility. He appeals to members of the alienated middle class (like those folks in Canarsie) who believe that neither the rich nor the poor have to play by the same rules they do. He appeals to people who are resentful of immigrants who get what they, allegedly, don’t deserve.

But Trump’s support base is weird. It skews slightly more secular and less educated than the average Republican, but he doesn’t draw from any distinctive blocs. Unlike past populisms he’s not especially rural or urban, ethnic based or class based. He draws people as individuals, not groups.

Cohen and Kristof

July 30, 2015

In “One Congressman’s Iran” Mr. Cohen says a Jewish representative digs deep into the Iran deal and rightly concludes that it should be supported.  Mr. Kristof, in “Why the Naysayers Are Wrong About the Iran Deal,” says sure, the agreement is flawed, but it would make us safer.  First up we have Mr. Cohen:

Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan and the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, said something important this week: “In my view, the only anchors in public life are to dig deeply into the facts and consult broadly and then to say what you believe.”

His words were important for two reasons. First, they defied a prevalent political culture of ignoring inconvenient facts, consulting narrowly if at all, and never saying what you believe when it’s not what your constituency wants to hear. Second, his statement concerned Iran, an issue where fact-based reasoning on Capitol Hill and beyond tends to take second place to preposterous posturing — as per Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s statement that the nuclear deal with Tehran would march Israelis “to the door of the oven.”

Levin’s reflection led him to the sober, accurate conclusion that the agreement is “the best way to achieve” the goal of preventing Iran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon, an outcome that will make Israel, the Middle East and the world “far more secure.” Not the ideal way, the perfect way, or a foolproof way, but, in the real world of ineradicable Iranian nuclear know-how, the best way attainable. That is also the view of other parties to the deal — the not insignificant or unserious powers of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

Why? Levin, a longtime friend of Israel, was thorough. Because the accord, if fully implemented, slashes Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 97 percent, prevents enrichment above 3.67 percent (a long way from bomb grade) for 15 years, intensifies international inspections exponentially, holds Iran at least a year from having enough material to produce a weapon (as opposed to the current two months), cuts off a plutonium route to a bomb, preserves all American options in combating Iranian support for Hezbollah, and is far better than an alternative scenario where international sanctions would fray and “support from even our best allies if we move to the military option would be less likely.”

Congress was given 60 days to review the deal. Sentiment is generally shoot-from-the-hip hostile. A resolution of disapproval that would be vetoed by President Obama is likely; the president probably has enough support to resist an override of his veto. But before following such an unsatisfactory path to assumption of a historic accord, members of Congress, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the normally outspoken New York Democrat who has discovered his inner reserve on this matter, should do their own version of Levin’s deep-dig questioning. They should also peruse a letter from five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel — including Thomas Pickering — and from former senior officials — including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns — that urges both chambers not to reject a deal without which “the risks will be much higher for the United States and Israel.”

Yes, the risks will be far greater. There is huge, if uncertain, upside potential to the establishment of an American relationship with Iran through this agreement. The downside potential in its absence is as great — and includes war.

It is intriguing that, along with Israel and Republican members of Congress, the most vociferous criticism of the deal has come from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have had it with what they see as American fecklessness. They have been convinced since the Iraq invasion that the United States is pro-Shia (read pro-Iran). They are so persuaded of Iran’s anti-Sunni imperial designs that they have embarked on an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen with the purported aim of stopping the Houthis, seen as Iranian proxies.

Now the Saudis are American allies. Iran is, and will for the foreseeable future remain, a hostile power. But what have our “allies” done for the United States of late? Promoted, through madrasas and other means, the conservative Wahhabi Islam whose fierce anti-Western teachings provided the context for the emergence of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and, most recently, Islamic State. Manipulated oil prices, most recently down, in order to undermine America’s liberating energy revolution through an attempt to make shale oil uncompetitive. Shunned Obama’s attempts to reassure Sunni monarchies that the Iran deal will not mean diminished support — and all this, of course, from the country that furnished the manpower for 9/11.

The Saudis are in lockstep with Israel on hostility to the Iran deal but are no friends of Israel. Their goal, despite America’s dwindling dependence on the kingdom for oil, is to preserve a Middle Eastern status quo that limits American strategic options — including the possibility that Iran and the United States might find common cause in combating Islamic State or, years from now, re-establish diplomatic relations.

Any deep dig into the facts, of Levin’s courageous kind, cannot escape the question of whether a deal with an enemy, Iran, so fiercely opposed by this particular ally, Saudi Arabia, might not, over time, change the Middle Eastern equation in ways favorable to the American national interest.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Mike Huckabee says President Obama is using his nuclear deal to “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Mitt Romney describes it as a “generational calamity.” And while polls diverge, one recently taken by CNN suggests the public wants Congress to reject the agreement by a 52 percent to 44 percent majority.

This is one of the pivotal foreign policy decisions of the decade, so let’s examine the arguments:

Obama didn’t deliver what he promised. For example, we wanted “anywhere, anytime” inspections, but we caved and got a complex system that allows Iran to delay inspections. And in the later years of the agreement, Iran won a significant easing of controls. As Jeb Bush put it: “These negotiations began, by President Obama’s own admission, as an effort to deny Iran nuclear capabilities, but instead will only legitimize those activities.”

The U.S. didn’t get all it wanted (and neither did Iran) in an imperfect compromise. True, we didn’t achieve anywhere, anytime inspections, yet the required inspections program is still among the most intrusive ever. Remember too that this deal isn’t just about centrifuges but also about the possibility that Iran will come out of the cold and emerge from its failed 36-year experiment with extremism. That’s why Iran’s hard-liners are so opposed to the deal; they have been sustained by the narrative of the Great Satan as the endless enemy, and conciliation endangers them.

You doves think that a nuclear deal will empower reformers in Iran and turn it once more into the pro-American and pro-Israeli power it was under the shah. But sanctions relief may just give this regime a new lease on life.

Iran’s people are perhaps the most pro-American and secular of those of any country I’ve been to in the Middle East. (On my last trip to Iran, I took two of my kids along, and Iranians bought them meals and ice cream, and served them illegal mojitos.) The public weariness with the regime’s corruption, oppression and economic failings is manifest. I would guess that after the supreme leader dies, Iran will begin a process of change like that in China after Mao died.

That’s speculative. The real impact of the deal is that it will unlock tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets and new oil revenues, giving Iranian hard-liners more resources to invest in nuclear skulduggery and in extremist groups.

True, but that will happen anyway. Remember that this agreement includes Europe, Russia and China as parties. Even if Congress rejects the agreement, sanctions will erode and Iran will get an infusion of cash.

This agreement is a betrayal of Israel. Once Iran gets its hands on W.M.D.s, it will commit genocide.

Iran is widely believed to have developed biological and chemical weaponsback in the 1980s, and it hasn’t used those weapons of mass destruction against Israel. And what American officials find awkward to point out is that Israel is already a significant nuclear power with a huge military edge, which is why it has deterred Iran so far. If I lived in Tel Aviv, would I be nervous? Sure. But I’d be even more nervous without this deal, which reduces the chance that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon in the next decade. That’s why five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel endorsed the accord. (It’s also notable that American Jews are more in favor of the agreement than the American public as a whole.)

Obama pretends that the alternative to this deal is war. No, the alternative is increased economic pressure until Iran yelps for surrender.As Marco Rubio puts it, “Give Iran a very clear choice: You can have an economy or you can have a weapons program.”

So we apply the same economic pressure that caused the collapse of the Castro regime in Cuba in 1964? The same isolation that overthrew the North Korean regime in 1993? The same sanctions that led Saddam Hussein to give up power peacefully in Iraq in 2000? Oh, wait.…

Look, even you admit that this is a flawed deal. So why risk it? As Rick Perry says, “No deal is better and safer than a bad deal.”

If the U.S. rejects this landmark deal, then we get the worst of both worlds: an erosion of sanctions and also an immediate revival of the Iran nuclear program.

We have a glimpse of what might happen. In 2003, Iran seemingly offered a comprehensive “grand bargain” to resolve relations with the United States, but George W. Bush’s administration dismissed it. Since then, Iran has gone from a tiny number of centrifuges to 19,000, getting within two months of “breakout” to a nuclear weapon. The point: Fulmination is not a substitute for policy, and a multilateral international agreement achieves far more protection than finger-wagging.

Diplomacy is rarely about optimal outcomes; it is about muddling along in the dark, dodging bullets, struggling to defer war and catastrophe for the time being, nurturing opportunities for a better tomorrow. By that standard, the Iran deal succeeds. Sure, it is flawed, and yes, it makes us safer.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 24, 2015

It’s too sweet for words.  Bobo is considering “The Minimum Wage Muddle.”  He babbles that mandates for better pay will certainly help some people, but hurt some, too.  The most terse comment came in the form of a question from “Ian MacFarlane” from Philadelphia:  “Could you, Mr, Brooks, live on the minimum wage?”  I’d pay good money to watch him try for a month…  In “Algeria’s Invisible Arab” Mr. Cohen says conflict is illuminated as the nameless murder victim of Camus’s “The Stranger” becomes a human being in a new novel.  In “The M.I.T. Crowd” Prof. Krugman says M.I.T.-trained economists have gained dominance in policy positions and policy discourse.  Here’s Bobo:

Once upon a time there was a near consensus among economists that raising the minimum wage was a bad idea. The market is really good at setting prices on things, whether it is apples or labor. If you raise the price on a worker, employers will hire fewer and you’ll end up hurting the people you meant to help.

Then in 1993 the economists David Card and Alan Krueger looked at fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and found that raising the minimum wage gave people more income without hurting employment. A series of studies in Britain buttressed these findings.

Today, raising the minimum wage is the central piece of the progressive economic agenda. President Obama and Hillary Clinton champion it. Cities and states across the country have been moving to raise minimum wages to as high as $15 an hour — including New York State just this week.

Some of my Democratic friends are arguing that forcing businesses to raise their minimum wage will not only help low-wage workers; it will actually boost profits, because companies will better retain workers. Some economists have reported that there is no longer any evidence that raising wages will cost jobs.

Unfortunately, that last claim is inaccurate. There are in fact many studies on each side of the issue. David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine and William Wascher of the Federal Reserve have done their own studies and point to dozens of others showing significant job losses.

Recently, Michael Wither and Jeffrey Clemens of the University of California, San Diego looked at data from the 2007 federal minimum-wage hike and found that it reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage points (which is actually a lot), and led to a six percentage point decrease in the likelihood that a low-wage worker would have a job.

Because low-wage workers get less work experience under a higher minimum-wage regime, they are less likely to transition to higher-wage jobs down the road. Wither and Clemens found that two years later, workers’ chances of making $1,500 a month was reduced by five percentage points.

Many economists have pointed out that as a poverty-fighting measure the minimum wage is horribly targeted. A 2010 study by Joseph Sabia and Richard Burkhauser found that only 11.3 percent of workers who would benefit from raising the wage to $9.50 an hour would come from poor households. An earlier study by Sabia found that single mothers’ employment dropped 6 percent for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage.

A study by Thomas MaCurdy of Stanford built on the fact that there are as many individuals in high-income families making the minimum wage (teenagers) as in low-income families. MaCurdy found that the costs of raising the wage are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Minimum-wage workers often work at places that disproportionately serve people down the income scale. So raising the minimum wage is like a regressive consumption tax paid for by the poor to subsidize the wages of workers who are often middle class.

What we have, in sum, is a very complicated situation. If we do raise the minimum wage a lot of people will clearly benefit and a lot of people will clearly be hurt. The most objective and broadest bits of evidence provoke ambivalence. One survey of economists by the University of Chicago found that 59 percent believed that a rise to $9 an hour would make it “noticeably harder” for poor people to find work. But a slight majority also thought the hike would be worthwhile for those in jobs. A study by the Congressional Budget Office found that a hike to $10.10 might lift 900,000 out of poverty but cost roughly 500,000 jobs.

My own guess is the economists will never be able to give us a dispositive answer about who is hurt or helped. Economists have their biases and reality is too granular. It depends on what region a worker is in, whether a particular job can be easily done by a machine, what the mind-set of his or her employer is.

The best reasonable guess is that a gradual hike in high-cost cities like Seattle or New York will probably not produce massive dislocation. But raising the wage to $15 in rural New York will cause large disruptions and job losses.

The key intellectual upshot is that, despite what some people want you to believe, the laws of economic gravity have not been suspended. You can’t impose costs on some without trade-offs for others. You can’t intervene in the market without unintended consequences. And here’s a haunting fact that seems to make sense: Raising the minimum wage will produce winners among job holders from all backgrounds, but it will disproportionately punish those with the lowest skills, who are least likely to be able to justify higher employment costs.

Which will surely be proved out as NYC raises the minimum wage for fast food workers…  As if Bobo gave a crap about such peons.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

At the core of any conflict lies invisibility. The enemy cannot be seen, at least not if seeing betokens the start of understanding. The other is there, a menacing and ineffaceable presence, but is invisible in his or her human dimensions.

Demonization blocks any glimmer of shared humanity or sympathy. Only when the nameless foe becomes a man or a woman confronted with the puzzle of life does the path to understanding begin to open. No gun was turned to plowshare without some form, however tentative, of mutual recognition.

This question of invisibility is the starting point of Kamel Daoud’s remarkable first novel, “The Meursault Investigation.” His core idea is of startling ingenuity. Daoud, an Algerian journalist, takes Albert Camus’s classic novel, “The Stranger” — or more precisely the “majestically nonchalant” murder of an Arab at the heart of it — and turns that Arab into a human being rather than the voiceless, characterless, nameless object of a “philosophical crime” by a Frenchman called Meursault on an Algiers beach 20 years before the culmination of Algeria’s brutal war of independence.

By inverting the perspective, and turning the anonymous Arab into a young man named Musa Uld el-Assas rather than someone “replaceable by a thousand others of his kind, or by a crow, even,” Daoud shifts the focus from the absurdity of Meursault’s act in the giddying sunlight to the blindness of the colonial mind-set.

The issue is no longer Meursault’s devastating honesty about the human condition — he does not love, he does not pretend, he does not believe in God, he does not mourn his dead mother, he does not judge, he does not repress desire, he does not regret anything, he does not hide from life’s farce or shrink from death’s finality — but the blood he has spattered on the sand with five gunshots into young Musa.

Daoud’s device is to treat the fictional murder committed by Meursault in 1942 as a real event and create a narrator named Harun who is the younger brother of the dead Musa, a flailing chronicler of irreparable loss. Harun cannot get over how Musa has been blotted out: “My brother’s name was Musa. He had a name. But he’ll remain ‘the Arab’ forever.” He was “capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance.” Daoud writes that the French “watched us — us Arabs — in silence, as if we were nothing but stones or dead trees.”

Musa is invisible even in death. If he had been named, Harun reflects, perhaps their mother would have received a pension. Perhaps life would not have consisted of an unrequited attempt to find the body, locate the murderer, understand the crime — even avenge it somehow.

The Arabs are sullen. They wait. Harun’s reflection on the demise of French Algeria is devastating: “I didn’t even fight in the War of Liberation. I knew it was won in advance, from the moment when a member of my family was killed because somebody felt lethargic from too much sun.”

At the moment of liberation, or just after it, Harun kills a Frenchman, Joseph Larquais: “The Frenchman had been erased with the same meticulousness applied to the Arab on the beach twenty years earlier.” But this reciprocal murder, committed without conviction in the blinding night rather than the blinding heat, brings no real respite — from the fury Harun feels toward his relentless mother who wants him to be his lost brother, or from the quandary of the Algerian condition.

Independence will only bring disappointment. Algeria drifts toward the suffocating stranglehold of religion that Daoud, like Camus, deplores. Vineyards are uprooted because of Islam’s strictures. Harun laments that his one ephemeral love, Meriem, embodies a woman who has “disappeared in this country today: free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame.” His words recall Meursault’s dismissal of all the priest’s entreaties before his execution: “None of his certainties was worth one hair on the head of the woman I loved.”

Religion, for Daoud’s hero, is “public transportation I never use.” Who is God to give lessons? After all, “I alone pay the electric bills, I alone will be eaten by worms in the end. So get lost!”

Of course, an imam from a Salafist group has issued a fatwa for Daoud to be put to death. The author, in turn, has called the absence of alternatives to Islamism “the philosophical disaster of the Arab world.” Much more such honesty is needed.

Daoud’s novel has sometimes been portrayed as a rebuke to the pied-noir Frenchman Camus. But there is more that binds their protagonists than separates them — a shared loathing of hypocrisy, shallowness, simplification and falsification. Each, from his different perspective, renders the world visible — the only path to understanding for Arab and Jew, for American and Iranian, for all the world’s “strangers” unseen by each other.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Goodbye, Chicago boys. Hello, M.I.T. gang.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the term “Chicago boys” was originally used to refer to Latin American economists, trained at the University of Chicago, who took radical free-market ideology back to their home countries. The influence of these economists was part of a broader phenomenon: The 1970s and 1980s were an era of ascendancy for laissez-faire economic ideas and the Chicago school, which promoted those ideas.

But that was a long time ago. Now a different school is in the ascendant, and deservedly so.

It’s actually surprising how little media attention has been given to the dominance of M.I.T.-trained economists in policy positions and policy discourse. But it’s quite remarkable. Ben Bernanke has an M.I.T. Ph.D.; so do Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, and Olivier Blanchard, the enormously influential chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Blanchard is retiring, but his replacement, Maurice Obstfeld, is another M.I.T. guy — and another student of Stanley Fischer, who taught at M.I.T. for many years and is now the Fed’s vice chairman.

These are just the most prominent examples. M.I.T.-trained economists, especially Ph.D.s from the 1970s, play an outsized role at policy institutions and in policy discussion across the Western world. And yes, I’m part of the same gang.

So what distinguishes M.I.T. economics, and why does it matter? To answer that question, you need to go back to the 1970s, when all the people I’ve just named went to graduate school.

At the time, the big issue was the combination of high unemployment with high inflation. The coming of stagflation was a big win for Milton Friedman, who had predicted exactly that outcome if the government tried to keep unemployment too low for too long; it was widely seen, rightly or (mostly) wrongly, as proof that markets get it right and the government should just stay out of the way.

Or to put it another way, many economists responded to stagflation by turning their backs on Keynesian economics and its call for government action to fight recessions.

At M.I.T., however, Keynes never went away. To be sure, stagflation showed that there were limits to what policy can do. But students continued to learn about the imperfections of markets and the role that monetary and fiscal policy can play in boosting a depressed economy.

And the M.I.T. students of the 1970s enlarged on those insights in their later work. Mr. Blanchard, for example, showed how small deviations from perfect rationality can have large economic consequences; Mr. Obstfeld showed that currency markets can sometimes experience self-fulfilling panic.

This open-minded, pragmatic approach was overwhelmingly vindicated after crisis struck in 2008. Chicago-school types warned incessantly that responding to the crisis by printing money and running deficits would lead to 70s-type stagflation, with soaring inflation and interest rates. But M.I.T. types predicted, correctly, that inflation and interest rates would stay low in a depressed economy, and that attempts to slash deficits too soon would deepen the slump.

The truth, although nobody will believe it, is that the economic analysis some of us learned at M.I.T. way back when has worked very, very well for the past seven years.

But has the intellectual success of M.I.T. economics led to comparable policy success? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

True, there have been some important monetary successes. The Fed, led by Mr. Bernanke, ignored right-wing pressure and threats — Rick Perry, as governor of Texas, went so far as to accuse him of treason — and pursued an aggressively expansionary policy that helped limit the damage from the financial crisis. In Europe, Mr. Draghi’s activism has been crucial to calming financial markets, probably saving the euro from collapse.

On other fronts, however, the M.I.T. gang’s good advice has been ignored. The I.M.F.’s research department, under Mr. Blanchard’s leadership, has done authoritative work on the effects of fiscal policy, demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that slashing spending in a depressed economy is a terrible mistake, and that attempts to reduce high levels of debt via austerity are self-defeating. But European politicians have slashed spending and demanded crippling austerity from debtors anyway.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Republicans have responded to the utter failure of free-market orthodoxy and the remarkably successful predictions of much-hated Keynesians by digging in even deeper, determined to learn nothing from experience.

In other words, being right isn’t necessarily enough to change the world. But it’s still better to be right than to be wrong, and M.I.T.-style economics, with its pragmatic openness to evidence, has been very right indeed.


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