Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Politics is broken today because those sorts of leaders have been replaced by highly polarizing, base-mobilizing politicians who hew to party orthodoxy, ignore the 38 percent of voters who identify as moderates and exacerbate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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus does the cart come before the horse.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

June 1, 2015

In “Surviving Child Sexual Abuse” Mr. Blow says we need to understand the nature of such acts and help the survivors, and not use the issue for political points.  Mr. Cohen has a question in “Wellness Trumps Politics:”  What is Rosa Luxemburg to Sunday lovers? He says the political century has given way to the personal century.  Prof. Krugman, in “That 1914 Feeling,” says despite good intentions on both sides, it is not certain that a deal will be reached between Greece and its creditors.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last month came the news that Josh Duggar, now-former executive director of the Family Research Council’s lobbying arm and eldest son on the TLC reality show “19 Kids and Counting,” had apologized and said he had “acted inexcusably.” As In Touch Weekly magazine put it: “Josh Duggar was investigated for multiple sex offenses — including forcible fondling — against five minors. Some of the alleged offenses investigated were felonies.” Those minors apparently included his sisters. Duggar was around 14 years old when the reported assaults took place.

Last week, The New York Times reported that “J. Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, was paying a man to not say publicly that Mr. Hastert had sexually abused him decades ago, according to two people briefed on the evidence uncovered in an F.B.I. investigation into the payments.”

The F.B.I. announced their indictment of Hastert on Thursday, and The Times reported: “The indictment said that in 2010, the man met with Mr. Hastert several times, and that at one of those meetings Mr. Hastert agreed to pay him $3.5 million ‘in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against’ the man.”

There were quick and clamorous reactions on social media and some mainstream media about the irony and even hypocrisy of these conservative icons being caught in unseemly, counter-their-apparent-convictions circumstances.

I understand this impulse. The contradiction is newsworthy. That dissimulation must be called out. But we shouldn’t stray far from focusing on, extending help to, and seeking to be sensitive to the survivors and using these cases educationally to better protect other children.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I can say with some authority that no one should take an ounce of joy in these revelations and accusations. This is not a political issue, even if people — including abusers themselves — have hypocritically used it as one.

This is not the time for giddiness or gloating. Child sexual abuse is tragic and traumatic for its survivors — and that is where the bulk of the focus should always be.

When a child is sexually abused, it breaks bonds of trust. It is a violation of the sovereignty of the self and one’s zone of physical intimacy. It is an action of developmental exploitation. It is a spiritual act of violence that attacks not only the body but also the mind.

It can take decades, or even a lifetime, to recover if recovery is even emotionally available for the survivor.

Indeed, precise statistics on just how large the universe of survivors is are not easy to come by, because many survivors never tell a soul about the abuse. And, if they never tell, obviously they are not at a place where they feel comfortable seeking professional help to deal with it. This only compounds the tragedy. Furthermore, the nature of the abuse, the duration of it, the circumstances around it and the child’s relationship to the abusers can all impact how the child processes the abuse and his or her ability to move beyond it.

All of this means that we have to better understand the very nature of abuse.

It is often an adult in authority — an adult family member, a teacher, a coach, a spiritual leader — but often it isn’t.

As a 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics report makes clear, although 14 is the single age with the most childhood sex abuse victims reported to law enforcement, it is also the age with the most abuse offenders.

According to the report: “The detailed age profile of offenders in sexual assault crimes shows that the single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14.”

Furthermore, “more than half of all juvenile victims were under age 12” and of that group “4-year-olds were at greatest risk of being the victim of a sexual assault.”

And timing is critical. For very young victims, assaults spike around traditional mealtimes and 3 p.m., just after school.

Also, the greatest number of serious sexual assault charges were for “forcible fondling in 45 percent of all sexual assaults reported to law enforcement.” Forcible rape came in second at 42 percent.

Lastly, while most sexual assaults occur in a home, “Young victims were generally more likely to be victimized in a residence than were older victims.”

Overall, childhood sexual abuse is a crime of access. An abuser needs access to the child, often without suspicion, to conduct the assault with the hope of not being caught.

Once we soberly assess the contours of childhood sexual assaults we can better understand the need for early conversations with children about body safety and ensuring that they have safe spaces in which to express themselves.

And, we can see these two recent cases as more than just political point scorers, but much more importantly as educational and cautionary tales that we can use to protect more children.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Berlin:

The German capital on a sunny Sunday afternoon is about as laid-back a place as may be imagined. Couples lounge in the grass beside the Landwehr Canal in the Tiergarten, jugglers perform, kids on bikes in bright helmets zigzag through the throng.

The city, it seems, has not a care in the world.

Just back from the water there is a small memorial to Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist revolutionary murdered in 1919 by rightist paramilitaries. Her body was tossed in the canal. The murder presaged two decades in which Germany would be the crucible of a fierce struggle between left and right, Marxism and Fascism.

Across Europe, opposing ideas vied for the minds of the masses tugged into cities by industrialization, radicalized by the devastation of war, polarized by the Bolshevik revolution in Moscow. Politics was the battleground of capital and labor, industry and the proletariat. Rightist revanchists confronted Marxists bent on wresting control of the means of production. The Weimar Republic, aptly described by the novelist Alfred Döblin as a political set-up lacking “proper instructions for use,” was never free of political violence. Out of it, in 1933, came Hitler and his marauding SA Brownshirts. It did not take them long to trash every independent institution and turn Germany into a lawless dictatorship.

The Nazis’ first business was with the left — socialists and communists who, unlike Luxemburg, had survived. The first concentration camps, like Dachau, were filled with them. The battle of ideas had to be settled, the left extinguished. The Jewish question could be resolved later, even if Jewish leftists (or “Judeo-Bolsheviks” as the Nazis called them) were immediately the object of particular vitriol and violence, the fodder on which the SS prepared for the greater savagery to come.

All this was not so many decades ago. Yet sometimes you have to pinch yourself to be reminded that politics was the business of the 20th century and Berlin the epicenter of an ideological struggle that involved two world wars and the prolonged division of Europe. What, you may ask, is Rosa Luxemburg to Sunday lovers? And what does politics amount to today?

Most Westerners today are no longer driven by politics. By that I mean that they are no longer possessed by political ideas that they feel can change society. There is no great clash of ideologies. Politics in the 21st century has largely lost its capacity to inspire, or if there is a gust of inspiration (as with early Barack Obama) it proves illusory.

People are focused on other matters: personal health, spiritual health, wellness, diet, living longer, and the vast related matter of the health of the planet. Zen, yoga and the soul have trumped the means of production. Of course, wellness in turn raises the issues of climate change and energy consumption, questions that have considerable political content but are not political at their core. The political century has given way to the personal century.

That is one reason why the 20th century already seems so distant, why the Berlin of then and the Berlin of now appear almost unrelated and stumbling on a memorial in the Tiergarten so strange. The last century’s great battles no longer resonate. They bear little relation to people’s harried lives. They are almost quaint.

Technology has built links everywhere, binding humanity as never before, but it has also fragmented people into the solipsistic, magnetic world of their hand-held devices. These devices can be political tools that gather protest movements from Rio to Istanbul, but the movements tend to prove weak because leaderless. The devices are also numbing, isolating and depoliticizing in their idolization of self.

There are, of course, political stirrings in Europe. The political center, and the area just to the left and just to the right of it, seem dead, one reason for the rise of leftist parties like Syriza in Greece, rightist parties like the National Front in France, anti-immigrant nationalists from Sweden to the Netherlands, and big protest movements against the political establishment (of any stripe) like Podemos in Spain. At the heart of all this, it seems, is a sense that something fundamental is amiss in the economies of Western societies.

I said the personal has trumped politics in the 21st century. But of course the link between personal wellness and planetary health is not just about climate change or clean energy. It is also about how the planet’s limited resources are divided up. That division is heavily, and increasingly, skewed toward the very rich. When too much is concentrated in too few hands, a reaction begins. The success of Podemos, or in a small way of the left-wing message of Bernie Sanders in Iowa, is a reflection of this.

Politics is not dead, but it’s dormant, and Berlin remains a useful reminder of how virulent political ideology can be in a climate of social unrest.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

U.S. officials are generally cautious about intervening in European policy debates. The European Union is, after all, an economic superpower in its own right — far too big and rich for America to have much direct influence — led by sophisticated people who should be able to manage their own affairs. So it’s startling to learn that Jacob Lew, the Treasury secretary, recently warned Europeans that they had better settle the Greek situation soon, lest there be a destructive “accident.”

But I understand why Mr. Lew said what he did. A forced Greek exit from the euro would create huge economic and political risks, yet Europe seems to be sleepwalking toward that outcome. So Mr. Lew was doing his best to deliver a wake-up call.

And yes, the allusion to Christopher Clark’s recent magisterial book on the origins of World War I, “The Sleepwalkers,” is deliberate. There’s a definite 1914 feeling to what’s happening, a sense that pride, annoyance, and sheer miscalculation are leading Europe off a cliff it could and should have avoided.

The thing is, it’s pretty clear what the substance of a deal between Greece and its creditors would involve. Greece simply isn’t going to get a net inflow of money.

At most, it will be able to borrow back part of the interest on its existing debt. On the other hand, Greece can’t and won’t pay all of the interest coming due, let alone pay back its debt, because that would require a crippling new round of austerity that would inflict severe economic damage and would be politically impossible in any case.

So we know what the outcome of a successful negotiation would be: Greece would be obliged to run a positive but small “primary surplus,” that is, an excess of revenue over spending not including interest. Everything else should be about framing and packaging. What will be the mix between interest rate cuts, reductions in the face value of debt, and rescheduling of payments? To what extent will Greece lay out its spending plans now, as opposed to agreeing on overall targets and filling in the details later?

These aren’t trivial questions, but they’re second-order, and shouldn’t get in the way of the big stuff.

Meanwhile, the alternative — basically Greece running out of euros, and being forced to reintroduce its own currency amid a banking crisis — is something everyone should want to avoid. Yet negotiations are by all accounts going badly, and there’s a very real possibility that the worst will, in fact, happen.

Why can’t the players here reach a mutually beneficial deal? Part of the answer is mutual distrust. Greeks feel, with justification, that for years their nation has been treated like a conquered province, ruled by callous and incompetent proconsuls; if you want to see why, look both at the incredible severity of the austerity program the country has been forced to impose and the utter failure of that program to deliver the promised results. Meanwhile, the institutions on the other side consider the Greeks unreliable and irresponsible; some of this, I think, reflects the inexperience of the coalition of outsiders that took power thanks to austerity’s failure, but it’s also easy to see why, given Greece’s track record, it’s hard to trust promises of reform.

Yet there seems to be more to it than lack of trust. Some major players seem strangely fatalistic, willing and even anxious to get on with the catastrophe – a sort of modern version of the “spirit of 1914,” in which many people were enthusiastic about the prospect of war. These players have convinced themselves that the rest of Europe can shrug off a Greek exit from the euro, and that such an exit might even have a salutary effect by showing the price of bad behavior.

But they are making a terrible mistake. Even in the short run, the financial safeguards that would supposedly contain the effects of a Greek exit have never been tested, and could well fail. Beyond that, Greece is, like it or not, part of the European Union, and its troubles would surely spill over to the rest of the union even if the financial bulwarks hold.

Finally, the Greeks aren’t the only Europeans to have been radicalized by policy failure. In Spain, for example, the anti-austerity party Podemos has just won big in local elections. In some ways, what defenders of the euro should fear most is not a crisis this year, but what happens once Greece starts to recover and becomes a role model for anti-establishment forces across the continent.

None of this needs to happen. All the players at the table, even those much too ready to accept failure, have good intentions. There’s hardly even a conflict of interest between Greece and its creditors — as I said, we know pretty much what a mutually beneficial deal would involve. But will that deal be reached? We’ll find out very soon.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

May 28, 2015

In “The Rise of Social Liberalism and G.O.P. Resistance” Mr. Blow says as the nation’s views evolve, Republican presidential candidates remain stuck trying to out-conservative one another for the sake of primary voters.  Mr. Cohen, in “Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Reign of Shame,” says that to conclude Blatter should quit feels so obvious it’s not worth saying. But he’s so thick-skinned it’s worth saying twice.  Mr. Kristof considers “Polluted Political Games” and says here’s what can be done to bring the dark money of politics into the sunlight in time for the 2016 elections.  Ms. Collins says “Let’s Do Some Railing” and that one person’s waste is another person’s ride home.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

There is a fascinating phenomenon taking shape in America: As the country becomes less religious, it is also becoming more socially liberal.

It makes sense that these two variables should closely track each other, but the sheer scale and speed of the change is astonishing.

After a Pew Research Center report earlier this month found that “the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” this week Gallup released a report that found that “more Americans now rate themselves as socially liberal than at any point in Gallup’s 16-year trend, and for the first time, as many say they are liberal on social issues as say they are conservative.”

Gallup has tested the moral acceptability of 19 variables since the early 2000s.

And, as Gallup found this week:

“The upward progression in the percentage of Americans seeing these issues as morally acceptable has varied from year to year, but the overall trend clearly points toward a higher level of acceptance of a number of behaviors. In fact, the moral acceptability ratings for 10 of the issues measured since the early 2000s are at record highs.”

Acceptance of gay or lesbian relations is up 23 percentage points over that time. Having a baby outside of marriage is up 16 points. Premarital sex is up 15 points. Divorce and research using stem cells obtained from human embryos are both up 12 points.

At the same time, the death penalty is down three points (within the four-point margin of error) and medical testing on animals is down nine points.

We as a country may still be engaged in a vigorous debate about the proper size and function of government, and about which parties and candidates could best steer America in the right direction, but one thing is less and less debatable: We are rapidly becoming a more socially liberal country.

This change poses a particular challenge for the Republican Party and its national aspirations, not so much at the congressional seats, many of which are safe, but for presidential candidates.

Part of the issue, as the likely candidate Jeb Bush put it last year, is that for a Republican to become president, he or she would have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election.

It was a catchy phrase and everyone understood what he was saying: Don’t allow the Republican debates and primaries to drag you so far right that you will never be able to recover in the general election. But the problem is that there is no way to compete in the general without first winning the primaries securing the nomination.

And so, Republicans are now involved in another election season that feels like the movie “Groundhog Day”: trying to out-conservative one another to be in the good graces of Republican primary voters, who in many states can be disproportionately religious and socially conservative.

Take Iowa, for instance, whose February caucuses will be the first contests of the 2016 presidential cycle. As the Public Religion Research Institute pointed out earlier this month:

“Iowa Republicans are notably more socially conservative than Republicans nationally. Compared to Republicans overall, Iowa Republicans are more likely to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage (64 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively), and are more likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (68 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively). The social conservatism evident among Iowa Republicans is based in part on the large presence of white evangelical Protestants. More than four in ten (42 percent) Iowa Republicans are white evangelical Protestant.”

How do you win Iowa, or at least survive it? Some candidates may not focus their attentions there at all. They may skip it, as John McCain did in 2000, and instead focus on the slightly more moderate Republican primary voters in New Hampshire to deliver their first strong showing shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

For example, a March poll conducted by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston found that more likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters are pro-choice than pro-life on abortion and more favor same-sex marriage than oppose it.

But New Hampshire is somewhat anomalous. It is the most conservative state in a very liberal northeast. Nationally, only 27 percent of Republicans are pro-choice, while 67 percent are pro-life, and nationally only 37 percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage, according to polls by Gallup in 2014 and 2015. At the same time, New Hampshire is the second most nonreligious state in the country — nonreligious being defined by Gallup as people “saying religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services” — second only to Vermont. The nonreligious population of New Hampshire is 51 percent; for Vermont, it’s 56 percent.

But Iowa and New Hampshire would be only the first two of a 50-state slog through a Republican electorate that is not necessarily where the rest of the country is — or is going — on religiosity and social liberalism.

There is only so much skipping one can do. At some point, the candidates must face the most conservative voters and one voice must emerge.

This process has not been kind or general-election-friendly for the Republican candidates in the last couple of cycles. But there is no indication that most Republicans — either candidates or voters — have drawn the necessary lessons from those defeats.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I was living in Paris in 1998 and had tickets for the World Cup Final but instead had to rush off to cover upheaval in Nigeria and ended up in a Lagos hotel watching France beat Brazil 3-0. The commentators were Nigerian, of course. After a couple of first-half French goals against a listless Brazilian side, they pretty much gave up describing the match. Instead they focused on how much money they thought had changed hands to secure France’s triumph. I laughed as the numbers spiraled upward.

The speculation — unfounded in this instance — seemed to me more a reflection of the Nigeria of Sani Abacha, the ruthless and massively corrupt leader who had just died, than of the state of global soccer. In Nigeria back then, nothing moved without payment of a bribe. Now, however, I am not so sure. Those commentators were onto something larger than the match itself. Sepp Blatter, once described by The Guardian as “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century,” had been elected the month before as president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, in a ballot marked by allegations of cash handouts of $50,000 to African delegates in a Paris hotel. It was the start of Blatter’s 17-year (and counting) reign of shame over the world’s most popular game. He is a man without conscience.

Another unrelated soccer memory stirred at the news of the arrest in Zurich of several top FIFA officials on bribery, fraud and money laundering charges brought by the United States Justice Department. It was of standing 30 years ago at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels with my friends Patrick Wintour of The Guardian and Ed Vulliamy of The Observer. We watched as Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans gathered in the Z-block of the ground. There was a sickening inevitability about what happened as the Juventus supporters were crushed against terrace barriers that collapsed and then a concrete wall.

Later Wintour and Vulliamy filed a report: “We heard a muted but ghastly thud, like quarry dynamited at a distance. It was the sound of tons of concrete and scores of bodies plunging over the edge of the terracing.” You knew. People were dying. There were, in the end, 39 dead, most of them Juventus fans. The match went ahead, a ghastly farce.

It is not true that everything has gotten worse in global soccer under Blatter. Safety has improved and, yes, the World Cup has been held in Africa. But just about everything has. To conclude that Blatter should quit rather than embark on a fifth term as FIFA president (assuming his seemingly inevitable election to a fifth term on Friday) feels so blindingly obvious that it’s not worth saying. But then the FIFA president is so thick-skinned it’s actually worth saying twice: Mr. Blatter, your time is up.

Why? Because the corruption charges against current and former FIFA vice presidents and others reflect an organization rotten to its core, operating in the absence of any meaningful oversight, without term limits for a president whose salary is of course unknown (but estimated by Bloomberg to be “in the low double-digit” millions), overseeing $5.72 billion in partially unaccounted revenue for the four years to December 2014, governing a sport in which matches and World Cup venues and in fact just about everything appears to have been up for sale, burying a report it commissioned by a former United States attorney into the bidding process for the next two World Cups, and generally operating in a culture of cavalier disdain personified by Blatter, whose big cash awards to soccer federations in poorer countries have turned the delegates from many of FIFA’s 209 member associations into his fawning acolytes.

Among those charged is Jeffrey Webb, the successor to Jack Warner as the head of the North and Central American and Caribbean regional confederation within FIFA. Warner was also charged. When Warner’s corruption became so outlandish that he was forced to step down a few years ago, Blatter’s FIFA maintained a presumption of innocence. Enough said.

Bribery occurred “over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who has supervised the investigation from the days when she was the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York. That sounds about right. The Office of the attorney general of Switzerland has opened a separate criminal investigation into the selection of Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup.

Just because Russia and Qatar are gas-rich (and back in 1998 a Qatari businessman provided Blatter with a private jet for his first FIFA election campaign) does not mean the process was corrupt. Of course it does not. But that Swiss criminal investigation is thoroughly warranted — and the first requisite for making it thorough, transparent and credible is Blatter’s immediate departure.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

I’ve admired the Clintons’ foundation for years for its fine work on AIDS and global poverty, and I’ve moderated many panels at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Yet with each revelation of failed disclosures or the appearance of a conflict of interest from speaking fees of $500,000 for the former president, I have wondered: What were they thinking?

But the problem is not precisely the Clintons. It’s our entire disgraceful money-based political system. Look around:

• Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accepted flights and playoff tickets from the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who has business interests Christie can affect.

• Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has received financial assistance from a billionaire, Norman Braman, and has channeled public money to Braman’s causes.

• Jeb Bush likely has delayed his formal candidacy because then he would have to stop coordinating with his “super PAC” and raising money for it. He is breaching at least the spirit of the law.

When problems are this widespread, the problem is not crooked individuals but perverse incentives from a rotten structure.

“There is a systemic corruption here,” says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “It’s kind of baked in.”

Most politicians are good people. Then they discover that money is the only fuel that makes the system work and sometimes step into the bog themselves.

Money isn’t a new problem, of course. John F. Kennedy was accused of using his father’s wealth to buy elections. In response, he joked that he had received the following telegram from his dad: “Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide!”

Yet Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and now chairman of the national governing board of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group,notes that inequality has hugely exacerbated the problem. Billionaires adopt presidential candidates as if they were prize racehorses. Yet for them, it’s only a hobby expense.

For example, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $92 million to super PACs in the 2012 election cycle; as a share of their net worth, that was equivalent to $300 from the median American family. So a multibillionaire can influence a national election for the same sacrifice an average family bears in, say, a weekend driving getaway.

Money doesn’t always succeed, of course, and billionaires often end up wasting money on campaigns. According to The San Jose Mercury News, Meg Whitman spent $43 per vote in her failed campaign for governor of California in 2010, mostly from her own pocket. But Michael Bloomberg won his 2009 re-election campaign for mayor of New York City after,according to the New York Daily News, spending $185 of his own money per vote.

The real bargain is lobbying — and that’s why corporations spend 13 times as much lobbying as they do contributing to campaigns, by the calculations of Lee Drutman, author of a recent book on lobbying.

The health care industry hires about five times as many lobbyists as there are members of Congress. That’s a shrewd investment. Drug company lobbyists have prevented Medicare from getting bulk discounts, amounting to perhaps $50 billion a year in extra profits for the sector.

Likewise, lobbying has carved out the egregious carried interest tax loophole, allowing many financiers to pay vastly reduced tax rates. In that respect, money in politics both reflects inequality and amplifies it.

Lobbyists exert influence because they bring a potent combination of expertise and money to the game. They gain access, offer a well-informed take on obscure issues — and, for a member of Congress, you think twice before biting the hand that feeds you.

The Supreme Court is partly to blame for the present money game, for its misguided rulings that struck down limits in campaign spending by corporations and unions and the overall political donation cap for individuals.

Still, President Obama could take one step that would help: an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all political contributions.

“President Obama could bring the dark money into the sunlight in time for the 2016 election,” notes Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It’s the single most tangible thing anyone could do to expose the dark money that is now polluting politics.”

I’ve covered corrupt regimes all over the world, and I find it ineffably sad to come home and behold institutionalized sleaze in the United States.

Reich told me that for meaningful change to arrive, “voters need to reach a point of revulsion.” Hey, folks, that time has come.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Just before Congress slunk away for the three-day weekend — which it was, of course, planning to stretch into a week — senators from the Northeast held a press conference to denounce Republicans for underfunding Amtrak passenger rail service.

“Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

“In Connecticut we have a bridge that was built when Grover Cleveland was president,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Now you have to admit, this is pretty compelling. Especially if you merge them together and envision Butch Cassidy and Grover Cleveland robbing commuters on the Acela Express.

The Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington is the centerpiece of the nation’s commuter rail system. It carries more people than the airlines, makes a profit, and takes an ungodly number of cars off extremely crowded highways. However, it needs $21 billion of work on its bridges, tunnels, tracks and equipment.

We’ve all been thinking about it since the terrible derailment in Philadelphia earlier this month. In a moment of stupendously bad timing, House Republicans chose the day after the accident to cut more than $1 billion from the $2.45 billion the Obama administration had requested for Amtrak.

Speaker John Boehner said any attempt to link the two things was “stupid.” As only he can.

Let’s take a middle road, people, and assume that while the Philadelphia crash might not be directly related to any funding cut, it’s a good reminder that running packed trains through 19th century tunnels and bridges is asking for trouble.

Amtrak is a managerial mishmash, trapped under the thumb of Congress, and also responsible for long-distance service across the country, touching cities from Chicago to New Orleans to Grand Rapids to Salt Lake City on a series of routes that are never going to make money. Conservative groups that call for the privatization of Amtrak are basically envisioning a system where the Northeast Corridor is left to fend for itself while the money-losing routes fade into history.

“Ideally, we would like to see all transportation spending and taxing devolve to the states,” said Michael Sargent of The Heritage Foundation.

None of the Northeastern senators at the press conference complained about the cross-country money-losers. Perhaps that was out of deference to their colleague, Dick Durbin of Chicago. Perhaps they instinctively understood that no matter what the drain, Amtrak has a better chance of political survival running through 46 states. It’s a theory that works great for the Defense Department.

Maybe the senators just had a national vision of what national rail service is supposed to be.

“It’s worth reminding our colleagues the Northeast Corridor is the only part that makes money,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in a phone interview. “But that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of the rest of the system. If we only kept the portions of government that made money, there wouldn’t be any point to the State of Connecticut running a Department of Children and Families anymore.”

What’s your off-the-cuff verdict, people?

A) Save the railroad!

B) Prioritize! Every train for itself!

C) They can do anything they want if they’ll just get together and fix the pothole on my corner.

Wow, I believe I see a majority for the pothole. Remind me to tell you about how members of Congress just passed the 33rd super-short-term highway bill because they haven’t been able to come up with any normal road repair funding since 2008.

Transportation unites the country, but the crowded parts and the empty parts have different needs. Cities require mass transit, which is something that tends to irritate many rural conservatives. (It’s that vision of a whole bunch of strangers stuck together, stripped of even the illusion of control.) Remote towns and cities need connections to survive, even though the price tag seems way out of proportion to those of us who don’t live on, say, an Alaskan island.

Amtrak’s operating budget is about the same as the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service to remote communities. Most of the flights are at least two-thirds empty. CBS News, in a report earlier this year, found one flight between Kansas City, Mo., and Great Bend, Kan., that generally carried only a single passenger.

Everybody knows that the government can waste money. (If you have any doubts, I will refer you to a recent report by Pro Publica about a glorious new $25 million, 64,000-square-foot headquarters the military constructed for American troops in Afghanistan even though said troops were going home.) But making money-losing links between different parts of the theoretically United States doesn’t seem to be in that category.

Fix Amtrak. Connect the country.

Won’t happen as long as the mole people rule.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

May 25, 2015

In “Restoring Memoriam to Memorial Day” Mr. Blow says our country keeps drifting further away from the spirit behind the holiday because fewer of us have served or have family members who serve in the military.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Great Unease,” says we have access to everything and certainty about nothing. The Day of Judgment has given way to days of endless judgment.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Big Meh,” says a growing number of economists, looking at the data on productivity and incomes, are wondering if the technological revolution has been greatly overhyped.  Oh, gawd, don’t tell The Moustache of Wisdom…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

This Memorial Day, as we head to the lake and the beach, grill and drink, shop and save, lay out in the sun or seek shady places, we must remain cognizant that the holiday didn’t begin as a day of celebration or commerce but one of solemnity and, indeed, memoriam.

As David W. Blight, a professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale wrote in The New York Times in 2011, during the final year of the Civil War, a racetrack was converted to an outdoor prison for Union captives; “at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.”

Blight wrote: “After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston, black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery” and the freed people, “in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track.”

He continued: “After the dedication, the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill.”

Blight concluded: “The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.”

This is the history from which this holiday springs: honoring sacrifice. And honoring sacrifices can exist apart from endorsing missions. Many of our veterans have given life, and increasingly, limb for this country, and that must be saluted.

Some of our wars are those of disastrous execution, others of deceptive inception, some a bit of both, but they are all ours.

Yet we are drifting away from this tradition of honoring sacrifice. The public in general and the elected officials who have sanctioned and sustained our wars, sometimes over substantial public objection, have a diminishing personal stake on the battlefields — few of their own lives and the lives of their children, siblings and spouses.

President Obama isn’t a military veteran, nor are many of the presidential hopefuls who have declared or might declare a run for the White House in 2016.

Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have never served. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal have not either. Only Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and Jim Webb have.

As USA Today reported in 2012:

“In 2013, just 19 percent of the 535 combined members in the U.S. House and Senate will have active-duty military service on their résumé, down from a peak in 1977 when 80 percent of lawmakers boasted military service.”

The newspaper explained:

“The transition from the draft to an all-volunteer military in 1973 is a driving force of the decline, but veterans and their advocates say they face more challenges running for office in the modern era of political campaigns.”

As for the current Congress, as the “PBS NewsHour” noted in November: “In all, 97 members of the next session of Congress will have served in the U.S. military. That means less than 18 percent of the new congressional delegation served in the armed forces. (Note: This number includes one nonvoting delegate from the Northern Marianas.)”

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can be learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History illuminates. It can also blind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen and Krugman

May 15, 2015

In “This Angry Arab Moment” Mr. Cohen says the United States can walk and chew gum in the Middle East, and it should.  Prof. Krugman, in “Fraternity of Failure,” says in the modern Republican Party, catastrophic error seems to have become a required credential.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Dubai:

When Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, spoke here of the Arab world’s humiliation by three non-Arab states — Iran, Israel and Turkey — and the way they had, through their “hegemony,” turned Arabs into a “laughingstock,” I asked him what exactly he meant.

His response focused on Iran. This in itself was interesting. Statements from Tehran about Iran calling the shots in several Arab capitals — including Damascus, Baghdad and Sana — had “enraged many of us,” he said, leaving Arabs humiliated that any power “would dare say that.”

As this remark suggests, Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel, a country with which many Arab states have aligned but unsayable interests.

Cut to Camp David and President Obama’s attempt to reassure Persian Gulf leaders that the United States can, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, “do two things at the same time” — that is, conclude a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and honor its alliances with the Sunni monarchies, whose oil is now of less strategic importance to an America in the midst of an oil boom.

The walk-and-chew-gum American argument is a tough sell because Arab honor and Arab humiliation are in play. That’s why King Salman of Saudi Arabia stayed away from Camp David. That’s why the Saudis started a bombing campaign in Yemen: to stop the Houthis, portrayed in Riyadh as pure Iranian proxies. That’s why much of what you hear these days in Dubai (where many Iranians live and trade) is talk of Obama’s betrayal of the Arabs through infatuation with Iran.

Arabs are saying: Enough! They are, in Moussa’s words at the Arab Media Forum here, in the midst of an “awakening.”

Let’s walk this bristling cat back a little, but perhaps not as far as Western colonialism in the Middle East and the century-old, now collapsing Sykes-Picot order. Let’s set aside Israel, seen by many Arabs as an extension of that colonialism. But let’s go far enough back to encompass the American invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago and the consequent overturn of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni domination in favor of the Shiite majority and, behind it, Iran. And certainly as far as the ongoing Syrian debacle, Obama’s abandoned “red line” against the Iran-backed Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the Arab conclusion that fecklessness was the name of the game in Obama’s Washington.

Yes, Arabs have talked themselves into a state of high dudgeon. They are convinced that Iran’s imperial designs on the region will be reinforced by an eventual nuclear deal that would bring Tehran and Washington closer and offer the Islamic Republic a cash windfall from sanctions relief. Think of the Saudi bombs on Aden as a warning shot to Obama (whatever his support for “Operation Decisive Storm”) and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

To all of which the right response is for Obama to hold the line on Iran and decline to hold the Saudis’ hands.

First, Iran built up its current Middle Eastern reach in the absence of a nuclear deal, not with one. It was unconstrained by any accord with major powers drawing it closer to a world of rules. It vastly expanded its nuclear program. What is more threatening to the Arab world — a nuclear-armed Iran or one whose nuclear program is ring-fenced, reduced and intensely monitored?

Second, the Arab sense of humiliation is at least as much internally generated as externally. Like any other power, Arabs control their own destiny. Millions of young Arabs rose up a few years ago to demand empowerment and opportunity. These hopes are on hold, at least outside Tunisia and booming Dubai. No bombing of Yemen, damning of Iran or ritual tirade against Israel will offset the disappointment.

Third, there is the hard-line, expansive Iran of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the reformist Iran bent on renewed ties with the West of President Hassan Rouhani. For now they are roughly in balance. Each needs the other to survive. The Gulf Cooperation Council should focus more on which faction is likely to be reinforced over time by a nuclear deal.

Fourth, Iran is a major Middle Eastern power. The short-term strategic interest of Arab states may appear to be the maintenance of an unsatisfactory status quo that preserves Iran’s rogue status and leaves America’s allegiances unaltered. In fact, the real interest of Arab states must be an Iran no longer going freelance, constrained by its accords with major powers, benefiting from regional economic cooperation, and pushed by its youth toward reform.

Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results — needs an addendum. Madness is doing the same thing over and over in the Middle East and expecting a different outcome.

Obama is a walk-and-chew-gum kind of guy. There are risks to an Iran nuclear deal but the risks without one are far greater.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Jeb Bush wants to stop talking about past controversies. And you can see why. He has a lot to stop talking about. But let’s not honor his wish. You can learn a lot by studying recent history, and you can learn even more by watching how politicians respond to that history.

The big “Let’s move on” story of the past few days involved Mr. Bush’s response when asked in an interview whether, knowing what he knows now, he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He answered that yes, he would. No W.M.D.? No stability after all the lives and money expended? No problem.

Then he tried to walk it back. He “interpreted the question wrong,” and isn’t interested in engaging “hypotheticals.” Anyway, “going back in time” is a “disservice” to those who served in the war.

Take a moment to savor the cowardice and vileness of that last remark. And, no, that’s not hyperbole. Mr. Bush is trying to hide behind the troops, pretending that any criticism of political leaders — especially, of course, his brother, the commander in chief — is an attack on the courage and patriotism of those who paid the price for their superiors’ mistakes. That’s sinking very low, and it tells us a lot more about the candidate’s character than any number of up-close-and-personal interviews.

Wait, there’s more: Incredibly, Mr. Bush resorted to the old passive-voice dodge, admitting only that “mistakes were made.” Indeed. By whom? Well, earlier this year Mr. Bush released a list of his chief advisers on foreign policy, and it was a who’s-who of mistake-makers, people who played essential roles in the Iraq disaster and other debacles.

Seriously, consider that list, which includes such luminaries as Paul Wolfowitz, who insisted that we would be welcomed as liberators and that the war would cost almost nothing, and Michael Chertoff, who as director of the Department of Homeland Security during Hurricane Katrina was unaware of the thousands of people stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food and water.

In Bushworld, in other words, playing a central role in catastrophic policy failure doesn’t disqualify you from future influence. If anything, a record of being disastrously wrong on national security issues seems to be a required credential.

Voters, even Republican primary voters, may not share that view, and the past few days have probably taken a toll on Mr. Bush’s presidential prospects. In a way, however, that’s unfair. Iraq is a special problem for the Bush family, which has a history both of never admitting mistakes and of sticking with loyal family retainers no matter how badly they perform. But refusal to learn from experience, combined with a version of political correctness in which you’re only acceptable if you have been wrong about crucial issues, is pervasive in the modern Republican Party.

Take my usual focus, economic policy. If you look at the list of economists who appear to have significant influence on Republican leaders, including the likely presidential candidates, you find that nearly all of them agreed, back during the “Bush boom,” that there was no housing bubble and the American economic future was bright; that nearly all of them predicted that the Federal Reserve’s efforts to fight the economic crisis that developed when that nonexistent bubble popped would lead to severe inflation; and that nearly all of them predicted that Obamacare, which went fully into effect in 2014, would be a huge job-killer.

Given how badly these predictions turned out — we had the biggest housing bust in history, inflation paranoia has been wrong for six years and counting, and 2014 delivered the best job growth since 1999 — you might think that there would be some room in the G.O.P. for economists who didn’t get everything wrong. But there isn’t. Having been completely wrong about the economy, like having been completely wrong about Iraq, seems to be a required credential.

What’s going on here? My best explanation is that we’re witnessing the effects of extreme tribalism. On the modern right, everything is a political litmus test. Anyone who tried to think through the pros and cons of the Iraq war was, by definition, an enemy of President George W. Bush and probably hated America; anyone who questioned whether the Federal Reserve was really debasing the currency was surely an enemy of capitalism and freedom.

It doesn’t matter that the skeptics have been proved right. Simply raising questions about the orthodoxies of the moment leads to excommunication, from which there is no coming back. So the only “experts” left standing are those who made all the approved mistakes. It’s kind of a fraternity of failure: men and women united by a shared history of getting everything wrong, and refusing to admit it. Will they get the chance to add more chapters to their reign of error?

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

May 11, 2015

Sorry for the absence — I’ve had a bout of what we refer to as the “Savannah Crud.”  Not fun…  Mr. Blow, in “Of Museums and Racial Relics,” says the first lady draws fire from those employing wishful thinking about the state of cultural bias.  Mr. Cohen ponders “Italian Curves, Italian Cures” and says people return to Italy for its beauty, of course, but also for a refuge from relentlessness.  Prof. Krugman considers “Wall Street Vampires” and says the plot against financial reform continues, despite the fact that one important measure is actually working.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Recently, Rush Limbaugh lambasted the first lady, Michelle Obama, for bringing up the idea of diversity among museum visitors at the opening of the new Whitney Museum in New York.

According to Limbaugh, the first lady said: “Museums and concert halls just don’t welcome nonwhite visitors — especially children — the way they welcome white people.”

What the first lady actually said was:

“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.”

Then, she went on to laud the Whitney for its efforts at inclusion and diversity: “And with this inaugural exhibition, the Whitney is really sending the same message to young people and to people of every background across this country. You’re telling them that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here. You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.”

It was a rather mild, if not flattering way to acknowledge a disparity while also encouraging efforts to counter it.

And, the first lady was right. A 2010 report by the Center for the Future of Museums (an initiative of the American Association of Museums) found that:

“African-Americans and Latinos have notably lower rates of museum attendance than white Americans. Why is that so? In part, it is the legacy of historic discrimination. A summary study of S.P.P.A. [Survey of Public Participation in the Arts] data from the 1980s on white and black attendance at arts events concluded that the measurable difference in participation could be tied to ‘subtle forms of exclusion.’ ”

The report cited data that shows “historic patterns of segregation and exclusion as one reason that fewer African-American families instill museum-going habits in their young children. More recent studies have identified a distinct cultural psychology among African-Americans, rooted in historical and social experience, which has produced heightened sensitivity to stereotypes and real or perceived racism.”

But for Limbaugh, this wasn’t about museum attendance at all. It was simply another opportunity to excrete the tired banalities about the Obamas as failed racial messiahs at best, and active racial agitators at worst.

As Limbaugh put it:

“Everything has to be about race with these people! You know, we were supposed to be post-racial with the election of Obama. We’re supposed to have put all that behind us. His election was supposed to mean something. It was supposed to signify that we had overcome and gotten past the original sin of slavery. And instead, as I knew would be the case, it’s gotten worse by design. And this is one of the reasons why.

And this isn’t only Limbaugh’s view. This is the view of many Americans, whether they tune in to Limbaugh or not.

Obama’s sin, using this line of logic, is that he failed to undo the system of oppression that he had no hand in constructing. It is that 400 years of damage was not undone in two terms. It is that he didn’t encourage silence about inequity so that its benefactors could enjoy the cumulative fruit of centuries of racial graft without current-day guilt.

They wanted some mythical receipt of satisfaction of the debt. Let bygones be bygones. All is forgotten and forgiven. Clean slate. Fresh start.

If only it were that simple. But it’s not. This whole line of reasoning is racial claptrap.

Professorial provocateur Shelby Steele wrote in The Los Angeles Times the day after Obama was first elected in 2008: “Obama’s post-racial idealism told whites the one thing they most wanted to hear: America had essentially contained the evil of racism to the point at which it was no longer a serious barrier to black advancement.”

But, Steele countered:

“I don’t think whites really want change from Obama as much as they want documentation of change that has already occurred. They want him in the White House first of all as evidence, certification and recognition.”

And yet, all of America must face the reality that for as much progress as has been made, much remains to be made. America must face the fact that the electorate is an of-the-moment entity, but racial oppression is an of-the-ages monstrosity. It is a resilient relic. And it was never within Obama’s capacity to dismantle it. This structure must be demolished by its architects.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Milan:

I was talking to an Italian couple whose daughter had gone to live for a while in the United States before returning to run a restaurant on Lake Garda. They have a modest apartment in Santa Margherita on the coast of Liguria. The garden is bigger than the living quarters, filled with lemon trees (their fruit as big as baseballs), orange trees and orchids. The couple, now retired, has time to linger in the fragrant air of the dusk.

In the kitchen, it seemed to me, they have all they need: a machine to slice wafer-thin prosciutto, a toaster capacious enough for glistening focaccia, a scale to weigh out 200 grams of pasta. They prepared a rabbit simmered in an unctuous sauce of olives, pine nuts, sausage and rabbit liver, accompanied by perfect little cubes of sautéed potatoes that are time-consuming to prepare but worth every patient flip and stir.

Rabbit is underrated, a culinary victim of prejudice or misplaced affection, but not by Italians, who consume it often and with gusto.

In any event, my host, Sergio, was recalling visits to the United States to see their daughter. There were memorable renderings of “O Sole Mio” on gondolas in Las Vegas (beneath the Rialto Bridge on the “Grand Canal”), and then there was the time they were in New Mexico and “drove for 85 miles in a dead straight line.”

He looked me: “Not one curve. Can you believe it?”

I could — made me think of Highway 101 in California. He couldn’t. Life in Italy is a series of curves to which you adapt. There is zero scope for autopilot.

Adaptation and adjustment are the name of the game. This can be trying. On the other hand you can enjoy lemon zest from your own lemons, perhaps with salmon and those 200 grams of penne.

It was May 1, International Workers’ Day, a holiday. Yet, most people were working, a lot of stores open. I heard the following exchange:

“It’s the workers’ holiday and everyone is working!”

“Yes, I know, but of course they don’t work the rest of the time!”

“That’s true.”

There’s still a continuous banter in the streets of Italy, as when I lived here 30 years ago. Italy has cherry-picked modernity, taking only so much. Something in it has resisted the reduction of human interaction to the transactional minimum. Something in it has resisted the squeezing of the last cent of profit from every exchange. Something in it recognizes the human need for community and what a couple of sentences to a stranger can do. There are still innocent smiles in Italy, something you can only call humility. They don’t teach you that at marketing school. They don’t tell you how monotonous self-promotion can become, how tiresome, and finally inhuman. People return to Italy for its beauty, of course, but also for a refuge from relentlessness. Conversations veer here and there in the elasticity of Italian time, loosened from the constraints of time as a metric of productivity.

At the pharmacy, where it’s better to have a prescription but rules can be bent, I heard this:

“We don’t live in Italy.”

“Better that way!”

“Why?”

“Everything is difficult here.”

It is. Efficiency was not one of the cherry-picked items. Arriving at Milan Linate airport for the first time in decades, I found the same cumbersome buses from aircraft to terminal. The ATM machine was broken, the Information Desk unmanned. Strange, the Milan world’s fair, Expo 2015, has just opened — a time, if any, to spruce things up. The themes of the fair are guaranteeing food security; combating waste (Italy has much to do); improving nutrition (I can’t see that rabbit being beaten); and preserving the environment.

On opening day, May 1, a bunch of hooded anti-capitalist thugs calling themselves “Black bloc” smashed up the center of Milan in a mindless protest against Expo-as-capitalist-enterprise. Policemen were beaten, cars set on fire. Over the following weekend the people of Milan took to the streets armed with sponges, cloths, solvents and soap, determined to clean up their city. They did, in short order.

The state is still weak in Italy. But community — family, friends, city, region — is often powerful. Assessments of Italy’s condition tend to underestimate the effectiveness of these hardship-cushioning ties.

Matteo Renzi, the young prime minister, has just pushed through an important electoral reform law aimed at ending semi-chronic government instability. Broadly, it gives the winning party, provided it has 40 percent of the vote, a bonus that guarantees it 340 seats in the 630-seat chamber. (If no party has 40 percent, there is a runoff between the two largest parties).

Perhaps this will, as Renzi hopes, produce more straight lines — full five-year terms for governments. Italy could benefit from that. But there will still be plenty of curves.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Last year the vampires of finance bought themselves a Congress. I know it’s not nice to call them that, but I have my reasons, which I’ll explain in a bit. For now, however, let’s just note that these days Wall Street, which used to split its support between the parties, overwhelmingly favors the G.O.P. And the Republicans who came to power this year are returning the favor by trying to kill Dodd-Frank, the financial reform enacted in 2010.

And why must Dodd-Frank die? Because it’s working.

This statement may surprise progressives who believe that nothing significant has been done to rein in runaway bankers. And it’s true both that reform fell well short of what we really should have done and that it hasn’t yielded obvious, measurable triumphs like the gains in insurance thanks to Obamacare.

But Wall Street hates reform for a reason, and a closer look shows why.

For one thing, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the brainchild of Senator Elizabeth Warren — is, by all accounts, having a major chilling effect on abusive lending practices. And early indications are that enhanced regulation of financial derivatives — which played a major role in the 2008 crisis — is having similar effects, increasing transparency and reducing the profits of middlemen.

What about the problem of financial industry structure, sometimes oversimplified with the phrase “too big to fail”? There, too, Dodd-Frank seems to be yielding real results, in fact, more than many supporters expected.

As I’ve just suggested, too big to fail doesn’t quite get at the problem here. What was really lethal was the interaction between size and complexity. Financial institutions had become chimeras: part bank, part hedge fund, part insurance company, and so on. This complexity let them evade regulation, yet be rescued from the consequences when their bets went bad. And bankers’ ability to have it both ways helped set America up for disaster.

Dodd-Frank addressed this problem by letting regulators subject“systemically important” financial institutions to extra regulation, and seize control of such institutions at times of crisis, as opposed to simply bailing them out. And it required that financial institutions in general put up more capital, reducing both their incentive to take excessive risks and the chance that risk-taking would lead to bankruptcy.

All of this seems to be working: “Shadow banking,” which created bank-type risks while evading bank-type regulation, is in retreat. You can see this in cases like that of General Electric, a manufacturing firm that turned itself into a financial wheeler-dealer, but is now trying to return to its roots. You can also see it in the overall numbers, where conventional banking — which is to say, banking subject to relatively strong regulation — has made a comeback. Evading the rules, it seems, isn’t as appealing as it used to be.

But the vampires are fighting back.

O.K., why do I call them that? Not because they drain the economy of its lifeblood, although they do: there’s a lot of evidence that oversize, overpaid financial industries — like ours — hurt economic growth and stability. Even the International Monetary Fund agrees.

But what really makes the word apt in this context is that the enemies of reform can’t withstand sunlight. Open defenses of Wall Street’s right to go back to its old ways are hard to find. When right-wing think tanks do try to claim that regulation is a bad thing that will hurt the economy, their hearts don’t seem to be in it. For example, the latest such “study,” from theAmerican Action Forum, runs to all of four pages, and even its author, the economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, sounds embarrassed about his work.

What you mostly get, instead, is slavery-is-freedom claims that reform actually empowers the bad guys: for example, that regulating too-big-and-complex-to-fail institutions is somehow doing wheeler-dealers a favor, claims belied by the desperate efforts of such institutions to avoid the “systemically important” designation. The point is that almost nobody wants to be seen as a bought and paid-for servant of the financial industry, least of all those who really are exactly that.

And this in turn means that so far, at least, the vampires are getting a lot less than they expected for their money. Republicans would love to undo Dodd-Frank, but they are, rightly, afraid of the glare of publicity that defenders of reform like Senator Warren — who inspires a remarkable amount of fear in the unrighteous — would shine on their efforts.

Does this mean that all is well on the financial front? Of course not. Dodd-Frank is much better than nothing, but far from being all we need. And the vampires are still lurking in their coffins, waiting to strike again. But things could be worse.

Cohen and Krugman

April 6, 2015

In “United States Embassy, Tehran” Mr. Cohen says the ice has been broken. A hermetic nuclear deal, without a wider opening, is unlikely.  In “Economics and Elections” Prof. Krugman says what mainly matters is income growth immediately before a vote. Can anything be done about this weakness?  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The nuclear deal with Iran is still only preliminary but if concluded it will represent the most important American diplomatic achievement since the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian war two decades ago. That agreement was imperfect. Still, not another shot was fired in anger after the loss of more than 100,000 lives. This accord, too, reflects harsh realities — Iran has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle — yet represents the best possibility by far of holding Iran short of a bomb, ring-fencing its nuclear capacities, coaxing change in the Islamic Republic, and ushering a hopeful society closer to the world. If the yardstick is effectiveness, and it must be, no conceivable alternative even comes close. Perfection is not part of diplomacy’s repertoire.

President Obama, through his courageous persistence, has changed the strategic dynamic in the Middle East. As he reassures worried allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, he has also signaled that the United States will pursue its national interest, even in the face of fierce criticism, where the logic of that interest is irrefutable. Blocking Iran’s path to a bomb, avoiding another war with a Muslim country, and re-establishing diplomatic contact with a stable power hostile to the butchers of the Islamic State amounts to a compelling case for an America faced by a fragmenting Middle Eastern order.

It is not a bad thing to remind allies that enjoying irrevocable support from the United States cannot mean exercising a veto on American actions. Indeed, it may be a good thing, because it stimulates creative reflection. This breakthrough with Iran, impossible without the tireless work of Secretary of State John Kerry, looks like the cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Of course, the president needed partners. He found them in other major powers, but most of all in President Hassan Rouhani of Iran who, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observed to me, “aspires to be Iran’s Deng Xiaoping.” Rouhani’s mantra is: Preserve the system, fast-forward the economy, open to the world.

Rouhani does not aspire to be Iran’s Gorbachev. His thing is adaptation, not transformation. He is of the system, hence his room for maneuver. Unlike Iran’s hard-liners, he believes preservation of Iran’s theocracy is compatible with — perhaps dependent on — normalized relations with the rest of the world, including the United States. That is a potential game-changer.

Perhaps the most significant words after the agreement came from Rouhani: “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world.” He added: “With those countries with which we have a cold relationship, we would like a better relationship. And if we have tension or hostility with any countries, we want an end to tension and hostility with those countries.”

There were no qualifiers there — not for “The Great Satan,” as the United States has been widely known in Iran since the theocratic revolution of 1979, not even for Israel. The message to the fight-or-surrender, heads-in-the-sand hard-liners was clear. Once again, Rouhani suggested he is a more courageous and resourceful reformer than Iran’s other presidential reformist, Mohammad Khatami, who spoke a good line but could not deliver.

Many Iranians are rubbing their eyes in disbelief: Obama’s post-accord statement broadcast in Tehran (selfies taken against that TV backdrop became popular); praise of Obama’s understanding of Iran from former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; support for the preliminary agreement at Friday prayers. A revolution that promised only to deceive, delivering not freedom but oppression, is promising once again: reasonable adaptation to changed times. But of course Iran has often veered from reason.

Renewed disappointment is not implausible. There are implacable opponents of this American-Iranian détente in both countries. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been silent, even if things could never have come this far without his backing. He may well fight to keep the nuclear deal hermetic, sealed off from a wider opening. Rouhani takes an opposite view: He wants a nuclear deal that is a catalyst to fixing Iran’s relations with the world. Obama, too, has spoken of his hope that a concluded deal “ushers in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.”

At the very least, if finalized, the deal condemns the United States and Iran to interact for more than a decade. They will be in conflict about most things. That’s alright. Institutionalized discord is far better than traumatized alienation. I cannot see the accord being hermetic. There’s too much pent-up expectation among Iran’s youth, too much economic possibility, too much pro-Western sentiment in Iran, too much American business interest in Iran. Of course, that’s what Khamenei is afraid of. Yet he’s come this far.

The 40th anniversary of the revolution, and the seizing of American hostages in Iran, is four years off. I’d bet on the United States Embassy in Tehran reopening then. The ice has broken.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Britain’s economic performance since the financial crisis struck has been startlingly bad. A tentative recovery began in 2009, but it stalled in 2010. Although growth resumed in 2013, real income per capita is only now reaching its level on the eve of the crisis — which means that Britain has had a much worse track record since 2007 than it had during the Great Depression.

Yet as Britain prepares to go to the polls, the leaders of the coalition government that has ruled the country since 2010 are posing as the guardians of prosperity, the people who really know how to run the economy. And they are, by and large, getting away with it.

There are some important lessons here, not just for Britain but for all democracies struggling to manage their economies in difficult times. I’ll get to those lessons in a minute. But first, let’s ask how a British government with such a poor economic record can manage to run on its supposed economic achievements.

Well, you could blame the weakness of the opposition, which has done an absolutely terrible job of making its case. You could blame the fecklessness of the news media, which has gotten much wrong. But the truth is that what’s happening in British politics is what almost always happens, there and everywhere else: Voters have fairly short memories, and they judge economic policy not by long-term results but by recent growth. Over five years, the coalition’s record looks terrible. But over the past couple of quarters it looks pretty good, and that’s what matters politically.

In making these assertions, I’m not engaged in casual speculation — I’m drawing on a large body of political science research, mainly focused on presidential contests in the United States but clearly applicable elsewhere. This research debunks almost all the horse-race narratives beloved by political pundits — never mind who wins the news cycle, or who appeals to the supposed concerns of independent voters. What mainly matters is income growth immediately before the election. And I mean immediately: We’re talking about something less than a year, maybe less than half a year.

This is, if you think about it, a distressing result, because it says that there is little or no political reward for good policy. A nation’s leaders may do an excellent job of economic stewardship for four or five years yet get booted out because of weakness in the last two quarters before the election. In fact, the evidence suggests that the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.

Actually, that’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear that it was deliberate.

The point, then, is that elections — which are supposed to hold politicians accountable — don’t seem to fulfill that function very well when it comes to economic policy. But can anything be done about this weakness?

One possible answer, which appeals to many pundits, might be to remove economic policy making from the political sphere and turn it over to nonpartisan elite commissions. This presumes, however, that elites know what they are doing — and it’s hard to see what, in recent events, might make you believe that. After all, American elites spent years in the thrall of Bowles-Simpsonism, a completely misplaced obsession over budget deficits. European elites, with their commitment to punitive austerity, have been even worse.

A better, more democratic answer would be to seek a better-informed electorate. One really striking thing about the British economic debate is the contrast between what passes for economic analysis in the news media — even in high-end newspapers and on elite-oriented TV shows — and the consensus of professional economists. News reports often portray recent growth as a vindication of austerity policies, but surveys of economists find only a small minority agreeing with that assertion. Claims that budget deficits are the most important issue facing Britain are made as if they were simple assertions of fact, when they are actually contentious, if not foolish.

So reporting on economic issues could and should be vastly better. But political scientists would surely scoff at the idea that this would make much difference to election outcomes, and they’re probably right.

What, then, should those of us who study economic policy and care about real-world outcomes do? The answer, surely, is that we should do our jobs: Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can. Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice versa. So be it. Elections determine who has the power, not who has the truth.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

April 2, 2015

In “Religious Freedom vs. Individual Equality” Mr. Blow is posing a question:  What to do when people want to retain their right to discriminate — wrapped in the cloak of piety — after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?  Mr. Cohen may or may not have lost his mind.  In “The Order in Saigon’s Chaos” he tries to convince us that Vietnam’s free-for-all traffic might be madness, but there’s equal madness in the West’s safety obsessions.  Mr. Kristof says “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Isn’t Just About Bombs,” and that this is also a chance for creating the conditions to bring Iran out of the cold.  But, but, but…  if we bring them in out of the cold then how the hell can we bomb the crap out of them like Billy “Always Wrong All The Time” Kristol wants to?  In “Indiana Loses Its Game” Ms. Collins says the Hoosier State is in a mess, and its residents should feel free to blame their governor.  Why the hell should they?  They’re the ones who elected him…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Indiana’s governor is now vowing to “clarify” a religious freedom law he recently signed in that state, because of what he calls a “perception problem” about whether the legislation would allow open discrimination against people whose sexual identities defy the heteronormative construct.

In truth, there is no perception problem. There was a detection problem: People detected precisely what the bill was designed to do, and they objected. And, possibly more important than individuals’ objections, were the objections of big business like Apple and Angie’s List.

Rather than simply protecting the free exercise of religion, the bill provides the possibility that religion could be used as a basis of discrimination against some customers.

One Indiana pizzeria, asserting that it is “a Christian establishment,” has already said that it will not cater gay weddings: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.” By the way, is wedding pizza a thing in Indiana? Just asking…

Objections to the law, which is repulsive and deserving of all manner of reprobation, were swift and vociferous.

It is true that there is a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as a version of it in some 20 states. But Indiana’s is different.

As Garrett Epps put it in The Atlantic:

“First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to ‘the free exercise of religion.’ The federal R.F.R.A. doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state R.F.R.A.s except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their R.F.R.A.s.”

He continues:

“Second, the Indiana statute explicitly makes a business’s ‘free exercise’ right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person, rather than simply against actions brought by government.”

This was a whole other animal and people recognized it.

Anything that even hints at state-sponsored discrimination — blatant and codified — is not only discordant with current cultural norms but also anathema to universal ideals of fairness and human dignity.

Walmart has slammed a similar law passed this week in Arkansas — where the behemoth retailer is headquartered — with the C.E.O. saying of the law that it “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

And according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

“Similar objections to HB1228 came from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Little Rock Conventions and Visitors Bureau. The Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties have also opposed the legislation.”

To his credit, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — whose son asked him to veto the bill — called on the Legislature to recall or amend the bill, and said he was considering using an executive order that would make “Arkansas a place of tolerance.”

For the most part, though, the religious conservative wing of the Republican Party on this issue is rushing headlong into an unwinnable culture battle, or more precisely one that has already been fought and lost.

As Emily Swanson, writing for The Associated Press, put it last month:

“In the late 1980s, support for gay marriage was essentially unheard-of in America. Just a quarter-century later, it’s now favored by [a] clear majority of Americans. That dramatic shift in opinion is among the fastest changes ever measured by the General Social Survey, a comprehensive and widely respected survey that has measured trends [in] a huge array of American attitudes for more than four decades.”

While it is heartening to see these corporations rushing to voice their opposition to the measure, there is still something about it that feels slightly out of kilter: a moral issue being driven by consumerism considerations.

It was in many ways a battle between big business corporate image egalitarianism and small business fundamentalism and religious conservatism, with disgruntled consumers in the middle. Big business had more to lose by appearing intolerant than small businesses had to gain by hewing to an exclusionary holiness.

But aside from whether opposing these pieces of legislation buys good will as an exercise of good public relations, equal treatment is simply the appropriate moral position, now and forever.

These laws raise broad issues.

What to do when people want to retain their right to hate and to discriminate — even if they choose to couch it in fuzzy, nonconfrontational wording or wrap it in the flimsy cloak of piety — after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?

How does America move forward as a beacon of tolerance — some would argue this precept vehemently — while retaining such disproportionate rates of religiosity relative to other wealthy countries?

Where are the lines between religious rights, business rights and human rights?

I would argue that when you enter the sphere of commerce in America — regardless of your “deeply held religious beliefs” — you have entered a nondiscriminatory zone in which your personal beliefs are checked at the register, and each customer is treated equally.

This is not to say that a gay couple on the eve of commitment should want to patronize a bigoted baker for a wedding cake, but rather that the refusal to render services based on that bigotry is untenable.

And yet, as the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center put it last week in citing key findings from a 2015 working paper from Harvard Law School:

“While the First Amendment was intended to protect individual freedom of religion, speech and assembly, as well as a free press, corporations have begun to displace individuals as its direct beneficiaries. This ‘shift from individual to business First Amendment cases is recent but accelerating.’ ”

And last, it raises questions about where one person’s opinion should end and another’s personal liberty should take up.

Too many people in this country continue to have an unhealthy obsession with what other people do in their bedrooms rather than focusing on what they do — or don’t do — in their own.

Mind your own faith and your own business and allow other people to define their own relationships with a god, if he or she believes and chooses such a spiritual communion.

As Langston Hughes wrote in the poem “Personal”:

In an envelope marked:
Personal
God addressed me a letter.
In an envelope marked:
Personal
I have given my answer.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, who probably doesn’t like to wear his seatbelt:

In Vietnam, where I recently spent a week, streets are a sea of scooters and small motorcycles. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City if you insist, buzzes to the eddying of this two-wheeled tide. Entire families perch themselves on bikes, often with a small child up front who gets the best view, the hot breeze in her face and, of course, the least chance of emerging unscathed from a collision. Adults wear helmets; children and live animals do not.

Along with the living — a chicken or piglet perhaps — various things may be wedged at angles, including small refrigerators, potted plants, metal frames and bunches of bananas. Bikes, the cars of the newly affluent, and pedestrians weave around one another in a seamless pattern fashioned not by any rule or organizing principle but by individual awareness. Major intersections, unburdened by anything as cumbersome or inflexible as traffic lights, function as massive group exercises in tentative advance, the principle being to coax others to the prudence of the brake by nosing ahead with just the right dose of insistence. Lo, the sea divides. A path opens. There is no logic at work, but there is a great deal of humanity.

Madness might be a verdict on all this, but then to the average Vietnamese biker there might be equal madness to Western culture, hemmed in by all the controls that a combination of fear and technology produce. Surely there must be a happy medium between placing a toddler on the handlebars of a scooter and denying children the freedom to roam and discover that is essential to their development. Surely there is an appropriate balance between a free-for-all on the roads and a camera at every corner. But humanity tends to deal more in irrational exuberances than happy mediums. The pendulum swings too far.

In Britain, over-the-top safety obsessions have produced a society where cameras and so-called traffic-calming speed bumps are everywhere, visitors to churches and colleges are warned that medieval paving stones may be a little uneven, schoolchildren have been advised to wear goggles when using certain glues (and helmets under chestnut trees), trainee hairdressers are not allowed scissors in the classroom, and mail delivery gets suspended in an entire region if a postman slips and hurts his shoulder. David Cameron, the prime minister, spoke out five years ago against the health-and-safety culture that had produced “a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country, covering the actions of millions of individuals.” Not much has changed.

Britain is only an extreme example of the broader phenomenon that can see the world’s greatest city, New York, shut down not by a snowstorm but by the possibility of a snowstorm (the blizzard that never happened); and the bizarre term “free-range parenting” applied to American moms and dads who believe their children should be allowed to walk home from school alone and play outside. Earlier this year a Maryland couple was found responsible for “child neglect” because they let kids walk home alone from a neighborhood park. Whatever happened to the land of the free and home of the brave?

I am not recommending that Western urban planners go to Vietnam to study traffic management. I am suggesting that developed Western societies, increasingly fear-driven, tend to fall into a nanny-state mind-set where health, safety and security must all be stringently regulated, adults are viewed as children, and the emotional intelligence of humanity is underestimated or discounted. To cross a highway in Saigon — perhaps with a wave here and there to remind onrushing scooters and cars of your existence — is to experience not just relief at reaching the other side, but wonderment at how unregulated people can work together.

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman was intrigued by this phenomenon. His “shared space” idea turned traditional thinking about road safety on its head. For much of the 20th century the assumption was that efficient traffic flow depended on a full separation of cars and pedestrians, complemented by traffic signals, signs, barriers and road markings that would keep people safe. The state took charge through regulation; the individual only had to obey instructions.

Monderman, who died in 2008, had other ideas. He wanted to raise collective awareness and responsibility by doing away with all that separateness, and he believed that safety might be increased by making all travelers intensely aware of one another. Cars, bicyclists and pedestrians would all move on a single curb-free surface, without sidewalks or signs. Sometimes he would test his schemes — developed in various Dutch, German and Scandinavian towns — by walking backward into dense traffic in a shared-space area. Of late the idea of “shared space” has even gained a foothold in London.

I recommend walking backward into a Saigon street, for the heck of it, but also to be reminded of the limits of regulation and the power of shared humanity.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

To prove that Americans can be every bit as crazy as Iranians, I took my daughter along on my last trip to Iran, in 2012, for a road trip across the country.

Iranians were stunned to see a 14-year-old Yankee teeny-bopper in their midst. In Mashhad, a conservative Islamic city that might seem wary of Americans, three Iranian women in black chadors accosted my daughter — and then invited her to a cafe where they plied her with ice cream, marveling at her and kissing her on the cheek as she ate.

They weren’t political, but they yearned for Iran to be a normal country again.

As the Iranian nuclear talks creep on into double overtime, let’s remember that this isn’t just about centrifuges but also about creating some chance over time of realigning the Middle East and bringing Iran out of the cold. It’s a long shot, yes, but it’s one reason Saudi Arabia is alarmed, along with Iranian hard-liners themselves. Those hard-liners survive on a narrative of conflict with the West, and depriving them of that narrative undermines them.

It’s odd to be debating a deal that hasn’t been reached, but, frankly, critics are mostly right in their specific objections to a deal, and in their aspirations for it.

“A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure,” noted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior.”

All true. Of course, a better deal would also involve gifts of delicious Persian baklava for every American. And a pony.

Netanyahu also suggests that a deal would give “Iran’s murderous regime a clear path to the bomb.” That’s a fallacy.

Iran is already on a path to nuclear capability. Netanyahu should know, because he’s been pointing that out for more than two decades. Beginning in 1992, he asserted that Iran was three to five years from a nuclear capability. Over time, that dropped to “a year or two,” and then to “months.”

But even if Netanyahu’s warnings have been alarmist, he has a point: Iran is getting closer. The problem is that fulminations don’t constitute a policy.

The West essentially has three options:

■ We can try to obtain a deal to block all avenues to a bomb, uranium, plutonium and purchase of a weapon. This would allow Iran to remain on the nuclear path but would essentially freeze its progress — if it doesn’t cheat. To prevent cheating, we need the toughest inspections regime in history.

■ We can continue the sanctions, cyberwarfare and sabotage to slow Iran’s progress. This has worked better than expected, but it’s not clear that we have a new Stuxnet worm to release. And, partly because of congressional meddling, international support for sanctions may unravel.

■ We can launch military strikes on Natanz, Isfahan, Arak, Fordow and, possibly, Tehran. This would be a major operation lasting weeks. Strikes would take place in the daytime to maximize the number of nuclear scientists killed. All this would probably delay a weapon by one to three years — but it could send oil prices soaring, lead to retaliatory strikes and provoke a nationalistic backlash in support of the government.

Imagine if we had launched a military strike against Chinese nuclear sites in the 1960s. In that case, Beijing might still be ruled by Maoists.

On balance, with either the military option or the sanctions option, Iran probably ends up with a nuclear capability within a decade. With a nuclear deal, it’s just possible that we could prevent that from happening. Perhaps no deal is achievable; the Iranian side has been recalcitrant lately. In that case, we continue with sanctions and hope that the economic pressure further delegitimizes the government and eventually forces Iran back to the table.

But, again, this isn’t just about uranium but also about undermining an odious regime and creating the conditions for Iran to become a normal country. I’ve rarely been to a more pro-American country, at the grass-roots, and there’s a pent-up anger at corruption and hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a revolution anytime soon. But it means that there’s a chance for movement after the death of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 75 and underwent prostate surgery last year.

In the office of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whom Khamenei edged out to be supreme leader, I was once jokingly introduced as coming from the “Great Satan.” An aide, referring to Iran’s own regime, immediately quipped: “America is only Baby Satan. We have Big Satan right here at home.”

So, sure, a nuclear deal carries risks and will be ugly and imperfect, but, on balance, it probably reduces the risk that Iran gets the bomb in the next 10 years. It may also, after Ayatollah Khamenei is gone, create an opportunity for Iran to end its chapter in extremism, so that the country is defined less by rapacious ayatollahs and more by those doting matrons in Mashhad.

Last but not least we get to Ms. Collins:

Last year Indiana chose “Honest to Goodness Indiana” as its new tourism slogan. Not everyone was charmed. Some critics said they’d have preferred something more cosmopolitan. Although it doesn’t seem likely they’d be happier with the runners-up, one of which was “Seasoned Just Right.”

Now, however, the slogan makes a kind of sense, especially if you throw in a little punctuation:

Honest to goodness, Indiana! Really, what were you thinking?

Last week, you may remember, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed a “religious freedom” law that was widely decried around the country as an attack on gay civil rights. One state business pulled the plug on a planned expansion in protest. Conferences were canceled, events called off. The N.C.A.A., which is based in Indianapolis, was looking extremely uneasy. Other states and cities began imposing Indiana travel bans.

This is the exact same thing that happened in Arizona a year before, except that the governor there responded to the outcry by vetoing the law. Nevertheless, the Republicans who run Indiana claimed they were shocked, shocked by these totally unexpected developments.

“We have suffered under this avalanche for the last several days of condemnation, and it’s completely baseless,” Pence complained to George Stephanopoulos on ABC on Sunday. It was very possibly one of the worst appearances by a governor in television history. The best Pence could do was to babble desperately that “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination.”

Stephanopoulos: “Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?”

Pence: “George …” He never could quite bring himself to just say no.

Pence and the Legislature’s majority party thought they were on safe ground because their law really did look like a federal freedom of religion act passed during the Clinton administration. Except for the part about giving businesses the right to refuse service on religious grounds. Like a bakery declining to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple. Which was absolutely not in any way the example the State Legislature had in mind. No, sirree.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act is known as RFRA despite the unfortunate resemblance to the sound of a hoarse Labrador retriever. It was passed in 1993 in response to the problems of Native Americans in Oregon, who smoked peyote in a religious ceremony and were then fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits.

The Indiana law was passed at a time of major frustration by the state’s social conservatives over a court ruling that made it impossible to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

All those who believe the Indiana Legislature was acting out of concern over the right of Native Americans to use peyote raise their hands.

“The politics as it went through the statehouse was clear,” said Deborah Widiss, a law professor at Indiana University.

Pence did have another explanation for why Indiana needed a religious freedom law right now. He said he wanted to expand the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which held that corporations have the right to refuse to cover the cost of contraception under the Affordable Care Act. “With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the need for a RFRA at the state level became more important, as the federal law does not apply to states,” the governor wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Think about that for a minute. Indiana passes a law that is widely regarded as a sop to the state’s social conservatives for their inability to ban same-sex marriage. The Republican establishment expresses dismay at this interpretation, and insists that its only intention was to deprive female residents of the right to get birth control.

Yippee.

We seem to have a pattern here. Last year in Arizona when the governor vetoed the anti-gay bill, the Legislature vented its frustration by passing a new anti-abortion law. The gay rights movement is winning, big time. But governments are still insisting on their authority to mess with the sex lives of heterosexual women.

Right now, Indiana is in a mess, and residents are worried about the loss of jobs and investment because of a meaningless and spiteful piece of legislation. They should feel free to blame their governor. Mike Pence was supposed to be one of those evenheaded fiscal conservatives that moderate Republicans point to as a potential presidential candidate. But he didn’t have the foresight to see how badly this would turn out, or the spine to push back. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is watching him flounder and making a last-minute attempt to beat back a similar bill there.

Pence and the Legislature want to appease the business community by amending the law. They’re currently trying to find a way to accomplish that mission while not upsetting the social conservatives they made so happy just last month.

Good luck with that one, guys.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

March 30, 2015

In “The Beating of Floyd Dent” Mr. Blow says another horrifically violent incident furthers the perception that the police are more likely to use force against blacks.  Mr. Cohen says “Iran Matters Most” and that America cannot stop the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East or its violence. It’s a time for fierce realism.  Prof. Krugman, in “Imaginary Healthcare Horrors,” says the Affordable Care Act is costing taxpayers much less than expected, but that hasn’t deterred the prophets of disaster.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“He was beating me upside the head,” Floyd Dent, a 57-year-old longtime autoworker told a gaggle of reporters last week, according to The Detroit Free Press. “I was trying to protect my face with my right arm. I heard one of them say, ‘Tase the M…F.’ ”

Dent was describing what he experienced in a horrifically violent dashboard camera video that shows Inkster, Mich., police officers pulling him over, dragging him from his car, punching him 16 times in the head and tasing him three times, while he lay bloody and struggling on the ground, before arresting him.

According to the website for a local NBC News affiliate: “Police said they first saw Dent’s car through binoculars while watching an area known to have drug activity. They followed Dent’s car and said he didn’t make a complete stop at a stop sign. Police said that when they turned on their flashing lights, Dent didn’t immediately pull over.”

Furthermore: “Police said they ordered Dent to put his hands up, but they could only see one. Police said Dent yelled ‘I’ll kill you’ at the officers. Dent’s attorney, Greg Rohl, said there’s no audio of the alleged threat.”

Finally: “Police said Dent refused to put his hands behind his back. Dent said he thought he was being choked to death and tried to pull the officers’ arms away from his throat. One of the officers said Dent bit him on the arm, and that’s why he started punching Dent. Police said the force was needed to restrain Dent. The officer who said he was bit did not seek medical attention or photograph the bite marks.”

According to The Free Press, “Police initially charged him with assault, resisting arrest and possession of cocaine, insisting they found cocaine beneath the passenger seat of his Cadillac. Dent says police planted the drugs at the time of his arrest. An Inkster district court judge, after reviewing the tape, tossed the assault and resisting charges, but Dent faces an April 1 hearing on the drug charge.”

Dent’s lawyer says the drugs were planted by the officer who punched him, William Melendez. And there is video that the lawyer claims backs up the allegation. As a reporter at the local NBC News affiliate describes it: “In the video, the officer seen throwing the punches, William Melendez, is seen pulling something from his pocket that looks like a plastic baggy with something inside it. Melendez testified in court police found a baggy of crack cocaine under the passenger seat of Dent’s car.”

It should be noted that, according to the local NBC News affiliate website, Dent said a blood test showed no drugs in his system.

It should also be noted that, according to The Free Press, Melendez, who federal investigators in 2003 said “was known on the street as ‘Robocop,’ ” “has been involved in 12 lawsuits related to his conduct as an officer over the years, including similar allegations in a civil rights suit now pending in federal court.”

Those lawsuits allege, “among other things, that he planted evidence, assaulted people in their homes, fabricated police reports and wrongly arrested people.”

Videos like the Dent footage further the perception, especially among African-Americans, that the police are more likely to use force — specifically deadly force — against blacks than whites.

A December CBS News poll found that 84 percent of blacks and 33 percent of whites believe that the police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against blacks. Just 2 percent of whites, and 0 percent of blacks, believe the police are more likely to use such force against whites.

(Fifty-seven percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks said they thought race did not affect the use of deadly force.)

And it is important to register where the most recent cases are centered.

As Isabel Wilkerson, author of the monumental book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” put it in a January New York Times essay titled “When Will the North Face Its Racism?”: “High-profile cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution.”

She concluded: “If the events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that, as much progress has been made over the generations, the challenges of color and tribe were not locked away in another century or confined to a single region but persist as a national problem and require the commitment of the entire nation to resolve.”

So much about Dent’s case is troublesome, and so he has become the latest touchstone in our coalescing conversation about the intersection of police forces and communities of color, particularly in the parts of this country that African-Americans fled to in search of a better life.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Do the Iran deal. Defeat the barbaric marauders of Islamic State. In the fragmenting mayhem of the Middle East, these must be the American and Western priorities.

They are objectives rooted in the strict Western interest. An Iranian nuclear accord lasting at least a decade that ring-fences a fiercely monitored and strictly limited enrichment program compatible only with civilian use is not an ideal outcome, but it is the best conceivable outcome of protracted talks that have already reversed the nuclear momentum in Iran and established a bridgehead between Washington and Tehran.

Any such agreement — and the deadline is imminent — must leave Iran a minimum of a year from any ‘‘break-out’’ to a bomb. The alternatives are far worse. Centrifuges and enrichment levels would resume their upward curve. War drums would beat again despite the fact that calls to attack Iran are an irresponsible invitation to disaster.

American or Israeli bombs on Persia (or both) would have all sorts of ghastly consequences, but the fundamental argument against such folly is that they would cause no more than a hiccup in Iran’s nuclear program before spurring it to renewed and unmonitored intensity. This would be war without purpose, or war on false pretenses. We’ve seen enough of that.

Iran is a hopeful and youthful society. Nurture the hope. Don’t imprison it. A deal lasting 10 years would condemn Iran and America to a working relationship over that period. I use the word ‘‘condemn’’ advisedly. It would not be pretty. In fact it would be ugly. There would be plenty of disagreements.

But jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Much can be achieved with nations that have fundamental ideological differences with the United States; look at the history of Chinese-American relations since they resumed in the 1970’s. During the next decade the Islamic Republic is likely to go through a leadership change. Its society is aspirational and Westward-looking. ‘‘Death to America’’ has become a tired refrain. What these elements will produce in terms of change is unpredictable, but the chance of positive developments is enhanced by contact and diminished by punitive estrangement of Tehran.

Would it be preferable that Iran not have the nuclear capacity it has acquired? Sure. Can there be absolute guarantees a deal would be honored? No. But diplomacy deals with the real world. The toughest, most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Opponents of an accord have offered no serious alternatives.

Only elementary knowledge of Iran is needed to know that sanctions will never bring this proud nation to its knees. It would rather starve than cave. What better assures Israel’s security, a decade of strict limitation and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program that prevents it making a bomb, or a war that delays the program a couple of years, locks in the most radical factions in Tehran, and intensifies Middle Eastern violence? It’s a no-brainer.

I like the current inconsistencies in President Obama’s Middle East policy. Some ask how it can make sense to pursue an Iran deal while backing Arab states, principally Sunni Saudi Arabia, in a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. To which the answer is first that interests drive foreign policy, not the pursuit of consistency (Stalin was once the most effective of American allies); and second that America is making it clear to Iran, even before any possible deal, that it will not abandon its allies, including Egypt and the Saudis, just because a nuclear agreement has been reached. This is an important message. The United States will oppose Iran where its interests and those of its allies demand that, deal or no deal.

One area where American and Iranian interests broadly coincide is in defeating Islamic State, the latest expression of the metastasizing Salafi Islamist ideology of murderous hatred toward Western civilization that produced 9/11 and recent murderous rampages in Europe. Islamic State is also a Sunni revanchist movement in Iraq and Syria, directly opposed to Shia Iran. There is nothing uplifting about the overlap in American and Iranian interests, but that does not make it any the less important. Rolling back Islamic State requires at least tacit Iranian cooperation.

America cannot stop the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East that its invasion of Iraq exacerbated. It cannot rebuild the Sykes-Picot order, or the borders that went with it. It cannot reverse its failure to prevent the worst in Syria (which will forever blot Obama’s record), nor its failure, outside Tunisia, and particularly in Egypt, to nurture the hope of the Arab spring for more representative societies freed from the paralyzing (and mutually reinforcing) confrontation of dictatorship and Islamism. It cannot prevent the violence inherent in all these developments. Nor should it hide its eyes from the fact that this violence will last a generation at least.

This is not cause for despair but reason to concentrate, fiercely, on the two attainable objectives that matter most now.

Last but not least we have Prof. Krugman:

There’s a lot of fuzzy math in American politics, but Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, recently set a new standard when he declared the cost of Obamacare “unconscionable.” If you do “simple multiplication,” he insisted, you find that the coverage expansion is costing $5 million per recipient. But his calculation was a bit off — namely, by a factor of more than a thousand. The actual cost per newly insured American is about $4,000.

Now, everyone makes mistakes. But this wasn’t a forgivable error. Whatever your overall view of the Affordable Care Act, one indisputable fact is that it’s costing taxpayers much less than expected — about 20 percent less, according to the Congressional Budget Office. A senior member of Congress should know that, and he certainly has no business making speeches about an issue if he won’t bother to read budget office reports.

But that is, of course, how it’s been all along with Obamacare. Before the law went into effect, opponents predicted disaster on all levels. What has happened instead is that the law is working pretty well. So how have the prophets of disaster responded? By pretending that the bad things they said would happen have, in fact, happened.

Costs aren’t the only area where enemies of reform prefer to talk about imaginary disasters rather than real success stories. Remember, Obamacare was also supposed to be a huge job-killer. In 2011, the House even passed a bill called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. Health reform, opponents declared, would cripple the economy and in particular cause businesses to force their employees into part-time work.

Well, Obamacare went into effect fully at the beginning of 2014 — and private-sector job growth actually accelerated, to a pace we haven’t seen since the Clinton years. Meanwhile, involuntary part-time employment — the number of workers who want full-time work but can’t get it — has dropped sharply. But the usual suspects talk as if their dire predictions came true. Obamacare, Jeb Bush declared a few weeks ago, is “the greatest job suppressor in the so-called recovery.”

Finally, there’s the never-ending hunt for snarks and boojums — for ordinary, hard-working Americans who have suffered hardship thanks to health reform. As we’ve just seen, Obamacare opponents by and large don’t do math (and they’re sorry when they try). But all they really need are a few sob stories, tales of sympathetic individuals who have been impoverished by some aspect of the law.

Remarkably, however, they haven’t been able to find those stories. Early last year, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed group, ran a series of ads featuring alleged Obamacare victims — but not one of those tales of woe stood up to scrutiny. More recently, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State took to Facebook to ask for Obamacare horror stories. What she got instead was a torrent of testimonials from people whose lives have been improved, and in some cases saved, by health reform.

In reality, the only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a relatively small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young and healthy (so insurers previously saw them as good risks) and affluent (so they don’t qualify for subsidies). Neither group supplies suitable victims for attack ads.

In short, when it comes to the facts, the attack on health reform has come up empty-handed. But the public doesn’t know that. The good news about costs hasn’t made it through at all: According to a recent poll by Vox.com, only 5 percent of Americans know that Obamacare is costing less than predicted, while 42 percent think the government is spending more than expected.

And the favorable experiences of the roughly 16 million Americans who have gained insurance so far have had little effect on public perceptions. Partly that’s because the Affordable Care Act, by design, has had almost no effect on those who already had good health insurance: Before the act, a large majority of Americans were already covered by their employers, by Medicare or by Medicaid, and they have seen no change in their status.

At a deeper level, however, what we’re looking at here is the impact of post-truth politics. We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.

And the result is that imaginary disasters can overshadow real successes. Obamacare isn’t perfect, but it has dramatically improved the lives of millions. Someone should tell the voters.


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