Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 8, 2016

In “Hillary Has ‘Half a Dream'” Mr. Blow says practicality and realistic goals are proving to be a handicap for Mrs. Clinton when it comes to young voters.  Mr. Cohen has produced a thing called “America’s Syrian Shame” in which he howls that Putin’s policy is hard to distinguish from Obama’s, and that America’s capitulation is complete, with appalling results.  In the comments “TDurk” from Rochester, NY had this to say:  “Really? President Obama’s Syrian policy has contributed to the slaughter in Paris and San Bernardino? That our president is not really interested in Europe?  When did Roger Cohen announce his candidacy for the republican presidential nomination? His non-logic and emotional assertions would fit in perfectly with that political circus.”  Prof. Krugman considers “The Time-Loop Party” and says Republican candidates keep repeating their canned policy statements, despite evidence that these prescriptions have failed in the real world.  Here’s Mr. Blow, writing from Durham, NH:

One of the most striking statistics to come of the Iowa caucus entry polling was the enormous skew of young voters away from Hillary Clinton and to Bernie Sanders. Only 14 percent of caucusgoers 17 to 29 supported Clinton, while 84 percent supported Sanders.

On Thursday, I traveled to the University of New Hampshire, site of a debate between Clinton and Sanders that night. Before the debate, I mingled on campus with people rallying for both candidates, with the Sanders rally many times larger than the Clinton one. The energy for Sanders at the school was electric.

For the actually debate, I went to a debate-watching party for Clinton supporters at the Three Chimneys Inn, just off campus. There were more heads of white hair in that room than a jar of cotton balls.

The two scenes so close to each other drove home the point for me: Hillary Clinton has a threatening young voter problem.

Young folks are facing a warming planet, exploding student debt, stunted mobility, stagnant wages and the increasing corporatization of the country due in part to the increasing consolidation of wealth and the impact of that wealth on American institutions.

Young folks are staring down a barrel and they want to put a flower in it, or conversely, smash it to bits. And they’re angry at those who came before them for doing too little, too late. They want a dramatic correction, and they want it now.

Sanders’s rhetoric plays well to young folks’ anxiety and offers a ray of hope. He wants to fix the system they see as broken, and he’s not new to those positions. He has held many of the same positions most of his life, but they have never had as much resonance as they do now. Never mind that Sanders has been in Congress for decades and doesn’t have the stronger record of accomplishments, as my colleague Nick Kristof put it last week.

Sanders is good at setting the goals, but not so good at getting there.

When people question Sanders on the feasibility of pushing his ambitious policies through an obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress, he often responds with the broad and loose talk of a political revolution, like he put it in his closing remarks Thursday:

“I do believe we need a political revolution where millions of people stand up and say loudly and clearly that our government belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.”

What he is saying is that a political revolution, meaning massive numbers of new voters and unprecedented voter turnout by people who support his policies, would result in flipping control of Congress and an easier path to his policies’ passage and implementation.

But if Iowa is any measure, that revolution has yet to materialize, and indeed, may never.

Iowa did see a record number of caucusgoers … for the Republican candidate. The number of Democratic caucusgoers fell significantly, and half of those went to Clinton.

As RealClearPolitics reported:

“The trend line is positive for Republicans (turnout up 54 percent from 2012) and negative for Democrats (turnout was down 22 percent from 2008).”

This doesn’t sound anything like the kind of numbers Sanders would need to push his agenda forward, and he knows that. If anything, it sounds like the budding of another Republican revolution. But these facts are ones that would never pass Sanders’s lips. They would puncture the balloon and end his ascendance.

Clinton, on the other hand, represents much of what they distrust or even despise. There is an aura of ethical ambiguity — from the emails to the Wall Street paid speeches to the super PACs. (There is growing pressure for her to release the transcripts of those speeches and have the content of them compared to her public pronouncement.) There is the legacy of her military hawkishness, including her Iraq war vote. There is the articulation of her positions that are at odds with young folks’ aspirations and sensibilities, like saying Thursday, “I don’t believe in free college,” and saying that she continues to support capital punishment.

But possibly the most damaging of Clinton’s attributes is, ironically, her practicality. As one person commented to me on social media: Clinton is running an I-Have-Half-A-Dream campaign. That simply doesn’t inspire young people brimming with the biggest of dreams. Clinton’s message says: Aim lower, think smaller, move slower. It says, I have more modest ambitions, but they are more realistic.

As Clinton put it Thursday in a swipe at Sanders, “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep.”

But the pragmatic progressive line is not going to help her chip away at Sanders’s support among the young. That support is hardening into hipness. Supporting Sanders is quickly becoming the thing to do if you are young and want to appeal to those who are. Clinton’s time to reverse that is quickly running out, and a strategy of simply holding out long enough so that the heavy black and brown support for her counters it may not be sufficient.

And if those young voters don’t turn out and vote for Hillary if she’s the nominee they will deserve the hell that they’ll unleash on us all.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, foaming at the mouth:

The Putin policy in Syria is clear enough as the encirclement of rebel-held Aleppo proceeds and tens of thousands more Syrians flee toward the Turkish border. It is to entrench the brutal government of Bashar al-Assad by controlling the useful part of Syrian territory, bomb the moderate opposition into submission, block any possibility of Western-instigated regime change, use diplomatic blah-blah in Geneva as cover for changing the facts on the ground, and, maybe fifth or sixth down the list, strengthen the Syrian Army to the point it may one day confront the murderous jihadist stronghold of the Islamic State.

The troubling thing is that the Putin policy on Syria has become hard to distinguish from the Obama policy.

Sure, the Obama administration still pays lip service to the notion that Assad is part of the problem and not the solution, and that if the Syrian leader may survive through some political transition period he cannot remain beyond that. But these are words. It is President Vladimir Putin and Russia who are “making the weather” in Syria absent any corresponding commitment or articulable policy from President Obama.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now virtually encircled by the Syrian Army. A war that has already produced a quarter of a million dead, more than 4.5 million refugees, some 6.5 million internally displaced, and the destabilization of Europe through a massive influx of terrorized people, is about to see further abominations as Aleppo agonizes.

Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria. It is already the Munich.

By which I mean that the city’s plight today, its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs, is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.

Where such feeble evasions masquerading as strategy lead is to United States policy becoming Putin’s policy in Syria, to awkward acquiescence to Moscow’s end game, and to embarrassed shrugs encapsulating the wish that — perhaps, somehow, with a little luck — Putin may crush ISIS.

Obama’s Syrian agonizing, his constant what-ifs and recurrent “what then?” have also lead to the slaughter in Paris and San Bernardino. They have contributed to a potential unraveling of the core of the European Union as internal borders eliminated on a free continent are re-established as a response to an unrelenting refugee tide — to which the United States has responded by taking in around 2,500 Syrians since 2012, or about 0.06 percent of the total.

“The Syrian crisis is now a European crisis,” a senior European diplomat told me. “But the president is not interested in Europe.” That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.

Syria is now the Obama administration’s shame, a debacle of such dimensions that it may overshadow the president’s domestic achievements.

Obama’s decision in 2013, at a time when ISIS scarcely existed, not to uphold the American “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a pivotal moment in which he undermined America’s word, incurred the lasting fury of Sunni Gulf allies, shored up Assad by not subjecting him to serious one-off punitive strikes, and opened the way for Putin to determine Syria’s fate.

Putin policy is American policy because the United States has offered no serious alternative. As T.S. Eliot wrote after Munich in 1938, “We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us.” Syria has been the bloody graveyard of American conviction.

It is too late, as well as pure illusion, to expect significant change in Obama’s Syria policy. Aleppo’s agony will be drawn-out. But the president should at least do everything in his power, as suggested in a report prepared by Michael Ignatieff at the Harvard Kennedy School, to “surge” the number of Syrian refugees taken in this year to 65,000 from his proposed 10,000. As the report notes, “If we allow fear to dictate policy, terrorists win.”

Putin already has.

And now we finally get to Prof. Krugman:

By now everyone who follows politics knows about Marco Rubio’s software-glitch performance in Saturday’s Republican debate. (I’d say broken-record performance, but that would be showing my age.) Not only did he respond to a challenge from Chris Christie about his lack of achievements by repeating, verbatim, the same line from his stump speech he had used a moment earlier; when Mr. Christie mocked his canned delivery, he repeated the same line yet again.

In other news, last week — on Groundhog Day, to be precise — Republicans in the House of Representatives cast what everyone knew was a purely symbolic, substance-free vote to repeal Obamacare. It was the 63rd time they’ve done so.

These are related stories.

Mr. Rubio’s inability to do anything besides repeat canned talking points was startling. Worse, it was funny, which means that it has gone viral. And it reinforced the narrative that he is nothing but an empty suit. But really, isn’t everyone in his party doing pretty much the same thing, if not so conspicuously?

The truth is that the whole G.O.P. seems stuck in a time loop, saying and doing the same things over and over. And unlike Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” Republicans show no sign of learning anything from experience.

Think about the doctrines every Republican politician now needs to endorse, on pain of excommunication.

First, there’s the ritual denunciation of Obamacare as a terrible, very bad, no good, job-killing law. Did I mention that it kills jobs? Strange to say, this line hasn’t changed at all despite the fact that we’ve gained 5.7 million private-sector jobs since January 2014, which is when the Affordable Care Act went into full effect.

Then there’s the assertion that taxing the rich has terrible effects on economic growth, and conversely that tax cuts at the top can be counted on to produce an economic miracle.

This doctrine was tested more than two decades ago, when Bill Clinton raised tax rates on high incomes; Republicans predicted disaster, but what we got was the economy’s best run since the 1960s. It was tested again when George W. Bush cut taxes on the wealthy; Republicans predicted a “Bush boom,” but actually got a lackluster expansion followed by the worst slump since the Great Depression. And it got tested a third time after President Obama won re-election, and tax rates at the top went up substantially; since then we’ve gained eight million private-sector jobs.

Oh, and there’s also the spectacular failure of the Kansas experiment, where huge tax cuts have created a budget crisis without delivering any hint of the promised economic miracle.

But Republican faith in tax cuts as a universal economic elixir has, if anything, grown stronger, with Mr. Rubio, in particular, going even further than the other candidates by promising to eliminate all taxes on capital gains.

Meanwhile, on foreign policy the required G.O.P. position has become one of utter confidence in the effectiveness of military force. How did that work in Iraq? Never mind: The only reason anybody in the world fails to do exactly what America wants must be because our leadership is lily-livered if not treasonous. And diplomacy, no matter how successful, is denounced as appeasement.

Not incidentally, the shared Republican stance on foreign policy is basically the same view Richard Hofstadter famously described in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: Whenever America fails to impose its will on the rest of the world, it must be because it has been betrayed. The John Birch Society has won the war for the party’s soul.

But don’t all politicians spout canned answers that bear little relationship to reality? No.

Like her or not, Hillary Clinton is a genuine policy wonk, who can think on her feet and clearly knows what she is talking about on many issues. Bernie Sanders is much more of a one-note candidate, but at least his signature issue — rising inequality and the effects of money on politics — reflects real concerns. When you revisit Democratic debates after what went down Saturday, it doesn’t feel as if you’re watching a different party, it feels as if you’ve entered a different intellectual and moral universe.

So how did this happen to the G.O.P.? In a direct sense, I suspect that it has a lot to do with Foxification, the way Republican primary voters live in a media bubble into which awkward facts can’t penetrate. But there must be deeper causes behind the creation of that bubble.

Whatever the ultimate reason, however, the point is that while Mr. Rubio did indeed make a fool of himself on Saturday, he wasn’t the only person on that stage spouting canned talking points that are divorced from reality. They all were, even if the other candidates managed to avoid repeating themselves word for word.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 5, 2016

Sigh.  Bobo’s preaching again.  In “A Question of Moral Radicalism” he babbles that stories of extreme do-gooders are both inspiring and unnerving. So how altruistic must one be?  In the comments “Stuart” said “I am so incredibly tired of lectures from David Brooks about morals. Where has he been on the moral issues of the day? Absent or in support of his morally objectionable party.”  In “Europe’s Huddled Masses” Mr. Cohen says a digital migration of epic proportions is underway. But America is nowhere to be seen on the refugee crisis.  Prof. Krugman asks “Who Hates Obamacare?”  He says left-wing attacks on an imperfect program could undermine progressives’ interests.  Here’s Bobo:

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama told the story of a group of Americans who were captured by the Nazis during World War II. The head of the German prison camp gave an order that the Jewish soldiers step forward. An American master sergeant, Roddie Edmonds, ordered all of his men to step forward. The Nazi held a gun to the sergeant’s head and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” The sergeant replied, “We are all Jews.” Rather than execute all of the men, the Nazi backed down.

That kind of moral heroism took place in extraordinary circumstances. But even today there are moral heroes making similar if less celebrated sacrifices than those soldiers were ready to make.

Larissa MacFarquhar’s recent book, “Strangers Drowning,” is about such people. She writes about radical do-gooders. One of her subjects started a leper colony in India. One couple had two biological children and then adopted 20 more kids who needed a home. A women risked rape to serve as a nurse in war-torn Nicaragua. One couple lived on $12,000 a year so they could donate the additional money they earned annually, about $50,000, to charity.

These people were often driven by moral rage and a need to be of pure service to the world. They tend to despise comfort and require a life that is difficult, ascetic and self-sacrificial. They yearn for the feeling that they are doing their utmost to relieve suffering. One abandoned a marriage to serve the poor.

For these extreme do-gooders, MacFarquhar writes, it is always wartime. There are always sufferers somewhere in the world as urgently in need of rescue as victims of a battle. The do-gooders feel themselves conscripted to duty.

Some radical do-gooders are what the philosopher Susan Wolf calls rational saints. It is their duty to reduce the sum total of suffering in the world, and the suffering of people halfway around the world is no different than the suffering of someone next door.

There’s a philosophy question: If you were confronted with the choice between rescuing your mother from drowning or two strangers, who should you rescue? With utilitarian logic, the rational saint would rescue the two strangers because saving two lives is better than saving one. Their altruism is impartial, universal and self-denying. “The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other,” one man MacFarquhar writes about says.

Others Wolf calls loving saints. They are good with others’ goodness, suffering in others’ pain. They are the ones holding the leper, talking to the potential suicide hour upon hour. Their service is radically personal, direct and not always pleasant.

This sort of radical selflessness forces us to confront our own lives. Should we all be living lives with as much moral heroism as these people? Given the suffering in the world, are we called to drop everything and give it our all? Did you really need that $4 Frappuccino when that money could have gone to the poor?

The argument against this sort of pure moral heroism is that fanaticism in the relief of suffering is still a form of fanaticism. It makes reciprocal relationships difficult, because one is always giving, never receiving. It can lead to a draconian asceticism that almost seems to invite unnecessary suffering.

Love, by its nature, should be strongest when it is personal and intimate. To make love universal, to give no priority to the near over the far, is to denude love of its texture and warmth. It is really a way of avoiding love because you make yourself invulnerable.

In an essay on Gandhi, George Orwell argued that the essence of being human is in the imperfect flux of life, not in the single-minded purity of sainthood. It is the shared beer, the lazy afternoon, the life of accepted imperfection. Full humanness is in having multiple messy commitments and pleasures, not one monistic duty that eclipses all else.

In a 1982 essay called “Moral Saints,” Wolf argued that the desire to be supremely good can never be just one desire among many; it demotes and subsumes all the other desires. She wrote that a world in which everybody strove to achieve moral sainthood “would probably contain less happiness than a world in which people realized a diversity of ideals involving a variety of personal and perfectionist values.”

As Andrew Kuper of LeapFrog Investments put it, sometimes you can do more good by buying that beautiful piece of furniture, putting somebody in Ghana to work.

Yet I don’t want to let us off the hook. There’s a continuum of moral radicalism. Most of us are too far on the comfortable end and too far from the altruistic one. It could be that you or I will only really feel fulfilled after a daring and concrete leap in the direction of moral radicalism.

Gawd, but he’s insufferable.  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

From London to Athens Europe is questioned. Some people, mainly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are dying to get into the European Union. Many British conservatives are fighting to get out of it. Others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, plot to undermine it. Yet others are bored by it. The 20th century and the strategic imperatives behind NATO and the European Union seem far away to wired millennials.

The two most powerful symbols of European integration — the euro that binds 19 European Union states in a currency union, and the Schengen accords that allow people to move freely between 22 borderless European Union nations — are in danger of unraveling under the pressure of polarized politics, diverging economic performance and the influx of more than one million desperate migrants and refugees in the past year.

There is an identity crisis. Christian Europe, a notion that Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has turned into a kind of illusory fetish, is in fact much less Christian. Around 6 percent of the European population is Muslim today; by 2030 that figure will be 8 percent.

A small minority of those Muslims — told by online jihadi propagandists that there is no gray zone between Islam and the infidel, only the obligation to slaughter the unbeliever — drift off via Turkey to ISIS-held territory in Syria and return to kill — Charlie Hebdo, the Paris kosher supermarket, Paris sports and music halls and restaurants, the Brussels Jewish museum. Division and demagoguery spread. Xenophobic rightist parties thrive at the margins from Sweden to Greece.

At Cologne and Stockholm stations, in the two countries that have overwhelmingly taken in the most refugees, two rampages — by asylum seekers against women in Germany and by masked nationalist thugs against refugee children in Sweden — illustrate the tensions.

Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, recently told my colleague Jim Yardley, “This is not Europe. This is a nightmare.” That nightmare is one of looming fragmentation, violence and walls for the half-billion people now moving freely between Warsaw and Lisbon.

It can be averted. The Europe of today is not the Europe of the 1930s. In Berlin, Angela Merkel stands tall, a European leader of immense stature. Still, the fissuring pressures are intense.

Sometimes, as Yeats noted, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We live in an age of unraveling. The postwar is over. The post-Cold War is over. The United States, under President Obama, has quietly stepped back from Europe. Washington is nowhere to be seen on the refugee crisis, the absent power, much as it was absent from the Minsk process on the Ukraine crisis.

The world is most dangerous in a power vacuum. The geopolitical divides across the world are the most marked in at least a generation. This makes every issue more intractable. The United Nations has proved a complete dud on Syria. It took almost five years, 250,000 dead and more than 11 million displaced people for the Security Council to pass a resolution on a “road map” to peace. That map, for now, is utter fiction. For as many years, Obama did nothing.

Now refugees stream from Syria and elsewhere into Europe. If they carried a banner, it should read, “Reap what you sow, feckless world.” A digital migration of epic proportions is underway. Each refugee carries a smartphone and knows his or her desired destination.

From this New Europe to New Hampshire, unpredictable forces are at play. Show me a Donald Trump, even a slightly Iowa-humbled one, and I’ll see you with a Marine Le Pen.

The strange thing is this troubled Europe has rescued the United States. That’s new. Without Merkel’s courageous decision to take in 1.1 million refugees last year, Europe would have faced catastrophe — and America, even in an election year, could not have ignored violent mayhem among its allies as borders closed and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were cast adrift.

Another 65,000 refugees arrived in Germany in January, setting the country on course for 780,000 more this year. Some 200,000 mainly Muslim children are entering German schools. Imagine if America, which has four times the German population, were to register 800,000 mainly Muslim children in schools in a few months. On reflection, don’t even try.

Nobody knows what Germany’s limit is. But there is one. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will turn on her if the numbers keep rising. Other European nations are not going to take significant quotas: There’s scant democratic support for the right and ethical thing to do.

So Germany has to cut a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The deal will probably see Turkey getting piles of cash — and perhaps the visa waiver that Turks desperately want from Germany — in exchange for Turkey strictly curtailing the refugee flow to an agreed number who would not have to risk their lives in flimsy boats.

Turkish politics have become German domestic politics. A troubled Europe, cast loose from America, slouches toward Ankara to be saved.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Ted Cruz had a teachable moment in Iowa, although he himself will learn nothing from it. A voter told Mr. Cruz the story of his brother-in-law, a barber who had never been able to afford health insurance. He finally got insurance thanks to Obamacare — and discovered that it was too late. He had terminal cancer, and nothing could be done.

The voter asked how the candidate would replace the law that might have saved his brother-in-law if it had been in effect earlier. Needless to say, all he got was boilerplate about government regulations and the usual false claims that Obamacare has destroyed “millions of jobs” and caused premiums to “skyrocket.”

For the record, job growth since the Affordable Care Act went fully into effect has been the best since the 1990s, and health costs have risen much more slowly than before.

So Mr. Cruz has a truth problem. But what else can we learn from this encounter? That the Affordable Care Act is already doing enormous good. It came too late to save one man’s life, but it will surely save many others. Why, then, do we hear not just conservatives but also many progressives trashing President Obama’s biggest policy achievement?

Part of the answer is that Bernie Sanders has chosen to make re-litigating reform, and trying for single-payer, a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. So some Sanders supporters have taken to attacking Obamacare as a failed system.

We saw something similar back in 2008, when some Obama supporters temporarily became bitter opponents of the individual mandate — the requirement that everyone buy insurance — which Hillary Clintonsupported but Mr. Obama opposed. (Once in office, he in effect conceded that she had been right, and included the mandate in his initiative.)

But the truth is, Mr. Sanders is just amplifying left-wing critiques of health reform that were already out there. And some of these critiques have merit. Others don’t.

Let’s start with the good critiques, which involve coverage and cost.

The number of uninsured Americans has dropped sharply, especially in states that have tried to make the law work. But millions are still uncovered, and in some cases high deductibles make coverage less useful than it should be.

This isn’t inherent in a non-single-payer system: Other countries with Obamacare-type systems, like the Netherlands and Switzerland, do have near-universal coverage even though they rely on private insurers. But Obamacare as currently constituted doesn’t seem likely to get there, perhaps because it’s somewhat underfunded.

Meanwhile, although cost control is looking better than even reform advocates expected, America’s health care remains much more expensive than anyone else’s.

So yes, there are real issues with Obamacare. The question is how to address those issues in a politically feasible way.

But a lot of what I hear from the left is not so much a complaint about how the reform falls short as outrage that private insurers get to play any role. The idea seems to be that any role for the profit motive taints the whole effort.

That is, however, a really bad critique. Yes, Obamacare did preserve private insurance — mainly to avoid big, politically risky changes for Americans who already had good insurance, but also to buy support or at least quiescence from the insurance industry. But the fact that some insurers are making money from reform (and their profits are not, by the way, all that large) isn’t a reason to oppose that reform. The point is to help the uninsured, not to punish or demonize insurance companies.

And speaking of demonization: One unpleasant, ugly side of this debate has been the tendency of some Sanders supporters, and sometimes the campaign itself, to suggest that anyone raising questions about the senator’s proposals must be a corrupt tool of vested interests.

Recently Kenneth Thorpe, a respected health policy expert and a longtime supporter of reform, tried to put numbers on the Sanders plan, and concluded that it would cost substantially more than the campaign says. He may or may not be right, although most of the health wonks I know have reached similar conclusions.

But the campaign’s policy director immediately attacked Mr. Thorpe’s integrity: “It’s coming from a gentleman that worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield. It’s exactly what you would expect somebody who worked for B.C.B.S. to come up with.” Oh, boy.

And let’s be clear: This kind of thing can do real harm. The truth is that whomever the Democrats nominate, the general election is mainly going to be a referendum on whether we preserve the real if incomplete progress we’ve made on health, financial reform and the environment. The last thing progressives should be doing is trash-talking that progress and impugning the motives of people who are fundamentally on their side.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 1, 2016

In “Iowa’s Black Caucusgoers” Mr. Blow says despite their relatively small numbers, black voters on Monday could make a difference in the direction of the presidential campaign.  In “Italian-Iranian Hall of Mirrors” Mr. Cohen says the West has not capitulated by hiding the Capitoline nudes. But Italy has again failed the test of seriousness.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Wind, Sun and Fire:”  Will we have a renewables revolution? He says it may be closer than you think.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

On Monday, Iowans will become the first people in the nation to officially express their choices for the next president of the United States.

But what interested me in particular was that a subset of those voters will be black. And since black voters in national polls are overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelming prefer Hillary Clinton to her rivals, it seemed important to explore how these voters are processing this election cycle and its candidates.

Over three days in Des Moines — from Friday to Sunday — I interviewed more than 30 black people, and spoke briefly to many more at a black church, a black-owned barbershop, a popular soul food restaurant and at African-American social events.

My first impression from these conversations was that there existed a staggering level of ambivalence and absence of enthusiasm. A surprising number of people said that they were undecided and started an answer with the clause, “If I had to chose …”

Furthermore, there also seemed to be a generational divide between the people who felt more embraced and informed by the political campaigns — the older ones, and those who felt more abandoned or ignored by them — the younger ones.

As Wayne Ford, co-founder and co-chairman of the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, told me Sunday, the level of excitement in the black community is “nowhere near where it was 2008” when Barack Obama was a candidate.

Also, the preference for Clinton over Bernie Sanders was a two-pronged assessment; it was a sophisticated weighing of comfort and of policy without an absolutism of good vs. bad, but rather a matter of degrees better or worse, more real or more fantasy.

On the policy front, many simply found Sanders’s policies unrealistically ambitious, an over-promising of giveaways. As one woman put it, “He sounds like Oprah: ‘You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!’ How is he going to pay for all that?”

Clinton’s ambitions seemed to be judged more realistic.

Then, there was the problem of comfort.

The Clintons seem to intuitively understand the value of retail politics, particularly when doing outreach to marginalized groups. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from black people about the time that one of the Clintons — most often Bill Clinton — spoke at or showed up at an event important to the black community.

This means something. It adds to an aura of familiarity that doesn’t extend to Sanders.

For instance, on Saturday, the second and final day of the “I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa” annual festival, billed as the largest African-American festival in the state, Hillary Clinton was the only candidate to make an appearance, albeit incredibly briefly.

(Some may recognize the phrase “I’ll make me a world” as a line in James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” from his 1927 book of poems “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” Those who don’t may already be at a deficit in African-American outreach.)

This year for the first time a straw poll was taken at the event, and Clinton got more votes than all other candidates combined.

But it seemed to me that the support was remarkably soft. People, in general, weren’t charging toward passion but slumping toward acquiescence.

The next day, Bill Clinton strode into the Corinthian Baptist Church — accompanied by Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee. While Hillary had spoken for just a few minutes at the previous day’s event, Bill spoke so long at the church that there was no time left for a sermon.

Bill Clinton seems to understand the powerful role the griot plays in black culture, and he channels that spirit when he speaks, far more than any non-black candidate I’ve seen.

Maybe that is why no one I spoke to mentioned “how much damage the Clintons have done — the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes,” as Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” put it Thursday on her Facebook page.

For Sanders’s part, he seemed to be judged too unfamiliar and too absent, particularly down the homestretch. This feels to me like a terrible tactical error. No matter how much his positions and policies may benefit black voters, they are no more interested than any other group of voters in a long-distance love affair. You have to show up. You have to put in the time.

It is true that in the last census, blacks were only 3.7 percent of the population in Iowa, but that vote matters, not only for Iowa but also as a harbinger for those who will come after.

As Rick Wade, Obama’s director of African-American outreach in 2008, told CNN last week, “In both large and small caucuses, black voters can tilt the scales when the numbers are close.” He continued: “And strong black support in Iowa could affect black response and support in South Carolina and nationally.”

As an aside, if you haven’t read “God’s Trombones” find a copy.  You won’t regret it.  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Italy’s decision to cover up the nudes at the Capitoline Museum in deference to the sensibilities of the visiting Glasgow-educated Iranian president has been widely interpreted as final proof of the capitulation of Western civilization to theocratic Islam.

It was, Hisham Melhem, a columnist for Al Arabiya English, suggested, a “brazen act of self-emasculation and obeisance.”

If Italy, inheritor of the glories of the Roman Empire, boxes up some of its finest works of art just in case the eye of President Hassan Rouhani should fall on the plum-like breast of a marble goddess, then nobody should be surprised if Islamic fanatics (Sunni, not Shia, but still) choose to destroy the glorious Greco-Roman legacy at Palmyra.

Or so the reasoning goes.

As a consequence of Boxgate, Italy has suffered ridicule. Nothing is worse than ridicule. Here it is merited. Not so much, I would argue, for Italy’s clumsy attempt at courtesy, for courtesy is important and has become an undervalued virtue. Reading the fall of the West into the concealment of a nude is going too far. Mistakes happen.

No, the ridicule is merited because the decision to hide the works of art was, it seems, taken by nobody. In Rome, the buck stops nowhere.

The Capitoline Venus just boxed herself up one night because she was bored and took a few deities along with her.

The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, did not know. The foreign minister did not know. The culture minister called the decision “incomprehensible.” They were, they insist (perhaps too much), as surprised as anyone to find all those white cubes — none, incidentally, provided by the prestigious White Cube gallery in London.

One account has it that a woman named Ilva Sapora who works at Palazzo Chigi, where Renzi’s office is located, made the decision after visiting the Capitoline with Iranian Embassy officials. “Nonsense,” Jas Gawronski, a former Italian member of the European Parliament, told me. The notion that a mid-level Chigi official in charge of ceremonial matters could have made the decision does seem far-fetched. Gawronski believes it is more likely to have been officials at the Farnesina, home to the Foreign Ministry.

One thing can be safely said: Nobody will ever know. I was a correspondent in Rome for some years in the 1980s. Periodically there would be developments in terrorist cases — the Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969 or the Brescia bombing of 1974. Trials, verdicts, appeals followed one another. Facts grew murkier not clearer. It would take decades to arrive at convictions that did not resolve doubts. Italy has never had much time for the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.

Renzi has wanted to break with this Italy of murky secrets, modernize it, bring stable government and install accountability. He’s made significant changes in electoral and labor law. But he has a problem. At the same time as the Boxgate scandal was unfolding he was telling my colleague Jim Yardley in an interview that, “I’m the leader of a great country.”

A great country doesn’t have statues that box themselves up all by themselves.

Truth in Italy is elastic. A much-conquered country learned the wisdom of ambiguous expression, as for that matter did much-conquered Persia. The Italians say, “Se non é vero, é ben trovato” — roughly if it’s not true it ought to be.

At bottom, this story is one of an Iranian-Italian hall of mirrors with a pot of gold sitting in the middle of the hall valued at about $18 billion in new trade deals.

The Iranians insist nobody asked for those masterpieces of Classical humanism to be hidden: another case of nobody’s decision.

Iran too distrusts clarity. It is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof,” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.

Speaking of truth denial, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has again questioned the existence of the Holocaust. He chose to do so in a video uploaded to his website on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is to be another “Holocaust Cartoon and Caricature Contest” in June.

Needless to say this Holocaust denial is odious, the regime at its worst. It is also a sign of desperation among the hard-liners determined to block Rouhani’s opening to the world. They reckon Holocaust denial will derail any détente. The buzzword of the hard-liners is “nufuz,” or infiltration by the West. Iranians are being warned to guard against it in this month’s parliamentary elections.

You can hide a few statues in the Capitoline Museum, but you can’t hide the deep rifts between an Iranian society overwhelmingly in favor of opening to the West and a theocratic regime determined to ensure the nuclear deal does not lead to wider cooperation with the United States and Europe.

Far from finding itself in a state of capitulation, the West exerts a very powerful cultural magnetism, evident in the rabid desperation of its opponents.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So what’s really at stake in this year’s election? Well, among other things, the fate of the planet.

Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should — but won’t — put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped. The truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier; it is, by far, the most important policy issue facing America and the world. Still, this election wouldn’t have much bearing on the issue if there were no prospect of effective action against the looming catastrophe.

But the situation on that front has changed drastically for the better in recent years, because we’re now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution. What’s more, getting that energy revolution wouldn’t require a political revolution. All it would take are fairly modest policy changes, some of which have already happened and others of which are already underway. But those changes won’t happen if the wrong people end up in power.

To see what I’m talking about, you need to know something about the current state of climate economics, which has changed far more in recent years than most people seem to realize.

Most people who think about the issue at all probably imagine that achieving a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would necessarily involve big economic sacrifices. This view is required orthodoxy on the right, where it forms a sort of second line of defense against action, just in case denial of climate science and witch hunts against climate scientists don’t do the trick. For example, in the last Republican debate Marco Rubio — the last, best hope of the G.O.P. establishment — insisted, as he has before, that a cap-and-trade program would be “devastating for our economy.”

To find anything equivalent on the left you have to go far out of the mainstream, to activists who insist that climate change can’t be fought without overthrowing capitalism. Still, my sense is that many Democrats believe that politics as usual isn’t up to the task, that we need a political earthquake to make real action possible. In particular, I keep hearing that the Obama administration’s environmental efforts have been so far short of what’s needed as to be barely worth mentioning.

But things are actually much more hopeful than that, thanks to remarkable technological progress in renewable energy.

The numbers are really stunning. According to a recent report by the investment firm Lazard, the cost of electricity generation using wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power fell 82 percent. These numbers — which are in line with other estimates — show progress at rates we normally only expect to see for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.

Now, there are still some issues special to renewables, in particular problems of intermittency: consumers may want power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But this issue seems to be of diminishing significance, partly thanks to improving storage technology, partly thanks to the realization that “demand response” — paying consumers to cut energy use during peak periods — can greatly reduce the problem.

So what will it take to achieve a large-scale shift from fossil fuels to renewables, a shift to sun and wind instead of fire? Financial incentives, and they don’t have to be all that huge. Tax credits for renewables that were part of the Obama stimulus plan, and were extended under the recent budget deal, have already done a lot to accelerate the energy revolution. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which if implemented will create strong incentives to move away from coal, will do much more.

And none of this will require new legislation; we can have an energy revolution even if the crazies retain control of the House.

Now, skeptics may point out that even if all these good things happen, they won’t be enough on their own to save the planet. For one thing, we’re only talking about electricity generation, which is a big part of the climate change problem but not the whole thing. For another, we’re only talking about one country when the problem is global.

But I’d argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point, in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let us take the lead in global action.

Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary. But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging in the balance.

Brooks and Cohen

January 26, 2016

Bobo seems to be heading for a nervous breakdown.  In “Stay Sane America, Please!” he tries to convince himself that there are many good reasons to think Trump, Cruz and Sanders won’t make it past the primaries, much less the conventions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Too bad, Mr. Brooks. You’ve made your bed, and now you can lose sleep in it. The subliminal messages you try to send by mentioning Reagan in the company of FDR, Lincoln and Eisenhower won’t work. Neither will Bernie Sanders be diminished by lumping him in with the odious Trump and Cruz. Rhetorical tricks aren’t going to elevate Republicans, or tear down the Democrats.”  In “Donald Trump Goes Rogue” Mr. Cohen says Palin speaks of “squirmishes” in the Middle East. It’s January and 2016 is already cause to squirm.  Here’s Bobo, whistling past the graveyard:

In January of 2017 someone will stand at the U.S. Capitol and deliver an Inaugural Address. This is roughly the place where Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan once stood. I am going to spend every single day between now and then believing that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz nor Bernie Sanders will be standing on that podium. One of them could win the election, take the oath, give the speech and be riding down Pennsylvania Avenue. I will still refuse to believe it.

Yes, I know what the polling evidence is telling us about Trump, Sanders and Cruz, but there are good reasons to cling to my disbelief.

First, these primary campaigns will not be settled in February. They won’t be settled in March or April. Sometimes a candidate can sweep Iowa and New Hampshire and cruise to the nomination. But that candidate has to be broadly acceptable to all parts of the party. Trump, Cruz and Sanders are not.

As Jay Cost writes in The Weekly Standard, “This could mean a lengthy nomination battle that stretches all the way to the California primary in June.”

On the Republican side the early primaries and caucuses allocate delegates proportionally. Only 16.2 percent of the delegates over all come from winner-take-all states. That means the delegate-getting war will be a slog.

The first day when any candidate could rack up a big winner-take-all delegate harvest is March 15, an eternity from now. More than half the delegates will be allocated after that date.

Second, Cruz and Trump will go after each other with increasing ferocity over the next many weeks or months. There is a decent chance, given their personalities, that they will make each other maximally unattractive and go down in each other’s death embrace.

Third, the Trump and Sanders turnout problems are real. Trump is doing very well among people who haven’t voted in the past four elections. It’s possible he has energized them so much they will actually caucus and vote, but you wouldn’t want to bet your gold-plated faucets on it. People who don’t vote generally don’t vote.

Sanders is drawing support from nonvoters, too. As Nate Cohn wrote in The Upshot on Monday, Sanders is up in some polls over all, but he trails big time among people in Iowa who caucused in 2008 and among those who are definitely registered to vote.

It’s quite possible that the big story post-Iowa will be how badly these two underperformed.

Fourth, establishment Republicans who are softening on Trump because they think he is more electable than Cruz are smoking something. According to a Pew Research survey, a majority of Americans think Trump would make a poor or terrible president.

Chuck Todd ran through Trump’s favorable-unfavorable ratings on “Meet the Press” on Sunday: Among independents, Trump is negative 26 points; among women, negative 36; among suburban voters, negative 24. Is the Republican Party really going to nominate one of the most loathed men in American public life?

Fifth, America has never elected a candidate maximally extreme from the political center, the way Sanders and Cruz are. According to the FiveThirtyEight website, Cruz has the most conservative voting record in the entire Congress. That takes some doing.

Sixth, sooner or later the candidates from the governing wing of their parties will get their acts together. Marco Rubio has had a bad month, darkening his tone and trying to sound like a cut-rate version of Trump and Cruz.

Before too long Rubio will realize his first task is to rally the voters who detest or fear those men. That means running as an optimistic American nationalist with specific proposals to reform Washington and lift the working class.

If he can rally mainstream Republicans he’ll be at least tied with Trump and Cruz in the polls. Then he can counter their American decline narrative, with one of his own: This country is failing because it got too narcissistic, became too much like a reality TV show. Americans lost the ability to work constructively to get things done.

Finally, eventually the electorate is going to realize that in an age of dysfunctional government, effective leadership capacity is the threshold issue. That means being able to listen to others, surround yourself with people smarter than you, gather a governing majority and above all have an actual implementation strategy. Not Trump, Cruz or Sanders has any remote chance of turning his ideas, such as they are, into actual laws.

In every recent presidential election American voters have selected the candidate with the most secure pair of hands. They’ve elected the person who would be a stable presence and companion for the next four years. I believe they’re going to do that again. And if they’re not, please allow me a few more months of denial.

Eat a huge pile of salted donkey dicks, Bobo, and retire to your fainting couch and STFU about the catastrophe you helped create.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

I used to think 2015 was bad but that was before the first few weeks of 2016. It’s still January and Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, has already said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.?”

The really scary part — without getting into what this line of thinking might presage in terms of Trump’s actions if he ever got to the Oval Office — is he could be right. Teflon Trump: nothing sticks.

People like to be bullied when the world feels too upended and menacing to cope; when, as Trump puts it in one his favorite tropes, “Something’s going on.” Trump’s plugging into Dylan, odious as that thought is: “Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?”

We’ll find out just what over the next few months. Napoleon used to ask of his prospective generals, “Is he lucky?” Trump appears to be. That’s scary too.

The scariest part, however, is that Sarah Palin supports Trump and she said: “Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, O.K.? Well, Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man, that’s why he’s doing so well.”

O.K.!

Or as James Joyce put it in Finnegans Wake: “Did you aye, did you eye, did you everysee suchaway, suchawhy, eeriewhigg airywhugger?”

No wonder Stephen Colbert, preparing to imitate Palin on The Late Show, first fired a taser gun at “the part of my brain that understands sentence structure.” That did the trick.

Minus his occipital lobe Colbert was right at home with Palin’s, “Well, and then, funny, ha ha, not funny, but now, what they’re doing is wailing, ‘Well, Trump and his, uh, uh, uh, Trumpeters, they’re not conservative enough.”’

Uh, huh?

I wonder what Palin will say if former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, appalled by this political spectacle, decides to spend a billion dollars of his loose change on going rogue center as a presidential candidate. Could happen. Or is it too “hopey, changey” to imagine that?

Still, I have to hand it to Palin. Her new word — “squirmish” — is useful. She characterized the Middle East as a place of “squirmishes that have been going on for centuries.”

The world in 2016 does make you squirm. In just three weeks close to $8 trillion has been wiped off global equity markets by a “correction.” The reasons seem unclear, which is not very comforting.

China is slowing. There is no next China. Oil prices are sinking, a trend that should have benefits but appears to have few this time. The terrible relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, that is to say the Shiite and Sunni Muslim worlds, just got far more terrible.

Nobody really knows what to do about ISIS, unless it’s Palin, who on the one hand wants to “kick ISIS ass” and on the other wants to “let Allah sort it out.”

Allah’s got a way with squirmishes if you just give him time.

And it’s not like the year began on a high. In fact 2015 was already a real downer. It brought the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Paris massacre, the San Bernardino slaughter, the rise and internationalization of ISIS, the death toll in Syria to about 250,000, the arrival of over one million desperate migrants and refugees in Europe, dead little Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, a senseless Saudi war in Yemen, Putin offensives on various fronts, the warmest year on record, American bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, and sundry other disasters.

At least an American Embassy in Havana opened. There was the Paris climate accord.

Look no further than this troubling world to understand Trump and the various rightist populists making a lot of noise on the European fringes. Take two lost wars, stagnant wages for most people, threats of terrorism, plunging 401(k) retirement plans, and rampant anxiety — and put all that together with a practiced showman promising restored greatness — and you get the Weimar volatility of this unanchored America.

Well, at least it snowed. It snowed a lot. It snowed on the nation’s capital. It snowed on New York. We were snowed under with coverage — the build-up, the blizzard, the post-blizzard. At least the snow was white, unlike the black flags of ISIS, and at least it really had nothing to do with Trump or Palin.

Unless, as I confess I did, you found yourself imagining Trump opening fire on Fifth Avenue on some slacker not wielding a shovel and staining the snow red with blood — to the roar of the “Trumpeters.”

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

January 18, 2016

In “G.O.P. and the Apocalypse” Mr. Blow says the Republican candidates are sending such a negative message that it may backfire in the general election.  In “Iran Opens for Business” Mr. Cohen says Netanyahu and Rubio are wrong, and that toughness is no more than empty aggression when it will not admit to misjudgment.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Health Reform Realities:”  Should progressives re-litigate Obamacare? He says there are many reasons to think that it just wouldn’t work.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week I suffered through another dust-dry Republican debate in which a slimmed-down roster of seven candidates leveled many of the same attacks and regurgitated many of the same staid pitches.

There were a few flashes of life that caught my attention or made me chuckle:

Ted Cruz debuting some entertaining lines of attack to rebuff the questions the real estate developer keeps raising about whether Cruz is indeed a “natural born citizen” and able to become president. The real estate developer managed a surprisingly maudlin moment when he rebuked, quite successfully, Cruz for his outrageous us-against-them comments about “New York values.” Jeb Bush calling the perpetual squabbling between Marco Rubio and Cruz a “back and forth between two senators — backbench senators.”

But what struck me most about the debate was just how unremittingly bleak the tone of it was.

These Republican candidates have countered Obama’s “ Hope” and “Change” message from 2008 and “Forward” message from 2012 with “War” and “Ruin” and “Backwards.”

There seemed to be a competition to see who could describe the state of the country.

Understandably, a candidate has to identify a problem that they plan to fix. That’s simply the nature of politics. If there is no problem to fix, there is no need of a fixer.

Democrats are identifying problems as well.

Bernie Sanders has identified Wall Street greed, the “casino capitalist process” and income inequality as the enemy, and himself as the only one in the race with the credibility and philosophical track record to bring them to heel.

Hillary Clinton has identified Republicans and the prospects of their dismantling the progress made under the Obama presidency as her enemy, and she has positioned herself as the only logical heir to the current president, to protect his legacy and build on it.

But even as the Democratic candidates point to very real concerns, they seem to my mind also able to offer a vision of hopefulness and idealism.

Republicans are missing the second shoe. They are describing a coming apocalypse from which we must be saved, not a future that is full of light. Indeed, it is as if they must inflate some mythical beast so that they will appear more valiant in their quest to slay it. Everything is about arms and war and the Islamic State, guns and taxes and joblessness. It is about taking the country back to a different posture, a different period.

I can’t imagine that this will work in the end. While fear and anger can be effective electoral motivators, presidents are often elected on messages that carry a positive vision.

That positive vision is achingly absent from the Republican field. At least Ben Carson, with his meandering, absent-minded answer, came across as positive — not by his policies so much as by his soft-spoken, easy to laugh, slow to attack demeanor. But even that, during the most recent debate, didn’t work. Carson came off as more jester than that cogent candidate. When asked a question early in the debate, Carson responded with awkward self-deprecation: “Well, I’m very happy to get a question this early on. I was going to ask you to wake me up when that time came.” Oh Ben, they always look like they are waking you.

Most of the rest of the evening was consumed by the negative.

The real estate developer: “Our country’s a mess.” Later: “I’m angry because our country is a mess.”

Bush: “We have the mess in Washington, D.C.” Later, on Hillary Clinton: “She wants to continue down the path of Iran, Benghazi, the Russian reset, Dodd-Frank, all the things that have — that have gone wrong in this country. She would be a national security mess.”

Chris Christie: “There’s a number of things that the next president is going to have to do to clean up this mess.”

But, mess wasn’t always a strong enough word, so they sometimes amped it up.

Rubio: “She wouldn’t just be a disaster. Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States.”

The real estate developer: “Our military is a disaster.”

Bush: “Hillary Clinton would be a national security disaster.” Later: “Everybody’s record’s going to be scrutinized, and at the end of the day we need to unite behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton, because she is a disaster.”

It isn’t completely clear to me the relationship between the candidates’ rhetoric and the prevailing views of Republican voters: Are the candidates merely a reflection of the disaffected base, are the candidates helping to create the disaffection, or do they all exist in a national echo chamber amplifying each other?

But whatever the origins or the source of the expansion, this strikes me as a losing strategy. At some point, someone among the Republican candidates will have to offer a positive message to reach the middle of the voter spectrum and the crossover voters that one needs to win the presidency. If not, this field is destined to be remembered as a group of hyperbolic doomsayers rather than as successful presidential politicians.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Some people cannot stand good news. It troubles their fixed view of the world. These would include Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who were cast into a huff by the confirmed reversal of Iran’s nuclear program and its release of several Americans, including Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post.

Try a smile, guys. Toughness is no more than empty aggression when it will not admit to misjudgment. Diplomacy delivers.

Rezaian is coming home after a year and a half of groundless imprisonment. An American pastor and a former Marine will be reunited with their families. Iran had more than 19,000 first-generation centrifuges installed; that number is now 6,104. Its advanced centrifuges have been slashed from over 1,000 to zero. Its low-enriched uranium stockpile has been cut to 660 pounds from over 19,000.

The plutonium route to a bomb has been cut off. Iran is subject to what President Obama called “the most comprehensive, intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.” The country’s “break-out” time — the period needed to rush for a bomb — has been extended to a year from two to three months.

The trauma-induced Iranian-American psychosis, ongoing since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, has been overcome. Two tireless diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and the University of Denver-educated Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speak when needed. American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters are released within 24 hours. A financial dispute outstanding since 1981 is resolved. The world’s 18th-largest economy is about to rejoin the world at a time when the sinking global economy sure could use a jolt. The nuclear deal, even in these early days, is not hermetic. It opens doors.

To all of which Rubio responds that Obama has put “a price on the head of every American abroad” when he should have used “crippling sanctions” (oh, please, not that crippled phrase again). Netanyahu actually claims that if it were not for Israel “leading the way” on sanctions, “Iran would have had a nuclear weapon long ago.” Iran, he baritones, “has not relinquished its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons.”

That may be — or not. We can all go guessing in the Iranian bazaar. Nothing comes cheaper than an Iran pontificator.

What is clear is that Iran is much further from a nuclear weapon because of the courageous diplomacy of Obama and Kerry and Zarif and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who all confronted hostile constituencies at home to get the deal done.

For Iran, the arrival of “implementation day” means the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions and access to about $100 billion in frozen assets. A big nation is open for business again, back in the global financial system and world oil market.

Netanyahu, Rubio and their ilk believe Iran will use the windfall to do its worst. That cannot be discounted. The United States and Iran remain hostile on most fronts, from Syria to Israel. Revolutionary Guard hard-liners have not drunk the Kool-Aid at the Rouhani-Zarif school of diplomacy. Obama’s imposition of mild new sanctions for banned missile tests was a reminder of differences.

But if the developments of recent days demonstrate one thing, it is that Iran, 37 years from its revolution, is delicately poised between hard-liners and reformers, neither of whom can dictate the country’s course, each of whom need the other for now. Imminent parliamentary elections may indicate which camp is ascendant. Whatever happens, it is hard to argue that greater contact with the world will be bad for the large, modernizing, highly educated younger generation. Iran is a pro-American country with a tired anti-American refrain. It has a successful diaspora community ready to help revive the country — if allowed to do so.

The breakthrough with Iran is Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement, one that may have a transformative effect on the region. The next decade will show to what degree. That potential is what has American allies from Saudi Arabia to Israel so perturbed. They preferred the status quo.

Of course it could all unravel. Predicting Doomsday is easy. But with hard work, I believe the chances are greater that American-Iranian diplomatic relations will be restored within five years.

The Economist had a good summary of why Iran’s reintegration is so important and consequential. It noted that “the prospects in a post-deal Iran are vast.” The country is not “an oil-soaked rentier state,” like some of its neighbors, but a “regional power with an industrial economy” — if a grossly mismanaged one. Its population of 80 million is well-educated, its oil and gas reserves enormous. The country’s pent-up need for foreign investment may amount to $1 trillion. Iran, it concluded, is “preparing for takeoff.”

Try saying the word Iran without saying the word “nuclear.” It’s time. In fact, it’s past time, even if good news is too much for some.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Health reform is the signature achievement of the Obama presidency. It was the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare was established in the 1960s. It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations. And it is already producing dramatic results, with the percentage of uninsured Americans falling to record lows.

Obamacare is, however, what engineers would call a kludge: a somewhat awkward, clumsy device with lots of moving parts. This makes it more expensive than it should be, and will probably always cause a significant number of people to fall through the cracks.

The question for progressives — a question that is now central to the Democratic primary — is whether these failings mean that they should re-litigate their own biggest political success in almost half a century, and try for something better.

My answer, as you might guess, is that they shouldn’t, that they should seek incremental change on health care (Bring back the public option!) and focus their main efforts on other issues — that is, that Bernie Sanders is wrong about this and Hillary Clinton is right. But the main point is that we should think clearly about why health reform looks the way it does.

If we could start from scratch, many, perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer, a Medicare-type program covering everyone. But single-payer wasn’t a politically feasible goal in America, for three big reasons that aren’t going away.

First, like it or not, incumbent players have a lot of power. Private insurers played a major part in killing health reform in the early 1990s, so this time around reformers went for a system that preserved their role and gave them plenty of new business.

Second, single-payer would require a lot of additional tax revenue — and we would be talking about taxes on the middle class, not just the wealthy. It’s true that higher taxes would be offset by a sharp reduction or even elimination of private insurance premiums, but it would be difficult to make that case to the broad public, especially given the chorus of misinformation you know would dominate the airwaves.

Finally, and I suspect most important, switching to single-payer would impose a lot of disruption on tens of millions of families who currently have good coverage through their employers. You might say that they would end up just as well off, and it might well be true for most people — although not those with especially good policies. But getting voters to believe that would be a very steep climb.

What this means, as the health policy expert Harold Pollack points out, is that a simple, straightforward single-payer system just isn’t going to happen. Even if you imagine a political earthquake that eliminated the power of the insurance industry and objections to higher taxes, you’d still have to protect the interests of workers with better-than-average coverage, so that in practice single-payer, American style, would be almost as kludgy as Obamacare.

Which brings me to the Affordable Care Act, which was designed to bypass these obstacles. It was careful to preserve and even enlarge the role of private insurers. Its measures to cover the uninsured rely on a combination of regulation and subsidies, rather than simply on an expansion of government programs, so that the on-budget cost is limited — and can, in fact, be covered without raising middle-class taxes. Perhaps most crucially, it leaves employer-based insurance intact, so that the great majority of Americans have experienced no disruption, in fact no change in their health-care experience.

Even so, achieving this reform was a close-run thing: Democrats barely got it through during the brief period when they controlled Congress. Is there any realistic prospect that a drastic overhaul could be enacted any time soon — say, in the next eight years? No.

You might say that it’s still worth trying. But politics, like life, involves trade-offs.

There are many items on the progressive agenda, ranging from an effective climate change policy, to making college affordable for all, to restoring some of the lost bargaining power of workers. Making progress on any of these items is going to be a hard slog, even if Democrats hold the White House and, less likely, retake the Senate. Indeed, room for maneuver will be limited even if a post-Trump Republican Party moves away from the scorched-earth opposition it offered President Obama.

So progressives must set some priorities. And it’s really hard to see, given this picture, why it makes any sense to spend political capital on a quixotic attempt at a do-over, not of a political failure, but of health reform — their biggest victory in many years.

Bobo, Cohen, Bruni and Krugman, and not Kristof

January 15, 2016

In “When Beauty Strikes” Bobo gurgles that modern art has certain kinds of social value, but we have suffered the loss of an old understanding of how beauty transforms the soul.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “I miss the days when Mr. Brooks simply tried to convince us to vote Republican. Since recent candidates have pulled that rug out from under him, he now tends to wax philosophical. His conservative urges have not left him, but they’ve changed form. Instead of an artist descending to the level of pundits, our pundit has become an artist, masterfully constructing a platonic ideal of a world, and longing for a time that never really existed.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Fermi, Sinatra, DiMaggio — and Capone” says the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs, but American openness is shrinking.  Mr. Bruni says “Trump and Cruz Set an Ugly, Nasty Tone” and that with time running out, the Republicans went for broke at their most venomous meeting yet.  Prof. Krugman has a question:  “Is Vast Inequality Necessary?”  He says of course not, despite what many of its beneficiaries believe.  Mr. Kristof treated us to more of his tweets and is being ignored again.  Here’s Bobo:

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day. But it also reminds me of a worldview, which was more common in eras more romantic than our own.

This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.

By arousing the senses, beauty arouses thought and spirit. A person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life. A person who has appreciated the Pietà has a greater capacity for empathy, a more refined sense of the different forms of sadness and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.

John O’Donohue, a modern proponent of this humanistic viewpoint, writes in his book “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace”: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. … Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”

The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”

By this philosophy, beauty incites spiritual longing.

Today the word eros refers to sex, but to the Greeks it meant the fervent desire to reach excellence and deepen the voyage of life. This eros is a powerful longing. Whenever you see people doing art, whether they are amateurs at a swing dance class or a professional painter, you invariably see them trying to get better. “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart,” Vincent van Gogh wrote.

Some people call eros the fierce longing for truth. “Making your unknown known is the important thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote. Mathematicians talk about their solutions in aesthetic terms, as beautiful or elegant.

Others describe eros as a more spiritual or religious longing. They note that beauty is numinous and fleeting, a passing experience that enlarges the soul and gives us a glimpse of the sacred. As the painter Paul Klee put it, “Color links us with cosmic regions.”

These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.

Over the past century, artists have had suspicious and varied attitudes toward beauty. Some regard all that aesthetics-can-save-your-soul mumbo jumbo as sentimental claptrap. They want something grittier and more confrontational. In the academy, theory washed like an avalanche over the celebration of sheer beauty — at least for a time.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence). Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

President Obama showcased a Syrian immigrant, Refaai Hamo, during his State of the Union address as evidence of “our diversity and our openness,” qualities that have long defined and sustained the United States.

But given the degree of openness America has offered Syrian refugees over close to five years of war in which a quarter of a million people have been killed, this political choreography qualified as serious chutzpah.

Hamo, who lost his wife and daughter in the war, is one of about 2,500 refugees Washington has admitted since 2012. That’s roughly 0.06 percent of the 4.4 million Syrians who have fled their country, most of them marooned in neighboring Middle Eastern states, many staggering into Europe.

In fact Hamo, in his relative isolation on this side of the Atlantic, might better have been offered as a symbol of the closing of the American mind — its post 9/11 susceptibility to fear of terrorism, its anxiety about downward social drift, its uncertainty about the future, its postwar fatigue, its plague-on-all-their-houses dismissal of the war-without-victory Middle East.

Obama tried to inject hope. That’s where the world began with Obama. Yes, we could. In truth, after seven years in the White House, he seemed weary himself, straining for conviction.

As the world knows by now, Obama’s temperament is more inclined toward explanation than exhortation. The president is primed to out-reason the Islamic State — they want this, so we’ll do that — as if reason even flirts with the outer galaxies of the Raqqa universe. When feeling does take over, as with Obama’s passionate appeal this month for America to rein in its gun madness, the effect is particularly powerful because rare.

Republicans have sought to block Obama at every turn, not least on immigration, balking even at his plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. The politics of anti-Muslim bigotry will not be far from the surface throughout this American election year.

For everyone — from Donald Trump to rightist parties in Germany and Sweden — itching to close borders, the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have become the great I-told-you-so moment. Germany last year admitted 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, of whom close to 40 percent are Syrian. That’s a huge number. Sweden’s admission last year of up to 190,000 refugees is also substantial, relative to its population.

In small towns, when hundreds of newcomers abruptly arrive, social tensions are inevitable. Far-right forces — Germany’s Pegida movement or the Sweden Democrats — believe they can benefit.

The refugee flow is unlikely to stop. Saudi Arabia just took a hatchet to already forlorn international peacemaking efforts through a mass execution that infuriated Iran. No peace is possible in Syria until the Saudis and Iranians both want it.

Still, I’d bet on Germany and Sweden, societies that have absorbed substantial numbers of refugees in the past, to prove resilient, and the aging European countries most open to immigration to be the more dynamic over time. What happened in Cologne was vile. Chancellor Angela Merkel has rightly spoken of “disgusting, criminal acts,” and responded by toughening laws. She should go further. As a woman who reached the pinnacle, addressing refugees who have fled Muslim countries where women are often demeaned, she is uniquely placed to address the direct relationship between successful societies and female dignity, freedom and independence.

Meanwhile, let’s keep some perspective. Even the most aggressive estimate of the number of asylum seekers involved in the Cologne incidents still leaves more than 1,099,500 newly admitted refugees in Germany who had nothing to do with what happened.

Merkel has done the right thing. Where would Europe be today with 1.1 million desperate people trudging from closed border to closed border? The Western responsibility for the Syrian debacle is immense. Her decision, alone among leaders, implicitly acknowledges this fact. Germany, over the past quarter-century, has absorbed 16 million former East Germans and ushered them from the paranoid, subjugated mind-set of the Soviet imperium. Its large Turkish community is unevenly integrated, but ever better with the years. Germany will handle the current influx.

Immigration is a challenge but also a measure of the confidence of a society, its preparedness for self-renewal. That confidence is low in America right now. “The dignity of a person is untouchable” — so begins Germany’s postwar Constitution, with words drawn from bitter experience. Merkel has shown the conviction that this idea can eventually be absorbed by everyone now in Germany. She will be vindicated.

The United States, between the 1880’s and 1924, admitted about 4 million Italian immigrants. As Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, observed to me, “We got Enrico Fermi, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Antonin Scalia — and Al Capone. Who in their right mind would suggest that the Italian immigration was not a great blessing for our country?”

Call it the Capone Principle: Costs of immigration are outweighed by benefits.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Remember that phase of the campaign when Ted Cruz spoke no ill of Donald Trump, who returned the favor?

You may now forget it. Bury it. Write its obituary, in a pen dipped in acid.

At Thursday night’s Republican debate, the two frontrunners didn’t merely spar, as was expected. They glared at and scolded each other with a venomousness that was initially mesmerizing, then horrifying and finally just sad—very, very sad.

The trajectory of the Republican primary has been one of growing pessimism, intensifying acrimony and abundant pettiness, and it reached its ugly nadir on the stage in North Charleston, S.C.

This happened when Cruz was asked to respond to Trump’s claim that he might not qualify as a “natural-born citizen” eligible for the presidency. Cruz was ready for it, asserting that as recently as four months ago, Trump had sung a different tune.

“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said. “But the poll numbers have, and I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.”

The two men argued about what the numbers really said, Trump insisting that his were bigger. They battled over the legitimacy and motivations of a Harvard law professor who had weighed in skeptically on Cruz’s eligibility. They traded barbs about Trump’s mother. Yes, his mother.

Some of their lines were wicked—some of Cruz’s, at least. He’s frighteningly talented at this sort of thing, and told Trump: “I’m happy to consider naming you as V.P., and so, if you happen to be right, you can get the top job at the end of the day.”

But as the scabrous exchange went on (and on) and John Kasich visibly slumped in frustration and the other candidates gaped in what seemed like genuine disbelief at the length of this endless digression, it was impossible to be entertained or amused.

The only sane response was sorrow—that this is a presidential election in the greatest democracy on earth, and that blowhards like Trump and Cruz are, for now, setting the pace and the terms in one of our two major political parties.

Over the course of this sixth meeting of the leading Republican candidates, serious issues were indeed broached, and the candidates raised legitimate questions about what President Obama had and hadn’t done to make Americans feel safe. They had a warranted discussion about whether the American economy had improved enough and in the right ways.

But the tone eclipsed the substance, and the tone was nastier than it had to be, sometimes to the point of pure silliness.

With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, the New Hampshire primary right after that and several of the seven men onstage still looking for elusive traction, they went for broke: exaggerated words, extreme claims, voices raised high and chests puffed out as never before.

Trump was, as ever, at center stage.

For such a small-minded man, he hovers so large over this country’s political landscape, casting the longest and most sinister of shadows. He was the sire of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which could be heard as a point-by-point retort to the gloom, doom and bigotry that Trump peddles. He was the sire of Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, which was as concerned with chastising him as with contradicting the president.

And he was the sire of this debate, inasmuch as the anger that he summons and the uncompromising toughness that he projects have infected his adversaries, tugging them toward truculence. On Thursday night, several of them seemed intent on out-Trumping Trump.

Chris Christie didn’t merely portray himself as the most effective opponent for Hillary Clinton.

“If I’m the nominee, she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House,” he proclaimed.

He didn’t merely state his differences with Obama. He compared the president to “a petulant child” and made him a promise.

“We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall,” he said. Trump couldn’t have expressed it more crudely.

Rubio, for his part, wholly abandoned the upbeat message and mien that once defined him. There’s no sunshine in a race that orbits around a star as dark as Trump. There’s only thunder, fear, apocalyptic musings and bellicose vows to exert America’s muscle around the world.

Rubio talked about handing out many a “one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.” Cruz talked about “the full force and fury of the United States of America.”

Rubio and Cruz squared off against each other just before the debate clock ran out, with Cruz calling Rubio soft on immigration and Rubio calling him soft on national defense. But it wasn’t typical political theater: It was more sneering and more savage than that—jarringly so.

“That is not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said of Cruz’s record. “That is political calculation.”

Cruz insisted on ample time to respond. “He had no fewer than 11 attacks there,” he said, and then, addressing Rubio directly, added: “I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder.”

By the time it was all over, I was fantasizing about Trump’s promised wall, only it didn’t separate the United States from Mexico. It separated Cruz from Trump, Rubio from Cruz and all three of them from the rest of us, who are looking for leadership, not egos and vitriol.

And last but never least here’s Prof. Krugman:

How rich do we need the rich to be?

That’s not an idle question. It is, arguably, what U.S. politics are substantively about. Liberals want to raise taxes on high incomes and use the proceeds to strengthen the social safety net; conservatives want to do the reverse, claiming that tax-the-rich policies hurt everyone by reducing the incentives to create wealth.

Now, recent experience has not been kind to the conservative position. President Obama pushed through a substantial rise in top tax rates, and his health care reform was the biggest expansion of the welfare state since L.B.J. Conservatives confidently predicted disaster, just as they did when Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top 1 percent. Instead, Mr. Obama has ended up presiding over the best job growth since the 1990s. Is there, however, a longer-term case in favor of vast inequality?

It won’t surprise you to hear that many members of the economic elite believe that there is. It also won’t surprise you to learn that I disagree, that I believe that the economy can flourish with much less concentration of income and wealth at the very top. But why do I believe that?

I find it helpful to think in terms of three stylized models of where extreme inequality might come from, with the real economy involving elements from all three.

First, we could have huge inequality because individuals vary hugely in their productivity: Some people are just capable of making a contribution hundreds or thousands of times greater than average. This is the view expressed in a widely quoted recent essay by the venture capitalist Paul Graham, and it’s popular in Silicon Valley — that is, among people who are paid hundreds or thousands of times as much as ordinary workers.

Second, we could have huge inequality based largely on luck. In the classic old movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” an old prospector explainsthat gold is worth so much — and those who find it become rich — thanks to the labor of all the people who went looking for gold but didn’t find it. Similarly, we might have an economy in which those who hit the jackpot aren’t necessarily any smarter or harder working than those who don’t, but just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Third, we could have huge inequality based on power: executives at large corporations who get to set their own compensation, financial wheeler-dealers who get rich on inside information or by collecting undeserved fees from naïve investors.

As I said, the real economy contains elements of all three stories. It would be foolish to deny that some people are, in fact, a lot more productive than average. It would be equally foolish, however, to deny that great success in business (or, actually, anything else) has a strong element of luck — not just the luck of being the first to stumble on a highly profitable idea or strategy, but also the luck of being born to the right parents.

And power is surely a big factor, too. Reading someone like Mr. Graham, you might imagine that America’s wealthy are mainly entrepreneurs. In fact, the top 0.1 percent consists mainly of business executives, and while some of these executives may have made their fortunes by being associated with risky start-ups, most probably got where they are by climbing well-established corporate ladders. And the rise in incomes at the top largely reflects the soaring pay of top executives, not the rewards to innovation.

But the real question, in any case, is whether we can redistribute some of the income currently going to the elite few to other purposes without crippling economic progress.

Don’t say that redistribution is inherently wrong. Even if high incomes perfectly reflected productivity, market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification. And given the reality that wealth often reflects either luck or power, there’s a strong case to be made for collecting some of that wealth in taxes and using it to make society as a whole stronger, as long as it doesn’t destroy the incentive to keep creating more wealth.

And there’s no reason to believe that it would. Historically, America achieved its most rapid growth and technological progress ever during the 1950s and 1960s, despite much higher top tax rates and much lower inequality than it has today.

In today’s world, high-tax, low-inequalitycountries like Sweden are also both highly innovative and home to many business start-ups. This may in part be because a strong safety net encourages risk-taking: People may be willing to prospect for gold, even if a successful foray won’t make them quite as rich as before, if they know they won’t starve if they come up empty.

So coming back to my original question, no, the rich don’t have to be as rich as they are. Inequality is inevitable; the vast inequality of America today isn’t.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

January 11, 2016

In “Focus on Illegal Guns” Mr. Blow says regulations such as safety features and registration are needed to make a dent in gun violence.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Limits of American Realism,” says excise the idea of the extension of liberty from U.S. foreign policy and something very meager remains.  In “The Obama Boom” Prof. Krugman says dire warnings from Republicans about the effect of President Obama’s policies on employment have simply not come true.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Late Thursday night a madman approached a police cruiser in Philadelphia and fired at least 11 times at the officer in the vehicle, striking him three times in the left arm.

Even with those wounds, the officer was able to get out, chase the shooter and return fire, striking him in the buttocks.

The shooter would later tell the police, according to Capt. James Clark, commander of the Police Department’s homicide division: “I follow Allah and I pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. That is the reason why I did what I did.”

This is a disturbing reminder of the influence of ISIS on individuals disposed to acts of terror, and how hard it is to identify all of them before they commit a violent act.

But the episode also highlighted something else that does not get enough discussion: the use of stolen guns in crimes.

You see, the gun used in the Philadelphia attack had been stolen, from a police officer no less, in 2013.

Our current discussion about increasing gun regulations often centers on efforts that would mostly affect people who legally buy firearms. Many of them make sense, in theory, but the truth is that they would not be likely to have a huge impact on criminal gun violence, because many of those criminals obtain their weapons illegally.

So, when the gun lobby and gun owners make this case, we must admit that they have a point.

In 2013, Samuel Bieler of the Urban Institute wrote a fascinating article about where criminals get their guns, and his findings were somewhat shocking.

Corrupt dealers supply some of the guns. According to Bieler:

“Some researchers have suggested that gun retailers divert a relatively low volume of weapons, while others have found them to be a major source.”

Some come from gangs and family and friends. Specifically, “Research has put their role as a supply source at 30 to 40 percent of crime guns, but little is known about the composition of this nebulous ‘friends and family’ category.”

And research by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives suggests that “just one percent of licensed firearms dealers sold more than half of the guns recovered in crimes, and that most gun dealers rarely have one of their guns show up in crime.”

But what I found most shocking was the number of guns that are stolen each year: as many as half a million. Each year! And many of those stolen guns are then used in other crimes.

In a 2003 book, “The Challenge of Crime,” published by Harvard University Press, authors quoted researchers who found the following:

“They learned that 32 percent of the felons had acquired their most recent weapon through their own theft; an additional 14 percent knew that their friend, family, or street source had stolen the weapon before conveying it; and an additional 24 percent thought that the weapon probably had been stolen by his source. At least 46 percent, then, and possibly as many as 70 percent of felons’ most recently owned firearms had been stolen either by the offender himself or by the source from whom he acquired the weapon. In addition, 47 percent of the respondents quizzed as to whether they had ever stolen a firearm during a crime admitted to so doing and 86 percent of the felons who admitted prior stealing of firearms reported multiple thefts.”

Rather than focusing on all guns, the vast, vast majority of which are owned by responsible people and are never used in the commission of a crime, we have to focus on keeping guns out of the hands of this relatively small number of criminals.

People, including the president in his speech and town hall meeting last week, like to compare increasing gun regulations to the way cars are regulated. But they didn’t simply get safer due to regulations. They also got safer because the market desired more safety, as well as anti-theft features. Many of the innovations, carmakers came up with on their own. The gun market doesn’t behave that way.

Furthermore, cars are required to be licensed, registered, insured and periodically inspected. Also, you can’t hide a car the way you can hide a gun. Cars are operated on public roads.

If we want to truly put a dent in gun violence, we must take some incredibly unpopular steps in some pockets. Safety features — including smart guns that can only be fired by the owner — are going to have to be added to the market. That will be hard to sell because no one wants a gun to fail to because it lacks a charge or due to a technology glitch. One of benefits of traditional guns is that, technologically, they are simple and ancient. There are no batteries or chips.

We are also likely to have to register guns and require insurance. This would be almost impossible, given the gun lobby’s and many gun owners’ current stance and the paranoid fears of confiscation, a fear some liberals feed.

Making guns safer and keeping more of them out of the hands of criminals and in the hands of responsible owners can be done, but not as long as many responsible owners are also unreasonable ones.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy?

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”

Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge.

He describes the expansion eastward of NATO after the end of the Cold War as “a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics” that needlessly poisoned relations with Russia. This argument is in fact a textbook example of the cynicism and smallness inherent in realism.

Guaranteeing security as the basis for a liberal order in nations from Poland to Estonia emerging from the trauma of the Soviet Imperium amounts to a major American strategic achievement. (Baker was instrumental in it, proof he was more than a Walt-school realist.) Ask any Pole, Lithuanian or Romanian if they think America erred.

Realists tend to dismiss human suffering; it’s just the way of the world. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe were ushered from totalitarian misery to democratic decency under the protection of the United States and its allies. A debt incurred at Yalta was repaid. European peace and security were extended, an American interest. There is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin would today have overrun at least one of the Baltic countries, absent their NATO membership.

Putin has created havoc precisely in the no man’s lands — Georgia and Ukraine — rather than in the NATO lands. Russia’s interest, post-1990, was in the dismemberment of the European-American bond, most potently expressed in NATO. That was the real problem.

The United States, almost alone among nations, is also an idea. Excise the notion of the global extension of liberty and its guarantees from American policy and something very meager remains. Putin is a fierce, opportunistic realist. But Americans — Donald Trump notwithstanding — do not want that dish on their tables.

They especially do not want it after the Syrian debacle. Walt argues that realists would have dissuaded President Obama from saying President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and setting a “red line.” But the problem was not that uttering these words was unrealistic. It was that failing to follow up on them was feckless.

Syria has illustrated the limits of White House realism. Realism has dictated nonintervention as hundreds of thousands were killed, millions displaced, and Islamic State emerged. Realism has been behind acquiescence to Assad’s barrel-bomb brutality. If Iraq illustrated disastrous American pursuit of an “ideological blueprint,” Syria has demonstrated a disastrous vacuum of American ideas.

Realism is an essential starting point for American foreign policy. It was absent on Iraq: The result was mayhem that, as Walt rightly says, cost America several trillion dollars. Realism brought the Iran nuclear accord, a signal achievement. More of it might help on Israel-Palestine.

But this is more a time to acknowledge the limits of realism — as a means to deal with the evil of ISIS, the debacle of Syria, or the desperate European refugee crisis — than to cry out for more, or suggest that it is underrepresented in American discourse.

More saber rattling and dick swinging from someone with no dog in the fight he wants to start.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Do you remember the “Bush boom”? Probably not. Anyway, the administration of George W. Bush began its tenure with a recession, followed by an extended “jobless recovery.” By the summer of 2003, however, the economy began adding jobs again. The pace of job creation wasn’t anything special by historical standards, but conservatives insisted that the job gains after that trough represented a huge triumph, a vindication of the Bush tax cuts.

So what should we say about the Obama job record? Private-sector employment — the relevant number, as I’ll explain in a minute — hit its low point in February 2010. Since then we’ve gained 14 million jobs, a figure that startled even me, roughly double the number of jobs added during the supposed Bush boom before it turned into the Great Recession. If that was a boom, this expansion, capped by last month’s really good report, outbooms it by a wide margin.

Does President Obama deserve credit for these gains? No. In general, presidents and their policies matter much less for the economy’s performance than most people imagine. Times of crisis are an exception, and the Obama stimulus plan enacted in 2009 made a big positive difference. But that stimulus faded out fast after 2010, and has very little to do with the economy’s current situation.

The point, however, is that politicians and pundits, especially on the right, constantly insist that presidential policies matter a lot. And Mr. Obama, in particular, has been attacked at every stage of his presidency for policies that his critics allege are “job-killing” — the former House speaker, John Boehner, once used the phrase seven times in less than 14 minutes. So the fact that the Obama job record is as good as it is tells you something about the validity of those attacks.

What did Mr. Obama do that was supposed to kill jobs? Quite a lot, actually. He signed the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform, which critics claimed would crush employment by starving businesses of capital. Heraised taxes on high incomes, especially at the very top, where average tax rates rose by about six and a half percentage points after 2012, a step that critics claimed would destroy incentives. And he enacted a health reform that went into full effect in 2014, amid claims that it would have catastrophic effects on employment.

Yet none of the dire predicted consequences of these policies have materialized. It’s not just that overall job creation in the private sector — which was what Mr. Obama was supposedly killing — has been strong. More detailed examinations of labor markets also show no evidence of predicted ill effects. For example, there’s no evidence that Obamacare led to a shift from full-time to part-time work, and no evidence that the expansion of Medicaid led to large reductions in labor supply.

So what do we learn from this impressive failure to fail? That the conservative economic orthodoxy dominating the Republican Party is very, very wrong.

In a way, that should have been obvious. For conservative orthodoxy has a curiously inconsistent view of the abilities and motivations of corporations and wealthy individuals — I mean, job creators.

On one side, this elite is presumed to be a bunch of economic superheroes, able to deliver universal prosperity by summoning the magic of the marketplace. On the other side, they’re depicted as incredibly sensitive flowers who wilt in the face of adversity — raise their taxes a bit, subject them to a few regulations, or for that matter hurt their feelings in a speech or two, and they’ll stop creating jobs and go sulk in their tents, or more likely their mansions.

It’s a doctrine that doesn’t make much sense, but it conveys a clear message that, whaddya know, turns out to be very convenient for the elite: namely, that injustice is a law of nature, that we’d better not do anything to make our society less unequal or protect ordinary families from financial risks. Because if we do, the usual suspects insist, we’ll be severely punished by the invisible hand, which will collapse the economy.

Economists could and did argue that history proves this doctrine wrong. After all, America achieved rapid, indeed unprecedented, income growth in the 1950s and 1960s, despite top tax rates beyond the wildest dreams of modern progressives. For that matter, there are countries like Denmark that combine high taxes and generous social programs with very good employment performance.

But for those who don’t know much about either history or the world outside America, the Obama economy offers a powerful lesson in the here and now. From a conservative point of view, Mr. Obama did everything wrong, afflicting the comfortable (slightly) and comforting the afflicted (a lot), and nothing bad happened. We can, it turns out, make our society better after all.

Cohen and Kristof

December 31, 2015

In “America’s Bountiful Churn” Mr. Cohen says those who would make America great again by building walls are in fact closing America down.  Mr. Kristof says you should “Test Your Savvy About 2016 With a Quiz.”  Will Trump, Cruz, Clinton or Sanders win the presidency? Will the refugee crisis improve? He gives us a multiple-choice exam on what’s to come.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Gallup, NM:

The main drag in Gallup runs along Historic Route 66, adjacent to the railroad. The Hotel El Rancho, where movie stars filming westerns once stayed, is still there. A host of trading posts sell Navajo jewelry, pottery and rugs, as well as artifacts made by the smaller Zuni Nation.

I wandered into the Silver House Trading Co. and found Hafiz Nassar watching CNN with his wife. He managed a tired, amiable smile. Turned out he was a Palestinian who had left a village near Jerusalem more than four decades ago, tried New York and found it too noisy, moved on to Denver, before coming out to New Mexico to sell Lebanese and Turkish rugs. “You know, I just stopped here,” he said. “You have to stop somewhere.”

The Navajos and Zunis were interested in exchanging their products for his — and a decent barter business was born. Things are slower and harder now. As we talked, a young Navajo woman came in, showed Nassar a silver ring set with a turquoise stone, and pleaded for 10 bucks. He gave her a crisp bill.

We got talking about Middle Eastern politics, the last thing I expected to do in downtown Gallup, but you never know when or where conversation may veer to the travails of the Holy Land.

Nassar goes back to his village once a year for a few weeks. He complained about the Israeli roadblocks that turn the short distance to Al Aqsa Mosque into a long and tiresome journey. He talked about the connivance that cements the violent status quo. He said peace would have to come one day and on that day the world would be amazed at the wealth Israelis and Palestinians could create together. I agreed, a little wearily, a little wanly. On the eve of a new year the urge to imagine an end to the 67-year-old conflict resurfaces, even absent any progress.

We shook hands, Arab and Jew, there on what had long been America’s Main Street, the road westward from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., avenue of hopes for countless migrants fleeing the drought of the Dust Bowl and assorted other disasters.

Like refugees today, they did not know where they were going but they knew what they wanted to leave behind.

I had been reading D. H. Lawrence, who lived in New Mexico in the early 1920s. He wrote: “That’s why most people have come to America and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.”

No vehicle for reinvention as powerful as America has ever been or is likely to be created. The vast emptiness of New Mexico, an invitation to the imagination, is a reminder of the space here to forget and begin anew. Those who would “make America great again” by building walls are in fact closing America down.

I thought of the just-married Syrian couple I met on the Greek island of Lesbos in September and the way the man, a dentist from Damascus, deadpanned, “This is our honeymoon.” I thought of the four Syrian Christians, lost souls, I found in a fifth-century monastery near Mardin, in southeastern Turkey.

This has been the year of the Great Migration — one million refugees arriving in Europe by boat, some 60 million displaced people on the move, more than at any time since 1945. This is a plausible moment to play on fears, to beat the nationalist drum. Those new buddies, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, specialize in that. The Vladimir Trump policy school teaches that big lies produce big fears that produce big yearnings for big strongmen.

Therein lies danger. Decency demands that in 2016 Western societies do better in accommodating the millions fleeing the Syrian debacle.

In Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, concludes that the only way to save people is through decency. Asked what that is, he responds, “In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”

My daughter, Jessica Rollin, a psychiatrist, is doing her job. She and her French-born husband, François, also a doctor, moved from A to Z this year, from Atlanta to Zuni. She now treats the mental health problems of the Zuni Nation. Zuni’s remote — it makes Gallup seem like a metropolis — and I thought there of the twists of repetitive displacement and migration that brought my grandparents from Lithuania to South Africa, my parents from South Africa to London, my cousins from South Africa to Israel, myself from London to New York, and my daughter to, of all places, Zuni.

Migration is loss, but also reinvention, as Nassar’s story of Palestinian-Zuni trade reminded me. Jessica’s second child will be born in Gallup next month, just off Route 66. I see hope and symbolism in that. America’s bountiful churn endures, quieter yet stronger than the angry bombast of division.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

1  At the end of 2016, Donald Trump caused a stir by …­
  • Preparing for his presidential inauguration by renaming the White House “Trump Palace.”

  • Raising funds to renovate the Statue of Liberty so that its arms move, waving immigrants away.

  • Actually, no stir at all. After being crushed in the presidential race, he has been quietly trying to repair business relations with Mexicans, Muslims, women — well, with everybody.

2  In the Republican presidential race …

  • Ted Cruz built on his Iowa caucuses victory to make further gains on Super Tuesday and win the nomination.

  • The failure of any candidate to win enough delegates led the convention to draft House Speaker Paul Ryan.

  • Marco Rubio overcame his failure to win either Iowa or New Hampshire to narrowly win the nomination.

3  Hillary Clinton …­

  • Dropped out of the race after a series of scandals, and a last-ditch effort to draft Joe Biden came too late. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic nomination and became America’s first democratic socialist president after Ted Cruz split G.O.P. votes with the

  • Easily won the Democratic nomination but then lost in November as Senator Marco Rubio and his running mate, John Kasich, portrayed her as a crony capitalist whose time had passed.

  • Became the first woman elected president.

4  In Russia, President Vladimir Putin ended 2016 …

  • By appearing in a television documentary riding bare-chested across Siberia on a dragon borrowed from “Game of Thrones.”

  • By dispatching provocateurs to instigate unrest in Estonia, then dispatching troops “to protect Russian lives” there. NATO responded by holding meetings.

  • By crushing growing anti-government demonstrations across Russia.

5  President Obama’s 2016 Syria strategy consisted of …

  • Persuading Sunni Arab countries to battle the Islamic State in conjunction with Kurdish forces.

  • Reluctantly dispatching 10,000 ground troops into northern Syria to destroy the Islamic State capital, Raqqa.

  • Really? You think he has a Syria strategy?

6  Regarding Obamacare, in 2016 …

  • Republicans voted 23 more times to repeal Obamacare, making it a major theme of the 2016 campaign.

  • The unpopularity of fines for lack of insurance made it a growing embarrassment to the Democratic Party.

  • Amid evidence of its success, Republican candidates dropped the subject.

7  In response to the Black Lives Matter movement …

  • Princeton University announced that it would rename the Woodrow Wilson School and invited bids for naming rights. Donald Trump bought them.

  • Not much happened: Attention switched to the presidential race.

  • After the election, Mr. Obama announced the formation of a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

8  Chinese-U.S. relations …­

  • Were set back after a naval clash in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands.

  • Deteriorated because of President Xi Jinping’s nationalist policies in the South China Sea and oppressive human rights policies at home.

  • Improved because undetected Chinese government hackers wrote glowingly about China in the President’s Daily Brief.

9  The technological breakthrough of 2016 was …

  • The Amazon/Uber joint venture to send a drone to pick you up and carry you to your destination.

  • The spread of bloodstream bots that roam your arteries and veins, looking for cancer cells to destroy.

  • The formation of a company to operate self-driving taxis.

10  The refugee crisis …

  • Ameliorated as Europe guarded its borders more tightly.

  • Deteriorated but received less attention as Europe bribed Turkey to curb the passage of refugees to Greece and make the problem less visible.

  • Worsened as hundreds of thousands of Iranians, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Afghans and others left for Germany.

11  Democracy …

  • Was the title of a smash Broadway show about early America by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also created “Hamilton.”

  • Retreated in central Africa, as leaders of Burundi, Rwanda and Congo all tried to cling to power.

  • Came to Belarus, often described as the last dictatorship in Europe.

We’ll see in a year how we all did. May our hopes be realized and our fears prove unwarranted. And happy New Year to all my readers!

 

Brooks and Cohen

December 22, 2015

Bobo gives us “The 2015 Sidney Awards, Part 2,” which is the second set of the year’s best essays focuses on community and isolation, from New Orleans to Syria.  In “Germany, Refugee Nation” Mr. Cohen says there’s a new can-do nation. It’s called Germany. Merkel has redeemed the Europe that once closed its frontiers to Jews fleeing Germany.  Here’s Bobo:

This second batch of Sidney Awards, given for some of the year’s best long-form essays, congregate, coincidentally, around a theme: the excessive individualism of American society, and the ways human beings try to create community for good or ill.

The first winner is Sebastian Junger’s piece “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,” from Vanity Fair. Junger starts by stating the American military has the highest post-traumatic stress disorder rate in its history, and probably the world. But then he notes there is no statistical relationship between suicide and combat. Vets who worked far from the violence are just as likely to commit suicide. Over the decades, combat deaths have dropped while PTSD rates have risen. The Israeli Army, which sees a lot of trauma, has a rate as low as 1 percent.

Junger concludes, “The problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as re-entry into society.” People in military service are surrounded by close comradeship. When they are thrust back into American society they are often isolated. The problem is with our lack of community back home.

For centuries Americans have been reading the hyper-individualistic purity of Henry David Thoreau’s life on Walden Pond — the way he cut himself off from crass commercialism and lived on a pure spiritual plane. Writing in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz points out in “Pond Scum” that Thoreau was a misanthropic, arrogant, self-righteous prig. He was coldhearted in the face of others’ suffering. Highly ascetic, he sustained the shallow American tendency to equate eating habits with moral health.

He tried philanthropic enterprises but found they did “not agree with my constitution.” Schulz accurately notes that Thoreau’s most famous sentence, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is at once insufferable and absurd.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a series of pieces for The New Yorker, describing how community cultures influence our decision-making in ways we are unaware. His piece “The Engineer’s Lament” describes how engineers think.

He retells an old joke about an engineer, a priest and a doctor who are playing golf, but held up by a slow foursome ahead of them who turn out to be blind firefighters.

“I will say a prayer for them tonight,” the priest says.

“Let me ask my ophthalmologist colleagues if anything can be done for them,” the doctor says.

The engineer says, “Why can’t they play at night?”

Gladwell’s piece “Thresholds of Violence” describes how school shootings are in some ways like riots, complex dialogues of violence between far-flung killers.

Blow, Cohen and Collins

December 17, 2015

In “Republican Insecurity” Mr. Blow says we’re in a cycle dominated by frustration among G.O.P. voters dissatisfied with national politicians — and increasingly afraid on a number of fronts.  Thanks, Faux Noise…  Mr. Cohen, in “The Assassination in Israel That Worked,” says Rabin, the warrior-peacemaker, was replaced by Netanyahu, the fearmonger, and Messianic Zionism rose.  In “Fear, Loathing and Republican Debaters” Ms. Collins says the candidates don’t want voters to have any peaceful dreams.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I watched, with disenchantment and disquiet, Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, as candidate after candidate talked about how he or she would execute a war against the Islamic State, as if such a war was inevitable, if not already underway.

They tossed this idea of war around so blithely, like the human toll was almost inconsequential, as if recent history hasn’t taught us that war begets war and creates the very instability that terrorist groups can exploit.

I must say that Rand Paul was a bit of an exception here, saying:

“What we have to decide is whether or not regime change is a good idea. It’s what the neoconservatives have wanted. It’s what the vast majority of those on the stage want. They still want regime change. They want it in Syria. They wanted it in Iraq. They want it in Libya. It has not worked.”

Paul continued:

“Out of regime change you get chaos. From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam. So we get this profession of, oh, my goodness, they want to do something about terrorism, and yet they’re the problem because they allow terrorism to arise out of that chaos.”

Paul was right, of course, but that didn’t stop the other candidates from beating the drums of war until their elbows ached.

Carly Fiorina said: “One of the things I would immediately do, in addition to defeating them here at home, is bring back the warrior class — Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn. Every single one of these generals I know. Every one was retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear.”

(PolitiFact rated the assertion that all five generals left as a result of being frank with the president as “mostly false.” This woman has such a hard time just sticking to the truth.)

It has been said that this Republican cycle is dominated by fear and frustration among Republican voters who are not satisfied with national politicians and are becoming increasingly afraid on a number of fronts.

The anger I agree with completely, but I prefer another way of phrasing — or possibly explaining — the fear: overwhelming insecurity.

I would posit that most of the issues that get traction in these debates, and indeed have gotten traction among Republican voters this cycle, have to do with a tremendous insecurity about power and safety — terrorism, the economy, immigration, gun rights, refugees, exploding drug addiction among white youth, policing, all of it.

We live in an America that is changing in dramatic demographic ways right before people’s eyes. Many of our largest cities are already majority-minority or soon will be. The electoral map, altered by this growing number of minority voters, makes it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win the presidency, even as they enjoy overwhelming successes on the state and legislative levels.

Indeed, Marco Rubio’s failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform as a member of the Gang of Eight may prove to be an Achilles’ heel for his campaign.

When Rubio suggested that the too-calculating-to-be-trusted Ted Cruz had a record of being somewhat reasonable on some areas of immigration, Cruz summoned the bad juju of every used car salesman who ever lived, and gleefully shot back:

“Look, I understand that Marco wants to raise confusion, it is not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization. Indeed, I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty bill. And you know, there was one commentator that put it this way that, for Marco to suggest our record’s the same is like suggesting ‘the fireman and the arsonist have the same record because they are both at the scene of the fire.’ He was fighting to grant amnesty and not to secure the border, I was fighting to secure the border.”

Cruz is still playing frenemy to the real estate developer, waiting for him to slip and fall, waiting for the chance to attract his supporters. But Cruz and Rubio are appealing to different wings of the party, so theirs can be a bare-knuckled brawl.

Jeb Bush even sought to link the immigration insecurity to the drug addiction insecurity, saying: “Clearly, we need to secure the border. Coming here legally needs to be a lot easier than coming here illegally. If you don’t have that, you don’t have the rule of law. We now have a national security consideration, public health issues, we have an epidemic of heroin overdoses in all places in this country because of the ease of bringing heroin in. We have to secure the border.”

This, I am sure, plays well among Republican voters who have made their insecurities readily apparent to pollsters.

For instance, the Pew Research Center on Tuesday published a piece, “Five Facts About Republicans and National Security,” that included the following observations:

1. For Republicans, international concerns now dominate.

2. Republicans broadly support an aggressive approach toward the Islamic State and global terrorism.

3. Republicans are more concerned than Democrats about a number of overseas security threats.

4. In September, Republicans opposed the United States decision to accept more refugees.

5. Most Republicans associate Islam with violence.

Want to understand why the Republican primary session — including last night’s debate — seems like such an absurdity to those of us who feel grounded in the belief that smart solutions can be arrived at, solutions that don’t involve bombing Middle Eastern countries until we can determine whether “sand can glow in the dark”? There is one word you have to keep in mind: “insecurity.”

They’re all hiding under the bed, peeing their pants…  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

The assassination two decades ago of Yitzhak Rabin, the warrior who became Israel’s peacemaking prime minister, has proved one of the most successful in history.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, Rabin was killed by one of his own, a fanatical Jew who could not abide territorial compromise for peace. Yigal Amir, the assassin, was a religious-nationalist follower of Baruch Goldstein, the American-born killer of 29 Palestinianworshipers in Hebron in 1994.

Reason ebbed. Rage flowed. The center eroded. Messianic Zionism, of the kind that claims all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as God-given real estate, supplanted secular Zionism of the kind that believes in a state of laws.

An opportunistic right-wing politician named Benjamin Netanyahu, who had compared Rabin to Chamberlain, rose to power. He may supplant David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but his legacy looks paltry beside the founding father of Israel.

A warrior-peacemaker was lost to an assassin’s bullet in 1995. A marketer fearmonger replaced him. Leadership, in its serious sense, disappeared. Without leadership, every problem is insurmountable. With it, no problem is unsolvable.

It will soon be a half-century since Israel took control of the West Bank and backed the settlement movement that now sees several hundred thousand Jews living east of the Green Line, enjoying Israeli citizenship and various state handouts. Why then has Israel not asserted its sovereignty over all territory and granted the vote and other democratic rights to all inhabitants?

The answer is simple: too many Palestinians. Asserting sovereignty would have meant the end of the Jewish state. Israel chose instead the undermining of its own democracy. As Gershom Gorenberg has put it, Israel has “behaved as if the territories were part of Israel for the purpose of settlement, and under military occupation for the purpose of ruling the Palestinians.”

This policy is corrosive. No democracy is immune to running an undemocratic system on part of the land it controls. Across the Green Line, millions of inhabitants are noncitizens. This is the combustible “one-state reality” of which Secretary of State John Kerry spoke this month.

The noncitizens are Israel’s colonized Palestinians. Oppression and humiliation are hewn into the topography of the West Bank. Israel, through the settlement movement, has undermined its Zionist founders’ commitment to a democratic state of laws.

Vikram Seth, the novelist, has observed: “The great advantage of being a chosen people is that one can choose to decide who is unchosen.”

The great disadvantage of Messianic Zionism is that it makes it impossible for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state. It makes violence inevitable.

Since October more than 20 Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in what some are calling a third intifada. This is the status quo. Three Gaza wars since 2008 are the status quo. Israel today is a miracle of rapid development perched on the brittle foundation of occupation. Stabbings are the status quo.

The Palestinian leadership has been hopeless. It is divided. It is corrupt. It lacks democratic legitimacy. It has wallowed in the comforting embrace of injustice rather than making the tough decisions to end it. It has opted for theater over substance. It incites against Jews. Time, as the last 67 years demonstrate, is not on the Palestinian side.

None of this annuls Palestinians’ right to a state called Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, nor the long-term interest of both sides in working to that end. Rabin hated what Palestinians had done. Still, for Israel’s security, he chose peace.

The cornerstone of Israel’s United Nations-backed legality was territorial compromise, as envisaged in Resolution 181 of 1947, calling for two states, one Jewish, one Arab, in the Holy Land. This was humankind’s decision, not God’s.

The covenant Jews bore around the world was a covenant of ethics, not a covenant granting Jews the hills of Judea and Samaria forever. Its core is the idea that what is hateful to yourself should not be inflicted on your fellow human being. It must apply to the strong Jew of Israel as much as to the cowed Jew of the diaspora.

As the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz has recently chronicled, various U.S. entities and nonprofit organizations, for which donations are tax-deductible, provide funding for the settler movement opposed by the United States government.

Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, summed up why this is unacceptable: “The government — and we, the public — are subsidizing an activity which undermines government policy.”

The Obama administration has understandably tired of providing the fig leaf of a “peace process” to Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But it can set down a marker by making public its view of a territorial compromise at or close to the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps. It can seek leverage in its opposition to settlement growth. It can close American tax loopholes that benefit Israeli settlers. It can try to make Rabin’s assassination a little less successful.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Well, the big Republican presidential debate is over and the message is clear: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“America has been betrayed,” began Chris Christie, setting the tone for the night, which might be described as bellicose paranoia. The betrayers were President Obama and Hillary Clinton. His example of the terror they have wrought was the Los Angeles school system, which closed Tuesday after an email threat from someone who described himself as a Muslim terrorist.

“Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound,” Christie said darkly. “Think about the fathers of Los Angeles who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.”

This is probably not the time to point out that the governor of New Jersey seems to have a rather retro view of the roles of mothers, who are likely to be heading off to work themselves. But here’s the thing: The threat was a hoax. New York got the same message and kept classes going after officials determined that the writer was not only a phony, but a phony who had no clue how to sound like either a Muslim or a terrorist.

The lesson from Los Angeles would seem to be that the country needs to find a way to operate in a calm and rational manner, aware of the possibility of disaster but cleareyed about the fact that the odds against a terrorist attack at any particular place or time are astronomical. We are most definitely not in need of politicians trying to scare the pants off the voting public.

“We haven’t heard a lot about Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill,” the questioner Hugh Hewitt said rather plaintively, yearning for some optimism. The audience was getting the Ronald Reagan who blew up a wagon full of gunpowder in “Cattle Queen of Montana.”

The topic was national defense, and Donald Trump seemed stumped by a question about the three ways America could conduct nuclear attacks — from air, land or sea. “I think, I think for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” the front-runner said.

Not a problem. He can hire somebody who knows about nuclear weapons. Somebody really great.

The campaign’s current up-and-comer, Ted Cruz, expressed enthusiasm for carpet-bombing, a tactic he seemed to be unaware the United States hasn’t used since Vietnam, and one that he apparently imagines could be targeted so strategically that it would kill only terrorists.

On the plus side, Jeb Bush did perk up a bit. About time. I am privileged to be on the Jeb! campaign mailing list and his pre-debate missives were possibly the most pathetic in recent presidential history. (“… I need to know you’re with me. Are you, Friend? Do you have my back? If so, please chip in just $1 right now to say you’re on my team tonight.”)

Let’s see, what else? Several candidates seemed to think terrorism on U.S. soil is entirely due to “political correctness.” Carly Fiorina promised to bring back “warrior class” generals like David Petraeus who “retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear,” skipping the part about giving classified materials to a biographer with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

But the real battle was over who could make things sound more dire, or offer solutions more drastic. Trump wants to target the families of terrorists, and he drove home the point by repeating his story about the World Trade Center attackers sending all their loved ones back to the Middle East in advance. (“… they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television.”) The fact that the terrorists had no families or girlfriends in the United States never seems to take the steam out of this argument.

Christie got a Facebook question from a young woman who thought it was a little uncharitable to rule out accepting any refugees, including orphans under the age of 5. “Now listen, I’m a former federal prosecutor. …” he responded. All told, Christie mentioned being a former prosecutor five times during the debate, giving the distinct impression that in the wake of 9/11, he was the only thing standing between New Jersey and oblivion.

His answer to the question was that the 5-year-olds have to stay out: “And it was widows and orphans, by the way, and we now know from watching the San Bernardino attack that women can commit heinous, heinous acts against humanity just the same as men can do it. And so I don’t back away from that position for a minute.”

In summary: Kill the families. Screw the orphans. Carpet-bomb Syria, but in a targeted way. Send Jeb Bush a dollar. On to 2016.

FSM save us all…


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