Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Brooks and Cohen

March 24, 2015

In “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” Bobo says we have to understand the many ugly faces of anti-Semitism if we are to effectively stand against it.  Hmmm…  I don’t really recall him writing such a column about effectively standing against racism, and he may be conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.  Mr. Cohen, in “Can-Do Lee Kwan Yew,” says the 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist.  Just don’t spit on the sidewalk…  Here’s Bobo:

Anti-Semitism is rising around the world. So the question becomes: What can we do to fight it? Do education campaigns work, or marches or conferences?

There are three major strains of anti-Semitism circulating, different in kind and virulence, and requiring different responses.

In the Middle East, anti-Semitism has the feel of a deranged theoretical system for making sense of a world gone astray. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t just oppose Israel. He has called it the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region.” He has said its leaders “look like beasts and cannot be called human.”

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran reinstated a conference of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. Two of Iran’s prominent former nuclear negotiators apparently attended. In Egypt, the top military staff attended a lecture on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The region is still rife with the usual conspiracy theories — that the Jews were behind 9/11, drink the blood of non-Jews, spray pesticides across Egyptian lands.

This sort of anti-Semitism thrives where there aren’t that many Jews. The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining. This is a form of derangement, a flight from reality even in otherwise sophisticated people.

This form of anti-Semitism cannot be reasoned away because it doesn’t exist on the level of reason. It can only be confronted with deterrence and force, at the level of fear. The challenge for Israel is to respond to extremism without being extreme. The enemy’s rabidity can be used to justify cruelty, even in cases where restraint would be wiser. Israeli leaders try to walk this line, trying to use hard power, without becoming a mirror of the foe, sometimes well, sometimes not.

In Europe, anti-Semitism looks like a response to alienation. It’s particularly high where unemployment is rampant. Roughly half of all Spaniards and Greeks express unfavorable opinions about Jews. The plague of violence is fueled by young Islamic men with no respect and no place to go.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has an essay, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” He reports on a blizzard of incidents: a Jewish school principal who watched a Frenchman of Algerian descent pin his 8-year-old daughter down in the schoolyard and execute her; a Swedish rabbi who has been the target of roughly 150 anti-Semitic attacks; French kids who were terrified in school because of the “Dirty Jew!” and “I want to kill all of you!” chants in the hallway; the Danish imam who urged worshipers in a Berlin mosque to kill the Jews, “Count them and kill them to the very last one.”

Thousands of Jews a year are just fleeing Europe. But the best response is quarantine and confrontation. European governments can demonstrate solidarity with their Jewish citizens by providing security, cracking down — broken-windows style — on even the smallest assaults. Meanwhile, brave and decent people can take a page from Gandhi and stage campaigns of confrontational nonviolence: marches, sit-ins and protests in the very neighborhoods where anti-Semitism breeds. Expose the evil of the perpetrators. Disturb the consciences of the good people in these communities who tolerate them. Confrontational nonviolence is the historically proven method to isolate and delegitimize social evil.

The United States is also seeing a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. But this country remains an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place. America’s problem is the number of people who can’t fathom what anti-Semitism is or who think Jews are being paranoid or excessively playing the victim.

On college campuses, many young people have been raised in a climate of moral relativism and have no experience with those with virulent evil beliefs. They sometimes assume that if Israel is hated, then it must be because of its cruel and colonial policies in the West Bank.

In the Obama administration, there are people who know that the Iranians are anti-Semitic, but they don’t know what to do with that fact and put this mental derangement on a distant shelf. They negotiate with the Iranian leaders, as if anti-Semitism was some odd quirk, instead of what it is, a core element of their mental architecture.

There are others who see anti-Semitism as another form of bigotry. But these are different evils. Most bigotry is an assertion of inferiority and speaks the language of oppression. Anti-Semitism is an assertion of impurity and speaks the language of extermination. Anti-Semitism’s logical endpoint is violence.

Groups fighting anti-Semitism sponsor educational campaigns and do a lot of consciousness-raising. I doubt these things do anything to reduce active anti-Semitism. But they can help non-anti-Semites understand the different forms of the cancer in our midst. That’s a start.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen’s encomium, writing from Ho Chi Minh City:

The Vietnamese, like many Asians, flock to Singapore to shop. They hit those cool, fragrant malls on Orchard Road. A few among the affluent go there to see a dentist or a doctor or have a baby. They are drawn, also, by something less tangible, the sense of prosperity and purring efficiency, as if by some miracle the Alpine order and cleanliness of Switzerland had been conjured up in the Tropics. They exhale, freed from the raucous agitation of modern Asian life, and are rocked in a Singaporean cradle of convenience where, it seems, nothing can go wrong.

You don’t have to like Singapore to admire it. Once you begin to admire it, of course, you may discover in yourself a sneaking affection. The achievement of Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding father, who died Monday at the age of 91, is immense. The 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist.

The measure of that achievement is that the ingredients of disaster abounded in Singapore, a country that is “not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” as Lee said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. “We don’t have the ingredients of a nation,” he noted, “the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.” Instead, it had a combustible ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Chinese, Malays and Indians gathered in a city-state of no natural resources.

Yet Lee made it work, where many nations with far more of those attributes of nationhood — Argentina prominent among them — failed, and where, from the Balkans to the Middle East, sectarian differences have proved insurmountable and often the catalyst of war and national unraveling.

The fact that the elements for cataclysm exist does not mean that cataclysm is inevitable. Lee demonstrated this in an age where the general cacophony, and the need to manage and spin every political minute, makes statesmanship ever more elusive. The determining factor is leadership. What defines leadership above all is conviction, discipline in the pursuit of a goal, adaptability in the interest of the general good, and far-sightedness.

Lee’s only religion was pragmatism, of which religion (as generally understood) is the enemy, because, to some adherents, it offers revealed truths that are fact-resistant. Any ideology that abhors facts is problematic. (If you believe land is yours because it was deeded to you in the Bible, for example, but other people live there and have for centuries, you have an issue pregnant with violence.) Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work? It was the criterion of a forward-looking man for whom history was instructive but not imprisoning. He abhorred victimhood (an excuse for sloppy thinking and nationalist delusion) and corruption. He prized opportunity, meritocracy, the work ethic of the immigrant and education.

Western democracy was not for him. It was too volatile for a nation that had to be forged and then fast-forwarded to prosperity. He was authoritarian, harsh when necessary. Free speech and political opposition were generally suppressed; the only liberalism was of the economic variety. Lee tapped into an Asian and Confucian inclination to place the communal good above individual rights; he also cowed Singaporeans into fear. Overall, it worked. Singapore became a booming commercial and banking center. Prosperity elided differences, even if the yawning gap between rich and poor is a growing issue, as throughout the world.

There is no single model for all humankind, even if there is a universal aspiration for freedom and the means to enjoy it. Technological hyperconnectedness does not produce political consensus. Pragmatism also involves accepting this, weighing the good against the bad (while standing against the heinous) and exercising patience.

The Singaporean miracle became an Asian reference. If Asia has been pragmatic about conflict — notably in the handling of tensions between India and China — it owes much to Lee. China’s model — authoritarian, free-market, economically open but politically closed — was plainly influenced by Lee’s Singapore. Narendra Modi’s push to clean up India has led to talk of an Indian Lee Kuan Yew. One measure of Lee’s greatness is that, as Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Tommy Koh, put it to me in an email, the strong institutions he planted ensure that “his passing will have no negative impact on the future of Singapore.”

How much more demanding of open political systems will prosperous Asians be? We will see, but I would not bet on rapid change. Desirability does not equal necessity, at least not yet. Lee made one other big Asian contribution: He valued American power, believed in its stabilizing regional influence. He was not an American declinist, once telling the political scientist Joseph Nye that China could draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States could draw on the world’s seven billion people and recombine them in a diverse culture that exudes creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.

In this, too, Lee was right.

Cohen and Friedman

March 18, 2015

In “An Uneasy Coalition for Israel” Mr. Cohen says a national unity government may be the least bad outcome.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Go Ahead, Ruin My Day,” has a question:  In looking at Israel, Iran and ISIS, why does it seem as though we have only bad choices, and nothing ever works?  Hang in there Tommy, I’m sure things will get better if we only give it another FU…  (Forget?  Never!)  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

If the Israeli election was above all a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he prevailed. After accumulating nine years in office over three terms, that is a measure of his political guts, however limited his political achievements.

But his victory revealed deep divisions within Israeli society, and a long season of Israeli uncertainty now looks inevitable, despite the cries of triumph from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party.

After a bitter campaign, voters converged on the two major parties, a measure of the widespread sense that Israel’s future was at stake. Netanyahu seemed to have won about 30 seats, ahead of the estimated 24 seats of Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Zionist Union. How a government coalition would be put together in the 120-seat Knesset and who would lead it remained an open question that is likely to take weeks of haggling to resolve.

An election of uncertain outcome has already clarified certain things. The world, and certainly the White House, may be tired of Netanyahu, his fear-mongering and posturing, but his hawkish defiance and dismissal (now explicit) of a Palestinian state reflect a wide section of Israeli society that has given up on a two-state outcome and prefers its Palestinians invisible behind barriers. “Bibi, king of Israel,” went supporters’ chants after the vote. He’s not a monarch but he sure looms large.

“Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” Netanyahu said in a video released as votes were cast. To the last, he played on fear and incendiary division. It worked.

But many Israelis are tired of Netanyahu’s games; they embrace a different idea of Israel. That, too, became clear in this election and is of equal importance. Herzog, in forming the Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, brought the moderate Israeli left back from the brink and, through the name of his movement, asserted a distinction critical to Israel’s future: only a Zionism that preserves Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the image of its founders, can secure the nation’s long-term future.

The contrast with the Messianic Zionism of the right, with its religious-nationalist claim to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, was clear. Herzog, unlike Netanyahu, is serious about the idea of two states, whatever the immense difficulties, because the alternative is the progressive corrosion of Israel’s democratic ideals as it attempts to control the lives of millions of nonvoting Palestinians in the West Bank.

The phenomenon of the election was Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who became wildly popular in office by liberalizing Israel’s cellphone market and reducing customers’ bills. His success in getting nine or 10 seats at the head of a new party called Kulanu (“all of us”) turned him into a possible kingmaker. It was also indicative of the frustrations of Israelis: with their successful but increasingly unequal economy, with corruption, and with business as usual. Kahlon has said he will wait for final results before indicating his allegiance, but suggested it was a “time to unite.”

It will fall to President Reuven Rivlin to invite Netanyahu to try to form a stable coalition. He has already indicated his preference for the outcome, saying “I am convinced only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future.” But a unity government is anathema to both Netanyahu and Herzog, or at least has been up to now.

Reality may, however, catch up with them. A Netanyahu-led right-wing government will face growing international isolation, especially because of the prime minister’s open commitment to stop the emergence of a Palestinian state. Repairing relations with President Obama would be arduous. A hardening of America’s position toward Israel at the United Nations cannot be ruled out, if West Bank settlements continue to expand. Israelis, for all their nation’s extraordinary success, know how critical the alliance with the United States is; they are unhappy with the Netanyahu-Obama rift. A government of the right would more likely exacerbate than overcome that estrangement over the next couple of years.

For Herzog, in the light of the right’s strong performance, the path to a center-left-led government looks blocked — and achieving anything with such a government even more so. He would not have the muscle to bring real change on the central challenge facing Israel in its relations with the world: the Palestinian conflict. He did well, but not well enough to bring about the “post-Bibi era” that he sought.

As with Churchill’s words on democracy, a national unity coalition now looks like the worst form of government for Israel except for all the others. It could curtail Netanyahu’s hubris while giving Herzog heft, a desirable double whammy.

Anything that can rein in Netanyahu is a good thing.  Now here’s TMOW:

As the saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive is divine,” to which I’d add: “to ignore” is even more human, and the results rarely divine. None of us would be human if we didn’t occasionally get so wedded to our wishes that we failed to notice — or outright ignored — the facts on the ground that make a laughingstock of our hopes. Only when the gap gets too wide to ignore does policy change. This is where a lot of U.S. policy is heading these days in the Middle East. Mind the gaps — on Iran, Israel and Iraq. We’re talking about our choices in these countries with words that strike me as about 10 years out of date. Alas, we are not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, your father’s Iran or the Iraq your son or daughter went off to liberate.

Let’s start with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party pretty well trounced the Labor Party leader, Isaac Herzog, in the race to form Israel’s next government. Netanyahu clearly made an impressive 11th-hour surge since the pre-election polls of last week. It is hard to know what is more depressing: that Netanyahu went for the gutter in the last few days in order to salvage his campaign — renouncing his own commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and race-baiting Israeli Jews to get out and vote because, he said, too many Israeli Arabs were going to the polls —  or the fact that this seemed to work.

To be sure, Netanyahu could reverse himself tomorrow. As the Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea wrote: Netanyahu’s promises are like something “written on ice on a very hot day.” But the fact is a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes Netanyahu deployed in this campaign. That, along with the fact that some 350,000 settlers are now living in the West Bank, makes it hard to see how a viable two-state solution is possible anymore no matter who would have won.

It would be wrong, though, to put all of this on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless Gaza war that Hamas initiated last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of previous Israeli prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.

On Iran, there’s an assumption among critics of President Obama’s approach to negotiating limits on Iran’s nuclear program that if Obama were ready to impose more sanctions then the Iranians would fold. It’s not only the history of the last 20 years that mocks that notion. It is a more simple fact: In the brutal Middle East, the only thing that gets anyone’s attention is the threat of regime-toppling force. Obama has no such leverage on Iran.

It was used up in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have left our military and country so exhausted that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big U.S. land army into the Middle East “should have his head examined.” Had those wars succeeded, the public today might feel differently. But they didn’t. Geopolitics is all about leverage, and we are negotiating with Iran without the leverage of a credible threat of force. The ayatollahs know it. Under those circumstances, I am sure the Obama team will try to get the best deal it can. But a really good deal isn’t on the menu.

Have I ruined your morning yet? No? Give me a couple more paragraphs.

O.K., so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?

In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism — mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really?

If it seems as though we have only bad choices in the Middle East today and nothing seems to work, there is a reason: Because past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it’s hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon. Sorry to be so grim.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 10, 2015

In “The Cost of Relativism” Bobo babbles that the stark and growing gap between the lives of kids from college-educated parents and kids from parents who didn’t go to college demands a complex response: political, social, and moral.  In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY sums it up for us:  “Another slick exercise in poor-shaming by David Brooks.”  In “Where the Road From Auschwitz Ends” Mr. Cohen tells how in a small town in Sweden, placid and increasingly prosperous, the horror proved insuperable.  Mr. Nocera, in “College For a New Age,” says an author has an education model that is not just cheaper, but also better.  Here’s Bobo:

One of America’s leading political scientists, Robert Putnam, has just come out with a book called “Our Kids” about the growing chasm between those who live in college-educated America and those who live in high-school-educated America. It’s got a definitive collection of data about this divide.

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. There are a bunch of charts that look like open scissors. In the 1960s or 1970s, college-educated and noncollege-educated families behaved roughly the same. But since then, behavior patterns have ever more sharply diverged. High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.

Interspersed with these statistics, Putnam and his research team profile some of the representative figures from each social class. The profiles from high-school-educated America are familiar but horrific.

David’s mother was basically absent. “All her boyfriends have been nuts,” he said. “I never really got to see my mom that much.” His dad dropped out of school, dated several woman with drug problems and is now in prison. David went to seven different elementary schools. He ended up under house arrest, got a girl pregnant before she left him for a drug addict.

Kayla’s mom married an abusive man but lost custody of their kids to him when they split. Her dad married a woman with a child but left her after it turned out the child was fathered by her abusive stepfather. Kayla grew up as one of five half-siblings from three relationships until her parents split again and coupled with others.

Elijah grew up in a violent neighborhood and saw a girl killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 4. He burned down a lady’s house when he was 13. He goes through periods marked by drugs, clubbing and sex but also dreams of being a preacher. “I just love beating up somebody,” he told a member of Putnam’s team, “and making they nose bleed and just hurting them and just beating them on the ground.”

The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.

People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.

History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.

Every parent loves his or her children. Everybody struggles. But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The most important word in the title of Goran Rosenberg’s beautifully wrought book, “A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz,” is the unlikely one that precedes the name of the Nazi death camp. Auschwitz, for the Jews, and not only for them, was a destination with no return ticket, a place of gas and ashes.

But some did survive; those sent the other way on the ramp to be worked to death for Hitler’s Reich, except of course that it might just be, if they were resilient enough, that the 1,000-year Reich expired in flames before them. As was the case with Rosenberg’s father, David, for whom there was a road, of sorts, from Auschwitz.

It first leads, as Rosenberg chronicles with a sinuous sobriety, through an archipelago of slave labor camps in Germany, where skeletal figures from Auschwitz, among others, are put to work making machinery desperately needed by the German war industry, whose engineers have reached the startling realization that the mass murder of Jews does not, precisely, contribute to the war effort. German industry needs slaves by the second half of 1944; it even needs Jewish slaves. To this requirement Rosenberg’s father, a Polish Jew from Lodz, owes his life.

As Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist and author, writes, “Luck, chance and freak are the stones with which every road from Auschwitz is paved. There are no other roads from Auschwitz but those of improbability.” He continues: “You’re part of a group of 350 Jewish men who were recently on their way from the ghetto in Lodz to the gas chambers and crematoriums in Auschwitz, and who by some blind fate have been nudged onto a route leading to a freight depot platform in the heart of Germany.”

Luck, of course, is a relative term. With a crazed frenzy, the war lost, German guards drive Jews through various slave camps. At his liberation, David Rosenberg weighed 80 pounds. There is little left of him; there is nothing left of the Jewish community of Lodz. He is alive. His world is gone.

By further chance, David Rosenberg, then in his early 20s, is put on a transport to Sweden, whose government has decided to give refuge to “some ten thousand children and invalids” from the refugee camps of Europe. He will end up in Sodertalje, near Stockholm, where he goes to work on the production line of a truck factory. This town with its tall pines and ordered streets starts out as “a brief halt on the road to somewhere else.” It becomes the place where this survivor lives out his days.

One of the great merits of Rosenberg’s book is the way he contrives to relive his father’s life forwards, not prejudging events through the prism of the outcome, but imbuing each stage of what he calls “the project” — that is, his parents’ aim of reconstructing a normal life in Sweden — with a kind of tender hope. Things will be all right. The project will work. Rocked in the cradle of Sweden’s welfare state and postwar boom, the Rosenbergs will overcome the Nazi torment.

At first, the project looks viable. David’s sweetheart, Halinka, from whom he has been separated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, has also survived. She comes to Sweden. The author is born, then a sibling. The family moves to a larger apartment. David’s pay improves, even if his professional ambitions meet obstacles. The Rosenbergs acquire a VW Beetle, and David tries for a while to market an ingenious luggage rack he has invented, the “Piccolo,” that attaches to the rear of the car above the engine. It doesn’t fly.

Rosenberg writes, “The Place seems to offer a world in which every dream is feasible, since it’s a world where no dreams have been shattered, including the dreams that were shattered in the world you come from, which is a world the Project will help put behind you.”

The project unravels through the 1950s. Frustration, darkness and depression creep into David Rosenberg. What the Nazis have done to him cannot be left behind after all. He goes to Israel, thinks of emigrating, but no. Some of the most wrenching pages chronicle his attempts to obtain reparations from the German government, efforts frustrated by a doctor chosen by Germany who writes in 1956 that: “Without a doubt the patient is exaggerating.” He concludes: “The symptoms of psychoneurosis that the patient alleges he has can no longer necessarily be linked to possible harm inflicted in the concentration camps.”

This bureaucratic letter is of a singular obscenity. Possible harm!

Written with tender precision, “A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz,” recently published in the United States, is the most powerful account I have read of the other death — the death after the camps, the death from damage that proves insuperable, the death that in this case comes 15 years later, in 1960, after electroshock treatment, in a Swedish lake beside a mental hospital. The project was indeed brief.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Kevin Carey has a 4-year-old girl. Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, has been thinking about the role of universities in American life for virtually his entire career. But after his daughter was born, that thinking took on a new urgency.

“All of a sudden there is a mental clock,” he told me the other day. “How am I going to pay for her college education? I wanted to write a book that asked, ‘What will college be like when my daughter is ready to go?’ ”

His answer is his new book, “The End of College,” which is both a stinging indictment of the university business model and a prediction about how technology is likely to change it. His vision is at once apocalyptic and idealistic. He calls it “The University of Everywhere.”

“The story of higher education’s future is a tale of ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come,” he writes. If he is right, higher education will be transformed into a different kind of learning experience that is cheaper, better, more personalized and more useful.

Universities in their current form have been with us for so long that it is difficult to imagine them operating any other way. But Carey begins “The End of College” by making a persuasive case that the university model has long been deeply flawed. It has three different missions: “practical training, research and liberal arts education.” Over time, the mission that came to matter most within the university culture was research. Great research institutions derived the most status. And professors who did significant research — publish or perish! — were the ones who reaped the rewards of the university system.

On the other hand, actual teaching, which is what the students — and their parents — are paying for, is scarcely valued at all. There is also the absurd importance of the football team. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to create an ever newer, ever fancier campus. The outmoded idea that college should cater to students just out of high school, even though a significant portion of students are in different stages of life.

And, of course, there is the cost. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, and Carey spoke to students who were going to graduate with more than $100,000 of debt, a terrible burden at the beginning of one’s career. Schools like George Washington University and New York University became top-tier universities in no small part by aggressively raising their prices — which, in turn, became part of the reason they are now considered prestigious universities.

Although Carey has long been aware of the flaws of the university model, it is the out-of-control cost of college that he believes will cause people to search for a different way to educate students. Indeed, much of the rest of his book is devoted to the educators, scientists, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists who are developing new ways to provide learning that make much more sense for many more students. “You don’t need libraries and research infrastructure and football teams and this insane race for status,” he says. “If you only have to pay for the things that you actually need, education doesn’t cost $60,000 a year.”

Carey spends a good chunk of “The End of College” exploring the new world of online learning, for instance. To that end, he took an online course — problem sets and exams included — offered by Eric Lander, the M.I.T. professor who was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project. It was, he concludes, a better experience than if he had sat in Lander’s classroom.

He expects that as more people take to online learning, the combination of massive amounts of data and advances in artificial intelligence will make it possible for courses to adapt to the way each student learns. He sees thousands of people around the world taking the same course and developing peer groups that become communities, like study groups at universities. “A larger and larger percentage of the education that has been historically confined to scarce, expensive colleges and universities will be liberated and made available to anyone, anywhere.” That’s what I mean when I say his vision is an idealistic one.

(Carey also believes that over time, new kinds of credentials will emerge that will be accepted by employers, making it less necessary to get a traditional college degree. He explored this subject for The Upshot, which was published in Sunday Review in The Times over the weekend.)

When might all this take place? I asked him. He wasn’t ready to hazard a guess; colleges are protected by government regulation, accreditation boards, and cultural habit, among other things. But, he said, it was inevitable that we were going to see an increased educational experience at a far lower cost.

Maybe he’ll even be able to stop saving for his daughter’s college education. Maybe the rest of us will, too.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 6, 2015

In “The Temptation of Hillary” Bobo gurgles that the shift on the left from human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism is potent, damaging and based on a misinterpretation of the data.  (He REALLY should take the time to read Krugman…)  In the comments “Reality Based” from “flyover country” summed it up pretty succinctly:  “Oh, yes, another Republican attack on “redistribution”, from the party that has been redistributing wealth and income ruthlessly upward since Reagan. … Stay out of economics, David. You have no idea what you are talking about.”  In “Netanyahu’s Iran Thing” Mr. Cohen says the prime minister’s obsessive Iran demonization runs on hyperbole and selective history.  Prof. Krugman says “Pepperoni Turns Partisan,” and points out that the politics of Big Pizza resemble those of Big Coal or Big Tobacco and tell you a lot about what is happening to American governance in general.  Here’s Bobo:

Hillary Clinton’s record is more moderate than the Democratic primary voter today. So it was always likely that she would move left as the primary season approached. It’s now becoming clearer how she might do it. She might make a shift from what you might call human capital progressivism to redistributionist progressivism.

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

The real problem, some of them say, is concentrated political power. The oligarchs have rigged the game so that workers get squeezed. Others say the problem is stagnation. It’s not that workers don’t have skills; the private economy isn’t generating jobs. Or it’s about corporate power. Without stronger unions shareholders reap all the gains.

People in this camp point out that inflation-adjusted wages for college grads have been flat for the past 14 years. Education apparently hasn’t lifted wages. The implication? Don’t focus on education for the bottom 99 percent. Focus on spreading wealth from the top. Don’t put human capital first. Put redistribution first.

Over the past few months a stream of Democratic thinkers and politicians, including natural Clinton allies, have moved from the human capital emphasis to the redistributionist emphasis. (It’s a matter of emphasis, not strictly either/or.) For Clinton herself, the appeal is obvious. The redistributionist agenda allows her to hit Wall Street and C.E.O.’s — all the targets that have become progressive bêtes noires.

Unfortunately, this rising theory is wrong on substance and damaging in its effects.

It is true that wages for college grads have been flat this century, and that is troubling. But this is not true of people with post-college degrees, who are doing nicely. Moreover, as Lawrence Katz of Harvard points out, the argument that college doesn’t pay is partly a product of a short-time horizon. Since 2000, the real incomes of the top 1 percent have declined slightly. If you limited your view to just those years, you’d conclude that there is no inequality problem, which is clearly not true.

On an individual level, getting more skills is the single best thing you can do to improve your wages. The economic rewards to education are at historic highs. Americans with a four-year college degree make 98 percent more per hour than people without one. The median college-educated worker will make half-a-million dollars more than a high-school-educated worker over a career after accounting for college costs. Research by Raj Chetty of Harvard and others suggests that having a really good teacher for only one year raises a child’s cumulative lifetime income by $80,000.

“What I find destructive,” says David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is the message that if you don’t get into the top 1 percent then you’re out of the game. That’s deeply, deeply incorrect.”

Autor’s own research shows that skills differences are four times more important than concentration of wealth in driving inequality. If we could magically confiscate and redistribute the above-average income gains that have gone to the top 1 percent since 1979, that would produce $7,000 more per household per year for the bottom 99 percent. But if we could close the gap so that high-school-educated people had the skills of college-educated people, that would increase household income by $28,000 per year.

Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

The redistributionists seem to believe that modern capitalism is fundamentally broken. That growth has permanently stagnated. That productivity should no longer be the focus because it doesn’t lead to shared prosperity.

But their view is biased by temporary evidence from the recession. Right now, jobs are being created, wages are showing signs of life. Those who get more skills earn more money. Today’s economy has challenges, but the traditional rules still apply. Increasing worker productivity is the key. Increasing incentives to risk and invest is essential. Shifting people into low-productivity government jobs is not the answer.

It’s clear why Clinton might want to talk redistribution. On substantive policy grounds, it would be destructive to do so. And, in the general election, voters respond to the uplifting and the unifying, not the combative and divisive.

Again, Bobo, go read some Krugman.  You might learn something.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Let’s begin with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran logic. He portrays a rampaging Islamic Republic that “now dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana,” a nation “gobbling” other countries on a “march of conquest, subjugation and terror.” Then, in the same speech, he describes Iran as “a very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding.

Well, which is it?

The Israeli prime minister dismisses a possible nuclear accord, its details still unclear, as “a very bad deal” that “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” He says just maintain the pressure and, as if by magic, “a much better deal” will materialize (thereby showing immense condescension toward the ministers of the six major powers who have been working on a doable deal that ring-fences Iran’s nuclear capacity so that it is compatible only with civilian use). Yet Netanyahu knows the first thing that will happen if talks collapse is that Russia and China will undermine the solidarity behind effective Iran sanctions.

So, where is the leverage to secure that “much better deal”?

Netanyahu lambastes the notion of a nuclear deal lasting 10 years (President Obama has suggested this is a minimum). He portrays that decade as a period in which, inevitably, Iran’s “voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year.” He thereby dismisses the more plausible notion that greater economic contact with the world and the gradual emergence of a young generation of Iranians drawn to the West — as well as the inevitable dimming of the ardor of Iran’s revolution — will attenuate such aggression.

With similar sleight of hand, he dances over the fact that military action — the solution implicit in Netanyahu’s demands for Iranian nuclear capitulation — would likely set back the Iranian program by a couple of years at most, while guaranteeing that Iran races for a bomb in the aftermath.

What better assures Israel’s security, a decade of strict limitation and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program that prevents it making a bomb, or a war that delays the program a couple of years, locks in the most radical factions in Tehran, and intensifies Middle Eastern violence? It’s a no-brainer.

No wonder Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party’s House Leader, saw Netanyahu’s speech to Congress as an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” Netanyahu’s “profound obligation” to speak of the Iranian threat to the Jewish people proved to be a glib opportunity for fear-mongering and evasion above all.

Netanyahu’s credibility is low. In 1993, in an Op-Ed article in The Times headlined “Peace in Our Time?” he compared the late Yitzhak Rabin to Chamberlain for the Oslo Accords. Rabin’s widow never forgave him. For more than a decade now, he has said Iran was on the brink of a bomb and threatened Israeli military action — and hoped his hyperbole would be forgotten. He called the 2013 interim agreement with Iran a “historic mistake”; the accord has proved a historic achievement that reversed Iran’s nuclear momentum.

Invoking Munich and appeasement is, it seems, Netanyahu’s flip reaction to any attempt at Middle Eastern diplomacy. Here, once again, before the Congress, was the by-now familiar analogy drawn between Iran and the Nazis. Its implication, of course, is that Obama, like the great Rabin, is some latter-day Chamberlain.

The kindest thing that can be said of Netanyahu’s attempt to equate Iran with the medieval barbarians of Islamic State, and to dismiss the fact that Iranian help today furthers America’s strategic priority of defeating those knife-wielding slayers, is that it was an implausible stretch. Of course Netanyahu mentioned the Persian viceroy Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jews, but not Cyrus of Persia, who ended the Babylonian exile of the Jews. The prime minister’s obsessive Iran demonization runs on selective history.

The Islamic Republic is repressive. It is hostile to Israel, underwrites Hezbollah and has sponsored terrorism. Its human rights record is abject. The regime is wedded to anti-Americanism (unlike the 80 million people of Iran, many of whom are drawn to America). But the most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Given Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, there is no better outcome for Israel and the world than the successful conclusion of the tough deal sought by Obama; one involving the intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program that assures that Iran is kept at least one year away from any potential “breakout” to bomb manufacture.

One word did not appear in Netanyahu’s speech: Palestine. The statelessness of the Palestinians is the real long-term threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Iran has often been a cleverly manipulated distraction from this fact.

Among foreign leaders, nobody has been invited to address Congress more often than Netanyahu. He now stands equal at the top of the table along with Winston Churchill. Behind Netanyahu trail Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin. That’s a pretty devastating commentary on the state of contemporary American political culture and the very notion of leadership.

Discuss that with Orange John…  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

If you want to know what a political party really stands for, follow the money. Pundits and the public are often deceived; remember when George W. Bush was a moderate, and Chris Christie a reasonable guy who could reach out to Democrats? Major donors, however, generally have a very good idea of what they are buying, so tracking their spending tells you a lot.

So what do contributions in the last election cycle say? The Democrats are, not too surprisingly, the party of Big Labor (or what’s left of it) and Big Law: unions and lawyers are the most pro-Democratic major interest groups. Republicans are the party of Big Energy and Big Food: they dominate contributions from extractive industries and agribusiness. And they are, in particular, the party of Big Pizza.

No, really. A recent Bloomberg report noted that major pizza companies have become intensely, aggressively partisan. Pizza Hut gives a remarkable 99 percent of its money to Republicans. Other industry players serve Democrats a somewhat larger slice of the pie (sorry, couldn’t help myself), but, over all, the politics of pizza these days resemble those of, say, coal or tobacco. And pizza partisanship tells you a lot about what is happening to American politics as a whole.

Why should pizza, of all things, be a divisive issue? The immediate answer is that it has been caught up in the nutrition wars. America’s body politic has gotten a lot heavier over the past half-century, and, while there is dispute about the causes, an unhealthy diet — fast food in particular — is surely a prime suspect. As Bloomberg notes, some parts of the food industry have responded to pressure from government agencies and food activists by trying to offer healthier options, but the pizza sector has chosen instead to take a stand for the right to add extra cheese.

The rhetoric of this fight is familiar. The pizza lobby portrays itself as the defender of personal choice and personal responsibility. It’s up to the consumer, so the argument goes, to decide what he or she wants to eat, and we don’t need a nanny state telling us what to do.

It’s an argument many people find persuasive, but it doesn’t hold up too well once you look at what’s actually at stake in the pizza disputes. Nobody is proposing a ban on pizza, or indeed any limitation on what informed adults should be allowed to eat. Instead, the fights involve things like labeling requirements — giving consumers the information to make informed choices — and the nutritional content of school lunches, that is, food decisions that aren’t made by responsible adults but are instead made on behalf of children.

Beyond that, anyone who has struggled with weight issues — which means, surely, the majority of American adults — knows that this is a domain where the easy rhetoric of “free to choose” rings hollow. Even if you know very well that you will soon regret that extra slice, it’s extremely hard to act on that knowledge. Nutrition, where increased choice can be a bad thing, because it all too often leads to bad choices despite the best of intentions, is one of those areas — like smoking — where there’s a lot to be said for a nanny state.

Oh, and diet isn’t purely a personal choice, either; obesity imposes large costs on the economy as a whole.

But you shouldn’t expect such arguments to gain much traction. For one thing, free-market fundamentalists don’t want to hear about qualifications to their doctrine. Also, with big corporations involved, the Upton Sinclair principle applies: It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. And beyond all that, it turns out that nutritional partisanship taps into deeper cultural issues.

At one level, there is a clear correlation between lifestyles and partisan orientation: heavier states tend to vote Republican, and the G.O.P. lean is especially pronounced in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the “diabetes belt” of counties, mostly in the South, that suffer most from that particular health problem. Not coincidentally, officials from that region have led the pushback against efforts to make school lunches healthier.

At a still deeper level, health experts may say that we need to change how we eat, pointing to scientific evidence, but the Republican base doesn’t much like experts, science, or evidence. Debates about nutrition policy bring out a kind of venomous anger — much of it now directed at Michelle Obama, who has been championing school lunch reforms — that is all too familiar if you’ve been following the debate over climate change.

Pizza partisanship, then, sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. It is, instead, a case study in the toxic mix of big money, blind ideology, and popular prejudices that is making America ever less governable.

Mass market pizza sucks.  All of it.  If you’re not eating pizza from a local shop, made to order, you’re eating crap.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

March 3, 2015

In “Leaving and Cleaving” Bobo gurgles that instant communications technology has changed the nature of parting: a new level of self-discipline and sacrifice is required for a graceful split.  In the comments “Mary Askew” from Springfield, MA had this to say:  “David Brooks may know people who stalk and harass ex-lovers, friends, mentors. I don’t. And, I haven’t heard those issues discussed among my friends.  If he thinks about it, Brooks will drop the “We all know….” formula. It is, at best, a lazy rationalization for this column.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Vast Realm of ‘If’,” says hypothetically speaking, one life is not enough. There is not enough time for all of our dreams.  In “How Warren Buffet Does It” Mr. Nocera tells us about going from “cigar butt” investing to the greatest conglomerate ever in 50 years.  Here’s Bobo:

So much of life is about leave-taking: moving from home to college, from love to love, from city to city and from life stage to life stage.

In earlier times, leaving was defined by distance, but now it is defined by silence. Everybody everywhere is just a text away, a phone call away. Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people.

The person moving on and changing a relationship no longer makes a one-time choice to physically go to another town. He makes a series of minute-by-minute decisions to not text, to not email or call, to turn intense communication into sporadic conversation or no communication. His name was once constant on his friend’s phone screen, but now it is rare and the void is a wound.

If you are like me you know a lot of relationships in which people haven’t managed this sort of transition well. Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted — after a transition — by resentment, neediness or narcissism.

We all know men and women who stalk ex-lovers online; people who bombard a friend with emails even though that friendship has evidently cooled; mentors who resent their former protégés when their emails are no longer instantly returned; people who post faux glam pictures on Instagram so they can “win the breakup” against their ex.

Instant communication creates a new sort of challenge. How do you gracefully change your communication patterns when one person legitimately wants to step back or is entering another life phase?

The paradox is that the person doing the leaving controls the situation, but greater heroism is demanded of the one being left behind. The person left in the vapor trail is hurt and probably craves contact. It’s amazing how much pain there is when what was once intimate conversation turns into unnaturally casual banter, emotional distance or just a void.

The person left behind also probably thinks that the leaver is making a big mistake. She probably thinks that it’s stupid to leave or change the bond; that the other person is driven by selfishness, shortsightedness or popularity.

Yet if the whole transition is going to be managed with any dignity, the person being left has to swallow the pain and accept the decision.

The person being left has to grant the leaver the dignity of her own mind, has to respect her ability to make her own choices about how to live and whom to be close to (except in the most highly unusual circumstances). The person being left has to suppress vindictive flashes of resentment and be motivated by a steady wish for the other person’s ultimate good. Without accepting the idea that she deserved to be left, the person being left has to act in a way worthy of her best nature, to continue the sacrificial love that the leaver may not deserve and may never learn about.

That means not calling when you are not wanted. Not pleading for more intimacy or doing the other embarrassing things that wine, late nights and instant communications make possible.

Maybe that will mean the permanent end to what once was, in which case at least the one left behind has lost with grace. But maybe it will mean rebirth.

For example, to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their child’s transition into adulthood.

The mistakes usually begin early in adolescence. The parents don’t create a space where the child can establish independence. They don’t create a context in which the child can be honest about what’s actually happening in his life. The child is forced to deceive in order to both lead a semi-independent life and also maintain parental love.

By college, both sides are to be pitied. By hanging on too tight, the parents have created exactly the separation they sought to avoid. The student, meanwhile, does not know if he is worthy of being treated as a dignified adult because his parents haven’t treated him that way. They are heading for a life of miscommunication.

But if the parents lay down sacrificially, accept the relationship their child defines, then it can reboot on an adult-to-adult basis. The hiddenness and deception is no longer necessary. Texts and emails can flow, not as before, but fluidly and sweetly.

Communications technology encourages us to express whatever is on our minds in that instant. It makes self-restraint harder. But sometimes healthy relationships require self-restraint and self-quieting, deference and respect (at the exact moments when those things are hardest to muster). So today a new kind of heroism is required. Feelings are hurt and angry words are at the ready. But they are held back. You can’t know the future, but at least you can walk into it as your best and highest self.

I wonder if Bobo is busy cyber-stalking his ex-wife, since he seems so sure that we ALL know someone who does that…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

What happens only just happens; then inevitability is conferred upon it. Between the lived and the not-quite-lived lies the little word “if.” It’s a two-letter invitation to the vast realm of the hypothetical, the counterfactual, and all the various paths not taken over the course of a life.

When I lived in Brazil in the 1980s I would run along the beach from Leblon to Ipanema and back. After the workout, I’d always pay a couple of cents for coconut water. I liked to watch the way the beach-shack dude cupped the coconut in one hand and then, with three or four languorous but unerring swipes of his machete, opened up the top. He’d insert a straw. The iced water was always perfect.

I’d count his fingers. The blade never slipped. There were always 10.

Of course, if I’d thought of putting the coconut water in a bottle 30 years ago, marketing its health benefits, and selling it worldwide, I would not be writing this column today. It was too simple to think of that.

When I lived in Rome, before Brazil, I liked to watch the barmen ratcheting ground coffee into a receptacle, tapping the grains down, twisting the container into a socket, placing cups on a metal ledge-cum-filter beneath the coffee-yielding spouts, pouring milk with the requested dose of foam, and placing the various coffees on the counter. The quicksilver movements seemed all part of a single pirouette.

My then wife and I would travel from Rome to the Midwest, where she is from, and remark on the fact that it was near impossible to get a good coffee. She liked the idea of opening a coffee shop in the Twin Cities that would serve coffee as good as we’d become accustomed to drinking in Italy. Perhaps we could even grow the business across the United States!

Of course, if we’d done that in 1983, coffee aficionados might be speaking of St. Paul today the way they speak of Seattle. We’d be visiting our coffee shops in Chengdu and Glasgow. But it was too simple to do that.

Before Rome, when I lived in Brussels, I’d watch the chocolatiers down near the Grand Place apply their tongs (most useful and underrated of culinary implements!) to the cocoa-dusted truffles and place them, one by one, in small white boxes until the chocolates were arrayed in many-layered order, one temptation nestling against another.

It would have been easy enough, in 1980, to make those chocolates more widely available, and it did occur to me that they should be, but of course I did nothing about the thought. If I had, who knows?

When I was in Afghanistan in 1973, before all the trouble started, or rather at the moment the trouble started with the overthrow of the king, I should have brought back all those Afghan rugs, and perhaps picked up a few in Iran (in that one could drive across the country then without any problem or mention of nukes); and certainly I should have hung onto our VW Kombi called Pigpen, after the keyboardist of the Grateful Dead who died that year, but I did not imagine then what a vehicle like that, adorned with Afghan paintings, might go for on eBay today, or how the VW bus would one day be prized from Hay-on-Wye to Haight-Ashbury. I don’t even recall where in England I left Pigpen to die.

Hypothetically speaking, we need countless lives. There is not enough time. Or so it may seem. In the next one I will be a baker or a jeweler or a winemaker. I will make things. I will stay in one place.

Absent what might have been, I went on writing. In “The Debt to Pleasure,” the English novelist John Lanchester has this to say about my profession: “‘Your precipitate social decline cannot fail to alarm your well-wishers,’ I told my brother. ‘You started as a painter, then you became a sculptor, now you’re basically a sort of gardener. What next, Barry? Street-cleaner? Lavatory attendant? Journalism?”’

That is a little harsh on what happened in the absence of what might have.

There is beauty in our dreams of change, our constant what ifs. Days begin in the realm of solemn undertakings — to eat less, to exercise more, to work harder, or to go gentler. They end with wobbles into compromise, or collapses into indulgence, with the perennial solace of the prospect of another day. The good-intentions dinner, a salad with a couple of slivers of chicken, turns into a Burrito with cheese and avocado and salsa and chicken. That’s human.

It’s an illusion to think it would have been simple to change. We live lives that reflect our natures. Memory grows, a refuge, a solace, a repository so vast that what happened and what almost did begin to blur.

And now we get to Mr. Nocera:

Fifty years ago, a young investor named Warren Buffett took control of a failing textile company, Berkshire Hathaway. “I found myself … invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little,” Buffett relates in his annual letter to shareholders, which was released over the weekend. “I became the dog who caught the car.”

Buffett describes his approach in those days as “cigar butt” investing; buying shares of troubled companies with underpriced stocks was “like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it,” he writes. “Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” He continues: “Most of my gains in those early years … came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices.”

But that approach had limits. It took Charlie Munger, the Los Angeles lawyer who has been his longtime sidekick, to show him that there was another way to win at the investing game: “Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices,” Munger told him. “Instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.” Which is what Buffett’s been doing ever since.

He has done it in two ways. First — and this is what he is renowned for — he has bought stock in some of the great American companies of our time, stock that he has held not just for years, but for decades. Second, he has turned Berkshire Hathaway into a true conglomerate, which owns not just stocks but entire companies. Although Berkshire’s front office employs only 25 people, its companies have, in total, some 340,500 employees.

How successful has the Buffett-Munger approach been? In the 50 years since Buffett took over Berkshire, its stock has appreciated by 1,826,163 percent. That is an astounding number.

You would think, given Buffett’s success, that more people would try to emulate his approach to investing. It is not as if he hasn’t tried to explain how he does it. Every year, you can find a Buffett tutorial in his annual letter that the rest of us would do well to absorb — and practice.

In the current letter, for instance, he makes the case — which has been made many times before — that a diversified portfolio of stocks “that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions” are less risky over the long term than other investment vehicles that are tied to the dollar. Clearly, that’s been his approach. He then goes on to bemoan the fact that too many investors — both little guys and investment professionals — do things that add risk: “Active trading, attempts to ‘time’ market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees … and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy.”

Another thing about Buffett is that he has never gotten caught up in fads. He only buys businesses that he understands and can predict where the business will be in a decade. He teaches this point in the current letter with a discussion of the conglomerates that sprung up in the 1960s and became the hot stocks of the moment. Jimmy Ling, who ran one such company, LTV, used to say that he looked for acquisitions where “2 plus 2 equals 5.”

LTV, as conceived by Ling, of course, ceased to exist decades ago (though the company would go through several transformations and bankruptcy court before shuttering its last vestige in 2002). “Never forget that 2 + 2 will always equal 4,” writes Buffett. “And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.”

If it’s really this simple, why don’t more people try to invest like Buffett? One reason, I think, is that sound investing — buying when others are selling, holding for the long term, avoiding the hot stocks — requires a stronger stomach than most people have. When a stock is plummeting, it takes a certain strength to buy even more instead of selling in a panic. Most of us lack the temperament required for smart investing. The fundamental equanimity required to be a great investor is a rare thing.

The second reason is that investing the Warren Buffett way is a lot more complicated than he makes it sound. Can you predict where a business will be in 10 years? Of course not. But he can — and does.

In a few months, the faithful will flock to Omaha to attend Berkshire’s annual meeting — “Woodstock for capitalists,” Buffett likes to call it. For six hours, Buffett and Munger will be on stage, before some 40,000 people, cracking wise, while making their investment decisions sound like simplicity itself.

But, in coming to pay their annual homage, the throngs will not be acknowledging the simplicity of Buffett’s approach, but the genius behind it.

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 19, 2015

In “The Obama Years” Mr. Blow says wherever you think he may rank as a president, there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.  Mr. Cohen has decided to channel MoDo and has written a fever dream.  In “The Great Jewish Exodus” he you should be careful what you wish for: An Israeli leader urges a course that diminishes Jewishness and the liberal world order.  Mr. Kristof addresses “The Cost of a Decline in Unions” and says as unions wane in American life, it’s increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining the middle class.  Which is most likely why TPTB are slowly strangling them.  Ms. Collins has a question in “A Gun on Every Corner:”  Should a local gun permit be treated like a driver’s license that is recognized all over the country?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As the political parlor game increasingly turns to obsessions about the jockeying to become the next president, my thinking increasingly turns to how history will measure the current one.

While a truly comprehensive appraisal and historical contextualization of a presidency is the scope and scale of books more than columns, there are things that, from my perch and according to the peculiarities of my personal interests, stand out.

Some of these are things for which the president can — in part or in whole — take personal responsibility, but others simply happened on this watch. And yet, I believe that they will all be somewhat associated with him and his stewardship.

In an interview broadcast earlier this month, the president told CNN, “I’m proud of saving the economy.” That may well be the most resounding mark of his presidency, even as people debate the quality of the recovery and his administration’s role in it.

It is nearly impossible to overstate how close we came to economic collapse in 2008 and how frightened we all were.

Now, that has turned around. The private sector has seen job growth for 59 straight months. The unemployment rate was down to 5.6 percent in December, the lowest since 2008, and as Reuters pointed out last month, new claims for unemployment benefits reached “the lowest level in nearly 15 years.”

But this recovery tends to feel more favorable for the wealthy than the working class. As the National Employment Law Project pointed out in an April policy paper, there is an imbalance between the kinds of jobs lost in the recession and the kinds experiencing the greatest growth in the recovery: High-wage industries accounted for 41 percent of the job losses but only 30 percent of the recent employment growth, while lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of the job losses but 44 percent of recent growth.

But if you are one of the Americans well off enough to own stocks, life looks much better. In 2009, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen below 7,000; now it’s above 18,000. And yet, as CNBC pointed out in September, the percent of Americans who hold stock either directly or indirectly is at an 18-year low while “stock ownership for the wealthy is at a new high,” based on 2012 data. As CNBC reported:

“In 2010, the latest period available, the top 10 percent of Americans by net worth held 81 percent of all directly held or indirectly held stocks, according to Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University who specializes in inequality and Federal Reserve data.”

The Obama years will also be remembered for the reshaping of our politics. There was the rise of the Tea Party and the demise of moderate voices. There were the unfathomable and indefensible rulings by the Supreme Court to bless dark money in the Citizens United case and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. There is an ongoing voter effort to shrink and restrict the voting pool as minorities are beginning to feel their power at the polls.

The Obama years will be remembered as a cultural — and legal — tipping point for equality for all people who do not identify as strictly heterosexual, arguably the civil rights movement of our times. The president signed the bill repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court.

And in 2012, Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage (a book by David Axelrod even claims that the president was in favor of same-sex marriage, long before he publicly proclaimed it, and indeed when he was publicly saying that he wasn’t). When Obama took office, same-sex marriage was rare; now it’s legal in 37 states. And a case now before the Supreme Court could determine whether it will be legal nationally.

The New Republic even dubbed Obama the “Gay-Rights President,” and it is hard to argue with that.

The Obama years will also be remembered for his signature legislation — the Affordable Care Act. This week, the president said that 11.4 million people had signed up for insurance or renewed coverage under the plan. Needless to say, the program is reducing the number of people who are uninsured but it also appears to be lowering medical costs.

Yet the future of the act is unclear. There is a case (King v. Burwell) before the Supreme Court — a laughable case about a language quibble that may be the most significant linguistic imprecision of a generation — that could spell doom for the law by withholding subsidies from millions of low-income Americans to purchase health insurance.

There’s the Supreme Court again. One could argue that the Supreme Court — the judicial Divine Nine — has shaped the Obama presidency as much as Obama has. That’s not to say that he hasn’t done an amazing job of shaping the judiciary in this country himself. In addition to appointing two new members to the Supreme Court — both women, a first for any president — he has completely transformed the lower courts.

As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in The New Yorker in October:

“When Obama took office, Republican appointees controlled ten of the thirteen circuit courts of appeals; Democratic appointees now constitute a majority in nine circuits. Because federal judges have life tenure, nearly all of Obama’s judges will continue serving well after he leaves office.

Furthermore, Toobin laid out the diversity of the Obama transformation, writing:

“Sheldon Goldman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a scholar of judicial appointments, said, ‘The majority of Obama’s appointments are women and nonwhite males.’ Forty-two per cent of his judgeships have gone to women. Twenty-two per cent of George W. Bush’s judges and twenty-nine per cent of Bill Clinton’s were women. Thirty-six per cent of President Obama’s judges have been minorities, compared with eighteen per cent for Bush and twenty-four per cent for Clinton.”

This is huge.

And there isn’t space in this column to address the many other things the Obama years will be remembered for: our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Russian aggression, moves on climate policy and the rise of American energy, the re-fighting of issues over women’s reproductive rights and immigration policy, to name a few.

Whether you agree that Obama was a transformational figure or how he ranks among other presidents — a new survey of American Political Science Association members puts him 18th — there is no doubt that the time of his presidency will be remembered as transformational.

Next up we have MoDo Mr. Cohen:

They were gone, as completely as from Baghdad or Cairo, Damascus or Alexandria. They had vanished from Budapest and Brussels, from Frankfurt and Padua, from Paris and Manchester, from Antwerp and Stockholm.

As in the Arab world, Europe wondered what it had lost. The texture of life was thinned, the richness of exchange diminished, the flowering of ideas curtailed. There was an absence.

They did not say much. They packed and left, wheeling their suitcases, carrying their bags and bundles and babies, a little wave offered here and there. Rich and poor, religious and not, they sold what they had and went on their way. People looked askance, as their forbears once had in crueler circumstances, a little uneasy at the exodus, unsure what it meant but certain it was the end of a very long story.

Was Europe not the Continent of Disraeli and Heine and Marx (all baptized, but still), of Freud and Einstein, of Rothschild and Bleichröder, of Dreyfus and Herzl, of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig? Was it not the home of Yiddish, once the first tongue of millions, a language perhaps unique, as Isaac Bashevis Singer noted, because it was never spoken by men in power?

Was it not the scene of a great 19th-century struggle for emancipation beginning in France and stretching across the Continent to the pogrom-stained Pale of Settlement, a battle that in many instances ushered this stubborn people, with their eternal covenant of ethics entered into with a faceless God, to the summit of the professions, only for this progress, threatening to some, to end in the Nazis’ industrialized mass murder?

Was Europe not, against all odds, the place liberalism triumphed over the deathly totalitarianisms? The land of Isaiah Berlin who quoted Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The Continent where this people survived after the attempted annihilation (in which the majority of Europeans were complicit), forming new communities, even in Germany; a Continent of crooked timber, of every expression and experiment in their identity, their partial loss of identity, their embrace of merged and multiple identities?

Yes, there was often a sense of otherness, a self-imposed discretion, but there was also reassurance in being part of a great European convergence that over many decades dissolved the borders across which countless wars had been fought and affirmed the right of every European of whatever faith or ethnicity to equal rights, free expression, and the free practice of their beliefs.

Yet now they were gone. Europe, without the Jews, had lost part of itself. It had lost the very right to a conscience. It had been defeated in its essence. It had rebirthed itself after the 20th-century horror only to surrender.

Jewishness had lost one of its constituent elements, the European Jew of the diaspora. As for humanity, it had lost all hope. Humankind had succumbed to the tribal nightmare, to the darkest of tides. Tribal war loomed.

The strange thing was that the prime minister of Israel, the Jewish homeland established in 1948, the certain refuge at last, the place where belonging could never be an issue, had wished it so.

It was the Israeli leader who suggested it was time to abandon the European Jewish experiment. He had been in office many years. He saw himself as the visionary defender and gatherer of his people, the man for every threat (and they seemed to multiply endlessly).

After the shootings of Jews in Brussels and Paris and Copenhagen, as European soldiers and police fanned out to protect synagogues and as he faced a close election, the Israeli leader said this: “This wave of terror attacks is expected to continue, including these murderous anti-Semitic attacks.”

He continued: “We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe” of Jews. He added, “I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew.”

Israel is indeed the home of every Jew, and that is important, a guarantee of sorts. It is equally important, however, that not every Jew choose this home. That is another kind of guarantee, of Europe’s liberal order, of the liberal idea itself. So it was shattering when millions of Jews, every one of them in fact, as if entranced, upped and left their homes in Milan and Berlin and Zurich.

The leader himself was overcome: Where was he to house them? Many of the liberal Jews of Europe, long strangers in strange lands, knowing statelessness in their bones, mindful of Hillel’s summation of the Torah — “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man” — refused to be part of the spreading settlements in the West Bank, Israeli rule over another people.

The prime minister awoke, shaken. It had been such a vivid nightmare. Too vivid! To himself he murmured, “Careful what you wish for.”

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

Like many Americans, I’ve been wary of labor unions.

Full-time union stagehands at Carnegie Hall earning more than $400,000 a year? A union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her? A police union in New York City that has a tantrum and goes on virtual strike?

More broadly, I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong.

I was wrong.

The abuses are real. But, as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life — especially the private-sector unions that are now dwindling.

Most studies suggest that about one-fifth of the increase in economic inequality in America among men in recent decades is the result of the decline in unions. It may be more: A study in the American Sociological Review, using the broadest methodology, estimates that the decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality among men.

“To understand the rising inequality, you have to understand the devastation in the labor movement,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington and the author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Take construction workers. A full-time construction worker earns about $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars, according to Rosenfeld. One reason is probably that the proportion who are unionized has fallen in that period from more than 40 percent to just 14 percent.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

In Germany, the average autoworker earns about $67 per hour in salary and benefits, compared with $34 in the United States. Yet Germany’s car companies in 2010 produced more than twice as many vehicles as American companies did, and they were highly profitable. It’s too glib to say that the problem in the American sector was just unions.

Or look at American history. The peak years for unions were the 1940s and ’50s, which were also some of the fastest-growing years for the United States ever — and with broadly shared prosperity. Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least.

Richard B. Freeman, a Harvard labor expert, notes that unions sometimes bring important benefits to industry: They can improve morale, reduce turnover and provide a channel to suggest productivity improvements.

Experts disagree about how this all balances out, but it’s clear that it’s not a major drag. “If you’re looking for big negatives, everybody knows they don’t exist,” Professor Freeman said.

Joseph Stiglitz notes in his book “The Price of Inequality” that when unions were strong in America, productivity and real hourly compensation moved together in manufacturing. But after 1980 (and especially after 2000) the link seemed to break and real wages stagnated.

It may be that as unions weakened, executives sometimes grabbed the gains from productivity. Perhaps that helps explain why chief executives at big companies earned, on average, 20 times as much as the typical worker in 1965, and 296 times as much in 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”

He’s right. This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Earlier this month — right between Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day — Senator John Cornyn of Texas introduced a bill that would allow people from states with lax gun laws to carry their concealed weapons all around the country.

The goal, Cornyn said in a press release, is to treat local gun permits “like drivers’ licenses.”

“This operates more or less like a driver’s license,” he told a reporter for The Hill. “So, for example, if you have a driver’s license in Texas, you can drive in New York, in Utah, and other places subject to the laws in those states.”

This is perfectly reasonable, except for the part about gun permits being anything whatsoever like drivers’ licenses. If a citizen from Mississippi shows his driver’s license to someone in Connecticut, the Connecticut person has good reason to presume that the licensee can, um, drive. It’s not a perfect system — witness the fact that there are many, many licensed drivers in America who have successfully parallel parked only one time in their entire life. But, still, no matter what state it comes from, a driver’s license generally signifies a certain level of accomplishment when it comes to the basics of stopping, starting and steering.

On the other hand, a permit to carry a concealed weapon from Mississippi is concrete proof of the owner’s ability to fill out an application. In Virginia, you can take an online course. You can get a permit from Florida without ever living in Florida, although you definitely do have to send $112 to the State Department of Agriculture.

In some states, you can be pretty certain that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon has been checked out carefully. In others, not so much. In 2007, The Sun Sentinel in Florida found that in a six-month period, more than 1,400 people who had pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies had been awarded concealed carry permits, along with 216 people with outstanding warrants, 28 people with active domestic violence injunctions against them, and six registered sex offenders.

The Cornyn bill would set a national bar at the lowest denominator.

“The situation in Florida is dire enough on its own. But this law would present a danger to the rest of us because of Florida’s abhorrently low standards,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Think about this in terms of states’ rights.”

You’d think that states’ rights would be a winning argument. However, as with so many, many things in this world, states’ rights is a theory that people only like when it’s going to get them something they already want.

In many crowded cities, gun safety means there’s almost nobody carrying but the cops. But it’s impossible to keep that kind of order when people are roaming the streets waving out-of-town gun permits, which local police frequently have no way to verify.

“It’s a nightmare for New York law enforcement,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York. “In 20 states you can have a repeated history of mental health police visits and you can get a gun. You can have a domestic violence record. In many states, people subject to emergency orders of protection can be allowed to carry.”

Cornyn’s bill has been the top priority of groups like the National Rifle Association for years. That is, in part, because their base is irritated about not being able to drive around the country with a handgun in the glove compartment.

However, I suspect another part of the equation is that the gun lobby is running out of causes to rally the troops. Some states have already pretty much legalized everything. Once you’ve made it O.K. to carry a gun onto a playground, you’ve just about come to the end of the road. The N.R.A. doesn’t want to recruit members by arguing for Texans’ right to wave a pistol around the small appliance department at Target. It wants a big, meaty challenge — like fighting for looser gun regulation in states where the populace doesn’t want looser gun regulation.

Nobody doubts that the House of Representatives would pass a bill like Cornyn’s. (Really, just call them; they’ll come in and do it before dinner tonight.) The Senate has been more resistant, but, in 2013, the same proposal came within three votes of passage. And this is not an issue where minds are changed by an invigorating debate.

“You say: ‘Look, maybe this works in the rural parts of your state but it doesn’t work in Times Square,’ ” said Schumer. “They’re not even open to the argument.”

Now, with the new Republican majority, it’ll be extremely hard to keep a bill from being sent to the president. He could always veto it. Unless, of course, it was tied to some crucial, desperately needed measure.

“This is awful, awful, awful,” said Schumer.

Maybe our best hope is that Congress will do what it does best and fail to pass any legislation whatsoever for the rest of the year.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 16, 2015

In “A Kaffeeklatsch on Race” Mr. Blow says the F.B.I. chief, James Comey, enters the debate.  Mr. Cohen, in “Islam and the West at War,” says the Danish prime minister speaks of a “dark ideology.” This vagueness undermines the Muslims fighting the Islamist scourge.  Prof. Krugman addresses Greek debt and the lessons of history in “Weimar on the Aegean.”  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In our collective imaginations, we tend to conceive of the constantly called-for “national conversation on race” as having the formality of some grand conclave of consciousness — an American Truth and Reconciliation equivalent, a spiritual spectacle in which sins are confessed and blame taken and burdens lifted.

This may be ideal, but it is also exceedingly unlikely in this country, particularly in this political environment. There will be no great atoning. Reparations will not be paid. There will no sprawling absolution.

Yet we can still have a productive conversation. Indeed, I would argue that we are in the midst of a national conversation about race at this very moment. Its significance isn’t drawn from structure but from the freedom of its form.

Every discussion over a backyard fence or a cup of coffee is part of that conversation. It is the very continuity of its casualness that bolsters its profundity.

We need to stop calling for the conversation and realize that we are already having it.

Last week the F.B.I. director, James Comey, added his voice to that conversation, particularly as it relates to the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. There were portions I found particularly potent coming from a man in his position.

He gave a list of “hard truths,” the first of which was an admission that the history of law enforcement in this country was not only part of the architecture of oppression but also a brutal tool of that system. As Comey put it, “One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either.”

His second hard truth acknowledged the existence of unconscious racial bias “in our white-majority culture” and how that influences policing.

Third, he acknowledged that people in law enforcement can develop “different flavors of cynicism” that can be “lazy mental shortcuts,” resulting in more pronounced racial profiling.

But as in all discussions, there were portions of the speech to which I took exception.

First, Comey seems to falsely conflate condemnation of poor policing — sometimes predatory policing, in particular — with a condemnation of all policing. He makes a straw man argument, “Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods.” Who said it was?

This is a twisting of motive and purpose of the voices of recent protesters that undermines and mischaracterizes both. Minority communities want policing the same as any other, but they want it to be appropriate and proportional. They want not to be afraid of the cops as well as the criminals. They want officers to display an equitable modicum of discernment in treating the law-abiding differently from the lawbreaking.

The discussion is not about police officers being a “root cause of problems” in a given neighborhood, but rather that they shouldn’t be a problem at all, anywhere. We are not geographically confined. We can move in and out of high-crime neighborhoods. We can’t move in and out of our own skin.

At another point, Comey states that cynicism “becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights.” This is dangerous and unconditionally false. “Lazy mental shortcuts” — in other words, racial profiling — aren’t rational in any light. That violates not only an American principle but also a human one: that no person should be punished for the crimes or sins of another.

His fourth hard truth focused on how crimes among “many young men of color become part of that officer’s life experience.” But in seeking to offer context, he mentioned “environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment.” Here he moves perilously close to a racial pathology argument, as if there were something inherent in blackness and black culture that predisposes one to criminality. This, too, is a “lazy mental shortcut.”

What too few people mention when discussing crime is the degree to which concentrated poverty, hopelessness and despair are the chambermaids of violence and incivility. These factors are developed and maintained through a complicated interplay of structural biases — historical and current — interpersonal biases, environmental reinforcements and personal choices.

Even as I disagree on portions, I take the larger point, and I applaud the endeavor and its purpose. Comey seems to be making a genuine effort to be part of the conversation and the solution, and that is more than I can say for some.

One doesn’t have to possess the certitude of gospel to have a positive impact on this discussion — for oneself and others. Just an earnest desire for insight and mutual understanding.

This is more than one can say of the hard of heart, those resistant to engagement and, therefore, beyond enlightenment. The stone cannot absorb no matter how much you drench it.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

After a Danish movie director at a seminar on “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression” and a Danish Jew guarding a synagogue were shot dead in Copenhagen, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the prime minister of Denmark, uttered a familiar trope:

“We are not in the middle of a battle between Islam and the West. It’s not a battle between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a battle between values based on the freedom of the individual and a dark ideology.”

This statement — with its echoes of President Obama’s vague references to “violent extremists” uncoupled from the fundamentalist Islam to which said throat-cutting extremists pledge allegiance — scarcely stands up to scrutiny. It is empty talk.

Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world, in a failed bid to eradicate a metastasizing Islamist movement of murderous hatred toward Western civilization.

To call this movement, whose most potent recent manifestation is the Islamic State, a “dark ideology” is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate. There is little point in Western politicians rehearsing lines about there being no battle between Islam and the West, when in all the above-mentioned countries tens of millions of Muslims, with much carnage as evidence, believe the contrary.

The Danish filmmaker Finn Norgaard was killed a little over a decade after another movie director, Theo van Gogh, was slain in Amsterdam for making a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. The Islamists’ war is against freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of blasphemy, sexual freedom — in short, core characteristics of democracies seen by the would-be rebuilders of the Caliphate as signs of Western debasement.

Do not provoke them with cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, some say, show respect for Islam, the peaceful faith of some 1.6 billion people. But what, pray, was the “provocation” of Dan Uzan, the Jewish security guard outside the Copenhagen synagogue?

Islam is a religion that has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power. Islam, as such, is fair game for commentators, caricaturists and cartoonists, whose inclination to mock the depredations of theocracy and political Islam’s cynical uses of the Prophet cannot be cowed by fear.

Over the more than 13 years since Al Qaeda attacked America on 9/11, we have seen trains blown up in Madrid, the Tube and a bus bombed in London, Western journalists beheaded, the staff of Charlie Hebdo slaughtered, Jews killed in France and Belgium and now Denmark. This is not the work of a “dark ideology” but of jihadi terror.

On the right of Europe’s political spectrum, anger is rising against Islam, against marginalized Muslim communities, who in turn feel discriminated against and misrepresented, with cause. Several thousand young European Muslims troop off to join ISIS. Europe’s Jews are on edge, with cause. Israel calls them home. In the United States, three Muslim students were killed this month by a gunman in a possible hate crime denounced by Obama as “brutal and outrageous.” A tide of retaliatory menace rises.

Who or what is to blame? There are two schools. For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality, (Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib); its killing of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a jihadi-funding Saudi ally).

For the second, it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic State its appeal.

I find the second view more persuasive. The rise of the Islamic State, and Obama’s new war, are a direct result of the failure of the Arab Spring, which had seemed to offer a path out of the deadlocked, jihadi-spawning societies of the Arab world.

Only Arabs can find the answer to this crisis. But history, I suspect, will not judge Obama kindly for having failed to foster the great liberation movement that rose up in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Inaction is also a policy: Nonintervention produced Syria today.

I hear the words of Chokri Belaid, the brave Tunisian lawyer, shortly before he was gunned down by Islamist fanatics on Feb. 6, 2013: “We can disagree in our diversity but within a civilian, peaceful and democratic framework. Disagree in our diversity, yes!”

To speak of a nonspecific “dark ideology,” to dismiss the reality of conflict between the West and Islam, is also to undermine the anti-Islamist struggle of brave Muslims like Belaid — and these Muslims are the only people, ultimately, who can defeat the black-flagged jihadi death merchants.

And last but certainly not least here’s Prof. Krugman:

Try to talk about the policies we need in a depressed world economy, and someone is sure to counter with the specter of Weimar Germany, supposedly an object lesson in the dangers of budget deficits and monetary expansion. But the history of Germany after World War I is almost always cited in a curiously selective way. We hear endlessly about the hyperinflation of 1923, when people carted around wheelbarrows full of cash, but we never hear about the much more relevant deflation of the early 1930s, as the government of Chancellor Brüning — having learned the wrong lessons — tried to defend Germany’s peg to gold with tight money and harsh austerity.

And what about what happened before the hyperinflation, when the victorious Allies tried to force Germany to pay huge reparations? That’s also a tale with a lot of modern relevance, because it has a direct bearing on the crisis now brewing over Greece.

The point is that now, more than ever, it is crucial that Europe’s leaders remember the right history. If they don’t, the European project of peace and democracy through prosperity will not survive.

About those reparations: The basic story here is that Britain and France, instead of viewing the newly established German democracy as a potential partner, treated it as a conquered enemy, demanding that it make up their own wartime losses. This was deeply unwise — and the demands placed on Germany were impossible to meet, for two reasons. First, Germany’s economy had already been devastated by the war. Second, the true burden on that shrunken economy would — as John Maynard Keynes explained in his angry, powerful book “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” — be far greater than the direct payments to the vengeful Allies.

In the end, and inevitably, the actual sums collected from Germany fell far short of Allied demands. But the attempt to levy tribute on a ruined nation — incredibly, France actually invaded and occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, in an effort to extract payment — crippled German democracy and poisoned relations with its neighbors.

Which brings us to the confrontation between Greece and its creditors.

You can argue that Greece brought its problems on itself, although it had a lot of help from irresponsible lenders. At this point, however, the simple fact is that Greece cannot pay its debts in full. Austerity has devastated its economy as thoroughly as military defeat devastated Germany — real Greek G.D.P. per capita fell 26 percent from 2007 to 2013, compared with a German decline of 29 percent from 1913 to 1919.

Despite this catastrophe, Greece is making payments to its creditors, running a primary surplus — an excess of revenue over spending other than interest — of around 1.5 percent of G.D.P. And the new Greek government is willing to keep running that surplus. What it is not willing to do is meet creditor demands that it triple the surplus, and keep running huge surpluses for many years to come.

What would happen if Greece were to try to generate those huge surpluses? It would have to further slash government spending — but that wouldn’t be the end of the story. Spending cuts have already driven Greece into a deep depression, and further cuts would make that depression deeper. Falling incomes would, however, mean falling tax receipts, so that the deficit would decline by much less than the initial reduction in spending — probably less than half as much. To meet its target, then, Greece would have to do another round of cuts, and then another.

Furthermore, a shrinking economy would lead to falling private spending too — another, indirect cost of the austerity.

Put it all together, and attempting to cough up the extra 3 percent of G.D.P. the creditors are demanding would cost Greece not 3 percent, but something like 8 percent of G.D.P. And remember, this would come on top of one of the worst economic slumps in history.

What would happen if Greece were simply to refuse to pay? Well, 21st-century European nations don’t use their armies as bill collectors. But there are other forms of coercion. We now know that in 2010 the European Central Bank threatened, in effect, to collapse the Irish banking system unless Dublin agreed to an International Monetary Fund program.

The threat of something similar hangs implicitly over Greece, although my hope is that the central bank, which is under different and more open-minded management these days, wouldn’t go along.

In any case, European creditors should realize that flexibility — giving Greece a chance to recover — is in their own interests. They may not like the new leftist government, but it’s a duly elected government whose leaders are, from everything I’ve heard, sincerely committed to democratic ideals. Europe could do a lot worse — and if the creditors are vengeful, it will.

Cohen, Kristof and Collins

February 12, 2015

In “Curtail Iran and Win” Mr. Cohen says the dismantlement camp is a war camp. But you can’t bomb Iranian knowledge of the fuel cycle out of existence.  He’s making a surprising amount of sense for someone I’ve thought should be registered as a lobbyist for Israel.  In “Muslims, Marriage and Bigotry” Mr. Kristof says the murder of Muslims in North Carolina and upheaval over same-sex marriage in Alabama are reminders of the importance of combating intolerance.  What’s going on in Alabama has more to do with the lunatic fringe of the nullification party than intolerance…  Ms. Collins offers “An Ode to Obamacare” and says it turns out that the Affordable Care Act is no trouble to anybody.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

As a deadline nears for a possible deal with Iran on its nuclear program, discussion is being clouded by false debate. A curtailment camp that sees a viable avenue to ring-fencing limited Iranian enrichment so that the country cannot acquire a bomb confronts a dismantlement camp that believes any deal is bad and every Iranian centrifuge must go.

The Obama administration officials leading the talks are committed curtailers. They seek a tough deal involving intensive verification over an extended period of a much-reduced enrichment program compatible only with civilian nuclear energy and assuring that Iran is kept at least one year from any potential “breakout” to bomb manufacture.

The dismantlers, who believe a deal would be disastrous, are led by Benjamin Netanyahu with strong support in the Republican-controlled Congress, even before the Israeli prime minister addresses a joint session early next month. Netanyahu, whose planned visit has angered Obama, argues that he has an “obligation to speak up on a matter that affects the very survival of my country.”

The falseness of the debate lies in the disingenuousness of the dismantlers. Iran has mastered the fuel cycle. This may be regrettable but is no less true for that. It did so before Obama took office. The country knows its way around basic enrichment technology. Thousands of centrifuges are spinning, although many fewer than would have been without the effective interim agreement concluded in late 2013. What then does it mean to dismantle knowledge? You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence. Yet this in essence is what the dismantlers propose.

In reality, the dismantlement camp favors escalation that makes a calamitous conflict with Iran more likely; it is a war camp. Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will not voluntarily eliminate a nuclear program that is a source of national pride and to which it believes it has a right.

Baloney, the dismantlers say, the country can be sanctioned to its knees — and Senators Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, have a sanctions bill readied in an attempt to prove just that (Obama has said he will veto it). The sanction-and-dismantle devotees are deluded. Sanctions have hurt Iran, but the country is largely inured to them.

That leaves bombing Iran in an attempt to achieve dismantlement. Yet even optimistic assessments suggest the most a military campaign might achieve is setting the Iranian program back a couple of years. It would also lead the United States into a war with the sworn Shiite enemies of Sunni ISIS just as America and its allies do battle with the Islamic State, as well as place Israel at war with Persians and Arabs for the first time. As double whammies in folly go, this would be up there.

Wise counsel to the dismantlers would run as follows: “In a perfect world Iran would have no enrichment program, but life’s not perfect. This situation comes down to alternatives. Either you get a negotiated solution that ensures over some 15 years that Iran’s program is strictly limited, at least a year from breakout, with eyes and ears on the ground you’ve never had before, and the plutonium path to a bomb cut off by the transformation of the Arak research reactor — or you go for military action. And what would war achieve? It may set the program back some, but it will ensure that Iran goes for a bomb, inflame anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, and see the current international coalition for sanctions fall apart. That is not good for anyone, including Israel.”

A tough nuclear deal, of the kind sought by Obama, would enhance Israeli security. War with Iran would undermine it.

A little over a month remains until a March 24 deadline for at least the “political framework” of a deal. The main differences, I am told, are over an unrealistic Iranian demand that all sanctions be lifted at once if a deal is reached, and over cuts or modifications to the almost 10,000 operating centrifuges. Because Western officials believe Iran is prepared to send almost all its current stockpile to Russia, which would set back its “breakout” potential, there is more American flexibility on the number of centrifuges. Still, the number would probably need to be at least halved.

These are real but not insurmountable differences. Ushering Iran toward the world through a rigorous deal would have enormous political and economic benefits. As Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said recently: “We need to seize this opportunity. It may not be repeated.” It remains to be seen if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme Iranian leader, is in “seizing” mode.

He’s not the only hard-liner. The dismantlers seek another unwinnable war. They cloak their intent with irresponsible talk of a deal as another Munich. Their argument is false. The curtailers are realistic. They are right. It’s far better to circumscribe enrichment than spur it — and possibly an Iranian bomb — through impossible dismantlement demands.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

In North Carolina, three young Muslims who were active in charity work were murdered, allegedly by a man who identified as atheist and expressed hostility to Islam and other faiths. Police are exploring whether it was a hate crime, and it spurred a #MuslimLivesMatter campaign on Twitter.

And, in Alabama, we see judges refusing to approve marriages of any kind because then they would also have to approve same-sex marriages. In one poll conducted last year, some 59 percent of people in Alabama opposed gay marriage. Somehow a loving God is cited to bar loving couples from committing to each other.

These are very different news stories. But I wonder if a common lesson from both may be the importance of resisting bigotry, of combating the intolerance that can infect people of any faith — or of no faith.

I don’t think Muslims should feel obliged to apologize for the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. Nor do I think atheists need apologize for the killing of the three Muslims.

But it does seem useful for everyone to reflect on our capacity to “otherize” people of a different faith, race, nationality or sexuality — and to turn that other-ness into a threat. That’s what the Islamic State does to us. And sometimes that’s what we do, too.

O.K. I’m sure some of you are protesting: That’s a false equivalency. True, there is a huge difference between burning someone alive and not granting a couple a marriage license. But, then again, it’s not much of a slogan to say, “We’re better than ISIS!”

There has been a pugnacious defensiveness among conservative Christians to any parallels between Christian overreach and Islamic overreach, as seen in the outraged reaction to President Obama’s acknowledgment at the National Prayer Breakfast this month that the West has plenty to regret as well. But Obama was exactly right: How can we ask Islamic leaders to confront extremism in their faith if we don’t acknowledge Christian extremism, from the Crusades to Srebrenica?

More broadly, one message of the New Testament is the value of focusing on one’s own mistakes rather than those of others. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:5. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We could do with a little more of that spirit these days, at a time when everybody wants to practice ophthalmology on everyone else.

When I posted on my Facebook page about the North Carolina murders, one follower, Frank, wrote dismissively: “Muslims are slaughtering people around the globe (including their own) but let’s highlight this story — seems legit.”

I’ve previously urged Muslims to reflect on intolerance in their camp, and this is an occasion when Christians, atheists and others can do the same. Did the furor in North Carolina that led to the cancellation of the Muslim call to prayer from Duke University’s chapel tower inflame sentiments?

The Alabama legal drama, with Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the State Supreme Court defying federal authorities, is, of course, different. But it also is redolent of faith as I-am-holier-than-thou chest-thumping, a reminder of the need for humility.

Do Judge Moore and other conservative Christians think that when God made gays and lesbians fall achingly in love with each other, He screwed up?

It seems odd to me that so many conservative Christians are obsessed with homosexuality, which Jesus never mentions, yet seem unworried about issues Jesus did emphasize like poverty and suffering. Jesus explicitly advised a wealthy man, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), so maybe that’s the Scripture that Judge Moore should follow to demonstrate his piety.

Then there’s Jesus’s praise for those who make themselves eunuchs (Matthew 19:12); but I’d settle for a little “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I’ve written often about committed and self-effacing Christians doing outstanding work combating injustice around the world, and it’s frustrating that they don’t get attention. The problem is that their heroism is often overshadowed by sanctimonious blowhards.

Among Americans aged 18 to 24, a 2012 survey found that half or more describe present-day Christianity as “hypocritical,” “judgmental” and “anti-gay.” And more regarded it as immoral to view pornography than to have sex with a person of the same gender. Alabama is, once again, on the wrong side of history.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air to Catholics and non-Catholics alike because he seems less moralizing and more moral, less about pointing a finger and more about offering a helping hand. After the tragedy in North Carolina and the legal chaos in Alabama, maybe that’s a good instinct for all of us.

And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Let’s sing the praises of Obamacare for a minute.

Get back here! I said just for a minute. O.K., it’s not the tidiest law in history. You’re probably still sulking because you wanted something simple and rational, like a single-payer plan. But it’s here, and about 10 million people have health coverage who didn’t have it before.

Plus, it’s apparently working better than any of us imagined. Here is how great the Affordable Care Act is doing: The Supreme Court is about to hear a challenge to the law, filed on behalf of four Virginia plaintiffs, who claim to have suffered grievous harm by being forced to either buy health coverage or pay a penalty. Lately, reporters have been trying to track down this quartet of pain, and discovered they are:

— A 64-year-old limo driver who does not seem to be required to do anything under the Affordable Care Act because the cost of even a very cheap health care plan would be more than 8 percent of his income. (People who have to pay more than 8 percent are allowed to just opt out of the whole program and stay blissfully uninsured.) Also, he’s a Vietnam veteran and thus presumably eligible for free veteran’s health care, making the whole discussion even more irrelevant.

— A 63-year old man in Virginia Beach who would apparently have been eligible for stupendous savings on health insurance under the new law. And who is also a veteran.

— A woman who listed her address as a motel where she hasn’t been staying since late 2013. And wherever she is, she probably wouldn’t have any Obamacare problems because of the 8 percent rule.

— A 64-year-old woman who seemed to have little or no idea what the case was about. “I don’t like the idea of throwing people off their health insurance,” she told Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones.

That plaintiff, an anti-gay rights activist, also told Mencimer that because of previous health problems, she faced insurance costs of $1,500 a month, a vastly higher premium than she’d pay under Obamacare. Also, The Wall Street Journal determined that her annual rate of pay as a substitute teacher was so low she, too, should be off the hook because of the 8 percent rule. Also, she’s about to qualify for Medicare.

Comments by some of the plaintiffs did suggest that they experienced serious pain over the fact that Barack Obama is president. “… When he was elected, he got his Muslim people to vote for him, that’s how he won,” one told Facebook.

“These are the best they can do?” asked David Levine, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Wow. Obamacare must be the greatest law in the history of … laws.

All this may not be enough to get the case thrown out of court. But still. “It’s not hard, frankly, to find plaintiffs who want to take down the government,” said Neal Katyal, a law professor at Georgetown who formerly served as acting solicitor general. “The fact that these folks apparently couldn’t find four people who actually had a legitimate grievance is very telling.”

The case the Supreme Court is considering would be outrageous even if the plaintiffs were four disabled orphans being threatened with eviction. Linda Greenhouse had a wonderful opinion column recently in The Times explaining the whole thing, but the bottom line is that there is sloppy wording in two Obamacare subclauses, although they’re easy to interpret correctly if you read the entire law. The simplest way to clear things up, of course, would be for Congress to just fix the language.

Pop Quiz: Last week the House of Representatives took up the issue of Obamacare and:

A) Voted to tweak the wording in those two subclauses.

B) Voted to repeal Obamacare for the 56th time.

C) Voted to repeal Obamacare for the 67th time.

D) Decided to let everything putter along the way it is and passed a resolution demanding that Beyoncé be given the Grammy for best album.

The answer is either B or C. Even the House of Representatives seems to have lost count.

Critics said that since Republicans were offering no alternative health plan, their position was wildly irresponsible, particular to those Obamacare-covered citizens. This is totally unfair because it overlooks an important provision of the bill requiring three House committee chairs to get together and come up with what Republican leaders called a “thoughtful replacement strategy.”

We have been looking forward to that thoughtful replacement strategy since the days when everyone was excited about iPads and zombies on TV.

Really, Obamacare is terrific. You can tell by looking at the people who are against it.

Ain’t that the God’s gospel truth!

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 9, 2015

In “Beyond ‘Black Lives Matter'” Mr. Blow has a question.  He says Michael Brown and Eric Garner are now old news. He then asks: Where do we go from here?  Mr. Cohen, in “Western Illusions Over Ukraine,” says the only way to change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis is to help arm Ukraine.  JUST what we need — more saber rattling and dick swinging…  Prof. Krugman says “Nobody Understands Debt.”  He says families who rely on it make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true of nations? No, it isn’t, as he explains.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Black Lives Matter protesters took some criticism for what others viewed as a lack of clear focus and detailed agenda. But in truth, raising an issue to the point where it can no longer be ignored is the grist for the policy mill. Visibility and vocalization have value.

In the same way that Occupy Wall Street forever elevated that concept of income inequality, the Black Lives Matter protesters have elevated the idea of inequity in policing as it relates to minority communities.

Protests following the grand jury decisions in the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island have largely died down. Those stories no longer command front page placement or lead the news. The news machine, hungry for newness, as is its wont, has moved on to measles and back to the Islamic State’s medieval murder tactics.

But, as is often the case, there was no full resolution or reconciliation. The issue of police-community relations was raised but not solved. The memory of mistrust still wafts through the air like the smell of rot being carried by the breeze.

What was it all for? What came of it? Where do we go from here?

First, the encouraging news.

In December, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which in part aims to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.”

The White House has promoted the use of body cameras, and police departments across the country are considering their purchase and use.

The task force has held listening sessions around the country, and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is holding round-table discussions.

The Ferguson Police Department last week began testing a “less lethal” device that attaches to an officer’s gun. According to The Washington Post, “When a bullet fired, it melded with an attached projectile the size of a Ping-Pong ball that flew with enough force to knock a person down, maybe break some ribs, but not kill him, the product’s makers said — even at close range.”

The Huffington Post reported in November that in 2013, 27 law enforcement officers “were killed as a result of felonious acts — the lowest such figure in more than 50 years of F.B.I. reporting.” That month, The Chicago Tribune reported that “U.S. violent crimes including murders fell 4.4 percent in 2013 to their lowest number since the 1970s, continuing a decades-long downturn, the F.B.I. said.”

Now the discouraging news. According to a November USA Today report, “The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police last year — 461 — was the most in two decades, according to a new F.B.I. report.”

Something about these numbers doesn’t add up, and it will be interesting to see whether the protests and the heightened sensibilities they brought to the surface will affect these numbers in next year’s reporting.

In New York, after Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police union came to loggerheads, the mayor skipped an opportunity to address the issue of the police and minorities communities, and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton seems to be going out of his way to reassure the department at the expense of future protests.

The worry is that rapprochement may come to resemble appeasement.

In this month’s State of the City speech, as The Village Voice put it, de Blasio hardly mentioned policing, offering anodyne praise for the city’s officers. This raised the hackles of many reform advocates, even among his supporters.

Bratton has announced the creation of a separate police unit of roughly 500 patrol officers to handle temporary issues like large protests. He has resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for an independent monitor in cases where grand juries fail to indict officers in the death of a civilian. And he proposed raising resisting arrest from a misdemeanor — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and is often tossed out — to a felony.

According to BuzzFeed, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, “also called for enhanced penalties against protesters, asking the Legislature to make assaulting a police officer at a public assembly a Class B felony, which would carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.”

Few people support resisting arrest or assaulting officers, but in the scrum of protests, such severe penalties for sometimes subjective or even dubious charges seem disproportionate and an attempt to chill dissent.

This is what happens when a story fades from the headlines, the heat is dialed down and the eyes avert: In the silence, amid the stillness, there is movement. The immediacy of protests gives way to the glacial pace of policy. The burden is to remain vigilant, so that movement is in the right direction.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, who just can’t wait to whale away on those war drums:

The most difficult thing for a communist, it has been observed, is to predict the past. I was reminded of this as I listened to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in full Soviet mode at the Munich Security Conference, suggesting that after World War II it was “the Soviet Union that was against splitting Germany.”

People laughed; they guffawed. Germans recall the Soviet clamp on the east of the country and the Berlin Wall. But in a way Lavrov was right: The Soviet Union would have been quite happy to swallow all of Germany, given the chance.

Today, in similar fashion, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia would be quite happy to absorb all of Ukraine, which it views as an extension of the motherland, an upstart deluded by the West into imagining independent statehood.

Lavrov’s performance here reflected the alternate universe in which the Russian spaceship has docked almost a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. George Orwell’s doublethink scarcely begins to describe his assertions.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, he insisted, a popular uprising, the people “invoking the right of self-determination” as per the United Nations Charter. Ukrainians were engaged in an orgy of “nationalistic violence” characterized by ethnic purges directed against Jews and Russians. The United States was driven by an insatiable desire for global dominance and, in Ukraine, had orchestrated the “coup d’état” last year that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Europe post-1989 had turned its back on building “the common European house,” declining the prospect of a “free economic zone” from Lisbon to Vladivostok in favor of the expansion of NATO eastward to the doorstep of mother Russia.

Dream on, Sergei.

In fact, the Russian annexation of Crimea tore up by forceful means “the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine, in direct violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. It also shredded Russia’s formal commitment under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukraine’s international borders. The “nationalistic violence” that has again raised issues of war and peace in Europe stems not from Kiev but from Moscow, where Putin has cultivated a preposterous fable of encirclement, humiliation and Western depredation to generate hysteria and buttress Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, the fascism Lavrov purports to locate in Ukraine through allusions to attacks against Jews and other ethnic groups can in fact be far more persuasively identified back home. Putin has reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason. The Russian leader has invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He has persevered in the nonsense that all the Russian forces and matériel in eastern Ukraine are figments of the world’s imagination.

Lavrov’s “coup” in Ukraine was nothing of the sort: It was a popular uprising against a corrupt Russian puppet strong-armed into turning his country away from closer association with the West. Ukrainians are not nuts. They find the allure of Warsaw or Berlin greater than that of sunny Minsk. When they hear “common European house” they translate it as “Soviet imperium.”

Two plus two equals five was a Soviet slogan. It was deployed in 1931 in support of the notion that Stalin’s five-year plan could be completed in four. Two plus two equals five is still the “truth” emanating from Moscow. This is worth recalling in all negotiations over Ukraine.

There was much talk here of a possible Franco-German engineered cease-fire; of there being “no military solution” to the Ukrainian conflict (except, of course, the one Putin has in mind); of the advisability or not for the West of sending weapons to support the Ukrainian government (Chancellor Angela Merkel is opposed); and of the need to be resolute, at least in word.

Resolute-schmesolute: It’s time to get real over Putin. He has not poured tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems over the Ukrainian border because he is about to settle for anything less than a weak Ukraine, sapped by low-level conflict in the Donetsk region, a country with its very own pro-Russian enclave à la Abkhazia or Transnistria, firmly within the Russian sphere of influence: the symbol of his definitive strategic turn away from closer cooperation with the West toward the confrontation that shores him up as oil prices and the currency plunge. He will not let Ukraine go.

There is a language Moscow understands: antitank missiles, battlefield radars, reconnaissance drones. Bolster the Ukrainian Army with them and other arms. Change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. There are risks but no policy is risk-free. Recall that Ukraine gave up more than 1,800 nuclear warheads in exchange for that bogus commitment from Russia back in 1994 to respect its sovereignty and borders. Surely it has thereby earned the right to something more than night-vision goggles. The West’s current Ukraine diplomacy is long on illusion and short on realism. Two plus two equals four, in war and peace.

I wonder if there’s an area that he doesn’t want to arm…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Many economists, including Janet Yellen, view global economic troubles since 2008 largely as a story about “deleveraging” — a simultaneous attempt by debtors almost everywhere to reduce their liabilities. Why is deleveraging a problem? Because my spending is your income, and your spending is my income, so if everyone slashes spending at the same time, incomes go down around the world.

Or as Ms. Yellen put it in 2009, “Precautions that may be smart for individuals and firms — and indeed essential to return the economy to a normal state — nevertheless magnify the distress of the economy as a whole.”

So how much progress have we made in returning the economy to that “normal state”? None at all. You see, policy makers have been basing their actions on a false view of what debt is all about, and their attempts to reduce the problem have actually made it worse.

First, the facts: Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging,” which found, basically, that no nation has reduced its ratio of total debt to G.D.P. Household debt is down in some countries, especially in the United States. But it’s up in others, and even where there has been significant private deleveraging, government debt has risen by more than private debt has fallen.

You might think our failure to reduce debt ratios shows that we aren’t trying hard enough — that families and governments haven’t been making a serious effort to tighten their belts, and that what the world needs is, yes, more austerity. But we have, in fact, had unprecedented austerity. As the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, real government spending excluding interest has fallen across wealthy nations — there have been deep cuts by the troubled debtors of Southern Europe, but there have also been cuts in countries, like Germany and the United States, that can borrow at some of the lowest interest rates in history.

All this austerity has, however, only made things worse — and predictably so, because demands that everyone tighten their belts were based on a misunderstanding of the role debt plays in the economy.

You can see that misunderstanding at work every time someone rails against deficits with slogans like “Stop stealing from our kids.” It sounds right, if you don’t think about it: Families who run up debts make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true when we look at overall national debt?

No, it isn’t. An indebted family owes money to other people; the world economy as a whole owes money to itself. And while it’s true that countries can borrow from other countries, America has actually been borrowing less from abroad since 2008 than it did before, and Europe is a net lender to the rest of the world.

Because debt is money we owe to ourselves, it does not directly make the economy poorer (and paying it off doesn’t make us richer). True, debt can pose a threat to financial stability — but the situation is not improved if efforts to reduce debt end up pushing the economy into deflation and depression.

Which brings us to current events, for there is a direct connection between the overall failure to deleverage and the emerging political crisis in Europe.

European leaders completely bought into the notion that the economic crisis was brought on by too much spending, by nations living beyond their means. The way forward, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany insisted, was a return to frugality. Europe, she declared, should emulate the famously thrifty Swabian housewife.

This was a prescription for slow-motion disaster. European debtors did, in fact, need to tighten their belts — but the austerity they were actually forced to impose was incredibly savage. Meanwhile, Germany and other core economies — which needed to spend more, to offset belt-tightening in the periphery — also tried to spend less. The result was to create an environment in which reducing debt ratios was impossible: Real growth slowed to a crawl, inflation fell to almost nothing and outright deflation has taken hold in the worst-hit nations.

Suffering voters put up with this policy disaster for a remarkably long time, believing in the promises of the elite that they would soon see their sacrifices rewarded. But as the pain went on and on, with no visible progress, radicalization was inevitable. Anyone surprised by the left’s victory in Greece, or the surge of anti-establishment forces in Spain, hasn’t been paying attention.

Nobody knows what happens next, although bookmakers are now giving better than even odds that Greece will exit the euro. Maybe the damage would stop there, but I don’t believe it — a Greek exit is all too likely to threaten the whole currency project. And if the euro does fail, here’s what should be written on its tombstone: “Died of a bad analogy.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 6, 2015

In “Conflict and Ego” Bobo says the best way to successfully respond to hate, even from the likes of ISIS, is to step outside the logic of vengeance.  He opens this POS with a terrific, sniveling whine:  “If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”  It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill.”  He’s delusional if he thinks that the Times doesn’t filter comments on his stuff through an EXTREMELY fine mesh strainer.  “Vituperative” never gets through.  Poor, poor Bobo is SO set upon.  Maybe he could take a fricking step back and consider WHY he gets the comments that he does…  Mr. Cohen says “Israel Needs a Grownup,” and that Netanyahu promotes himself as a “Bibi-sitter”, but babysitters don’t think about the future.  Prof. Krugman, in “A Game of Chicken,” says Europe faces a moment of truth as it deals with a debt-ridden Greece.  Here, gawd help us, is Bobo:

If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”

It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill. But if I read them with the (possibly delusional) attitude that these are treasured friends bringing me lovely gifts of perspective, then my eye slides over the insults and I can usually learn something. The key is to get the question of my self-worth out of the way — which is actually possible unless the insulter is really creative.

It’s not only newspaper columnists who face this kind of problem. Everybody who is on the Internet is subject to insult, trolling, hating and cruelty. Most of these online assaults are dominance plays. They are attempts by the insulter to assert his or her own superior status through displays of gratuitous cruelty toward a target.

The natural but worst way to respond is to enter into the logic of this status contest. If he puffs himself up, you puff yourself up. But if you do this you put yourself and your own status at center stage. You enter a cycle of keyboard vengeance. You end up with a painfully distended ego, forever in danger, needing to assert itself, and sensitive to sleights.

Clearly, the best way to respond is to step out of the game. It’s to get out of the status competition. Enmity is a nasty frame of mind. Pride is painful. The person who can quiet the self can see the world clearly, can learn the subject and master the situation.

Historically, we reserve special admiration for those who can quiet the self even in the heat of conflict. Abraham Lincoln was caught in the middle of a horrific civil war. It would have been natural for him to live with his instincts aflame — filled with indignation toward those who started the war, enmity toward those who killed his men and who would end up killing him. But his second inaugural is a masterpiece of rising above the natural urge toward animosity and instead adopting an elevated stance.

The terror theater that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is perpetrating these days is certainly in a different category than Internet nastiness. But the beheadings and the monstrous act of human incineration are also insults designed to generate a visceral response.

They are a different kind of play of dominance. They are attempts by insignificant men to get the world to recognize their power and status.

These Islamic State guys burn hostages alive because it wins praise from their colleagues, because it earns attention and because it wins the sort of perverse respect that accompanies fear. We often say that terrorism is an act of war, but that’s wrong. Terrorism is an act of taunting. These murderous videos are attempts to make the rest of us feel powerless, at once undone by fear and addled by disgust.

The natural and worst way to respond is with the soul inflamed. If they execute one of our guys, we’ll — as Jordan did — execute two of their guys. If they chest-thump, we’ll chest-thump. If they kill, we’ll kill.

This sort of strategy is just an ISIS recruiting tool. It sucks us into their nihilistic status war: Their barbarism and our response.

The world is full of invisible young men yearning to feel significant, who’d love to shock the world and light folks on fire in an epic status contest with the reigning powers.

The best way to respond is to quiet our disgust and quiet our instincts. It is to step out of their game. It is to reassert the primacy of our game. The world’s mission in the Middle East is not to defeat ISIS, which is just a barbaric roadblock. It’s to reassert the primacy of pluralism, freedom and democracy. It’s to tamp down zeal and cultivate self-doubt. The world has to destroy the Islamic State with hard power, but only as a means to that higher moral end.

Many people have lost faith in that democratic mission, but without that mission we’re just one more army in a contest of barbarism. Our acts are nothing but volleys in a status war.

In this column, I’ve tried to describe the interplay of conflict and ego, in arenas that are trivial (the comments section) and in arenas that are monstrous (the war against the Islamic State). In all cases, conflict inflames the ego, distorts it and degrades it.

The people we admire break that chain. They quiet the self and step outside the status war. They focus on the larger mission. They reject the puerile logic of honor codes and status rivalries, and enter a more civilized logic, that doesn’t turn us into our enemies.

Of course the Iraq war, that Bobo was SUCH a huge fan of, had NOTHING to do with what’s going on now…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

A pivotal Israeli election looms in March with one man towering over it: Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s us or him,” says a slogan of the opposition Zionist Camp, as the prime minister seeks a fourth term. People tire of the same face; there’s a shelf life for any leader in a democracy. Netanyahu’s would-be successors are betting that, after a cumulative nine years in power, he has exhausted his.

Sensing the challenge, Netanyahu has gambled. His planned visit to Washington next month to address a joint session of Congress amounts to a high-risk foray. President Obama will not meet with him. Nor will Secretary of State John Kerry. Dozens of House Democrats have suggested they may give the March 3 address a pass. All have been angered by Netanyahu’s clumsy embrace of a Republican offer to step into the midst of American politics, an invitation accepted without the minimum courtesy of informing the White House.

Obama is furious, with cause. He has been a firm supporter of Israel. His patience with its leader is at an end. The question now is whether Israeli voters will be more swayed by the sight of a Netanyahu greeted by standing ovations in the Republican-controlled Congress as he lambastes a possible nuclear deal with Iran, or a Netanyahu shunned by the Obama administration for his decision to play to the gallery.

Israelis feel uncomfortable when relations with the United States deteriorate to the point reached today. They also know that any credible response to Iran is reinforced by American-Israeli unity and undermined by its absence. Netanyahu’s Washington visit — hatched by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer — smacks of a misjudgment. How serious this will prove remains to be seen.

Over the past couple of weeks, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party has rallied. Opinion polls now show Likud slightly ahead of the centrist Zionist Camp, winning an estimated 25 or 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, to the main opposition grouping’s 23 or 24. Last month, the Zionist Camp appeared to have a slight advantage. The reason comes down to a single word: security. When threats to Israel rise, Netanyahu reassures. The Bibi baritone steadies the ship. A Likud campaign ad shows him arriving at the home of parents who are going out for the evening: “You asked for a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter,” he says.

But of course babysitters take care of the immediate needs of kids. They do not build a future for them; they scarcely even think about the future. In this sense, the ad is instructive. The fundamental question about a potential fourth period in office for Netanyahu is: to what end?

The decision by Isaac Herzog, the Labor Party leader, and Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and longtime lead negotiator with the Palestinians, to call themselves the Zionist Camp is significant. Their Zionism is distinct from the Messianism of the Israeli right, which claims the mantle of Zionism while betraying it through maximalist territorial claims that undermine the long-term survival of a Jewish and democratic state.

Herzog and Livni begin with the idea that a two-state peace is the only guarantor of the founding Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish homeland. It is also the only outcome consistent with Jewish ethics founded on the principles of truth, justice and peace. Netanyahu has paid lip service, but no more, to the two-state idea. He would continue to do so if victorious with predictable consequences: a familiar status quo comprised of periodic war.

This is the fundamental issue in an election that appears to be about Netanyahu but is in fact about something far more serious: whether Israel can return to the Zionism of the founders of the modern state and seek in good faith a two-state outcome, whatever the myriad failings and errors of the Palestinians. These failings must be factored into negotiations rather than used as a pretext for the politics of kicking the can down the road.

When I was in Israel at the end of last year, Livni told me: “Netanyahu looks at the situation of Israel through the lens of the threats. His deep emotion is to stick together, be united against those who are against us. I believe we need to be for something. Written on my wall is Jewish Democratic state, two states for two peoples. Written on Likud’s wall is Jewish state, Greater Israel. For me any day that goes by without a solution is another lost day. For those believing in Greater Israel, another day that passes without an agreement is another day of victory and taking more land.”

That’s a pretty good summation of what’s at stake March 17. Beyond economic issues, corruption charges, Boehner-Bibi shenanigans and the rest, Israel’s future is on the line. It’s not a babysitter the Jewish state needs. It’s a grown-up.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wednesday, the European Central Bank announced that it would no longer accept Greek government debt as collateral for loans. This move, it turns out, was more symbolic than substantive. Still, the moment of truth is clearly approaching.

And it’s a moment of truth not just for Greece, but for the whole of Europe — and, in particular, for the central bank, which may soon have to decide whom it really works for.

Basically, the current situation may be summarized with the following dialogue:

Germany to Greece: Nice banking system you got there. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Greece to Germany: Oh, yeah? Well, we’d hate to see your nice, shiny European Union get all banged up.

Or if you want the stuffier version, Germany is demanding that Greece keep trying to pay its debts in full by imposing incredibly harsh austerity. The implied threat if Greece refuses is that the central bank will cut off the support it gives to Greek banks, which is what Wednesday’s move sounded like but wasn’t. And that would wreak havoc with Greece’s already terrible economy.

Yet pulling the plug on Greece would pose enormous risks, not just to Europe’s economy, but to the whole European project, the 60-year effort to build peace and democracy through shared prosperity. A Greek banking collapse would probably lead Greece to leave the euro and establish its own currency — and if even one country were to abandon the euro, investors would be put on notice that Europe’s grand currency design is reversible.

Beyond that, chaos in Greece could fuel the sinister political forces that have been gaining influence as Europe’s Second Great Depression goes on and on. After a tense meeting with his German counterpart, the new Greek finance minister didn’t hesitate to play the 1930s card. “Nazism,” he declared, “is raising its ugly head in Greece” — a reference to Golden Dawn, the not-so-neo-Nazi party that is now the third largest in the Greek legislature.

What we’re looking at here is, in short, a very dangerous confrontation. This isn’t diplomacy as usual; this is a game of chicken, of two trucks loaded with dynamite barreling toward each other on a narrow mountain road, with neither willing to turn aside. And all of this is taking place within the European Union, which is supposed to be — indeed, has been, until now — an institution that promotes productive cooperation.

How did Europe get to this point? And what’s the end game?

Like all too many crises, the new Greek crisis stems, ultimately, from political pandering. It’s the kind of thing that happens when politicians tell voters what they want to hear, make promises that can’t be fulfilled, and then can’t bring themselves to face reality and make the hard choices they’ve been pretending can be avoided.

I am, of course, talking about Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her colleagues.

It’s true that Greece got itself into trouble through irresponsible borrowing (although this irresponsible borrowing wouldn’t have been possible without equally irresponsible lending). And Greece has paid a terrible price for that irresponsibility. Looking forward, however, how much more can Greece take? Clearly, it can’t pay the debt in full; that’s obvious to anyone who has done the math.

Unfortunately, German politicians have never explained the math to their constituents. Instead, they’ve taken the lazy path: moralizing about the irresponsibility of borrowers, declaring that debts must and will be paid in full, playing into stereotypes about shiftless southern Europeans. And now that the Greek electorate has finally declared that it can take no more, German officials just keep repeating the same old lines.

Maybe the Germans imagine that they can replay the events of 2010, when the central bank coerced Ireland into accepting an austerity program by threatening to cut off its banking system. But that’s unlikely to work against a government that has seen the damage wrought by austerity, and was elected on a promise to reverse that damage.

Furthermore, there’s still reason to hope that the European Central Bank will refuse to play along.

On Wednesday, the central bank made an announcement that sounded like severe punishment for Greece, but wasn’t, because it left the really important channel of support for Greek banks (Emergency Liquidity Assistance — don’t ask) in place. So it was more of a wake-up call than anything else, and arguably it was as much a wake-up call for Germany as it was for Greece.

And what if the Germans don’t wake up? In that case we can hope that the central bank takes a stand and declares that its proper role is to do all it can to safeguard Europe’s economy and democratic institutions — not to act as Germany’s debt collector. As I said, we’re rapidly approaching a moment of truth.


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