Archive for the ‘Cohen’ Category

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

May 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As USA Today reported in 2012:

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

The newspaper explained:

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can be learned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History illuminates. It can also blind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now here’s Mr. Nocera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen and Krugman

May 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

May 11, 2015

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

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

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

What the first lady actually said was:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Limbaugh put it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, Steele countered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s true.”

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

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

“We don’t live in Italy.”

“Better that way!”

“Why?”

“Everything is difficult here.”

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the vampires are fighting back.

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen and Krugman

April 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

April 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Garrett Epps put it in The Atlantic:

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

He continues:

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

This was a whole other animal and people recognized it.

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

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

And according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These laws raise broad issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Langston Hughes wrote in the poem “Personal”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The West essentially has three options:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we get to Ms. Collins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yippee.

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

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

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

Good luck with that one, guys.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

March 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last but not least we have Prof. Krugman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 27, 2015

In “The Field Is Flat” Bobo tries to convince us of something.  He gurgles that many people think the Democrats have an advantage heading into 2016, but he says they don’t.  Keep on trying to convince yourself of that, Bobo, as you watch the 2016 Clown Car fill up with lunatic Teatards.  Mr. Cohen, in “Of Catfish Wars and Shooting Wars,” says graves in the life-giving rice paddies along the Mekong Delta suggest the Asian gift for acceptance.  In “Mornings in Blue America” Prof. Krugman tells us about when good news of solid job growth at both the national level and in states is a conservative nightmare.  Here’s Bobo, who should read Prof. Krugman today:

Like a lot of people who pay attention to such things, I had assumed that Democrats had a huge advantage going into next year’s presidential race. Democrats do really well among the growing demographic groups, like Hispanics, single people and the young. Republicans, meanwhile, do doing sensationally well with just about every shrinking group. If 67-year-old rural white men were the future of the electorate, the G.O.P. would be rolling.

But there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that, in fact, Democrats do not enter this election with an advantage. There are a series of trends that may cancel out the Democratic gains with immigrants, singles and the like.

We first began to notice these counterforces in the high-immigrant red states that were supposed to start turning purple by now — places like Texas, Arizona and Georgia. New types of voters have, indeed, flooded into these places, but as Ronald Brownstein points out in The National Journal, since 1992 Democratic presidential nominees have averaged only 44.5 percent of the vote in Georgia, 43.7 percent of the vote in Arizona and a pathetic 40.4 percent of the vote in Texas.

Instead of turning pink or purple, these states have become more thoroughly Republican — from school board elections on up.

Nationally, three big things are happening to at least temporarily hold off the Democratic realignment. First, the aging of the electorate is partially canceling out the diversifying of the electorate. People tend to get more Republican as they get older, and they vote at higher rates. And older people are moving to crucial states. In Arizona, Obama won 63 percent of the young adults but only 29 percent of the oldsters.

This aging effect could have a big impact in the swing states of the Midwest, like Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These states have generally gone Democratic in presidential years, but it’s hard to miss the growing Republican strength at every other level. As Brownstein notes, Republicans have a 42-to-18 advantage in House seats in these states. They control the governorships in all but Pennsylvania. They control both statehouses in all these states save the Iowa Senate.

Second, Democrats continue to lose support among the white working class. In 2008, Barack Obama carried 40 percent of white voters with a high school degree. By 2012, that was down to 36 percent. As John B. Judis points out in a National Journal piece called “The Emerging Republican Advantage,” the tilt of the white working class to the G.O.P. has been even more pronounced in other races. In 2006, Democrats got 44 percent of the white-working-class vote in House races. By 2014, they got only 34 percent. In 2009, Republicans had a 20-seat advantage in House districts that were majority white working class. Today, they have a 125-seat advantage.

Most surprising, Democrats are now doing worse among college-educated voters. Obama won white college graduates in 2008, but he lost them to Mitt Romney in 2012. In Colorado, for example, Obama lost 8 points in his support from college-educated voters from 2008 to 2012.

White college grads are drifting away from Democrats down ballot, too. And, most significant, there are signs that Hispanic voters, at least in Sun Belt states, are getting more Republican as they move up the educational ladder.

Surveys and interviews give us some sense of what’s going on. Voters have a lot of economic anxieties. But they also have a template in their heads for what economic dynamism looks like.

That template does not include a big role for government. Polls show that faith in government is near all-time lows. In a Gallup survey, voters listed dysfunctional government as the nation’s No. 1 problem. In fact, American voters’ traditional distrust has morphed and hardened. They used to think it was bloated and ineffective. Now they think it is bloated and ineffective and rigged to help those who need it least.

When many of these voters think of economic dynamism, they think of places like Texas, the top job producer in the nation over the past decade, and, especially, places like Houston, a low-regulation, low-cost-of-living place. In places like Wisconsin, voters in the middle class private sector support candidates who cut state pensions and pass right-to-work laws, so that economic governance can be more Texas-style.

In short, economic philosophy is mitigating the effect of demographic change, at least for a little while longer. The political guru Charlie Cook asks: Will this be a “Time for a Change” election or will this be a “Changing American Demographics” election? I suspect it will be a “Time for a Change” election. The crucial swing voters will be white and Hispanic college graduates in suburban office parks. They are not into redistribution or that Senator Ted Cruz opened his campaign at Liberty University.

The 2016 campaign is starting on level ground.

This is wishful thinking and whistling past the graveyard.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Than Binh, Vietnam:

I drove out through a watery landscape, the rice paddies shimmering, watermelon being planted in muddy fields. There were ducks on the canals, graves and shrines in the light green rice fields, the dead among the living, not hidden but recalled daily. Women in conical hats pushed bicycles over rickety wooden bridges. The breeze was warm, the viscous coffee sweet. Cafes set with hammocks, some advertising Wi-Fi, offered sugar cane juice pressed through small hand-cranked mills. Everything felt liquid, soft, fluid here in the Mekong Delta, an aqueous microclimate.

Yes, the dead among the living: four decades gone by since the war, the bombs and the napalm — twitchy young Americans at the other side of the world wondering what menace lurked in this lush vegetation. America mired in the mud of an unwinnable war.

Now, if anything, the Vietnamese wonder whether the United States military would protect them against the Chinese, if it ever came to that. The temporary enemy has become a partner of sorts against the eternal enemy. Annual trade between Vietnam and the United States has soared from a mere $220 million in 1994 to $29.6 billion in 2013.

The wars over, the Vietnamese did not want to dwell on them. They wanted to sow seeds of commerce rather than grievance. Asia could offer this lesson to other parts of the world where I have spent too much time. Vengeance and victimhood wither the soul. The life-giving rice growing around the dead is an image fecund with acceptance. Even the mud yields.

At its banks the lazy Mekong seems boundless. Business along the river has boomed. I watched with Huynh Khanh Chau, the vice general director of Asia Commerce Fisheries, as large blue plastic containers of live fish were unloaded from boats into a pipe system that swept them in a watery gush into a nearby factory. The fish are raised on nearby farms; aquaculture has become a big industry in the Mekong.

The name of the small-headed, fat-bodied fish is a matter of some dispute. It is catfish-like. So it has been called Vietnamese catfish. In the United States it is sometimes called “swai.” It has also been dubbed “basa” and in Europe is often referred to as “pangasius.” This has not been a mere lexicographical game. The “catfish wars” between the United States and Vietnam have been bitter.

The U.S. catfish industry initially pressed Congress to prohibit labeling “basa” as catfish. The first antidumping duties against “certain frozen fish fillets from Vietnam” went into effect in 2003. They have not been lifted. More recently, Vietnam has been angered by an attempt to reclassify “basa” as catfish, which could lead to stricter United States Department of Agriculture inspection standards. Where are Joseph Heller and “Catch-22” when you need them?

Huynh has no doubt this is a simple case of American protectionism. When it comes to catfish, Vietnam with its ideal climate and cheap labor is more competitive. Its fish tastes good — or at least just as good. Still, better catfish war than hot war.

His company has had to adjust. It’s exporting more to China, but the Chinese taste is only for large fillets. Europe likes medium-sized fillets. By contrast, the United States, ever the omnivore, “is a great market because it likes large, medium-sized and small fillets!”

Inside, the fish are killed by workers with a single throat-cutting thrust of the knife through the gill. Blood drips down a stainless-steel chute into a pool. The fish are cleaned. Another team of men in brown numbered uniforms does the initial filleting, knives sweeping in practiced incisions through the pale pink flesh to leave, in seconds, a carcass of head and bone. The men pile the fillets in blue trays and add a disc with their number; pay depends on productivity.

Now it is the turn of blue-uniformed women, whose work is more skilled. It is easy to tear the fillet. With precision and speed, they nip, they scrape, they flip, they excise — until every blemish is gone. The factory floor is a sea of young women and quicksilver knife movements. Fillets are then sorted by size and color, before freezing. From live fish to the frozen fillet ready to be boxed and exported to Western or Chinese supermarkets, no more than an hour elapses.

Outside, in a cafe, I met a worker, Nguyen Van Tu, from the adjacent Hung Ca fish factory and exporter. He said he works a 12-hour shift, six days a week, with one-hour lunch break, and two 20-minute pauses. He earns about $220 a month. Next time I eat a frozen fish fillet in New York or blackened catfish in Louisiana I’ll think of his smiling face, his low pay, flashing knives in female hands, fish wars versus shooting wars, the peace of the watery Delta, and those graves in the glistening rice paddies.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Two impossible things happened to the U.S. economy over the course of the past year — or at least they were supposed to be impossible, according to the ideology that dominates half our political spectrum. First, remember how Obamacare was supposed to be a gigantic job killer? Well, in the first year of the Affordable Care Act’s full implementation, the U.S. economy as a whole added 3.3 million jobs — the biggest gain since the 1990s. Second, half a million of those jobs were added in California, which has taken the lead in job creation away from Texas.

Were President Obama’s policies the cause of national job growth? Did Jerry Brown — the tax-raising, Obamacare-embracing governor of California — engineer his state’s boom? No, and few liberals would claim otherwise. What we’ve been seeing at both the national and the state level is mainly a natural process of recovery as the economy finally starts to heal from the housing and debt bubbles of the Bush years.

But recent job growth, nonetheless, has big political implications — implications so disturbing to many on the right that they are in frantic denial, claiming that the recovery is somehow bogus. Why can’t they handle the good news? The answer actually comes on three levels: Obama Derangement Syndrome, or O.D.S.; Reaganolatry; and the confidence con.

Not much need be said about O.D.S. It is, by now, a fixed idea on the right that this president is both evil and incompetent, that everything touched by the atheist Islamic Marxist Kenyan Democrat — mostly that last item — must go terribly wrong. When good news arrives about the budget, or the economy, or Obamacare — which is, by the way, rapidly reducing the number of uninsured while costing much less than expected — it must be denied.

At a deeper level, modern conservative ideology utterly depends on the proposition that conservatives, and only they, possess the secret key to prosperity. As a result, you often have politicians on the right making claims like this one, from Senator Rand Paul: “When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan.”

Actually, if creating “millions of jobs” means adding two million or more jobs in a given year, we’ve done that 13 times since Reagan left office: eight times under Bill Clinton, twice under George W. Bush, and three times, so far, under Barack Obama. But who’s counting?

Still, don’t liberals have similar delusions? Not really. The economy added 23 million jobs under Clinton, compared with 16 million under Reagan, but there’s nothing on the left comparable to the cult of the Blessed Ronald. That’s because liberals don’t need to claim that their policies will produce spectacular growth. All they need to claim is feasibility: that we can do things like, say, guaranteeing health insurance to everyone without killing the economy. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to block such things and, instead, to cut taxes on the rich and slash aid to the less fortunate. So they must claim both that liberal policies are job killers and that being nice to the rich is a magic elixir.

Which brings us to the last point: the confidence con.

One enduring puzzle of political economy is why business interests so often oppose policies to fight unemployment. After all, boosting the economy with expansionary monetary and fiscal policy is good for profits as well as wages, yet many wealthy individuals and business leaders demand tight money and austerity instead.

As a number of observers have pointed out, however, for big businesses to admit that government policies can create jobs would be to devalue one of their favorite political arguments — the claim that to achieve prosperity politicians must preserve business confidence, among other things, by refraining from any criticism of what businesspeople do.

In the case of the Obama economy, this kind of thinking led to what I like to call the “Ma! He’s looking at me funny!” theory of sluggish recovery. By this I mean the insistence that recovery wasn’t being held back by objective factors like spending cuts and debt overhang, but rather by the corporate elite’s hurt feelings after Mr. Obama suggested that some bankers behaved badly and some executives might be overpaid. Who knew that moguls and tycoons were such sensitive souls? In any case, however, that theory is unsustainable in the face of a recovery that has finally started to deliver big job gains, even if it should have happened sooner.

So, as I said at the beginning, the fact that we’re now seeing mornings in blue America — solid job growth both at the national level and in states that have defied the right’s tax-cutting, deregulatory orthodoxy — is a big problem for conservatives. Although they would never admit it, events have proved their most cherished beliefs wrong.

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.


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