Archive for the ‘Flop sweat’ Category

Brooks and Krugman

November 13, 2015

Bobo’s got a bad case of the flop sweats.  In “The G.O.P. at an Immigration Crossroads” he wrings his hands and moans that the Republican Party is about to secure either its future or its demise.  I think I know which it will be, given the current occupants of the clown car…  Prof. Krugman considers “Republicans’ Lust for Gold” and says the party’s presidential candidates are falling in behind — and falling for — hard-money policies.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s no exaggeration to say that the next six months will determine the viability of the Republican Party. The demographics of this country are changing. This will be the last presidential election cycle in which the G.O.P., in its current form, has even a shot at winning the White House. And so the large question Republicans must ask themselves is: Are we as a party willing to champion the new America that is inexorably rising around us, or are we the receding roar of an old America that is never coming back?

Within that large question the G.O.P. will have to face several other questions.

The first is: How is 21st-century America going to view outsiders? For Republicans in the Donald Trump camp, the metaphor is very clear: A wall. Outsiders are a threat and a wall will keep them out.

Republicans in the Jeb Bush camp have a very different metaphor. As Bush and his co-author Clint Bolick wrote in their book, “Immigration Wars,” “When immigration policy is working right it is like a hydroelectric dam: a sturdy wall whose valves allow torrents of water to pour through, creating massive amounts of dynamic energy.” Under this metaphor the outside world is not a threat; it’s a source of creativity, dynamism and perpetual renewal.

The second question Republicans have to ask is: Can the party see reality? The great Victorian critic John Ruskin once wrote: “The more I think of it I find this conclusion more impressed upon me — that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”

Some Republican leaders simply lack the ability or willingness to acknowledge reality. Deporting 11 million people is not reality. Building a physical wall across the southern border is not reality. I’m sorry, Ted Cruz, but going back to the gold standard is not reality.

The third G.O.P. question is: How does the party view leadership? For a rising number of Republicans — congregating around Trump and Ben Carson — leadership is about ignorance and inexperience. Actually having prepared for the job is a disqualifying factor. Knowing the substance of government is a negative.

On the other side, people like John Kasich and Bush are becoming more aggressive in their defense of experience, knowledge and craftsmanship. They’ve become more aggressive in making the case that governance is hard and you’ve got to know how things fit together.

In the realm of immigration, the first conclusion any pragmatist draws is that it’s ridiculous to say we just need to start enforcing the laws. The problem, as Bush has argued, is that the laws are dysfunctional. The whole system is wildly broken and it would cause massive dislocation if the rules were actually enforced. The system needs to be reformed.

The other conclusion any pragmatist draws is that for political and practical reasons, the whole system has to be reformed comprehensively and at once. You can’t do anything effective unless all the pieces fit together. As Bush and Bolick argued in their book, “A goal of sealing the border is hopeless without creating an immigration pipeline that provides a viable alternative to illegal immigration.”

As anybody with legislative experience knows, nothing can be passed unless Republican interests are rallied along with Democratic interests, unless Silicon Valley’s political influence is joined by the farm state’s political influence. Doing that requires experience and knowledge.

Republican craftsmen understand this reality. Political naïfs do not.

The fourth question is: How does the Republican Party treat the distrust that is so pervasive in our society?

For some in the Cruz, Trump and Bobby Jindal camps, this distrust is to be exploited. This produces a kind of nihilism. Tear down. Oppose. Scorn. Shut down government but do not have an actual plan to achieve your goals once it’s shut down. Depose a House speaker but have no viable path forward once he is gone.

The other approach is to see distrust as a problem that can be reduced with effective conservative governance. Under Ronald Reagan, faith in government actually rose, because people saw things like tax reform getting done. Republicans in this camp view cynicism as a poison to be drained, not a kerosene to be lit.

On all these levels, the Republican Party faces a crossroads moment. Immigration is the key issue around which Republicans will determine the course of their party. It’ll be fascinating to see which way they go.

One more point. I’m sorry, Marco Rubio, when your party faces a choice this stark, with consequences this monumental, you’re probably not going to be able to get away with being a little on both sides.

Bobo, this is what happens when you leave the lunatics in charge of the asylum.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

It’s not too hard to understand why everyone seeking the Republican presidential nomination is proposing huge tax cuts for the rich. Just follow the money: Candidates in the G.O.P. primary draw the bulk of their financial support from a few dozen extremely wealthy families. Furthermore, decades of indoctrination have made an essentially religious faith in the virtues of high-end tax cuts — a faith impervious to evidence — a central part of Republican identity.

But what we saw in Tuesday’s presidential debate was something relatively new on the policy front: an increasingly unified Republican demand for hard-money policies, even in a depressed economy. Ted Cruz demands a return to the gold standard. Jeb Bush says he isn’t sure about that, but is open to the idea. Marco Rubio wants the Fed to focus solely on price stability, and stop worrying about unemployment. Donald Trump and Ben Carson see a pro-Obama conspiracy behind the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rate policy.

And let’s not forget that Paul Ryan, the new speaker of the House, has spent years berating the Fed for policies that, he insisted, would “debase” the dollar and lead to high inflation. Oh, and he has flirted with Carson/Trump-style conspiracy theories, too, suggesting that the Fed’s efforts since the financial crisis were not about trying to boost the economy but instead aimed at “bailing out fiscal policy,” that is, letting President Obama get away with deficit spending.

As I said, this hard-money orthodoxy is relatively new. Republicans used to base their monetary recommendations on the ideas of Milton Friedman, who opposed Keynesian policies to fight depressions, but only because he thought easy money could do the job better, and who called on Japan to adopt the same strategy of “quantitative easing” that today’s Republicans denounce.

George W. Bush’s economists praised the “aggressive monetary policy” that, they declared, had helped the economy recover from the 2001 recession. And Mr. Bush appointed Ben Bernanke, who used to consider himself a Republican, to lead the Fed.

But now it’s hard money all the way. Republicans have turned their back on Friedman, whether they know it or not, and draw their monetary doctrine from “Austrian” economists like Friedrich Hayek — whose ideas Friedman described as an “atrophied and rigid caricature” — when they aren’t turning directly to Ayn Rand.

This turn wasn’t driven by experience. The new Republican monetary orthodoxy has already failed the reality test with flying colors: that “debased” dollar has risen 30 percent against other major currencies since 2011, while inflation has stayed low. In fact, the failure of conservative monetary predictions has been so abject that news reports, always looking for “balance,” tend to whitewash the record by pretending that Republican Fed critics didn’t say what they said. But years of predictive failure haven’t stopped the orthodoxy from tightening its grip on the party. What’s going on?

My main answer would be that the Friedman compromise — trash-talking government activism in general, but asserting that monetary policy is different — has proved politically unsustainable. You can’t, in the long run, keep telling your base that government bureaucrats are invariably incompetent, evil or both, then say that the Fed, which is, when all is said and done, basically a government agency run by bureaucrats, should be left free to print money as it sees fit.

Politicians who lump it all together, who warn darkly that the Fed is inflating away your hard-earned wealth and enabling giveaways to Those People, are always going to have the advantage in intraparty struggles.

You might think that the overwhelming empirical evidence against the hard-money view would count for something. But you’d only think that if you were paying no attention to any other policy debate.

Leading political figures insist that climate change is a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a vast international scientific conspiracy. Do you really think that their party will be persuaded to change its economic views by inconvenient macroeconomic data?

The interesting question is what will happen to monetary policy if a Republican wins next year’s election. As best as I can tell, most economists believe that it’s all talk, that once in the White House someone like Mr. Rubio or even Mr. Cruz would return to Bush-style monetary pragmatism. Financial markets seem to believe the same. At any rate, there’s no sign in current asset prices that investors see a significant chance of the catastrophe that would follow a return to gold.

But I wouldn’t be so sure. True, a new president who looked at the evidence and listened to the experts wouldn’t go down that path. But evidence and expertise have a well-known liberal bias.

Brooks and Nocera

October 27, 2015

Bobo has decided to deal in an oxymoron today, with an emphasis on “moron.”  In “A Sensible Version of Donald Trump” [snort] he gurgles that a superior outsider — not just from outside the political system, like Trump, but outside partisan thinking — could offer a great deal to America.  In the comments “Expat Annie” had this to say:  “The problem — and you know it, Mr. Brooks — is that there is no such fantasy candidate waiting in the wings. And even if there were, that person would not have a chance, nor would any of the programs you have suggested, for the simple reason that they all cost money — and the Republicans have shown quite clearly over the past years that they are not interested in investing in society or improving anyone’s lot (except for that of their wealthy benefactors). Their specialty, in the meantime, is tearing things down. No way would they agree to invest a dime in any of the things outlined here.”  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Valeant Pharmaceuticals the Next Enron?”  He says allegations about Valeant’s practices and its own disclosures while under pressure cause one to wonder.  Here’s Bobo:

The voters, especially on the Republican side, seem to be despising experience this year and are looking for outsiders. Hence we have the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. People like me keep predicting that these implausibles will collapse, but so far, as someone tweeted, they keep collapsing upward.

But imagine if we had a sensible Trump in the race. Suppose there was some former general or business leader with impeccable outsider status but also a steady temperament, deep knowledge and good sense.

What would that person sound like? Maybe something like this:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m no politician. I’m just a boring guy who knows how to run things. But I’ve been paying close attention and it seems to me that of all the problems that face the nation, two stand out. The first is that we have a polarized, dysfunctional, semi-corrupt political culture that prevents us from getting anything done. To reverse that gridlock we’ve got to find some policy area where there’s a basis for bipartisan action.

The second big problem is that things are going badly for those in the lower half of the income distribution. People with less education are seeing their wages fall, their men drop out of the labor force, their marriage rates plummet and their social networks dissolve.

The first piece of good news is that conservative and progressive writers see this reality similarly, which is a rare thing these days. The second piece of good news is that we have new research that suggests fresh ways to address this problem, ways that may appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

The studies I’m talking about were done at Harvard by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz. They looked at the results of a Clinton-era program called Moving to Opportunity, which took poor families and moved them to middle-class neighborhoods. At first the results were disappointing. The families who moved didn’t see their earnings rise. Their kids didn’t do much better in school.

But as years went by and newer data accumulated, different and more promising results came in. Children who were raised in better environments had remarkable earnings gains. The girls raised in the better neighborhoods were more likely to marry and raise their own children in two-parent homes.

The first implication of this research is that neighborhood matters a lot. When we think about ways to improve the lot of the working class, it’s insufficient to just help individuals and families. We have to improve entire neighborhoods.

Second, the research reminds us that to improve conditions for the working class it’s necessary to both create jobs and improve culture. Every time conservatives say culture plays a large role in limiting mobility, progressives accuse them of blaming the victim.

But this research shows the importance of environment. The younger the children were when they moved to these middle-class environments, the more their outcomes improved. It’s likely they benefited from being in environments with different norms, with more information about how to thrive, with few traumatic events down the block.

I know the professional politicians are going to want to continue their wars, but I see an opportunity: We launch a series of initiatives to create environments of opportunity in middle-, working- and lower-class neighborhoods.


This will mean doing some things Republicans like. We’ve got to devolve a lot of power from Washington back to local communities. These neighborhoods can’t thrive if they are not responsible for themselves. Then we’ve got to expand charter schools. The best charter schools radiate diverse but strong cultures of achievement. Locally administered social entrepreneurship funds could help churches and other groups expand their influence.

This will mean doing some things Democrats like. We’ve got to reform and expand early childhood education programs, complete with wraparound programs for parents. They would turn into community hubs. Infrastructure programs could increase employment.

Basically we’ve got to get socialist. No, I don’t mean the way Bernie Sanders is a socialist. He’s a statist, not a socialist. I mean we have to put the quality of the social fabric at the center of our politics. And we’ve got to get personalist: to treat people as full human beings, not just economic units you fix by writing checks.

Then we’ve got to get integrationist, to integrate different races and classes through national service and school and relocation vouchers. And finally, we have to get a little moralistic. There are certain patterns of behavior, like marrying before you have kids and sticking around to parent the kids you conceive, that contribute to better communities.

Look, I don’t know if I’m red or blue. If you want a true outsider, don’t just pick someone outside the political system. Pick someone outside the rigid partisan mentalities that are the real problem here.

Bobo doesn’t know if he’s red or blue?  I had no idea the poor bastard was color blind…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Valeant Pharmaceuticals is a sleazy company.

Although it existed as a relatively small company before 2010, it did a deal that year that put it on the map. The deal was with Biovail, one of Canada’s largest drugmakers — and a company that had run afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 2008, the S.E.C. sued Biovail for “repeatedly” overstating earnings and “actively” misleading investors. Biovail settled the case for $10 million.

As it happens, 2008 was the same year that a management consultant named J. Michael Pearson became Valeant’s chief executive. Pearson had an unusual idea about how to grow a modern pharmaceutical company. The pharma business model has long called for a hefty percentage of revenue to be spent on company scientists who try to develop new drugs. The failure rate is high — but a successful new drug can generate over $1 billion in annual revenue, which makes up for a lot of failures.

Pearson didn’t have much patience for research and development. And while he certainly wanted moneymaking drugs, he didn’t really need blockbusters to make his business model work. His plan was to acquire pharmaceutical companies, fire most of their scientists and jack up the price of their drugs. Biovail gave him the heft to put his plan in action.

And so he has done, to the delight of Valeant’s shareholders, and the dismay of most everyone else.

Before Pearson took control of Valeant, it spent 14 percent of its revenue developing new drugs. Last year, that number was under 3 percent. Meanwhile, Pearson has been ruthless about price hikes; in February, according to The Wall Street Journal, the company raised the price of one heart drug by 525 and another by 212 percent — on the very day it acquired the rights to the drugs. Complaints from patients, doctors and insurance companies have prompted investigations by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts and New York.

In the seven years Pearson has run the company, Valeant has done more than 100 deals. Its growth has been supercharged, and so has its stock price. Pearson has become a billionaire.

Fast forward to Oct. 19. During a conference call with investors, Valeant disclosed a relationship with a specialty pharmacy called Philidor RX Services, a relationship in which Philidor seemingly does business with no one besides Valeant, and that is so close that Valeant consolidates Philidor’s financials while holding Philidor’s inventory on its books. During the call, Valeant also disclosed that it had paid for an option to buy Philidor, though it had not actually made the purchase — a very strange deal indeed.

It made these disclosures because Roddy Boyd, a former New York Post reporter who now runs the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, had found out about the Philidor relationship and begun asking questions. So had several Wall Street critics of the company, including John Hemptonof Bronte Capital.

Valeant’s disclosures last week — along with subsequent allegations by Citron Research that Valeant was cooking the books — as well as stories by Boyd and several others have caused the stock to tank.

On Monday, Pearson and his executive team held a lengthy conference call with investors in which they insisted Valeant had complied with “applicable law.” But Valeant also announced that a committee of the board would investigate the ties with Philidor. And it urged the S.E.C. to investigate Citron. This was also a tactic Biovail once used to silence its critics; it backfired spectacularly when the S.E.C. concluded that the critics were the ones who had it right.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand all the implications of the Philidor-Valeant relationship, or whether anything genuinely illegal has taken place. But the whole thing looks pretty, well, sleazy.

As The Times’s Andrew Pollack pointed out last week, Valeant uses Philidor to keep patients from getting generics instead of its high-priced drugs. Philidor negotiates directly with the insurance companies, saving patients from feeling the sticker shock their price hikes would otherwise cause. The co-pay is often waived, which only adds to the allure of using Philidor.

The evidence strongly suggests that Philidor is controlled by Valeant, even though it is supposed to be an independent company. The Wall Street Journal reported that certain Valeant employees work at Philidor using fake names.

But why? And why did Valeant fail to disclose the relationship for so long? If there was really nothing wrong, why did Valeant keep it a secret? Why, even now, are there more questions than answers?

Maybe it will all turn out to be innocent. But I remember another company that Wall Street once swooned over, a company that had eye-popping growth, but also had secrets, which eventually destroyed it.

You probably remember that company, too. Its name was Enron.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocer

October 13, 2015

Oh, it is too, too, too rich for words.  Bobo is wringing his hands…  In “The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus” he wails that the party’s capacity to govern has degraded over recent decades as the G.O.P. has become prisoner to its own bombastic rhetoric.  Poor, poor Bobo…  In the comments “Masud M.” from Tucson had this to say:  “If you’re searching for a culprit, please look into the mirror, Mr. Brooks. You’ve been one of the so-called “intellectual” enablers of the crazies. Go back and read some of your past articles: insulting President Obama on flimsy grounds, giving credit (where no credit was due) to the Republicans in the House and the Senate, supporting the Iraq invasion, claiming that the Iran deal was bad for the nation, promoting trickle-down economics… The crazies don’t have brains of their own, so one cannot really criticize them. The crazies listen to their “intellectual” leaders. You’ve been one of those leaders, and it’s shameful that you do not recognize this — and fail to apologize for your past sins. This would be a first step, Mr. Brooks, if you want the Republican Party (your Party) to return to some semblance of normalcy.”  Mr. Cohen considers “Obama’s Doctrine of Restraint” and says for Putin it’s clear where the weakness lies: in the White House.  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Steve Jobs’ Con” and says the screenwriter says his new movie is not a biopic. So true. The film simply doesn’t understand its subject.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

The House Republican caucus is close to ungovernable these days. How did this situation come about?

This was not just the work of the Freedom Caucus or Ted Cruz or one month’s activity. The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

All of this has been overturned in dangerous parts of the Republican Party. Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.

This produced a radical mind-set. Conservatives started talking about the Reagan “revolution,” the Gingrich “revolution.” Among people too ill educated to understand the different spheres, political practitioners adopted the mental habits of the entrepreneur. Everything had to be transformational and disruptive. Hierarchy and authority were equated with injustice. Self-expression became more valued than self-restraint and coalition building. A contempt for politics infested the Republican mind.

Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests.

But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.

A weird contradictory mentality replaced traditional conservatism. Republican radicals have contempt for politics, but they still believe that transformational political change can rescue the nation. Republicans developed a contempt for Washington and government, but they elected leaders who made the most lavish promises imaginable. Government would be reduced by a quarter! Shutdowns would happen! The nation would be saved by transformational change! As Steven Bilakovics writes in his book “Democracy Without Politics,” “even as we expect ever less ofdemocracy we apparently expect ever more from democracy.”

This anti-political political ethos produced elected leaders of jaw-dropping incompetence. Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. But the new Republican officials did not believe in government and so did not respect its traditions, its disciplines and its craftsmanship. They do not accept the hierarchical structures of authority inherent in political activity.

In his masterwork, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber argues that the pre-eminent qualities for a politician are passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. A politician needs warm passion to impel action but a cool sense of responsibility and proportion to make careful decisions in a complex landscape.

If a politician lacks the quality of detachment — the ability to let the difficult facts of reality work their way into the mind — then, Weber argues, the politician ends up striving for the “boastful but entirely empty gesture.” His work “leads nowhere and is senseless.”

Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus.

Really, have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naïve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good? These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong!

People who don’t accept democracy will be bad at conversation. They won’t respect tradition, institutions or precedent. These figures are masters at destruction but incompetent at construction.

These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed. But they are not a spontaneous growth. It took a thousand small betrayals of conservatism to get to the dysfunction we see all around.

You can feel the panic…  My schadens are all very, very freuded.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

One way to define Barack Obama’s foreign policy is as a Doctrine of Restraint. It is clear, not least to the Kremlin, that this president is skeptical of the efficacy of military force, wary of foreign interventions that may become long-term commitments, convinced the era of American-imposed solutions is over, and inclined to see the United States as less an indispensable power than an indispensable partner. He has, in effect, been talking down American power.

President Vladimir Putin has seized on this profound foreign policy shift in the White House. He has probed where he could, most conspicuously in Ukraine, and now in Syria. Obama may call this a form of Russian weakness. He may mock Putin’s forays as distractions from a plummeting Russian economy. But the fact remains that Putin has reasserted Russian power in the vacuum created by American retrenchment and appears determined to shape the outcome in Syria using means that Obama has chosen never to deploy. For Putin, it’s clear where the weakness lies: in the White House.

Russia’s Syrian foray may be overreach. It may fall into the category of the “stupid stuff” (read reckless intervention) Obama shuns. Quagmires can be Russian, too. But for now the initiative appears to lie in the Kremlin, with the White House as reactive power. Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.

Obama’s Doctrine of Restraint reflects circumstance and temperament. He was elected to lead a nation exhausted by the two longest and most expensive wars in its history. Iraq and Afghanistan consumed trillions without yielding victory. His priority was domestic: first recovery from the 2008 meltdown and then a more equitable and inclusive society. The real pivot was not to Asia but to home.

Besides, American power in the 21st century could not be what it was in the 20th, not with the Chinese economy quintupling in size since 1990. The president was intellectually persuaded of the need to redefine America’s foreign-policy heft in an interconnected world of more equal powers, and temperamentally inclined to prudence and diplomacy over force. Republican obstructionism and the politicization of foreign policy in a polarized Washington did not help him. American power, in his view, might still be dominant but could no longer be determinant.

As Obama put it to The New Republic in 2013, “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.” After Iraq and Afghanistan, giant repositories of American frustration, who could blame him?

But when the most powerful nation on earth and chief underwriter of global security focuses on its limitations, others take note, perceiving new opportunity and new risk. Instability can become contagious. Unraveling can set in, as it has in the Middle East. The center cannot hold because there is none.

“I think Obama exaggerates the limits and underestimates the upside of American power, even if the trend is toward a more difficult environment for translating power and influence,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “By doing so, he runs the risk of actually reinforcing the very trends that give him pause. Too often during his presidency the gap between ends and means has been our undoing.”

In Afghanistan, in Libya and most devastatingly in Syria, Obama has seemed beset by ambivalence: a surge undermined by a date certain for Afghan withdrawal; a lead-from-behind military campaign to oust Libya’s dictator with zero follow-up plan; a statement more than four years ago that “the time has come” for President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside” without any strategy to make that happen, and a “red line” on chemical weapons that was not upheld. All this has said to Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping that this is a time of wound-licking American incoherence.

Yet Obama does not lack courage. Nor is he unprepared to take risks. It required courage to conclude the Iran nuclear deal — a signal achievement arrived at in the face of a vitriolic cacophony from Israel and the Republican-controlled Congress. It took courage to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba. The successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden was fraught with risk. His foreign policy has delivered in significant areas. America has wound down its wars. The home pivot has yielded a revived economy (at least for some) and given all Americans access to health insurance.

Yet the cost of the Doctrine of Restraint has been very high. How high we do not yet know, but the world is more dangerous than in recent memory. Obama’s skepticism about American power, his readiness to disengage from Europe and his catastrophic tiptoeing on Syria have left the Middle East in generational conflict and fracture, Europe unstable and Putin strutting the stage. Where this rudderless reality is likely to lead I will examine in my next column.

Oh, I can hardly wait.  No doubt we’ll have some saber rattling and dick swinging.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

When “The Social Network” came out in 2010, I wrote a column praising it for the way it captured the obsessional quality that marks great entrepreneurs.

The movie, you’ll recall, was about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook. The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for it. I knew that Sorkin had taken generous liberties with the facts, but hey, isn’t that what always happens when the movies adapt a true story?

Although I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about Facebook’s origins, I nonetheless argued that the insights of “The Social Network” into the culture of Silicon Valley trumped any niggling facts Sorkin might have ignored or distorted.

But now that I’ve seen Sorkin’s latest treatment of a Silicon Valley icon — Steve Jobs — I’m revising that opinion. Unlike Zuckerberg, Jobs is somebody I followed closely for much of my career, even spending a week in the mid-1980s embedded at NeXT, the company Jobs founded after being tossed out of Apple in 1985. And although “Steve Jobs,” the movie, which opened in a handful of theaters on Friday, is highly entertaining, what struck me most was how little it had to do with the flesh and blood Steve Jobs.

Sorkin has arranged the movie like a three-act play, building it around three product launches, for the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998, after Jobs returned to Apple.

Although this structure necessitates inventing virtually every moment in the film out of whole cloth, that’s not the real problem. The structure would be fine if, within its contours, it had conveyed the complicated reality of Steve Jobs.

But it doesn’t. In ways both large and small, Sorkin — as well as Michael Fassbender, the actor who plays Jobs — has failed to capture him in any meaningful sense. Fassbender exhibits none of Jobs’s many youthful mannerisms, and uses none of his oft-repeated phrases, like “really, really neat” when he liked something, or “bozo” for people he didn’t think measured up. Jobs as a young man was surprisingly emotional — that’s missing.

There are moments in the film, like the big “reconciliation” scene with his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, that are almost offensively in opposition to the truth. (Although Jobs’s relationship with Lisa could be volatile at times, she had in fact lived with him and his family all through high school.)

More important, the film simply doesn’t understand who he was and why he was successful.

For instance, one character mentions Jobs’s ability to create a “reality distortion field.” But we never see the charismatic man who could convince people that the sky was green instead of blue. Especially in the NeXT section, Sorkin’s Jobs is a cynic who knows his product will fail, rather than the dreamer he was, certain his overpriced NeXT machine will “change the world.” Most important, Sorkin fails to convey Jobs’s unmatched ability to draw talented people to him, and get them to produce their best work.

As it turns out, Sorkin is quite proud of his disregard for facts. “What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake?” he told New York magazine around the time “The Social Network” came out. The way he sees it, he is no mere screenwriter; rather, he’s an artist who can’t be bound by the events of a person’s life — even when he’s writing a movie about that person.

“Art isn’t about what happened,” he said in that interview. “And the properties of people and the properties of ‘characters’ are two completely different things.”

The problem is that Steve Jobs isn’t just a “character”; he was a real person who lived a real life. Tom Mallon, who writes wonderful historical fiction about politics, including books about Watergate, and most recently, Ronald Reagan, told me that he thought it was important, even in his fiction, not to rewrite the public record, and to try to capture the essence of the real person he is writing about, even though he is inventing thoughts and scenes and dialogue.

“If you deviate too much from the actual historical record,” he said, “the illusion is going to collapse.” Mallon added, “If the real Steve Jobs is interesting enough to make a movie about, why go and create another character that the filmmakers presumably find more interesting?”

Tim Cook, Apple’s current chief executive, has decried the recent spate of Jobs movies as “opportunistic.” In the case of “Steve Jobs,” at least, that strikes me as exactly right. Sorkin and his fellow moviemakers are taking advantage of the feelings people have for the real Steve Jobs to sell tickets, yet the Steve Jobs he created is a complete figment of his imagination. It’s a con.

In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Sorkin insisted that “Steve Jobs” was “not a biopic.” He added, “I’m not quite sure what to call it.”

That’s easy. Fiction.

Brooks and Krugman

October 2, 2015

Bobo, drenched in flop sweat while he whistles past the graveyard, now casts his eye to Carly.  (The Donald has them all terrified…)  In “Carly Fiorina: The Marketing Genius” he gurgles that Carly Fiorina’s rise will quickly flame out unless she develops an understanding of middle-class challenges necessary to back up her impressive rhetoric.  “Marketing genius” and “impressive rhetoric…”  Wow.  Just wow.  Here’s what “gemli” in Boston had to say in the comments:  “What an interesting rhetorical exercise this is. Brooks has penned an anti-paean, or maybe it’s an odious ode, to Carly Fiorina. He highlights her the way ISIS might highlight an ancient temple, first focusing our attention on it and then blowing it to pieces.”  Prof. Krugman tells us that “Voodoo Never Dies” and that the tax cuts favored by every Republican candidate just happen to be exactly what rich donors want.  How surprising…  Here’s Bobo:

Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign has been built on confrontational moments. With impregnable self-confidence and a fearless intensity, she has out-Trumped Trump and landed the most telling and quotable blows on Hillary Clinton.

In such a giant field of candidates what matters most is the ability to grab the spotlight. The era of YouTube and FaceTime video links has further magnified the power of a candidate who can create significant moments. Fiorina is great at it, perfectly suited to this environment.

She can go on MSNBC or some other outlet and bludgeon a host with a barrage of forcefully delivered bullet points, which then goes viral. When challenged on the accuracy or fairness of her assertions, she blasts straight through.

Clinton and Fiorina appeared back to back on “Meet the Press” recently. Clinton was challenged on the email issue and tried affably to defend her conduct. Fiorina was challenged on the existence of a Planned Parenthood video she claims to have seen.

In contrast to Clinton, Fiorina simply refused to adopt a defensive posture. She ignored the challenges and just hit Planned Parenthood harder. The factual issue sort of got lost in her torrent. She was stylistically indomitable even if she didn’t address the substance of the critique.

She is in tune with an electorate that is disgusted with the political class. In her stump speech she tells story after story in which she walks into this or that lion’s den and takes on the establishment. Some of her stories involve taking on the male establishment in corporate America. Others involve taking on the inside-the-Beltway crowd where she lives.

And yet for all her feisty outsider bravado, if you actually look at her views on substance and her behavior in the past, she is a completely conventional Republican. She was a strong supporter of John McCain and Mitt Romney, the last two nominees. A lot of her language is the normal, vague corporate-speak about “leadership,” “unlocking potential,” and understanding the economy.

On policy grounds her views are orthodox. She doesn’t want to move the party to the left or right, or in a more populist, libertarian or moderate direction. Her core argument on the stump is that government has gotten too big and is crushing business, which is hardly an innovative message in a Republican primary.

On issues where her views once contradicted the current fashion, like No Child Left Behind, and a path to citizenship for immigrants, she has moved to be where Republican voters now are. She is where the consumers want her to be.

In short, stylistically she is a renegade outsider, but substantively she’s completely establishmentarian. Another way to say it is that her campaign is brilliantly creative in its marketing arm, but unimaginative when it comes to product development.

And this is where her business background comes into view. When she ran Hewlett-Packard the core critique against her was that she was really good at marketing but not good at tech or operations.

Different people have very different takes on her performance at HP, but when you talk to close observers and read some of the voluminous literature on her tenure, it’s hard to come away feeling sanguine. Most tellingly, she made the classic marketer’s error, letting her promises get far out in front of reality. As my colleague Joseph Nocera pointed out, under her, HP failed to meets it revenue and profit projections nine times. One time it missed its earnings projections by a gigantic 23 percent.

The positive theory of her campaign is that she’s perfectly suited for a Republican electorate that wants to vent its outrage at the political class and the timid party leadership, but which doesn’t really believe in any alternative direction. She gives the G.O.P. establishment rebellious fire, but is actually one of them.

The more likely scenario is that Fiorina fades over the next few months. In this race there’s been a huge gap between the campaigners, like Trump, Carson and Fiorina, and the governors — those with actual experience in government.

In this early phase the voters are indulging in a little free outrage, enjoying the campaigners. But history teaches that parties invariably nominate government officials. Sooner or later, voters want a candidate rooted in something more than a marketing strategy. They want someone authentically connected to middle-class concerns and with strategies for their specific challenges, like wage stagnation.

Opposing the political class is not an agenda. Unless Fiorina can become a lot more creative and sympathetically connected to working-class voters, she’ll fall to an opponent who will turn to her in debate and ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So Donald Trump has unveiled his tax plan. It would, it turns out, lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.

This is in contrast to Jeb Bush’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit, and Marco Rubio’s plan, which would lavish huge cuts on the wealthy while blowing up the deficit.

For what it’s worth, it looks as if Trump’s plan would make an even bigger hole in the budget than Jeb’s. Jeb justifies his plan by claiming that it would double America’s rate of growth; The Donald, ahem, trumps this by claiming that he would triple the rate of growth. But really, why sweat the details? It’s all voodoo. The interesting question is why every Republican candidate feels compelled to go down this path.

You might think that there was a defensible economic case for the obsession with cutting taxes on the rich. That is, you might think that if you’d spent the past 20 years in a cave (or a conservative think tank). Otherwise, you’d be aware that tax-cut enthusiasts have a remarkable track record: They’ve been wrong about everything, year after year.

Some readers may remember the forecasts of economic doom back in 1993, when Bill Clinton raised the top tax rate. What happened instead was a sustained boom, surpassing the Reagan years by every measure.

Undaunted, the same people predicted great things as a result of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. What happened instead was a sluggish recovery followed by a catastrophic economic crash.

Most recently, the usual suspects once again predicted doom in 2013, when taxes on the 1 percent rose sharply due to the expiration of some of the Bush tax cuts and new taxes that help pay for health reform. What happened instead was job growth at rates not seen since the 1990s.

Then there’s the recent state-level evidence. Kansas slashed taxes, in what its right-wing governor described as a “real live experiment” in economic policy; the state’s growth has lagged ever since. California moved in the opposite direction, raising taxes; it has recently led the nation in job growth.

True, you can find self-proclaimed economic experts claiming to find overall evidence that low tax rates spur economic growth, but such experts invariably turn out to be on the payroll of right-wing pressure groups (and have an interesting habit of getting their numbers wrong). Independent studies of the correlation between tax rates and economic growth, for example by the Congressional Research Service, consistently find no relationship at all. There is no serious economic case for the tax-cut obsession.

Still, tax cuts are politically popular, right? Actually, no, at least when it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy. According to Gallup, only 13 percent of Americans believe that upper-income individuals pay too much in taxes, while 61 percent believe that they pay too little. Even among self-identified Republicans, those who say that the rich should pay more outnumber those who say they should pay less by two to one.

So every Republican who would be president is committed to a policy that is both demonstrably bad economics and deeply unpopular. What’s going on?

Well, consider the trajectory of Marco Rubio, who may at this point be the most likely Republican nominee. Last year he supported a tax-cut plan devised by Senator Mike Lee that purported to be aimed at the poor and the middle class. In reality, its benefits were strongly tilted toward high incomes — but it still drew harsh criticism from the right for giving too much to ordinary families while not cutting taxes on top incomes enough.

So Mr. Rubio came back with a plan that eliminated taxes on dividends, capital gains, and inherited wealth, providing a huge windfall to the very wealthy. And suddenly he was gaining a lot of buzz among Republican donors. The new plan would add trillions to the deficit, which conservatives claim to care about, but never mind.

In other words, it’s straightforward and quite stark: Republicans support big tax cuts for the wealthy because that’s what wealthy donors want. No doubt most of those donors have managed to convince themselves that what’s good for them is good for America. But at root it’s about rich people supporting politicians who will make them richer. Everything else is just rationalization.

Of course, once the Republicans settle on a nominee, an army of hired guns will be mobilized to obscure this stark truth. We’ll see claims that it’s really a middle-class tax cut, that it will too do great things for economic growth, and look over there — emails! And given the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism, this campaign of obfuscation may work.

But never forget that what it’s really about is top-down class warfare. That may sound simplistic, but it’s the way the world works.

Brooks and Krugman

April 25, 2014

Well, this is fun.  Bobo and Prof. Krugman are looking at the same thing this morning, with rather predictable results.  In “The Piketty Phenomenon” Bobo gurgles that the reaction to Thomas Piketty’s new book says more about class rivalry within the educated classes than it does about expanding opportunity.  “Arun” from NJ had this to say in the comments:  “All the tired arguments that Krugman writes the conservatives have are on display in Brooks’ column. Including the “Marxist” label!”  Prof. Krugman himself addresses “The Piketty Panic” and says new scholarship by the French economist is a bona fide phenomenon, and the right is terrified.  Here’s Bobo:

Many people join the political left driven by a concern for the poor. But, over the past several years, the Democratic Party has talked much more about the middle class than the poor. Meanwhile, progressive political movements like Occupy Wall Street directed their fervor at the top 1 percent. Progressive movies and books have focused their attention on conspiracy and oligarchy at the top, not “Grapes of Wrath” or “How the Other Half Lives” stories at the bottom.

This is natural. The modern left is led by smart professionals — academics, activists, people in the news media, the arts and so on — who tend to live in and around coastal cities.

If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich.

You go to fund-raisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around. You get more attention than them at parties, but your whole apartment could fit in their dining room. You struggle with tuition, but their kids go off on ski weekends. You wait in line at the post office, but they have staff to do it for them.

You see firsthand the explosion of wealth at the tippy-top. It really doesn’t help that you have to spend your days kissing up to the oligarchs and their foundations to finance your research, exhibition or favorite cause.

The situation is ripe for the sort of class conflict the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used to describe: pitting those who are rich in cultural capital against those who are rich in financial capital.

And into this fray wanders Thomas Piketty. His book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” argues that the real driver of inequality is not primarily differences in human capital. It’s differences in financial capital. Inequality is not driven by young hip professionals who arm their kids with every advantage and get them into competitive colleges; it’s driven by hedge fund oligarchs. Well, of course, this book is going to set off a fervor that some have likened to Beatlemania.

The book is very good and interesting, but it has pretty obvious weaknesses. Though economists are really not good at predicting the future, Piketty makes a series of educated guesses about the next century.

Piketty predicts that growth will be low for a century, though there seems to be a lot of innovation around. He predicts that the return on capital will be high, though there could be diminishing returns as the supply increases. He predicts that family fortunes will concentrate, though big ones in the past have tended to dissipate and families like the Gateses give a lot away. Human beings are generally treated in aggregate terms, without much discussion of individual choice.

But those self-acknowledged weaknesses are overlooked. And his policy agenda is perfectly suited to his market audience. The problem with those who stress financial capital inequality over human capital inequality is that up until now they have described a big problem but they have no big proposal to address it. Now they do: a global wealth tax. Piketty proposes that all the governments in the world, or at least the big ones, get together, find all the major wealth in the world and then tax capital progressively.

Piketty wouldn’t raise taxes on income, which thriving professionals have a lot of; he would tax investment capital, which they don’t have enough of. Think of what would happen to the Manhattan or Bay Area real estate markets if the financiers had to sell their stray apartments in order to get liquid assets to pay the tax bill. Think of how much more affordable fine art would be. Think of how much more equal the upper class would be.

Politically, the global wealth tax is utopian, as even Piketty understands. If the left takes it up, they are marching onto a bridge to nowhere. But, in the current mania, it is being embraced.

This is a moment when progressives have found their worldview and their agenda. This move opens up a huge opportunity for the rest of us in the center and on the right. First, acknowledge that the concentration of wealth is a concern with a beefed up inheritance tax.

Second, emphasize a contrasting agenda that will reward growth, saving and investment, not punish these things, the way Piketty would. Support progressive consumption taxes not a tax on capital. Third, emphasize that the historically proven way to reduce inequality is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top. In short, counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift.

The reaction to Piketty is an amazing cultural phenomenon. But it says more about class rivalry within the educated classes than it does about how to really expand opportunity. Of course, this perspective could just be my own prejudice. When it comes to cultural analysis, I, like Piketty, am quasi-Marxist.

If Bobo is any kind of a Marxist, quasi or otherwise, I’m the Queen of the May.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, is a bona fide phenomenon. Other books on economics have been best sellers, but Mr. Piketty’s contribution is serious, discourse-changing scholarship in a way most best sellers aren’t. And conservatives are terrified. Thus James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute warns in National Review that Mr. Piketty’s work must be refuted, because otherwise it “will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged.”

Well, good luck with that. The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis. Instead, the response has been all about name-calling — in particular, claims that Mr. Piketty is a Marxist, and so is anyone who considers inequality of income and wealth an important issue.

I’ll come back to the name-calling in a moment. First, let’s talk about why “Capital” is having such an impact.

Mr. Piketty is hardly the first economist to point out that we are experiencing a sharp rise in inequality, or even to emphasize the contrast between slow income growth for most of the population and soaring incomes at the top. It’s true that Mr. Piketty and his colleagues have added a great deal of historical depth to our knowledge, demonstrating that we really are living in a new Gilded Age. But we’ve known that for a while.

No, what’s really new about “Capital” is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved.

For the past couple of decades, the conservative response to attempts to make soaring incomes at the top into a political issue has involved two lines of defense: first, denial that the rich are actually doing as well and the rest as badly as they are, but when denial fails, claims that those soaring incomes at the top are a justified reward for services rendered. Don’t call them the 1 percent, or the wealthy; call them “job creators.”

But how do you make that defense if the rich derive much of their income not from the work they do but from the assets they own? And what if great wealth comes increasingly not from enterprise but from inheritance?

What Mr. Piketty shows is that these are not idle questions. Western societies before World War I were indeed dominated by an oligarchy of inherited wealth — and his book makes a compelling case that we’re well on our way back toward that state.

So what’s a conservative, fearing that this diagnosis might be used to justify higher taxes on the wealthy, to do? He could try to refute Mr. Piketty in a substantive way, but, so far, I’ve seen no sign of that happening. Instead, as I said, it has been all about name-calling.

I guess this shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve been involved in debates over inequality for more than two decades, and have yet to see conservative “experts” manage to dispute the numbers without tripping over their own intellectual shoelaces. Why, it’s almost as if the facts are fundamentally not on their side. At the same time, red-baiting anyone who questions any aspect of free-market dogma has been standard right-wing operating procedure ever since the likes of William F. Buckley tried to block the teaching of Keynesian economics, not by showing that it was wrong, but by denouncing it as “collectivist.”

Still, it has been amazing to watch conservatives, one after another, denounce Mr. Piketty as a Marxist. Even Mr. Pethokoukis, who is more sophisticated than the rest, calls “Capital” a work of “soft Marxism,” which only makes sense if the mere mention of unequal wealth makes you a Marxist. (And maybe that’s how they see it: recently former Senator Rick Santorum denounced the term “middle class” as “Marxism talk,” because, you see, we don’t have classes in America.)

And The Wall Street Journal’s review, predictably, goes the whole distance, somehow segueing from Mr. Piketty’s call for progressive taxation as a way to limit the concentration of wealth — a remedy as American as apple pie, once advocated not just by leading economists but by mainstream politicians, up to and including Teddy Roosevelt — to the evils of Stalinism. Is that really the best The Journal can do? The answer, apparently, is yes.

Now, the fact that apologists for America’s oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically. Money still talks — indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas.

Brooks and Krugman

February 21, 2014

Bobo has decided that it’s time for “Capitalism for the Masses.”  He gurgles that a daring conservative agenda has emerged that measures the health of the economy by how well it helps all people make an enterprise of their life.  “Thomas Zaslavsky” from Binghamton, NY had this to say in the comments:  “Mr. Brooks, your Mr. Brooks advocates government’s subsidizing low-wage employers by making up the difference between their sub-living pay and a living wage. Kudos to the brilliance of making government subsidize the profits of exploitive businesses.”  Prof. Krugman, in “The Stimulus Tragedy,” says five years after the stimulus took effect it is clear that, though the program did much good, it was also a political disaster.  Here’s Bobo:

When Arthur Brooks was 24, he was playing the French horn in a chamber music concert in Dijon, France. He noticed a beautiful woman smiling at him from the front row, so, after the recital, he made a beeline for her and introduced himself.

Within seven seconds he came to two realizations. First, he was going to marry this woman. Second, she didn’t speak a word of English, and he didn’t speak a word of Spanish or Catalan, which were her languages.

When he got home, he realized that if he was going to have a chance with Ester he was going to have to show some commitment. So he quit his job in America, moved to Barcelona and went to work with the Barcelona orchestra. Over the next few years, he learned Spanish and Catalan and Ester learned English. They have been happily married for 22 years.

“Sometimes you just have to be all in,” says Brooks (who is no relation). “You have to go beyond cold utilitarian analysis.”

Brooks later became a social scientist and is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, probably the most important think tank on the American right. He has emerged as one of the most ardent defenders of the free enterprise system. But the humanist that he is, he has primarily defended capitalism on moral terms. He’s criticized Republicans for defending capitalism on materialistic grounds — because it makes some people rich. Republicans, Brooks says, have an overly small-business focus. They talk as if everybody should become an entrepreneur.

The real moral health of an economic system, he argues, can be measured by how well it helps all people make an enterprise of their life. Whether they work at odd jobs or at a nongovernmental organization or at a big company, do they get to experience the joy of achievement? Do they know that their work amounts to something?

He’s pointed out that the percentage of people in the world living on $1 a day has declined by 80 percent since 1970s, adjusting for inflation. That’s the greatest increase in human possibility in human history. The primary cause is globalized capitalism.

But now capitalism faces its greatest moral crisis since the Great Depression. The nature of that crisis can be captured in two statistics. When Facebook entered a deal to buy WhatsApp this week, it agreed to pay a price equal to $345 million per WhatsApp employee. Meanwhile, the share of the economic pie for the middle 60 percent of earners nationally has fallen from 53 percent to 45 percent since 1970.

This economy produces very valuable companies with very few employees. Meanwhile, the majority of workers are not seeing income gains commensurate with their productivity levels.

This puts a strain on the essential compact that you can earn your success. As Joel Kotkin has argued, the middle class is being proletarianized, and the uneducated class is being left behind.

To his great credit, Brooks is responding aggressively to this moral challenge, in a way that is providing a needed jolt to Republican circles. Over the last two days, for example, he had the Dalai Lama, a self-described Marxist, over at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss the morality of capitalism. Jonathan Haidt, of the Stern School of Business at New York University, challenged the mostly Republican audience to invent a new capitalist narrative, going beyond the simple demonization and celebration narratives.

Brooks recently published a daring piece in Commentary magazine on a conservative social justice agenda. It was called “Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers.”

He pointed out that conservatives love to talk about private charity, but, if you took the entire $40 billion that Americans donate to human service organizations annually, it would be enough money to give each person who receives federal food assistance only $847 per year.

Instead, Republicans need to declare a truce on the social safety net. They need to assure the country that the net will always be there for the truly needy. Then they need to point out that it is the web of middle-class entitlements, even the home mortgage deduction, that really threaten benefits to the poor.

The big new problem, Brooks writes, is that labor markets are sick. Fewer people are working and enjoying the sense of reward that is a key to happiness. Democrats embrace a raise in the minimum wage that could drive another half-million workers out of the labor market.

Much better, he says, would be to expand the earned-income tax credit or maybe use direct payments or loans to help people move to opportunity.

The big story here is that a major pillar of the American right is leading his institution to fully embrace capitalism, but also fully embrace government policies that will help the broadest number of people earn their own success. In this era, the invisible hand may not be enough.

Sometimes you have to go all in.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Five years have passed since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the “stimulus” — into law. With the passage of time, it has become clear that the act did a vast amount of good. It helped end the economy’s plunge; it created or saved millions of jobs; it left behind an important legacy of public and private investment.

It was also a political disaster. And the consequences of that political disaster — the perception that stimulus failed — have haunted economic policy ever since.

Let’s start with the good the stimulus did.

The case for stimulus was that we were suffering from a huge shortfall in overall spending, and that the hit to the economy from the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble was so severe that the Federal Reserve, which normally fights recessions by cutting short-term interest rates, couldn’t overcome this slump on its own. The idea, then, was to provide a temporary boost both by having the government directly spend more and by using tax cuts and public aid to boost family incomes, inducing more private spending.

Opponents of stimulus argued vociferously that deficit spending would send interest rates skyrocketing, “crowding out” private spending. Proponents responded, however, that crowding out — a real issue when the economy is near full employment — wouldn’t happen in a deeply depressed economy, awash in excess capacity and excess savings. And stimulus supporters were right: far from soaring, interest rates fell to historic lows.

What about positive evidence for the benefits of stimulus? That’s trickier, because it’s hard to disentangle the effects of the Recovery Act from all the other things that were going on at the time. Nonetheless, most careful studies have found evidence of strong positive effects on employment and output.

Even more important, I’d argue, is the huge natural experiment Europe has provided on the effects of sharp changes in government spending. You see, some but not all members of the euro area, the group of countries sharing Europe’s common currency, were forced into imposing draconian fiscal austerity, that is, negative stimulus. If stimulus opponents had been right about the way the world works, these austerity programs wouldn’t have had severe adverse economic effects, because cuts in government spending would have been offset by rising private spending. In fact, austerity led to nasty, in some cases catastrophic, declines in output and employment. And private spending in countries imposing harsh austerity ended up falling instead of rising, amplifying the direct effects of government cutbacks.

All the evidence, then, points to substantial positive short-run effects from the Obama stimulus. And there were surely long-term benefits, too: big investments in everything from green energy to electronic medical records.

So why does everyone — or, to be more accurate, everyone except those who have seriously studied the issue — believe that the stimulus was a failure? Because the U.S. economy continued to perform poorly — not disastrously, but poorly — after the stimulus went into effect.

There’s no mystery about why: America was coping with the legacy of a giant housing bubble. Even now, housing has only partly recovered, while consumers are still held back by the huge debts they ran up during the bubble years. And the stimulus was both too small and too short-lived to overcome that dire legacy.

This is not, by the way, a case of making excuses after the fact. Regular readers know that I was more or less tearing my hair out in early 2009, warning that the Recovery Act was inadequate — and that by falling short, the act would end up discrediting the very idea of stimulus. And so it proved.

There’s a long-running debate over whether the Obama administration could have gotten more. The administration compounded the damage with excessively optimistic forecasts, based on the false premise that the economy would quickly bounce back once confidence in the financial system was restored.

But that’s all water under the bridge. The important point is that U.S. fiscal policy went completely in the wrong direction after 2010. With the stimulus perceived as a failure, job creation almost disappeared from inside-the-Beltway discourse, replaced with obsessive concern over budget deficits. Government spending, which had been temporarily boosted both by the Recovery Act and by safety-net programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits, began falling, with public investment hit worst. And this anti-stimulus has destroyed millions of jobs.

In other words, the overall narrative of the stimulus is tragic. A policy initiative that was good but not good enough ended up being seen as a failure, and set the stage for an immensely destructive wrong turn.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

January 31, 2014

In “The Opportunity Coalition” Bobo gurgles that President Obama should devote the remainder of his term to building governing structures for future presidents for years to come.  I guess he’s in a bit of a flop sweat over the idea of executive action…  “Michael” from Los Angeles had this to say in the comments:  “Aw, c’mon, the Whigs are your model for politics in the 21st century? That is almost as ridiculous as building a coalition with Republicans, whose platform consists of divide and destroy.”  Mr. Cohen offers “A Middle Eastern Primer” and says foreign policy is a posh term for managing contradictions.  Prof. Krugman is “Talking Troubled Turkey” and says the last thing we needed right now was a new economic crisis in a country overwhelmed with political turmoil. Haven’t we heard this one before?  Here’s Bobo, all full of “useful” suggestions:

President Obama can spend the remainder of his term planting a few more high-tech hubs, working on reforming the patent law and doing the other modest things he mentioned in his State of the Union address. And if he did that, he might do some marginal good, and he would manage the stately decline of his presidency during its final few years.

Or, alternately, he can realize that he is now at a moment of liberation. For the past five years he has been inhibited by the need to please donors, to cater to various Congressional constituencies and to play by Washington rules.

But the legislating phase of his presidency is now pretty much over. Over the next few years he will be free to think beyond legislation, beyond fund-raising, beyond the necessities of the day-to-day partisanship. He will have the platform and power of the presidency, but, especially after the midterms, fewer short-term political obligations.

This means he will have the opportunity to build what he himself could have used over the past few years: An Opportunity Coalition. He’ll have the chance to organize bipartisan groups of mayors, business leaders, legislators, activists and donors into permanent alliances and institutions that will formulate, lobby for, fund and promote opportunity and social mobility agendas for decades to come.

There are already signs that President Obama is stepping back to take the long view. In his interviews with David Remnick of The New Yorker, he observed that the president is “essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids.” You are trying to do your leg and pass things along to the next swimmer. As president, he’s been made aware of how little a president can accomplish unless there is organized support from the outside. Obama now has the chance to build that support for future presidents, on the issues that concern him most.

He might start, for example, by scrambling the current political categories. We now have one liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality. We have another conservative tradition that believes in limiting government to enhance freedom. These two traditions have fought to a standstill and prevented Obama from passing much domestic legislation of late.

But there is a third ancient tradition that weaves through American history, geared directly at enhancing opportunity and social mobility. This is the Whig tradition, which begins with people like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln. This tradition believes in using the power of government to give marginalized Americans the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.

The Whigs fought against the divisive populist Jacksonians. They argued that it is better to help people move between classes than to pit classes against each other. They also transcended our current political divisions.

The Whigs were interventionist in economics while they were traditionalist and family-oriented in their moral and social attitudes. They believed America should step boldly into the industrial age, even as they championed cultural order. The Whigs championed large infrastructure projects and significant public investments, even as they believed in sacred property rights. They believed in expanding immigration along with assimilation and cohesion.

President Obama could travel the country modernizing the Whig impulse, questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines. More concretely, he could create a group of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions — with legislators, mayors, governors and others brought together to offer concrete proposals on mobility issues from the beginning to the end of the life span:

Is there a way to improve family patterns so disadvantaged young children grow up in more ordered environments? Is there a way to improve Head Start and intelligently expand early childhood education? Is there a way to structure neighborhoods so that teenagers are more likely to thrive? Is there a way to get young men wage subsidies so they are worth marrying? Is there a way to train or provide jobs for unemployed middle-aged workers?

These commissions could issue their reports in the spring of 2016, to make life maximally difficult for the next presidential candidates.

President Obama could also credential a different style of public sector leader. If you are trying to pass legislation, you staff your administration with political operatives. But if you are trying to change the discussion and mobilize the country, you hire and promote social entrepreneurs, people from Ashoka, Teach for America, Opportunity International, the International Justice Mission and the Clinton Global Initiative. Once hired in this White House, these people will be filling senior government jobs for decades to come.

President Obama began his career as an organizer. His mobility agenda floundered because the governing majority he needed to push it forward does not exist. He has the chance to remedy that, to organize, to convene, to build, and to make life a lot easier for the next swimmer in the race.

Anything to keep him from, you know, acting…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Gstaad, Switzerland:

Events in the new Middle East, which is located in western Asia like the old Middle East, can seem confusing. In the belief that clarity leads to understanding, which in turn leads to good policy, here is a primer for the region.

1) The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However, Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite (see below) majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East. This infuriated Sunni Saudi Arabia, America’s ally (in theory).

2) To redress the balance, the wealthy Saudi royal family backs Sunni Islamists in Syria against the country’s despot, Bashar al-Assad (who is from the quasi-Shiite Alawite sect), but at the same time is bankrolling the destruction of Sunni Islamists in Egypt. This wrong sort of Sunnis, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, commits the ultimate lèse-majesté of believing in the ballot box as a source of authority rather than royal lineage.

3) In the aftermath of the Arab Spring (see below) the three main Arab states — Egypt, Syria and Iraq — are in disarray. The functioning or semi-functioning states in the Middle East are non-Arab: Israel, Turkey and Iran. Israel has been in a stop-go war with Arabs since 1948 over claims to the same land but is most angry with Iran, which is not Arab, not Sunni and not on its border.

4) Sunni-Shiite tensions have escalated through the Syrian war. They are now regional. The Sykes-Picot Middle Eastern order is in tatters. Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were dyspeptic European diplomats who drew lines on maps that became the borders of the modern Middle East (don’t sweat the details).

5) Let’s talk Turkey: It backs the Sunni fighters battling to oust Assad in Syria. But it is close to Iran, which supports Assad against this very Sunni insurgency. The Turkish government is furious about a military coup in Egypt that last year ousted a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president. The United States declines to call this coup a coup. It is wise not to ask why if you plan to visit Egypt, which you probably don’t.

6) Think of the Middle East as a huge arms bazaar. The United States plans to sell Apache helicopters to the Shiite government of Iraq, with which to suppress Sunni revanchist stirrings, while the United States is (sort of) supporting the Sunnis against the Shiite-backed Assad in Syria.

7) Saudi Arabia thinks the United States is not backing the Sunnis enough in Syria. The Saudis blame Iran for everything, including (but not limited to) unrest in Bahrain, the Arab Spring, terrorism and the melting of the polar ice cap. The Sunni Wahhabi Islamism trafficked by the Saudi royal family sees Zionism as its enemy. However, Saudi views are often identical to Israeli views (again, don’t sweat the details).

8) Like the old Middle East the new Middle East has a cottage industry called the peace process. This involves Israelis, Palestinians and various mediators, principally the United States. Palestinians are represented by the Palestinian Authority, an authority that has no authority over Palestinians in Gaza, no democratic legitimacy, and no obvious claim to represent anything but itself.

9) Israel has a nuclear deterrent but tries to pretend it does not because if it did it could presumably deter Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapon. The United States and Israel have agreed never to talk about the Jewish state’s alleged nuclear weapons (again, don’t ask).

10) The Arab Spring happened three years ago. Several nasty despots were swept out. This event demonstrated that nobody controls the new Middle East: No nation could produce that much change that fast. The revolutions produced a vacuum. Sectarianism loves a vacuum. Sectarianism means looking out for your own and brutalizing the rest (see Egypt, Syria etc.).

11) Iran is a theocracy. The supreme leader stands in for the hidden imam, who disappeared long ago but could show up any time. (Sunnis and Shiites had an inheritance wrangle after Muhammad’s death in 632, which led to a split. One thing they don’t agree about is the hidden imam.) Iran has something called a nuclear issue. The United States and other powers have reached an interim nuclear accord with Iran opposed by Israel, Saudi Arabia, the largest American pro-Israel lobby, and many members of the U.S. Congress who have drafted a bill President Obama vows to veto that says America should “stand with Israel” and provide “diplomatic, military and economic support” to Israel if it goes to war with Iran, which it has been threatening to do for a very long time.

12) Got it now? Good. If not, don’t worry. Foreign policy is a posh term for managing contradictions.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

O.K., who ordered that? With everything else going on, the last thing we needed was a new economic crisis in a country already racked by political turmoil. True, the direct global spillovers from Turkey, with its Los Angeles-sized economy, won’t be large. But we’re hearing that dreaded word “contagion” — the kind of contagion that once caused a crisis in Thailand to spread across Asia, more recently caused a crisis in Greece to spread across Europe, and now, everyone worries, might cause Turkey’s troubles to spread across the world’s emerging markets.

It is, in many ways, a familiar story. But that’s part of what makes it so disturbing: Why do we keep having these crises? And here’s the thing: The intervals between crises seem to be getting shorter, and the fallout from each crisis seems to be worse than the last. What’s going on?

Before I get to Turkey, a brief history of global financial crises.

For a generation after World War II, the world financial system was, by modern standards, remarkably crisis-free — probably because most countries placed restrictions on cross-border capital flows, so that international borrowing and lending were limited. In the late 1970s, however, deregulation and rising banker aggressiveness led to a surge of funds into Latin America, followed by what’s known in the trade as a “sudden stop” in 1982 — and a crisis that led to a decade of economic stagnation.

Latin America eventually returned to growth (although Mexico had a nasty relapse in 1994), but, in the 1990s, a bigger version of the same story unfolded in Asia: Huge money inflows followed by a sudden stop and economic implosion. Some of the Asian economies bounced back quickly, but investment never fully recovered, and neither did growth.

Most recently, yet another version of the story has played out within Europe, with a rush of money into Greece, Spain and Portugal, followed by a sudden stop and immense economic pain.

As I said, although the outline of the story remains the same, the effects keep getting worse. Real output fell 4 percent during Mexico’s crisis of 1981-83; it fell 14 percent in Indonesia from 1997 to 1998; it has fallen more than 23 percent in Greece.

So is an even worse crisis brewing? The fundamentals are slightly reassuring; Turkey, in particular, has low government debt, and while businesses have borrowed a lot from abroad, the overall financial situation doesn’t look that bad. But each previous crisis defied sanguine expectations. And the same forces that sent money sloshing into Turkey also make the world economy as a whole highly vulnerable.

You may or may not have heard that there’s a big debate among economists about whether we face “secular stagnation.” What’s that? Well, one way to describe it is as a situation in which the amount people want to save exceeds the volume of investments worth making.

When that’s true, you have one of two outcomes. If investors are being cautious and prudent, we are collectively, in effect, trying to spend less than our income, and since my spending is your income and your spending is my income, the result is a persistent slump.

Alternatively, flailing investors — frustrated by low returns and desperate for yield — can delude themselves, pouring money into ill-conceived projects, be they subprime lending or capital flows to emerging markets. This can boost the economy for a while, but eventually investors face reality, the money dries up and pain follows.

If this is a good description of our situation, and I believe it is, we now have a world economy destined to seesaw between bubbles and depression. And that’s not an encouraging thought as we watch what looks like an emerging-markets bubble burst.

The larger point is that Turkey isn’t really the problem; neither are South Africa, Russia, Hungary, India, and whoever else is getting hit right now. The real problem is that the world’s wealthy economies — the United States, the euro area, and smaller players, too — have failed to deal with their own underlying weaknesses. Most obviously, faced with a private sector that wants to save too much and invest too little, we have pursued austerity policies that deepen the forces of depression. Worse yet, all indications are that, by allowing unemployment to fester, we’re depressing our long-run as well as short-run growth prospects, which will depress private investment even more.

Oh, and much of Europe is already at risk of a Japanese-style deflationary trap. An emerging-markets crisis could, all too plausibly, turn that risk into reality.

So Turkey seems to be in serious trouble — and China, a vastly bigger player, is looking a bit shaky, too. But what makes these troubles scary is the underlying weakness of Western economies, a weakness made much worse by really, really bad policies.

The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

December 1, 2013

MoDo and Mr. Bruni are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz has a rather bad case of flop sweat.  In “The Pope and the Right” he says Pope Francis’s latest headline-making exhortation has conservative Catholics on the defensive.  Ain’t that the truth!  Of course, Putzy talks about conservative Catholics as “they” instead of the MUCH more accurate “we.”  In the comments section “gemli” from Boston puts it this way: “I agree that the pope is infallible when he speaks about things that don’t really exist, but it’s interesting to watch Douthat play this game of religious Twister when Francis’s comments cut a little too close to the conservative bone. Douthat is looking for the kind of wiggle room that he’s always denied to the secular liberals who have been fighting for social and economic justice against the forces of fundamentalism.”  The Moustache of Wisdom considers “The Other Arab Spring” and informs us that the radical revolutions made headlines. But the radical evolutions are continuing to play out in Gulf monarchies.  Mr. Kristof suggests some “Gifts That Reflect the Spirit of the Season.”  Looking for a gift? He suggests you try a year of reading classes for an Afghan woman, or a savings account for a struggling American kid.  Here’s The Putz:

“Now it’s your turn to be part of the loyal opposition,” a fellow Catholic journalist said to me earlier this year, as Pope Francis’s agenda was beginning to take shape.

The friend was a political liberal and lifelong Democrat, accustomed to being on the wrong side of his church’s teaching on issues like abortion, bioethics and same-sex marriage.

Now, he cheerfully suggested, right-leaning Catholics like me would get a taste of the same experience, from a pope who seemed intent on skirting the culture war and stressing the church’s mission to the poor instead.

After Francis’s latest headline-making exhortation, which roves across the entire life of the church but includes a sharp critique of consumer capitalism and financial laissez-faire, politically conservative Catholics have reached for several explanations for why my friend is wrong, and why they aren’t the new “cafeteria Catholics.”

First, they have pointed out that there’s nothing truly novel here, apart from a lazy media narrative that pits Good Pope Francis against his bad reactionary predecessors. (Many of the new pope’s comments track with what Benedict XVI said in his own economic encyclical, and with past papal criticisms of commercial capitalism’s discontents.)

Second, they have sought to depoliticize the pope’s comments, recasting them as a general brief against avarice and consumerism rather than a call for specific government interventions.

And finally, they have insisted on the difference between church teaching on faith and morals, and papal pronouncements on economic issues, noting that there’s nothing that obliges Catholics to believe the pontiff is infallible on questions of public policy.

All three responses have their merits, but they still seem insufficient to the Francis era’s challenge to Catholics on the limited-government, free-market right.

It’s true that there is far more continuity between Francis and Benedict than media accounts suggest. But the new pope clearly intends to foreground the church’s social teaching in new ways, and probably seeks roughly the press coverage he’s getting.

It’s also true that Francis’s framework is pastoral rather than political. But his plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny.

Finally, it’s true that there is no Catholic position on, say, the correct marginal tax rate, and that Catholics are not obliged to heed the pope when he suggests that global inequality is increasing when the statistical evidence suggests otherwise.

But the church’s social teaching is no less an official teaching for allowing room for disagreement on its policy implications. And for Catholics who pride themselves on fidelity to Rome, the burden is on them — on us — to explain why a worldview that inspires left-leaning papal rhetoric also allows for right-of-center conclusions.

That explanation rests, I think, on three ideas. First, that when it comes to lifting the poor out of poverty, global capitalism, faults and all, has a better track record by far than any other system or approach.

Second, that Catholic social teaching, properly understood, emphasizes both solidarity and subsidiarity — that is, a small-c conservative preference for local efforts over national ones, voluntarism over bureaucracy.

Third, that on recent evidence, the most expansive welfare states can crowd out what Christianity considers the most basic human goods — by lowering birthrates, discouraging private charity and restricting the church’s freedom to minister in subtle but increasingly consequential ways.

This Catholic case for limited government, however, is not a case for the Ayn Randian temptation inherent to a capitalism-friendly politics. There is no Catholic warrant for valorizing entrepreneurs at the expense of ordinary workers, or for dismissing all regulation as unnecessary and all redistribution as immoral.

And this is where Francis’s vision should matter to American Catholics who usually cast ballots for Republican politicians. The pope’s words shouldn’t inspire them to convert en masse to liberalism, or to worry that the throne of Peter has been seized by a Marxist anti-pope. But they should encourage a much greater integration of Catholic and conservative ideas than we’ve seen since “compassionate conservatism” collapsed, and inspire Catholics to ask more — often much more — of the Republican Party, on a range of policy issues.

Here my journalist friend’s “loyal opposition” line oversimplified the options for Catholic political engagement. His Catholic liberalism didn’t go into eclipse because it failed to let the Vatican dictate every jot and tittle of its social agenda. Rather, it lost influence because it failed to articulate any kind of clear Catholic difference, within the bigger liberal tent, on issues like abortion, sex and marriage.

Now the challenge for conservative Catholics is to do somewhat better in our turn, and to spend the Francis era not in opposition but seeking integration — meaning an economic vision that remains conservative, but in the details reminds the world that our Catholic faith comes first.

Yeah, right.  Those Opus Dei types will do that when pigs fly.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Dubai:

And so it turns out that there were actually two Arab awakenings.

There are the radical revolutions you’ve read about in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, none of which yet have built stable, inclusive democracies. But then there are the radical evolutions that you’ve not read about, playing out in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf monarchies. The evolutions involve a subtle but real shift in relations between leaders and their people, and you can detect it from even a brief visit to Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The Gulf leaders still have no time for one-man, one-vote democracy. But, in the wake of the Arab Spring, they’re deeply concerned with their legitimacy, which they are discovering can no longer just be bought with more subsidies — or passed from father to son. So more and more leaders are inviting their people to judge them by how well they perform — how well they improve schools, create jobs and fix sewers — not just resist Israel or Iran or impose Islam.

And, thanks in large part to the Internet, more people are doing just that. The role of the Internet was overrated in Egypt and Tunisia. But it is underrated in the Gulf, where, in these more closed societies, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are providing vast uncontrolled spaces for men and women to talk to each other — and back at their leaders. “I don’t read any local newspapers anymore,” a young Saudi techie told me. “I get all my news from Twitter.” So much for government-controlled newspapers.

Saudi Arabia alone produces almost half of all tweets in the Arab world and is among the most Twitter- and YouTube-active nations in the world. By far, those Saudis with the most Twitter and YouTube followers tend to be Wahhabi fundamentalist preachers, but gaining on them are satirists, comedians and commentators, who poke fun at all aspects of Saudi society, including — usually indirectly — the religious establishment, which is no longer off limits.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who in Gulf Arab terms is a real progressive, remains widely popular, but his government bureaucracy is seen as unresponsive and too often corrupt. That’s why Saudi Twitter users have recently created these Arabic hashtags: “#If I met the King, I would tell him”; “#From the people to the King: education is at risk” and “#What Would You Like to Say to the Minister of Health?” (after repeated hospital mishaps).

There were torrential rainstorms when I was in Saudi Arabia 10 days ago and the Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq, published a cartoon with three men answering this question: Why did all the streets of Riyadh flood? The government official answers: “The streets didn’t flood. That’s just a vicious rumor.” The sheikh answers: “It’s all because of the sins of the girls at Princess Nora University.” The citizen says: “It’s because of corruption” — but then the cartoon shows an arm labeled “censorship” coming from off the page to snip off this comment. That is in a Saudi paper!

In the United Arab Emirates, a government official was recently embarrassed when he was captured on a cellphone video, after a traffic accident, beating the other driver, an Asian worker, with the rope from his headdress. The video went viral across the Gulf.

People are losing their fear — not to revolt, but to demand clean accountable governance. Last week, a Saudi friend shared with me a video that went viral there on What’sApp that was posted by a poor man whose roof leaked during the rainstorms, even into his baby’s bassinet. He can be seen stalking around his rain-soaked house, saying: “I am Saudi. This is how I live. … Where is the minister of housing? Where are the billions the king has given for housing? … Where are my rights? … I feel like being in my home and being in the street are the same.”

I heard many of these stories during group conversations with young Saudis and Emeratis, who I found to be as impressive, connected and high-aspiring to reform their countries as any of their revolutionary cohorts in Egypt. But they want evolution not revolution. They’ve seen the footage from Cairo and Damascus. You can feel their energy — from the grass-roots movement to let women drive to the young Saudi who whispers that he’s so fed up with the puritanical Islam that dominates his country he’s become an atheist, and he is not alone. Saudi atheists? Who knew?

Talk about reform — in Dubai, the government has set a strategy for 2021, and each of the 46 ministries and regulatory agencies has three-year Key Performance Indicators, or K.P.I.’s, they have to fulfill to get there, ranging from improving the success of Dubai 15-year-olds in global science, math and reading exams to making it even easier to start a new business. All 3,600 K.P.I.’s are loaded on an iPad dashboard that the ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, follows each week. Maryam al-Hammadi, 48, the director of government performance, strikes fear in the heart of every minister in Dubai because each month she ranks them by who is making the most progress toward achieving their K.P.I.’s, and Sheikh Mohammed gets the list. You don’t want to be at the bottom. Hammadi showed me the dashboard and explained that Sheikh Mohammed is demanding that “every government agency perform as well as the private sector in customer satisfaction and service.” The public will get an annual report.

Again, this is not about democracy. It’s about leaders feeling the need to earn their legitimacy. But when one leader does it, others feel the pressure to copy. And that leads to more transparency and more accountability. And that, and more Twitter, leads to who knows what.

Tell me again how all this change works, Tommy.  Can a woman drive a car in Saudi Arabia yet?  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

This holiday season, instead of giving your mother that instructional video on twerking that you think she is pining for, what about giving her something that will really make her dance? Like, say, a savings account for a struggling American kid? Or a literacy class for an Afghan woman?

It’s time for my annual guide to holiday giving, and, as always, I’m focusing on creative programs here in the United States and abroad that you may not have heard of. By all means, buy one year of schooling for a girl in Ethiopia through the International Rescue Committee ( or a flock of geese for a family through Heifer International (, or donate to some other well-established charity. But here are some other ideas, too:

Let’s start with helping prevent unwanted pregnancies here at home. When kids have kids, it’s often a disaster for both the mom, who drops out of school, and for the child, who starts life with a huge disadvantage. That’s a way that poverty self-replicates — and that’s the cycle that the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program tries to interrupt.

Carrera is a school curriculum devised by a New York City education expert, Dr. Michael Carrera, who recognized that it’s not enough to hand out condoms. One also needs to give kids in high-poverty neighborhoods a stake in a better future, a reason to think that they can succeed.

So the curriculum includes comprehensive sex education but also financial literacy, job preparation and summer internships, S.A.T. coaching, and much more. The program has now spread to more than 20 states, and follow-up studies suggest that it reduces pregnancy rates by half. For $50, you can fund a student’s college savings account, part of the financial literacy element (information is at

Half a world away, the United States is pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and the next few years may be a tough time for Afghan women and girls. So consider the Afghan Institute of Learning, founded by an extraordinary Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi.

Yacoobi has been running empowerment and training programs for Afghan women and girls since the 1990s, when it was illegal, and there’s nothing more threatening to Taliban values than a girl with a book. It’s also a bargain: $65 pays for a year of literacy classes for a woman or girl. More information is available at

You can buy a hand-embroidered scarf, made by widows in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for $50, and other gifts for under $30, at It has many other gift possibilities made by people all over the world.

If you share my belief that education is the best escalator out of poverty, you might look at a terrific scholarship program I just visited in Haiti called HELP, for Haitian Education and Leadership Program.

HELP searches across Haiti for the most outstanding high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds — only those with an A average can apply — and sends them to college, while also providing counseling, English and computer tutoring and stipends. HELP students are expected to give back, and, to make the program more sustainable, they pledge to contribute 15 percent of their earnings for their first nine years of employment. Information is at

A final suggestion is Reach Out and Read, a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage moms and dads to read to their children. During checkups, the doctors hand out free books and leaflets promoting bedtime stories — and, in effect, “prescribe” reading to the child.

It’s a simple intervention but has far-reaching effects. Randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation, find that families in the program are more likely to describe reading as a child’s favorite activity, and reading aloud is more likely to be part of family life. Because books are donated by publishers like Scholastic, $50 covers a child’s costs for five years. Information is at

I’m delighted to issue an invitation for applicants for my 2014 win-a-trip contest. As in previous years, I’ll choose a university student in the United States to accompany me on a reporting trip to the developing world. The winner will also write for a blog and make videos for The New York Times.

In past years, I’ve taken student winners to report on malnutrition in Timbuktu and to have dinner with a warlord in Congo. Together, we’ve covered leprosy, maternal mortality, river blindness, malnutrition, breast-feeding and the Darfur genocide. I’m looking for an outstanding student who can make such issues resonate among other students.

Information on how to apply is on my blog, Thanks to the Center for Global Development in Washington for helping me screen applications. If you know university students who might be great reporting companions, please nudge them to apply.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

October 13, 2013

The Moustache of Wisdom is off today.  The Pasty LIttle Putz has a serious case of flop sweat as he whistles past the graveyard.  He says “The Kurtz Republicans” are looking in vain for a method to the shutdown madness.  I guess he can’t remember all the way back to 9/21/12 when he wrote “The party now has a faction committed to learning real lessons from the 2012 defeat, breaking with the right’s stale policy consensus and embracing new ideas on a range of issues, from foreign policy to middle-class taxes, the drug war to banking reform.”  As “cgehner” of Seattle/Munich says in the comments, “What a rapid change by Mr. Douthat! I remember only recently Mr. Douthat’s Blog was trying to argue that Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio were the “great intellectual innovators” of the GOP.”  He’s a stronger man than I am.  Even I won’t go near the Putz’s blog.  In “A Mad Tea Party” MoDo says at a mad tea party, Ted and Chris and Rummy and Cheney and Scooter and Rupert all clink their cups.  Mr. Kristof, in “From the Streets to ‘World’s Best Mom’,” says the fight against sex trafficking isn’t hopeless. Just look at some of this good work being done in Nashville.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “College’s Identity Crisis:”  How do we increase the accessibility of higher education, lower its costs and improve its quality all at once?  Here’s the Putz:

“They told me,” Martin Sheen’s Willard says to Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” at the end of a long journey up the river, “that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.”

His baldness bathed in gold, his body pooled in shadow, Kurtz murmurs: “Are my methods unsound?”

And Willard — filthy, hollow-eyed, stunned by what he’s seen — replies: “I don’t see any method at all, sir.”

This is basically how reasonable people should feel about the recent conduct of the House Republicans.

Politics is a hard business, and failure is normal enough. It’s not unusual for political parties to embrace misguided ideas, pursue poorly thought-out strategies, persist in old errors and embrace new ones eagerly.

So we shouldn’t overstate the gravity of what’s been happening in Washington. There are many policies in American history, pursued in good faith by liberals or conservatives, that have been more damaging to the country than the Republican decision to shut down the government this month, and many gambits that have reaped bigger political disasters than most House Republicans are likely to face as a result.

But there is still something well-nigh-unprecedented about how Republicans have conducted themselves of late. It’s not the scale of their mistake, or the kind of damage that it’s caused, but the fact that their strategy was such self-evident folly, so transparently devoid of any method whatsoever.

Every sensible person, most Republican politicians included, could recognize that the shutdown fever would blow up in the party’s face. Even the shutdown’s ardent champions never advanced a remotely compelling story for how it would deliver its objectives. And everything that’s transpired since, from the party’s polling nose dive to the frantic efforts to save face, was entirely predictable in advance.

The methodless madness distinguishes this shutdown from prior Congressional Republican defeats (the Gingrich shutdown, the Clinton impeachment), when you could at least see what the politicians involved were thinking. And it distinguishes it, too, from many of history’s marches of folly as well.

You could compare the behavior of current House Republicans to the diplomatic sleepwalking that led to World War I, but at least, in that case, the various powers had reasonable theories of how they would actually win the ensuing war.

Or you could compare it to Paraguay’s decision in the 1860s to declare war on both Brazil and Argentina at once, but at least Paraguay’s armed forces managed to win some victories before being ground into defeat.

Now, admittedly, just because the Republican strategy has been irrational doesn’t make it inexplicable. The trends that brought us to this point are clear enough: the discrediting of the Republican establishment during the Bush era; the rise of a populist right that often sees opposition as an end unto itself; the willingness of too many media figures, activists and politicians to stoke that wing’s worst impulses; and the current Republican leadership’s desire both to prevent an intraparty civil war and avoid a true national disaster like default.

Given this underlying landscape, it may be that John Boehner chose a kind of rational irrationality these last two weeks — accepting the Kurtzian shutdown “strategy” in order to demonstrate its senselessness and persuade his members to behave slightly more sensibly in the future.

But even if Boehner’s decision-making ends up looking like a least-bad approach under the circumstances, he’ll only have won a temporary reprieve. Kurtz Republicanism isn’t likely to go away until somebody else within the party — someone with more movement credibility than the speaker, and more subtlety and vision than Ted Cruz — figures out how to take the energy driving the shutdown and redirect it to more constructive ends.

It’s clear, right now, that the populists can’t be trusted not to drive their party into a ditch. But neither can Republican leaders just declare war on their own base, as some moderates and liberals would have them do.

Instead, Republicans need to seek a kind of integration, which embraces the positive aspects of the new populism — its hostility to K Street and Wall Street, its relative openness to policy innovation, its desire to speak on behalf of Middle America and the middle class — while tempering its Kurtzian streak with prudence, realism, and savoir-faire.

Think of the way that Barack Obama, in his post-2004 ascent, managed to channel the zeal of the antiwar left without being defined by its paranoid excesses, and you can see a recent model for how this kind of integration might work.

But then imagine an alternate reality in which figures like Joe Lieberman and John Kerry were stuck trying to lead a Democratic Party whose backbenchers were mostly net-roots-funded fans of Michael Moore, and you have a decent analog for where the post-Bush Republicans have ended up.

And even if Kurtz doesn’t get the last word in this story, it’s still a long way back down that river.

It’s fun to watch him writhe…  Here’s moDo:

How awful are Ted Cruz and his Cruzettes?

They have done the impossible. They have made Americans look back at the Bush II era, the most reckless wrecking ball in American history, with relative nostalgia.

With 78 percent of Americans feeling blue about the country being on the wrong track, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, many consider the G.O.P.’s imperialistic unilaterists less loco than the narcissistic anarchists. As grandiose delusions go, global domination makes more sense than self-annihilation.

“If I was in the Senate now, I’d kill myself,” Chris Christie said on Friday.

But before you start thinking Dick Cheney is temperate by comparison, consider the Commentary roast of the former vice president on Monday night at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Cheney made a joke about waterboarding an antelope that he borrowed from Jay Leno. Donald Rumsfeld quasi-jested that he knew Dick “back when the president of the United States still led our foreign policy, instead of Putin.”

Ben Smith of BuzzFeed reported that the roast sponsored by Rupert Murdoch and others featured Rumsfeld, Joe Lieberman and Scooter Libby, known as “Cheney’s Cheney” until he was convicted of lying during a federal leak probe.

Lieberman, a guest told BuzzFeed, said it was nicer to be at the Plaza than in cages after a war crimes trial. There were pardon jokes about W., whose relationship with Cheney was shattered over not giving Libby one. Libby said W. sent a note: “Pardon me, I can’t make it.”

The acrid legacy of Cheney and Rummy lives on as they carp from the sidelines about the “so-called commander in chief.” In December, “The Unknown Known,” an Errol Morris documentary about the man who was the youngest and oldest secretary of defense, hits theaters.

Morris won an Oscar in 2004 for “Fog of War,” his documentary about another dangerous, delusional defense secretary with wire-rimmed glasses, Robert McNamara; in his acceptance speech, Morris warned that, with Iraq, America might be going down another “rabbit hole.”

But the cocky Rummy talked to him for 33 hours anyway. Unlike McNamara, however, Rumsfeld does not admit his historic blunders, but maintains his “Stuff happens” brio.

“You make a movie with the secretary of defense you have,” Morris told me dryly, “not with the secretary of defense you want to have.”

Still, the filmmaker was smart to bookend the men, opposite ends of the same warmongering problem: McNamara was so droning and unemotive that he lulled listeners into thinking that nothing bad could be happening, while Rumsfeld was so energetic and blithe that it was hard to believe that people were dying and the war was being lost. Morris’s wife and collaborator, Julia Sheehan, said that McNamara was “The Flying Dutchman” wandering the earth looking for redemption, while Rumsfeld is the Cheshire cat.

“All we’re left with at the very end is this infernal grin,” Morris said. “Everybody wants this smoking gun. The entire Bush administration is a smoking gun.

“In his memos and homilies, Rumsfeld will say things that are just contradictory, as though by saying everything, you’ve covered all your bases,” Morris continued. “It’s deeply anti-rational, as if there’s no deep reflection or thought. You have no evidence? Well, ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ as Rumsfeld said about W.M.D. in Iraq. Taken to some crazy conclusion, you can justify anything that way.

“At times in his language, he descends into some strange insanity, as though he’s trying to convince himself.”

Asked the lesson of Vietnam — Rumsfeld was the chief of staff to Gerald Ford when Saigon was evacuated — Rumsfeld briskly replies: “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.”

When Morris presses Rumsfeld about the Justice Department’s “torture memos,” the former defense chief said they did not come out of “the Bush administration, per se; they came out of the U.S. Department of Justice.” That parsing would be beyond Bill Clinton.

About the memos that led to what Morris considers “one of the great stains in American history,” Rumsfeld says he never read them. When asked why, he replies, “I’m not a lawyer. What would I know?”

When Morris asks Rumsfeld about the “confusion” that linked Saddam to 9/11, he answers brightly, “I don’t think the American people were confused about that,” adding, “I don’t remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that.”

Holy mushroom cloud.

Rumsfeld doesn’t even seem to understand his signature phrase. Reading from a 2004 memo, he says, “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns.” He tells Morris that there are also unknown knowns. Things that you possibly may know that you don’t know you know.

Morris challenges him: “But the memo doesn’t say that. It says that we know less, not more, than we think we do.”

Rumsfeld finally admits a boo-boo: “Yeah, I think that memo is backwards.” Then he chastises the filmmaker for “chasing the wrong rabbit.”

Right down the rabbit hole.

When I start feeling nostalgic about C+ Augustus will be the day that I’ll be committed to a mental institution.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

When men paid Shelia Faye Simpkins for sex, they presumably thought she was just a happy hooker engaging in a transaction among consenting adults.

It was actually more complicated than that, as it usually is. Simpkins says that her teenage mom, an alcoholic and drug addict, taught her at age 6 how to perform oral sex on men. “Like a lollipop,” she remembers her mom explaining.

Simpkins finally ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.

“I thought he was my boyfriend,” Simpkins remembers. “I didn’t realize I was being pimped.”

When her pimp was shot dead, she was recruited by another, Kenny, who ran a “stable” of four women and assigned each of them a daily quota of $1,000. Anyone who didn’t earn that risked a beating.

There’s a common belief that pimps are business partners of prostitutes, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of the classic relationship. Typically, every dollar earned by the women goes to the pimp, who then doles out drugs, alcohol, clothing and food.

“He gets every penny,” Simpkins explains. “If you get caught with money, you get beat.”

Simpkins periodically ran away from Kenny, but each time he found her — and beat her up with sticks or iron rods. On average, she figures that Kenny beat her up about once a week, and she still carries the scars.

“I was his property,” Simpkins says bluntly.

I met Simpkins here in Nashville, where my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I have been filming a segment about sex trafficking as part of a PBS documentary accompanying our next book. We were filming with Ashley Judd, the actress, who lives in the Nashville area and is no neophyte about these issues. Judd has traveled all around the world to understand sexual exploitation — and she was devastated by what we found virtually in her backyard.

“It’s freaking me out,” she told me one day after some particularly harrowing interviews. It’s easier to be numbed by child prostitution abroad, but we came across online prostitution ads in Nashville for “Michelle,” who looked like a young teenager. Judd had trouble sleeping that night, thinking of Michelle being raped in cheap hotels right in her hometown.

In this respect, Nashville is Everytown U.S.A. Sex trafficking is an American universal: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported in 2011 that over a two-year period, trafficking occurred in 85 percent of Tennessee’s counties, including rural areas. Most are homegrown girls like Simpkins who flee troubled homes and end up controlled by pimps.

Of course, there are also women (and men) selling sex voluntarily. But the notion that the sex industry is a playground of freely consenting adults who find pleasure in their work is delusional self-flattery by johns.

Sex trafficking is one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases, it amounts to a modern form of slavery.

One reason we as a society don’t try harder to uproot it is that it seems hopeless. Yet Simpkins herself is a reminder that we needn’t surrender.

Simpkins says that she would be dead by now if it weren’t for a remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt University here, to help women escape trafficking and prostitution.

Rev. Stevens had been searching for a way for her congregation to address social justice issues, and she felt a bond with sex trafficking survivors. Rev. Stevens herself had been abused as a girl — by a family friend in her church, beginning when she was 6 years old — and she shared with so many trafficked women the feelings of vulnerability, injustice and anger that go with having been molested.

With donations and volunteers, Rev. Stevens founded a two-year residential program called Magdalene for prostitution survivors who want to overcome addictions and start new lives. To help the women earn a living, Rev. Stevens then started a business, Thistle Farms, which employs dozens of women making products sold on the Internet and in stores like Whole Foods. This year, Thistle Farms has also opened a cafe, employing former prostitutes as baristas.

Shelia Simpkins went through the Magdalene program and overcame her addictions. In December, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then she plans to earn a master’s in social work.

She regularly brings in women off the street who want to follow her in starting over. I met several of Simpkins’ recruits, including a woman who had been prostituted since she was 8 years old and is now bubbling with hope for a new future. Another has left drugs, started a sales job and found a doctor who agreed not to charge her to remove 16 tattoos designating her as her pimp’s property. And a teenage prostitute told me that she’s trying to start over because, “the only person who visited me in jail was Miss Shelia.”

Magdalene and Thistle Farms fill part of what’s needed: residential and work programs for women trying to flee pimps. We also need to see a much greater crackdown on pimps and johns.

Simpkins figures she was arrested about 200 times — and her pimps, never. As for johns, by my back-of-envelope calculations, a john in Nashville has less than a 0.5 percent chance of being arrested. If there were more risk, fewer men would buy sex, and falling demand would force some pimps to find a new line of work.

In short, there are steps we can take that begin to chip away at the problem, but a starting point is greater empathy for women like Simpkins who were propelled into the vortex of the sex trade — and a recognition that the problem isn’t hopeless. To me, Simpkins encapsulates not hopelessness but the remarkable human capacity for resilience.

She has married and has two children, ages 4 and 6. The older one has just been accepted in a gifted program at school, and Simpkins couldn’t be more proud.

“I haven’t done a lot of things right in my life, but this is one thing I’m going to do right,” she said. “I’m going to be the world’s best mom.”

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Is a college degree’s worth best measured by the income its recipient makes 5 or 10 years down the road? Is college primarily a catapult to wealth? These were questions implicitly raised by President Obama’s recent proposal that the federal government look at graduates’ earnings when rating schools in an effort to steer students toward the best ones.

Is time in the military, in a store or at home with children comparable to time in a classroom, and should it count in some way toward a degree? There are university administrators who think so and who are trying to increase “completion rates” — the percentage of students who make it all the way to degrees — by giving credit for experiences far away from campus, so that students have a less lengthy, costly route to a diploma.

Some states and educators see the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a terrific way to enroll more young people in college at a more affordable price, but there’s little if any evidence so far that this approach is optimal, especially for the students stretching the furthest to incorporate higher education into their lives.

And already, the higher learning that too many young Americans partake of leaves a lot to be desired. Time magazine rightly began its recent cover story on the college experience in the United States by reporting the results of a chilling survey last year of recent graduates. It showed that 62 percent of them didn’t know, for example, that Congressional terms are two years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate. You can’t tell me that the quality of the men and women we send to Washington isn’t affected by such profound and widespread ignorance about what they do there and how the system works (or, rather, doesn’t).

Although our lurch from one crisis to the next — the Syria debate, the government shutdown — often obscures all other matters, one of the most important issues in American life right now is higher education’s identity crisis, its soul-searching about what it should accomplish, whom it should serve and how it must or mustn’t be tweaked. Our global competitiveness is likely to depend on how we answer these questions.

And if you think we’re suitably competitive as is, then consider another survey, published last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It measured the skills of Americans from the ages of 16 to 65 and found that they by and large lacked the mathematical and technological know-how, along with the literacy, of their counterparts in Japan and Northern European countries. Among the 23 nations that the organization assessed, we weren’t anywhere near the lead. We were closer to the bottom of the pack, with our young adults in particular performing unremarkably. This troubling state of affairs is an echo of the educational gap that we’ve long lamented. It’s an extrapolation, really. Learn too little and you wind up knowing too little.

“Higher education policy needs to focus not just on access and affordability but also quality and success,” Michael Dannenberg, the director of higher education policy for the Education Trust, said last week when I asked him what the moral of the skills survey was. He added that while completion rate was one aspect of success, “it’s not the whole story.”

In a different week, the survey might have garnered more attention, but Washington’s dysfunction sucks the oxygen out of every other discussion. You can’t tackle education or immigration when you’re passing emergency measures so that slain servicemen’s survivors aren’t denied the government aid they’ve been promised and deserve.

The escalation of tuition, the crippling rise of student debt and a persistently high jobless rate over recent years have rightly prompted educators, politicians and other policy makers to float and implement methods to make college less financially onerous, in part by collapsing the time it takes for students to get their degrees. After all, statistics suggest that college diplomas are the best amulets against unemployment and the surest paths to a good income.

And the Obama administration, to its credit, has made clear in its recent proposals that the measurable effectiveness of schools shouldn’t be overlooked in the process. That was a big part of the new higher-education policy it laid out in August, which Dannenberg described as positive “baby steps” in the right direction.

But the inclusion of graduates’ earnings as one yardstick of effectiveness belongs to a broader trend of seeing college in pecuniary terms that could easily go too far. Setting students up for immediate careers and giving them the intellectual tools that will serve them best over a lifetime aren’t necessarily one and the same, and in several states and at many universities, the vigorous push to plump up enrollment and herd students into particular programs threatens to make college too much of a vocational school.

“The notion is, let’s transform higher education into job training,” Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, told me disapprovingly. That sort of sentiment, he said, was detectable in President Obama’s recent remark that it might be wise to shorten law school from three years to two.

Ackerman said that when you also factor in the proliferation of online courses for disadvantaged students, you begin to see what could easily become an overly tiered, wildly inconsistent college landscape of “a few superstars and then a lot of glorified teaching systems” that aren’t all that constructive.

We’re in a tricky, troubling spot. At a time when our nation’s ability to tackle complicated policy problems is seriously in doubt, we must pull off a delicate balancing act. We must make college practical but not excessively so, lower its price without lowering its standards and increase the number of diplomas attained without diminishing not only their currency in the job market but also the fitness of the country’s work force in a cutthroat world.

“Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor,” Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Times’s Richard Pérez-Peña in an article about the new skills survey last week. “But that advantage is slipping.”

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

July 12, 2013

Bobo says “Pass The Bill!”  He moans that the likelihood that House Republicans will block immigration reform counteracts the four biggest conservative objectives.  This thing includes the phrase “my friends Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry,” which tells you absolutely everything you could ever possibly need to know about Bobo.  Mr. Cohen takes a look at “France’s Glorious Malaise” and says the French live off their ennui much as the British live off the royal family. It’s a marketing ploy with its degree of affectation.  Prof. Krugman addresses “Delusions of Populism” and says these are tough times for members of the conservative intelligentsia. And their latest idea for regaining power is bunk.  Along with all their other ideas, Paul.  Here’s Bobo, who’s rather reeking of flop sweat as his Teatard birds come home to roost:

It’s beginning to look as though we’re not going to get an immigration reform law this year. House Republicans are moving in a direction that will probably be unacceptable to the Senate majority and the White House. Conservative commentators like my friends Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry are arguing that the status quo is better than the comprehensive approach passed by the Senate. The whole effort is in peril.

This could be a tragedy for the country and political suicide for Republicans, especially because the conservative arguments against the comprehensive approach are not compelling.

After all, the Senate bill fulfills the four biggest conservative objectives. Conservatives say they want economic growth. The Senate immigration bill is the biggest pro-growth item on the agenda today. Based on estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would increase the gross domestic product by 3.3 percent by 2023 and by 5.4 percent by 2033. A separate study by the American Action Forum found that it would increase per capita income by $1,700 after 10 years.

Conservatives say they want to bring down debt. According to government estimates, the Senate bill would reduce federal deficits by up to $850 billion over the next 20 years. The Senate bill reduces the 75-year Social Security fund shortfall by half-a-trillion dollars.

Conservatives say they want to reduce illegal immigration. The Senate bill spends huge amounts of money to secure the border. According to the C.B.O., the bill would reduce illegal immigration by somewhere between 33 percent to 50 percent. True, it would not totally eliminate illegal immigration, but it would do a lot better than current law, which reduces illegal immigration by 0 percent.

Conservatives say they want to avoid a European-style demographic collapse. But without more immigrants, and the higher fertility rates they bring, that is exactly what the U.S. faces. Plus, this bill radically increases the number of high-skilled immigrants. It takes millions of long-term resident families out of the shadows so they can lead more mainstream lives.

These are all gigantic benefits. They are like Himalayan peaks compared with the foothill-size complaints conservatives are lodging.

The first conservative complaint is that, as Kristol and Lowry put it, “the enforcement provisions are riddled with exceptions, loopholes and waivers.” If Obama can waive the parts of Obamacare he finds inconvenient, why won’t he end up waiving a requirement for the use of E-Verify.

There’s some truth to this critique, and maybe the House should pass a version of the Senate bill that has fewer waivers and loopholes. But, at some point, this argument just becomes an excuse to oppose every piece of legislation, ever. All legislation allows the executive branch to have some discretion. It’s always possible to imagine ways in which a law may be distorted in violation of its intent. But if you are going to use that logic to oppose something, you are going to end up opposing tax reform, welfare reform, the Civil Rights Act and everything else.

The second conservative complaint is that the bill would flood the country with more low-skilled workers, driving down wages. This is an argument borrowed from the reactionary left, and it shows. In the first place, the recent research suggests that increased immigration drives down wages far less than expected. Low-skilled immigrants don’t directly compete with the native-born. They do entry-level work, create wealth and push natives into better jobs.

Furthermore, conservatives are not supposed to take a static, protectionist view of economics. They’re not supposed to believe that growth can be created or even preserved if government protects favored groups from competition. Conservatives are supposed to believe in the logic of capitalism; that if you encourage the movement of goods, ideas and people, then you increase dynamism, you increase creative destruction and you end up creating more wealth that improves lives over all.

The final conservative point of opposition is a political one. Republicans should not try to win back lower-middle-class voters with immigration reform; they should do it with a working-class agenda.

This argument would be slightly plausible if Republicans had even a hint of such an agenda, but they don’t. Even then it would fail. Before Asians, Hispanics and all the other groups can be won with economic plans, they need to feel respected and understood by the G.O.P. They need to feel that Republicans respect their ethnic and cultural identity. If Republicans reject immigration reform, that will be a giant sign of disrespect, and nothing else Republicans say will even be heard.

Whether this bill passes or not, this country is heading toward a multiethnic future. Republicans can either shape that future in a conservative direction or, as I’ve tried to argue, they can become the receding roar of a white America that is never coming back.

That’s what’s at stake.

Bobo, Bobo, Bobo…  Just stop struggling and relax into the tar pit.  Next up we have Mr. Cohen, writing from Raphèle-les-Arles in France:

It seems this is a time of French malaise, moroseness and melancholy. I have been reading a lot about the existential anguish of France, a directionless nation under a featureless president. There are even fears for the Fifth Republic.

Here is something I read: “France today is racked by doubt and introspection. There is a pervasive sense that not only jobs — but also power, wealth, ideas and national identity itself — are migrating, permanently and at disarming speed, to leave a vapid grandeur on the banks of the Seine.” The article continued: “The country’s manicured capital, impeccable roads, high-speed trains, glorious food, seductive scents and deep-rooted savoir-vivre provide a compelling image of wealth and tradition. But just as the golden statuary on the bridges of Paris distracts the eye from the homeless sleeping beneath the arches, so the moving beauty of France tends to mask what amounts to a kernel of despair.”

Disturbing stuff all right — and the article noted how the anti-immigrant, rightist National Front was well placed to benefit from the ambient angst.

Well, that was an article I wrote 16 years ago, in 1997, when I was a Paris-based correspondent. So deep was the “morosité” that a two-part series was planned before my colleague, Bill Keller, then the New York Times foreign editor, decided even a malaise so massive could be evoked in a single piece. That was a good call.

For if moroseness is a perennial state, rather than a reaction to particular circumstance, does it really matter? The French are living off their malaise much as the British live off the royal family. It’s a marketing ploy with its degree of affectation; an object of fascination to foreigners rather than a worrying condition.

Tell a Frenchman what a glorious day it is and he will respond that it won’t last. Tell him how good the heat feels and he will say it portends a storm. I recently asked in a French hotel how long it would take for a coffee to reach my room. The brusque retort: “The time it takes to make it.”

This surliness is more a fierce form of realism than a sign of malaise. It is a bitter wisdom. It is a nod to Hobbes’s view that the life of man is, on the whole, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Nothing surprises, nothing shocks (especially in the realm of marriage and sex), and nothing, really, disappoints. Far from morose, the French attitude has a bracing frankness. No nation has a more emphatic shrug. No nation is the object of so much romanticism yet so unromantic itself. No nation internalizes as completely the notion that in the end we are all dead.

Now, it is true that France lives with high unemployment in a depressed euro zone; that it is more vassal than partner to Germany these days; that it is chronically divided between a world-class private sector and a vast state sector of grumpy functionaries; that its universalist illusions have faded as its power diminishes; and that its welfare state is unaffordable.

Still, moroseness is a foible in a country with superb medicine, good education, immense beauty, the only wine worth drinking, an army that does the business in Mali, strong families and the earthy wisdom of “la France profonde.”

Malaise and ennui are to France what can-do is to America: A badge of honor.

My daughter Jessica married into a French family, many of whom live in that region of strange, blustery beauty, the Camargue. Emile Trazic, my son-in-law’s uncle, has a farm here where he raises bulls and horses. Having lived near Nîmes, in an area “where even snakes die of thirst,” he was drawn to the watery flatlands of the Camargue.

I went to see Trazic recently for a long lunch. He lives alone, his wife 50 miles away: simpler like that. He has little time for ecologists — “All these people who love nature and know nothing about nature.” He says, “I love the land, I hate folklore.” His advice: “If you want to ruin somebody’s life, give him a bull.” Further counsel: “A leant horse is a sold horse.” His deepest conviction, “Dans la vie il ne faut pas s’emmerder” — roughly (and slightly less crudely) “In life, don’t take any crap.” His father always told him, “The make of the bicycle does not matter, just pedal.” And he has.

Trazic served a vile fermented cheese called “Cachat.” To make it, take all your leftover cheese, crush it, add olive oil, cognac, bay leaves, thyme, and seal it in a jar for about a year. The stench is staggering, the secret of eating it to take very little. “It’s stronger than any antibiotic, cures anything,” he said.

Even malaise? No, that is incurable, too dear to the French to be given up. Voltaire, on his deathbed, was asked to renounce Satan and embrace God. He declined, saying this was “no time to be making new enemies.”

Better to be miserable than a hypocrite, nauseated than naive — and far better to be morose than a fool.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Have you heard about “libertarian populism” yet? If not, you will. It will surely be touted all over the airwaves and the opinion pages by the same kind of people who assured you, a few years ago, that Representative Paul Ryan was the very model of a Serious, Honest Conservative. So let me make a helpful public service announcement: It’s bunk.

Some background: These are tough times for members of the conservative intelligentsia — those denizens of think tanks and opinion pages who dream of Republicans once again becoming “the party of ideas.” (Whether they ever were that party is another question.)

For a while, they thought they had found their wonk hero in the person of Mr. Ryan. But the famous Ryan plan turned out to be crude smoke and mirrors, and I suspect that even conservatives privately realize that its author is more huckster than visionary. So what’s the next big idea?

Enter libertarian populism. The idea here is that there exists a pool of disaffected working-class white voters who failed to turn out last year but can be mobilized again with the right kind of conservative economic program — and that this remobilization can restore the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes.

You can see why many on the right find this idea appealing. It suggests that Republicans can regain their former glory without changing much of anything — no need to reach out to nonwhite voters, no need to reconsider their economic ideology. You might also think that this sounds too good to be true — and you’d be right. The notion of libertarian populism is delusional on at least two levels.

First, the notion that white mobilization is all it takes rests heavily on claims by the political analyst Sean Trende that Mitt Romney fell short last year largely because of “missing white voters” — millions of “downscale, rural, Northern whites” who failed to show up at the polls. Conservatives opposed to any major shifts in the G.O.P. position — and, in particular, opponents of immigration reform — quickly seized on Mr. Trende’s analysis as proof that no fundamental change is needed, just better messaging.

But serious political scientists like Alan Abramowitz and Ruy Teixeira have now weighed in and concluded that the missing-white-voter story is a myth. Yes, turnout among white voters was lower in 2012 than in 2008; so was turnout among nonwhite voters. Mr. Trende’s analysis basically imagines a world in which white turnout rebounds to 2008 levels but nonwhite turnout doesn’t, and it’s hard to see why that makes sense.

Suppose, however, that we put this debunking on one side and grant that Republicans could do better if they could inspire more enthusiasm among “downscale” whites. What can the party offer that might inspire such enthusiasm?

Well, as far as anyone can tell, at this point libertarian populism — as illustrated, for example, by the policy pronouncements of Senator Rand Paul — consists of advocating the same old policies, while insisting that they’re really good for the working class. Actually, they aren’t. But, in any case, it’s hard to imagine that proclaiming, yet again, the virtues of sound money and low marginal tax rates will change anyone’s mind.

Moreover, if you look at what the modern Republican Party actually stands for in practice, it’s clearly inimical to the interests of those downscale whites the party can supposedly win back. Neither a flat tax nor a return to the gold standard are actually on the table; but cuts in unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid are. (To the extent that there was any substance to the Ryan plan, it mainly involved savage cuts in aid to the poor.) And while many nonwhite Americans depend on these safety-net programs, so do many less-well-off whites — the very voters libertarian populism is supposed to reach.

Specifically, more than 60 percent of those benefiting from unemployment insurance are white. Slightly less than half of food stamp beneficiaries are white, but in swing states the proportion is much higher. For example, in Ohio, 65 percent of households receiving food stamps are white. Nationally, 42 percent of Medicaid recipients are non-Hispanic whites, but, in Ohio, the number is 61 percent.

So when Republicans engineer sharp cuts in unemployment benefits, block the expansion of Medicaid and seek deep cuts in food stamp funding — all of which they have, in fact, done — they may be disproportionately hurting Those People; but they are also inflicting a lot of harm on the struggling Northern white families they are supposedly going to mobilize.

Which brings us back to why libertarian populism is, as I said, bunk. You could, I suppose, argue that destroying the safety net is a libertarian act — maybe freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. But populist it isn’t.


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