Archive for the ‘Flop sweat’ Category

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.

Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

January 29, 2013

Bobo is dreaming of “A Second G.O.P.”  He says it’s time for a second Republican stream, one that shows a deep interest in reforming our bloated institutions and repairing our human capital.  One could almost feel sorry for him.  Almost, but not quite.  Watching Bobo squirm schadens my freuds.  Mr. Cohen, in “Sitting Down With Amos Oz,” says the Israeli novelist’s message to the incoming government is clear: Nothing is impossible — even peace.  Mr. Nocera gives us “And in Last Week’s Gun News…”  He says a small sampling of news articles from around the country gives a sense of the Second Amendment’s toll.  Mr. Bruni is being fatalistic about relationships.  In “Manti and the Mating Game” he whines that dead or not, courtship was never all it’s cracked up to be, and there’s no one playbook for pairing off.  Here’s Bobo (who should have read Prof. Krugman on the subject of Bobby Jindal):

On the surface, Republicans are already doing a good job of beginning to change their party. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave a speech to the Republican National Committee calling on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people.

Representative Paul Ryan gave a fine speech to the National Review Institute calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, gave a speech to the same gathering saying the Republicans should be focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans.

But, so far, there have been more calls for change than actual evidence of change. In his speech, for example, Jindal spanked his party for its stale clichés but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good.

In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn’t already vote for them.

Change is hard because people don’t only think on the surface level. Deep down people have mental maps of reality — embedded sets of assumptions, narratives and terms that organize thinking. Since Barry Goldwater, the central Republican narrative has been what you might call the Encroachment Story: the core problem of American life is that voracious government has been steadily encroaching upon individuals and local communities. The core American conflict, in this view, is between Big Government and Personal Freedom.

While losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, the flaws of this mentality have become apparent. First, if opposing government is your primary objective, it’s hard to have a positive governing program.

As Bill Kristol pointed out at the National Review event, the G.O.P. fiercely opposed the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law but never offered an alternative. The party opposed Obamacare but never offered a replacement. John Podhoretz of Commentary added that as soon as Republicans start talking about what kind of regulations and programs government should promote, they get accused by colleagues of being Big Government conservatives.

The next problem with this mentality is that it makes it hard for Republicans to analyze social and economic problems that don’t flow directly from big government. For example, we are now at the end of the era in which a rising tide lifts all boats. Republicans like Mitt Romney can talk about improving the overall business climate with lower taxes and lighter regulation, but regular voters sense that that won’t necessarily help them because wages no longer keep pace with productivity gains.

Americans are still skeptical of Washington. If you shove a big government program down their throats they will recoil. But many of their immediate problems flow from globalization, the turmoil of technological change and social decay, and they’re looking for a bit of help. Moreover, given all the antigovernment rhetoric, they will never trust these Republicans to reform cherished programs like Social Security and Medicare. You can’t be for entitlement reform and today’s G.O.P., because politically the two will never go together.

Can current Republicans change their underlying mentality to adapt to these realities? Intellectual history says no. People almost never change their underlying narratives or unconscious frameworks. Moreover, in the South and rural West, where most Republicans are from, the Encroachment Story has deep historic and psychological roots. Anti-Washington, anti-urban sentiment has characterized those cultures for decades.

It’s probably futile to try to change current Republicans. It’s smarter to build a new wing of the Republican Party, one that can compete in the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states, in the upper Midwest and along the West Coast. It’s smarter to build a new division that is different the way the Westin is different than the Sheraton.

The second G.O.P. wouldn’t be based on the Encroachment Story. It would be based on the idea that America is being hit simultaneously by two crises, which you might call the Mancur Olson crisis and the Charles Murray crisis.

Olson argued that nations decline because their aging institutions get bloated and sclerotic and retard national dynamism. Murray argues that America is coming apart, dividing into two nations — one with high education levels, stable families and good opportunities and the other with low education levels, unstable families and bad opportunities.

The second G.O.P. would tackle both problems at once. It would be filled with people who recoiled at President Obama’s second Inaugural Address because of its excessive faith in centralized power, but who don’t share the absolute antigovernment story of the current G.O.P.

Would a coastal and Midwestern G.O.P. sit easily with the Southern and Western one? No, but majority parties are usually coalitions of the incompatible. This is really the only chance Republicans have. The question is: Who’s going to build a second G.O.P.?

Well, Bobo, since the Teatards and folks like ZEGS have run off anyone who could possibly pull that off, it’s not going to happen.  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Tel Aviv:

Amos Oz, the novelist whose stories and tales have probed the soul of Israel with an intimate insistence, greeted me to his book-lined apartment with a quick Hebrew lesson. I must understand that the key word, Yiddish really, is “fraiers” — or suckers.

“Most Israelis,” he suggested, “would wave goodbye to the West Bank but they don’t want to be suckers, they don’t want the Gaza scenario to repeat itself. First and foremost, these elections were about internal affairs, the middle class, state and synagogue, the draft, with a silent consensus that the occupied territories do not matter that much. Israelis are no longer interested. They vote with their feet. They don’t go there, except for the settlers and right-wing extremists. This means that if Israelis can be reassured that by renouncing the West Bank they are not going to get a lousy deal — not going to be ‘fraiers’ — they are quietly ready to do it.”

With religious-nationalist sentiment strong, even if the elections demonstrated an Israeli turn against extremism, I suggested Oz might be optimistic. But he insisted that at the end of the day some 70 percent on both sides — kicking and screaming and crying injustice — were ready for two states. “If I may use a metaphor,” Oz said, “I would say that the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors are cowards.”

Among the cowards, would he include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? “Yes I think Netanyahu is a coward,” he declared. But the victory of the center in the election could alter the equation. “It means,” Oz said, “that there will be more pressure on Netanyahu from the dovish side in Israel and from the outside world, so that his cowardice may work the other way.”

Israel — perched in a hostile neighborhood, its borders undefined, beset by internal rifts between the religious and secular, unsure what to make of the Arab upheaval around it — craves normality. Its citizens today are more concerned about violent crime than political violence. Not one Israeli was killed in 2012 in the West Bank. Its packed malls purr with affluence. Iran was a nonissue during the campaign. The Palestinian conflict, despite the odd spasm, has receded, enough anyway for people to vote en masse for a political novice, the telegenic Yair Lapid, a mystery wrapped in good looks at the head of a party with a reassuring-disquieting name: There Is a Future.

Oz, up in Tel Aviv for the weekend from his home in the desert town of Arad, has lived the entire past of the modern state of Israel. His credo as a novelist is that humankind is open-ended: People are capable of surprising not only others but themselves. He calls this “the single most promising phenomenon in history.” Lapid, in effect a political vessel awaiting content, is a character in search of meaning and, as such, of interest to Oz.

“He is a phenomenon, a manifestation of the desire of the middle class for normalization. Israelis want to be like Holland,” Oz told me. “It is a legitimate desire even if it tends to ignore fundamental issues, like the conflict with the Arabs. I don’t know if Lapid has ideas and I’m not sure he knows. What Lapid will do is a mystery not just to me — it is probably a mystery to him!”

At 73, Oz has been surprised often enough not to regard the worst as inevitable, even if war has been Israel’s leitmotif since 1948. He asks this question: “Who ever expected Churchill to dismantle the British Empire, or De Gaulle to take France out of Algeria, or Sadat to come to Jerusalem, or Begin to give back the whole of Sinai for peace, or Gorbachev to undo the whole Soviet bloc?”

His message to the incoming Israeli government is clear: Peace is impossible without boldness; nothing is beyond the capacity of an open-ended, surprise-prone humanity.

There is wistfulness in his gaze on the Israel he loves. He marvels at what he calls “a cultural golden age” of literary and scientific achievement. He deplores — and abhors — what he sees as a creeping questioning of Israel’s existence in Europe and elsewhere, one that “goes way beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy” and in part reflects anti-Americanism because “if the United States is the devil then Israel must be Rosemary’s Baby.”

At the same time he does not hide his own disappointments. “Building settlements in occupied territories was the single most grave error and sin in the history of modern Zionism, because it was based on a refusal to accept the simple fact that we are not alone in this country,” he told me. “The Palestinians for decades also refused the fact that they are not alone in this country. Now, with clenched teeth, both sides have recognized this reality and that is a good basis.”

He went on: “Loss of contact may be healthy for a while after 100 years of bloody conflict; loss of contact may be a blessing. But loss of contact can be based on a fence built between my garden and my neighbor’s garden. It cannot be based on a fence built right in the middle of the neighbor’s garden. So a fence may not be a bad idea except that this fence is located in the wrong place.” Israel’s separation barrier, closing off the West Bank, is, in other words, an unacceptable land grab.

Israel was a dream. The only way, Oz notes, to keep a dream rosy and intact and unsullied is never to live it out. This is true of everything — traveling, writing a novel, a sexual fantasy. Israel is now a fulfilled dream, one that exceeds the wildest dreams of his parents. So, Oz concludes, “The disappointment is not in the nature of Israel, it is in the nature of dreams.”

Here is his political credo. There cannot be one state because Israelis and Palestinians cannot become one happy family (“they are not one and they are not happy.”) So “the only solution is turning the house into two smaller apartments.” Two states, absolutely, are the only answer. Palestinians and other Arabs once treated Israel like a passing infection: If they scratched themselves hard enough it would go away. Israel treated Palestine as no more than “the vicious invention of a pan-Arabic propaganda machine.” These illusions have passed. Reality now compels a compromise — “and compromises are unhappy, there is no such thing as a happy compromise.”

And what of Hamas? “At least what we can do is solve the conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization and reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an Israel-Gaza conflict. This will be a big step forward. Then we will see. Hamas may change as the P.L.O. did. The Palestinian Authority is ready for a state in the West Bank, unhappy about it, sure, but ready. They will go on dreaming of Haifa and Jaffa just as we will dream of Hebron and Nablus. There is no censorship on dreams.”

And the Palestinian right of return? “The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question. Refugees must be resettled in the future state of Palestine, not Israel.”

Two final thoughts from Oz worth the consideration of Israeli politicians: On the nature of tragedy and the nature of time.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearian way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian not a Shakespearian conclusion.”

And this: “I live in the desert at Arad. Every morning at 5 a.m. I start my day by taking a walk before sunrise. I inhale the silence. I take in the breeze, the silhouettes of the hills. I walk for about 40 minutes. When I come back home I turn on the radio and sometimes I hear a politicians using words like ‘never’ or ‘forever’ or ‘for eternity’ — and I know that the stones out in the desert are laughing at him.”

Sit down with Oz. That is my advice to the next Israeli government — and to all the deluded absolutists, Arab and Jew, of this unnecessary conflict whose unhappy but peaceful ending is not beyond the scope of open-ended human imagination.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

Monday, Jan. 21:

Eleaquin Temblador had plans. He was working to earn his high school diploma and wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corps and marry his girlfriend. … Instead, family members are planning Temblador’s funeral. For reasons no one can explain, gunmen in a light-colored, older-model vehicle gunned down the 18-year-old … as he rode his bicycle home from his girlfriend’s house., Los Angeles

Relatives of a teen who was shot while playing basketball at a local park said the 16-year-old is now paralyzed from the waist down. … Police said the shooter, a 17-year-old boy, had a gun stuck in his waistband. While he was playing basketball, someone bumped into him and the gun went off. …


Tuesday, Jan. 22:

A Baton Rouge man who authorities said was playing with a gun was booked … in the accidental shooting of his 2-year-old brother. … [The man’s uncle] said the teen had armed himself due to “environmental pressure” from neighborhood friends.

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

The New Mexico teenager who used an assault rifle to kill his mother, father and younger siblings told police he hoped to shoot up a Walmart after the family rampage and cause “mass destruction.” … Nehemiah Griego, the 15-year-old son of an Albuquerque pastor … “stated he wanted to shoot people at random and eventually be killed while exchanging gunfire with law enforcement,” the [police] report said.

ABC News

Wednesday, Jan. 23:

Kansas City police arrested a 16-year-old Ruskin High School student accused of shooting at a school bus after the driver refused to allow him to board on Wednesday.

The Kansas City Star

A 4-year-old boy has died after being shot in the head Wednesday. … The deputy [sheriff] located the child’s body inside of a Ford Taurus. There was a bullet hole in the roof of the car. … “Jamarcus loved Batman, Spider-Man and football and was looking forward to starting kindergarten,” [his mother] said., Akron, Ohio

Thursday, Jan. 24:

The estranged husband of a woman found dead in her Madison apartment Thursday was found dead in his home … of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. … “We can’t really believe it; I mean, these things happen on TV, they don’t happen to us,” [her stepmother] said. “We’re middle class, normal Americans, and she was a nice girl.”

WISC-TV, Madison, Wis.

Police said an 11-year-old girl is in critical condition after being shot in the face by her father in a New Jersey home on Thursday night. Investigators said 27-year-old Byaer Johnson apparently entered the home to visit his young daughter. … He was asked to leave, then picked up a handgun and shot his daughter.

CBS News

Friday, Jan. 25:

An Oakland police officer was shot and wounded Friday evening, the second officer in the city to be injured by gunfire this week. … The shooting happened after a man in a car ran a stop sign, crashed into another car … and ran off. Shortly thereafter, an uncle and his nephew reported that they were shot a block away by a man who tried to steal the uncle’s bicycle.

A man has been charged with murder for fatally shooting his brother during a “domestic” dispute outside a South Side Englewood home Friday afternoon. …

Saturday, Jan. 26:

A party in Salem that spilled outdoors ended in drive-by gunfire that hit at least two people and riddled a car and nearby homes. …

KOINlocal6, Salem, Ore.

A 55-year-old man has been released from custody after allegedly shooting and killing his own dog. Police say Gordon Lagstrom was drunk Saturday night when he pulled a .38 caliber handgun and shot to death his 4-year-old Australian terrier, Lena.

The city broke a nine-day murder-free streak last night when a man was found dead in the basement of a Queens apartment complex, police said. The 20-year-old victim, whose name was not released, had been shot in the head.

New York Post

Among those killed Saturday was a 34-year-old man whose mother had already lost her three other children to shootings. Police say Ronnie Chambers, who was his mother’s youngest child, was shot in the head while sitting in a car. Police say two separate double-homicide shootings also occurred Saturday about 12 hours apart. … Chicago’s homicide count eclipsed 500 last year for the first time since 2008.

CBS News

But the NRA has so terrified our politicians and inflamed the low information knuckle-walkers that nothing will change.  Here’s poor, depressed Mr. Bruni:

As we wring our hands over the impulsive hookups and Internet hoaxes of modern romance, let us pause a moment and travel back to the days long before text messages, Photoshop and all other manner of digital bedlam. Let us return to a halcyon world of agrarian ways and contemplate the unflustered situation of a fertile lass on the cusp of womanhood centuries ago.

What options she had! They were culled from the burg she lived in and maybe from the next village over, so that her total population of potential suitors — men in an acceptable age range, with discernible pulses and a majority of their limbs — was five if she was lucky, three if the burg had just emerged from a period of savage smallpox. And while her eye might be drawn to the lad with the least rotted teeth, Ma and Pa knew better, not so much nudging as commanding her toward the one whose family had the most livestock. They understood that meat, not mirth, would sustain her and her brood over the harsh winters to come, and that love meant never having to say you’re hungry.

Are we really worse off now? In the annals of mating, are the straits we’re in so dire?

From the commentary about Manti Te’o and from the angst vented in news reports and on blogs, you certainly get that sense. “The End of Courtship?” lamented a recent headline in The Times; the story with it traced the waning of wining and dining, the triumph of Facebook updates over face-to-face heart-to-hearts. Apparently the avenues by which lusty millennials come to grope and perchance know one another are brusque, confused and rife with deception, and probably aren’t reliable precursors to unions of enduring bliss.

Which is to say: they’re as imperfect as they’ve always been. While we Homo sapiens have paired off in diverse methods across disparate epochs, we’ve seldom done it with ample information or any particular finesse. There was no saner, better yesteryear: just a different set of customs, a different brand of clumsiness.

And where there’s sex, there’s subterfuge, a truism that runs from “Cyrano de Bergerac” through “The Crying Game.” It’s what the makers of Spanx depend on and the peddlers of Botox profit from. All is fair in love and the eradication of unwanted bulges and creases.

True, cyberspace and smartphones have ushered in such present-day distinctions as the fully fictional avatar, the wholly disembodied relationship and the instantaneously arranged mashing of genitals. But illusion, assumption and haste have had starring roles in our amorous escapades before.

Think about war brides and wartime romances, about couples from the greatest generation who met just before D-Day or traded glances at the U.S.O. and then did their tortured wooing almost entirely by post. What they took wasn’t an accurate measure of each other but a leap of faith.

And as vessels of self-revelation, were letters much more trustworthy than tweets? Couldn’t their authors labor mightily over the flaunting of an invented wisdom, the flashing of a borrowed wit? Beth Bailey, a historian at Temple University, told me that during the 19th century, when such missives were considered “an essential way to get to know people,” there were how-to books that provided not only letter-writing templates but also “phrases for how to communicate your true self.”

Until the dawn of cars and greater mobility, there wasn’t dating as we came to understand it; there were visits on porches and in parlors, often under the intrusive gazes of nattering relatives. “It was very limiting,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

And there weren’t all that many visits, either. Cherlin said that a person back then might meet his or her spouse just 10 times before marrying, and that this minimal contact enabled you to “present yourself much differently than you will later on.”

In the 1950s, with its drive-in diners and back-seat fumbling, teenagers in lust finally had quality time away from meddlesome parents, going off to sock hops and going steady. But the choreographed roles they played and the chauvinistic rituals they obeyed didn’t necessarily tease out someone’s real personality and definitely didn’t give young women anything approaching full autonomy.

There’s no ideal stratagem for figuring out whom any one of us should be with and how to chart a course to that person, no fail-safe process for determining whether a twosome will endure. The act of getting together, whether brokered by yenta or Yahoo, is one of willed credulousness and wishful thinking as much as anything else, the triumph of optimism over morning breath.

And it’s a wager, because people have hidden layers, hidden intentions. Your beloved could switch political parties. Your hookup could insist on a soundtrack of Celine Dion. Not knowing what’s in store is the very soul of romance: what makes it so scary, and what makes it so thrilling.

Man…  It sounds to me like he had a dreadful time in high school and college…

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Kristof and Bruni

January 20, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz has extruded a thing called “A Sneaky Peek at Obama’s Speech.”  he babbles that Obama has four more years and he’s feeling pretty good about it.  Not only is it not half as funny as he undoubtedly thought it was, it also reeks of flop sweat.  In “Sheriff Andy of Albany” MoDo says as usual, the question burns: What’s Andrew Cuomo up to?  In “Warnings From a Flabby Mouse” Mr. Kristof points out that studies suggest that endocrine disruptors, chemicals found everywhere from couches to shampoos, may contribute to obesity along with Twinkies and TV.  In “Love, Marriage and Voters” Mr. Bruni says storybook married lives and effective governance have nothing to do with each other, and that will become ever more accepted in presidential politics.  Here’s The Putz:

President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, revised for maximum honesty:

My fellow Americans, I am grateful for the honor of this hour, mindful of the consequential times in which we live, and determined to fulfill the oath that I have sworn and you have witnessed.

[long pause]

Hey, no, just kidding: That’s from George W. Bush’s second inaugural. I just wanted to see if you could tell the difference.

I’m going to keep this brief, because we’re all cold and there’s always a chance that the House Republicans might start imitating the Donner Party if we stay out here too long.

[broad wink at Eric Cantor]

You already know how the better angels of our nature are going to make hope and history rhyme, and all the usual fluff. So I’ll skip that part. But before my second term gets under way, I do have a few people from the last four years I want to acknowledge.

First, my dear friends in the press and on the professional left (but I repeat myself). It’s so nice to have you back on the bandwagon, guys! I’ve been surfing the Interwebs, reading the tweets, and it feels like old times. The Obama realignment is all the rage again. The thrill is back on MSNBC. Newsweek’s comparing me to Jesus. All I need is a video to really take me back.

But don’t think I’ve forgotten that when the going got tough, you guys went weak at the knees. I always knew my fellow liberal elites were self-involved, self-dramatizing and out of touch: I was in academia, remember? But the kind of mood swings I’ve had to put up with have been absolutely ridiculous.

The fact is, I’ve been your dream president; you’ve just spent four years coming up with reasons not to notice. I spend a gazillion dollars on stimulus, and the next day I wake up and it’s all, “Why didn’t he spend two gazillion dollars?” I pass universal health care — your goal for what, a thousand years or so? — and it takes all of five seconds before you start whining about how I didn’t cure cancer too. I suffer a few setbacks — that midterm business, a bad debate — and you start panicking about how some stuffed-suit corporate raider who stepped out of an Eisenhower-era time capsule is going to beat cool, multiracial, 21st-century ME.

Please. Please.

Next, a big, big shout-out to my opponents on the right — I really couldn’t have done it without you. Sure, you won a few battles here and there: Scott Brown versus Martha Coakley, cap-and-trade, and yes, again, that midterm business. But in the larger war, has any president ever been so lucky in his enemies?

Every time I needed to paint the American right as paranoid and out-of-touch, misogynistic and mindless, you were there for me. Thanks for making Sandra Fluke a martyr, Rush. Thanks for Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, Mr. Ailes. Thanks for everything, Donald Trump. Todd Akin — I love you, man.

And that parade of lightweights you put up against Romney in the primaries? A godsend. Bless you, Herman Cain. Never change, Michele Bachmann. Oh — and hope you enjoy being president of Purdue, Mitch Daniels.

Of course, my friends in right-wing media have been lucky in me as well. I kept your ratings stellar, your book sales booming, your page views sky-high. You got the income stream, I kept the power. So here’s to another flush four years for you.

Finally, to all the centrist wise men and reasonable-sounding conservatives — how do you like me now? You said I couldn’t get re-elected unless I was more bipartisan, more moderate, more Clintonian. You blamed me for Washington’s gridlock and assumed the country would as well. You said I should campaign on Simpson-Bowles, of all things, instead of social issues.

Well, guess what? I did it my way, and it worked. I got tax increases without entitlement cuts, I flipped the script on the culture war, and now Marco Rubio is going to help me pass an immigration bill. I’m still up for a grand bargain, but I don’t need one: The economy’s limping back, the deficit should stabilize in the short run, and the long term — well, that’s my successor’s problem. I’d like to win on gun control and climate change, but I’ll settle for making the case and seeing whether a Biden administration (you only think I’m kidding) can finish the job.

Sure, second terms can be dicey propositions. But as long as I don’t get impeached or start a land war in Asia, I’m feeling pretty good about my legacy.

And oh, you centrist chin-strokers who kept saying I was no Clinton? You were absolutely right.

I’m the liberal Reagan. Deal with it.

Next up we have MoDo:

When he was a young henchman for his father in Albany, Andrew Cuomo gave intensity a bad name.

Now that he is New York’s governor himself, Cuomo gives intensity a good name.

In the old days, that dark zeal was scattered around, directed at anyone who insulted or crossed him. Now he channels it more narrowly on the handful of things he wants to get done that he thinks the public wants.

“I was 23 years old then; now I’m 55 years old,” he says with an air of the Stephen Sondheim classic “I’m Still Here.” “I was a linear, focused person. Then I got knocked on my rear end. I went through professional and personal hell. So now I keep it very simple. One day at a time. I’m killing myself to do the best job I can as governor. I do what I’m supposed to do and forget about the unhealthy things that used to distract me. I put one foot in front of the other. We take on big problems. And to say there’s no solution to the problems is not an option.”

Following the grotesque murders of children in Newtown, Conn., and firefighters in Webster, N.Y., the governor bellowed “Stop the madness” and shoved through tough gun-control legislation so blindingly fast that some state senators had scarcely read the bill, and the N.R.A. conceded that it had no time to thwart it.

Cuomo, who worked the phones every day for a month, straight through the holidays, to drum up support, dismisses criticism of rushing and secrecy: “Everyone said, ‘You did it so quickly.’ That perspective is skewed. We’re years and years late. The federal assault weapons ban had lapsed. The state assault weapons ban was on the books, but everybody knew it wasn’t working. Government just failed to perform, and people died. So it’s all bittersweet because I have to say to myself, maybe if we had done earlier what we were supposed to do, figured out how to overcome the politics of extremes, we could have saved all those lives.

“We should have done it as a prophylactic, but maybe it’s human nature to tend to respond to an emergency. You have to sniffle before you get a flu shot.”

You could say it’s not so hard to pass such a bill in a left-leaning state with a popular governor (he is floating at a 71 percent favorability rating), and that it’s a far easier achievement than the gay marriage bill.

But with the president privately signaling some pessimism on new gun laws, as his domestic policy aides take a slower, less stringent approach, it’s bracing to see somebody, anybody, actually make government hum.

Cuomo doesn’t spend much time on TV baring his soul or hustling to get name recognition. (He doesn’t need to.) He focuses-focuses-focuses on the matter at hand, and on proving that government can work — if you apply the proper intensity at times of intense awareness.

“You have to try to hit a home run,” he said. “Home run hitters also have notoriously high strikeout rates. But it’s like when we tried to pass marriage equality. You have to be willing to fail.”

On BuzzFeed, Blake Zeff said “the latest unachievable triumph” shows that Cuomo has “a seemingly superhuman mastery of legislative politics.” And The Daily News christened Cuomo “America’s Sheriff.”

“I’m psyched,” Sheriff Andy said in a call from Albany, not Mayberry, joking, “But I never really saw myself in a big cowboy hat.”

And there is always suspicion swirling: What is Andrew up to? He is always up to something, but is he really deserving of the ever-present assumption that self-advancement trumps his true beliefs? On gun control, was he driven to beat the White House to the punch — or perhaps to beat a fellow governor and 2016 prospect, Martin O’Malley of Maryland? Was he pandering to the left to make up for centrist moves?

“Even when we’re building a bridge,” the governor noted dryly, “opponents say, ‘You’re only building a bridge to run for president.’ People are cynical about politicians. I’m the son of a politician, and I grew up in the political world, so people think I must be that — on steroids.”

The N.R.A. and Greg Ball, a Republican state senator, denounced the New York law as a product of the governor’s 2016 ambition, although it could hurt Candidate Cuomo in places like Nevada, Colorado and Florida.

The governor doesn’t have the president’s public magnetism. But Cuomo, who devotes a lot of time to wining, dining and wheedling legislators, is far more deft at carrots, sticks and baby-talk than President Obama is. It’s a fascinating — and open — question about whether those skills could work the same way to jolt comatose Washington.

“It’s more nuanced than carrots and sticks,” the governor explained. “People are complex. It’s about the full panorama of relationships, the positive and negative. There’s love, fear, desire to please, fear of reprisal. It’s not a fist. I would much rather be home watching a ballgame. But it takes time. It takes effort. It’s the job.”

Of course MoDo came up with carrots and sticks and a slap against Obama, and had to be told about nuance…  MoDo don’t do no nuance.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

[A photograph of 2 mice, the one on the top about twice the size of the one on the bottom, accompanies his column.]

One of the puzzles of the modern world is why we humans are growing so tubby. Maybe these two mice offer a clue.

They’re genetically the same, raised in the same lab and given the same food and chance to exercise. Yet the bottom one is svelte, while the other looks like, well, an American.

The only difference is that the top one was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. The brief exposure programmed the mouse to put on fat, and although there were no significant differences in caloric intake or expenditure, it continued to put on flab long after the chemical was gone.

That experiment is one of a growing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies suggesting that one factor in the industrialized world’s obesity epidemic (along with Twinkies, soda and television) may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals are largely unregulated — they are in food, couches, machine receipts and shampoos — and a raft of new studies suggest that they can lead to the formation of more and larger fat cells.

Before I describe some of this research, a more basic issue: Why should an op-ed columnist write about scholarship published in scientific journals? Don’t pundits have better things to fret about, like the feuding between Democrats and Republicans?

One answer is that obesity is an important national problem, partly responsible for soaring health care costs. Yet the chemical lobby, just like the tobacco industry before it, has impeded serious regulation and is even trying to block research.

A second is that journalists historically have done a poor job covering public health issues — we were slow on the dangers of tobacco and painfully delinquent in calling attention to the perils of lead — but these are central to our national well-being. Our lives are threatened less by the Taliban in Afghanistan than by unregulated contaminants at home.

Endocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that mimic hormones and therefore confuse the body. Initially, they provoked concern because of their links to cancers and the malformation of sex organs. Those concerns continue, but the newest area of research is the impact that they have on fat storage.

Bruce Blumberg, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “obesogen” in a 2006 journal article to refer to chemicals that cause animals to store fat. Initially, this concept was highly controversial among obesity experts, but a growing number of peer-reviewed studies have confirmed his finding and identified some 20 substances as obesogens.

The role of these chemicals has been acknowledged by the presidential task force on childhood obesity, and the National Institutes of Health has become a major funder of research on links between endocrine disruptors and both obesity and diabetes.

Among chemicals identified as obesogens are materials in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and jet fuel. For example, a study in the fall found that triflumizole, a fungicide used on many food crops, like leafy vegetables, causes obesity in mice.

Just this month, a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that endocrine disruptors that are sometimes added to PVC plastic cause mice to grow obese and suffer liver problems — and the effect continues with descendants of those mice, generation after generation.

Another study found that women with a pesticide residue in their blood bore babies who were more likely to be overweight at the age of 14 months.

That’s a common thread: The most important time for exposure appears to be in utero and in childhood. It’s not clear whether most obesogens will do much to make an ordinary adult, even a pregnant woman, fatter (although one has been shown to do so), and the greatest impact seems to be on fetuses and on children before puberty.

The magazine Scientific American recently asked whether doctors should do more to warn pregnant women about certain chemicals. It cited a survey indicating that only 19 percent of doctors cautioned pregnant women about pesticides, only 8 percent about BPA (an endocrine disruptor in some plastics and receipts), and only 5 percent about phthalates (endocrine disruptors found in cosmetics and shampoos). Dr. Blumberg, the pioneer of the field, says he strongly recommends that people — especially children and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant — try to eat organic foods to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors, and try to avoid using plastics to store food or water. “My daughter uses a stainless steel water bottle, and so do I,” he said.

For all the uncertainty, these latest studies are one more reason to worry that endocrine disruptors may be the tobacco of our time. Science-based decisions to improve public health — like the removal of lead from gasoline — have been among our government’s most beneficial public policy moves. In this case, a starting point would be to boost research of endocrine disruptors and pass the Safe Chemicals Act. That measure, long stalled in Congress, would require more stringent safety testing of potentially toxic chemicals around us.

After all, which mouse would we rather look like?

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Andrew Cuomo doesn’t dally. If he deems something important, he pounces on it. Last week he did that with gun control, signing sweeping new legislation.

He’s also ambitious. A 2016 presidential bid may be in the offing, especially if Hillary Clinton doesn’t jump in. And the national profile that he’s forging — trailblazer on gay marriage, guardian of public safety — almost surely reflects his sense of where the country is heading and what voters will and won’t reward.

How, then, are we supposed to read his romantic situation?

He’s unmarried, but has been living with the irrepressible food celebrity Sandra Lee for years now, most recently in her Westchester house. “Public concubinage” is what one Roman Catholic official once called their cohabitation, generating a flurry of articles that mentioned “living in sin.” The couple made no apologies. And they’ve never signaled any plans to wed.

That wasn’t a factor in Cuomo’s successful New York gubernatorial campaign, but whether it would be a liability in a national race is hard to say. Political strategists told me yes, no, maybe. I’m rooting for no, because that would be an affirmation that we, as a voting public, have wised up to the frequent lack of any correlation between a tableau of traditional family life and the values, character and skills it takes to govern effectively. And I’m intrigued by politicians who are writing fresh scripts and handling their personal situations in surprising ways.

Recently I visited Colorado, whose governor, John Hickenlooper, is another prominent Democrat sometimes mentioned in connection with 2016. I met up with him just a few hours after his State of the State address. Its distinctions included this: when he thanked his wife, Helen Thorpe, for coming to hear it, he was reminding Coloradans that the two had separated midway through 2012, less than two years into his first term.

“I greatly appreciate Helen being here today,” he told the gathered lawmakers. Then, mentioning their 10-year-old son, he added, “Even with the changes in our life, she remains a beacon of light to me and Teddy.”

Hickenlooper has handled the separation not with terse acknowledgments and speedy pivots to the next topic but with a transparent emotionalism. It’s arresting — and refreshing. The couple announced that he was moving out of their Denver house and into the governor’s mansion in a joint statement that the governor’s office e-mailed to their friends and to journalists last July. Half news release, half personal letter, it was unlike any political document I’d seen.

In it he and Thorpe wrote that they remained “close friends,” that they and Teddy would still take vacations and spend holidays together and that acquaintances should “feel free to include both of us in social gatherings, as we will not find it awkward.” They also said that neither of them had had an affair.

During my recent conversations with Hickenlooper, he brought up Thorpe readily and repeatedly. She’s a journalist, and he proudly described her progress on a new book. He expressed sorrow that the public eye and the whirl of his political life had never really suited her. When they married in 2002, his political career had really yet to begin.

He said that over the last few years, as he rose in political prominence, they were careful to carve out private time, thinking that that would do the trick. He was sure to be home with his wife by 7 p.m. at least four of every seven nights, he said.

But, he said: “There was just always somebody interrupting. She’s someone who just thinks so deeply and feels so deeply — it was just so distracting for her. I didn’t appreciate that properly.”

If he hadn’t run for governor, I asked, would the marriage have survived? “It’s conceivable,” he said. Then he volunteered that when they discussed separating, she had told him: “If you want to run for president, I’m in. We’ll stay married. I’ll figure it out and I’ll be fine.”

He shook his head. “It was amazingly generous,” he said.

He turned down that offer, he told me, because he didn’t want to prolong her unhappiness and had “pretty much made my mind up to focus on Colorado and not to spend time imagining any national campaigns.” There are few signs that he’s gearing up for one.

“I never considered how a voter might respond,” he said. “Marriage ‘status’ still matters to some people, but it seems like less and less.”

Is he right? Could he or Cuomo run for national office without a spouse at his side? Could Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, another rising Democratic star? He’s steadfastly single. What about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, whose marriage unraveled messily in 2007? Although Jerry Brown strode unmarried onto the national stage — and sought the Democratic presidential nomination sans bride — decades ago, that was a different thing. He was a decided iconoclast, and his stubborn bachelorhood was part and parcel of his outré political appeal.

There’s certainly no divorce taboo in contemporary presidential politics. Ronald Reagan demonstrated that, and then came Bob Dole and John McCain, with one divorce apiece, and Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, with two each. Gingrich last year won two Republican primaries in socially conservative Southern states, including South Carolina, where another messily divorced Republican, Mark Sanford, the state’s former governor, announced a candidacy for Congress last week.

Lucky for him and Gingrich and others, there’s no infidelity taboo, either. Bill Clinton demolished that. Lewinsky or no Lewinsky, most Americans have come to see his presidency as a bright one and Hillary as an estimable public servant, yet none of those supporters mistake the Clintons’ marriage for the stuff of storybooks, unless maybe we’re talking about Rona Jaffe or David Baldacci novels.

We’ve seemingly moved away from conventional and naïve expectations, if we ever really had them, and in the years to come we’ll surely see, on the national stage, more proof of that: candidates without partners, candidates with partners they haven’t wed, candidates with partners of the same sex.

And my guess is that many of them will do just fine, as long as they aren’t defensive or opaque and they permit enough of a view into their lives and hearts for voters to see — and identify with — a bedrock of common longings, a braid of recognizable frailties and frustrations.

Hickenlooper is doing that, and if Cuomo does likewise, he could find that an outspoken, aggressive support of regulations on firearms is a bigger political problem in much of the United States than, er, concubinage is. Ours is a peculiar land, growing saner in some regards even as we remain absolutely bonkers in others.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

September 30, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz has decided to ‘splain to us “Why Obama is Winning.”  He gibbers that after coming through a crisis, stagnation doesn’t seem so bad.  Well, that and the fact that Money Boo Boo’s party has turned into a herd of howler monkeys hooting and throwing shit at the wall.  MoDo decided the leave the Beltway and politics behind and come down to my town.  In “It Goes With Everything, Even Blue Hair” she croons that from Coco to Gaga, the L.B.D. works that old black magic.  (Yeah, I know.  I had to read the thing before I knew WTF she was talking about too.  LBD is “little black dress,” so this is another quintessential MoDo cruise down memory lane.)  The Moustache of Wisdom has decided to tell us all about “The World We’re Actually Living In,” and he says in President Obama and Mitt Romney we have a choice between someone who understands the complex world we live in and someone who doesn’t.  Mr. Kristof, in “Women Hurting Women,” says female leaders can be just as horrible for women as men — just look at Bangladesh.  In “Three Muffled Syllables” Mr. Bruni says we need a blunter and more expansive discussion about sacrifice.  Here’s The Putz:

Last winter, I had lunch with a junior White House official who works on economic issues. The unemployment rate had just dipped to 8.3 percent, and I asked if he was encouraged by the figure, and hopeful that it might be down another point by Election Day.

He shook his head. The positive news notwithstanding, he said, there were good reasons to think that we would still be staring at 8 percent unemployment in the fall of 2012.

“Well,” I told him, with all the authority a professional pundit can muster, “then you should assume that you’re going to lose the election.”

Today, just as he predicted, the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent. The year’s second-quarter growth rate was just downgraded to an anemic 1.3 percent, real household income dipped in the month leading up to the two political conventions, and the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis suggests that 2012 might turn out to be the worst not-technically-in-a-recession year in modern American history.

But Barack Obama would win if the election were held today, and probably by a relatively comfortable margin. My wintertime prediction, Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy, the assumptions of Republicans and Democrats alike — all have been confounded by voters’ refusal to lean the way the unemployment rate suggests they should.

Why is this? In part, it’s the hangover from the Bush years, and the fact that Americans don’t yet trust the Republican Party given how little the party seems to have learned and changed since 2008. In part, it’s Romney himself, a deeply flawed candidate whose “47 percent” remarks look like the rare disastrous sound-bite that actually turns the polls against the candidate who uttered it.

But something deeper is going on as well. Remember that the economy is growing, however slowly, and most working-age Americans do have jobs. (A Bureau of Labor Statistics reassessment just found that there are now — finally — more Americans employed than when Barack Obama took office.) It turns out that dreadfully slow growth isn’t nearly as politically damaging as decline, because voters can adapt to stagnation, and approach it as a kind of grim “new normal” rather than a disaster requiring an immediate response.

Over the last two years, then, what still felt like an economic crisis during the 2010 midterms has become a grim-but-bearable status quo. In this new normal, Ronald Brownstein reports in the National Journal, “a slim majority of Americans now say they define getting ahead as not falling behind — not losing ground or falling into debt — rather than the more traditional definition of enjoying steady increases in pay and income.”

It’s voters like these who are giving Obama his cushion. The president trails among people who report themselves worse off than four years ago. But he leads comfortably among Americans who are merely treading water.

These signs of resignation are good news for the White House, but they’re bad news for the country’s future. Even if a rich nation like ours can learn to live with 8 percent unemployment and slow growth for now, the costs of persistent joblessness and sustained stagnation could be devastating in the long run.

As Don Peck pointed out in his 2011 book “Pinched,” an analysis of the Great Recession’s likely consequences, the socioeconomic scars left by a period of mass unemployment get deeper the longer that period persists. Young people put off life decisions, delaying education, marriage, childbearing. Older people drop out of the work force permanently. Families are strained and split apart; people lose crucial years of saving and asset building; dependency on government assistance becomes a way of life. And a culture of fearfulness takes hold, discouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship even when better times return.

Meanwhile, every year with subpar growth makes our government’s existing liabilities larger, and the fiscal adjustments the country is facing that much more difficult to make. All of these problems will gradually intertwine, as they already do in Western Europe. Today’s stagnation means that Americans a generation hence will face bigger-than-expected deficits, even as today’s recession-dampened birthrate means there will be fewer younger workers to help pay them down.

This grim prospect doesn’t necessarily make the case for electing Romney in Obama’s place. Indeed, Romney’s dismissal of the government-dependent 47 percent suggests a fatal misunderstanding of what should be his mission — namely, to persuade precisely those Americans clinging, understandably, to government programs in tough times to choose the risks of further change over the temporary security of stasis.

But the costs of stagnation definitely make the case against the kind of resignation we’re now seeing in the electorate. Whatever happens in November, American voters should be asking for more — both for themselves, and for future generations — than an economy in which stagnation is the best that we can hope for, and the American dream just means barely getting by.

Well, and maybe we could start to hope for a more responsible Republican party, instead of the pack of howling lunatics we have now.  Here’s MoDo, crooning about clothes:

Growing up, I did not think of black as an alluring color.

When you misbehaved, nuns in black habits, brandishing rulers, bore down on you. When a relative died, my mom wore rustling black rayon.

When my Irish great-aunts went to work for rich American families, they wore black maids’ uniforms. Our family dog, Scottie, bit anyone wearing black, even my brothers in their prom tuxedos.

Black was the color of despair, decadence, death, nightmares and vampire capes. It was the color, priests warned, that your soul would turn if you sinned.

But part of becoming a woman is realizing the mythic power of the little black dress. It makes you thinner and more chic, no matter how stunted your fashion sense, and gives you dash.

I first saw it in old movies: Rita Hayworth vamping in strapless black satin in “Gilda”; Marilyn Monroe sparkling in a barely-there Orry-Kelly beaded dress in “Some Like it Hot”; Natalie Wood winning Steve McQueen’s heart with a low-cut black dress in “Love With the Proper Stranger.”

And of course, the gorgeous black Givenchy cocktail dress Audrey Hepburn wore munching a pastry in front of Tiffany’s one morning — a look so embedded in the DNA of American culture that Tina Fey feyly evokes it on the cover of the new Entertainment Weekly, complete with upswept hair, long gloves, cigarette holder and Cat curled around her neck.

Others consider that image the shimmering height of the L.B.D., or little black dress. But not André Leon Talley, the imperious impresario of a new exhibition on the colorful subject at his eponymous gallery in the art museum of the Savannah College of Art and Design.

“It’s not the most iconic or important little black dress ever made,” dismissively notes the fashion czar, who himself favors comfortable yurt-like garments and size-15 Uggs. (He owns nine pairs of black and bark Uggs.) He points in the direction of an L.B.D. he finds far more compelling. I’m startled to see a male mannequin gussied up in a see-through black lace dress worn over spanking white boxers, black socks and shoes that would have dazzled Louis XIV, the Carrie Bradshaw of his day.

“This is what Marc Jacobs wore to the Met Costume Gala, a man-dress from Comme des Garçon,” Talley says. “It was a seminal moment in style for a man to go there, perfectly accessorized with diamanté buckled black matte leather court shoes that he designed himself.”

No doubt.

Talley, a contributing editor at Vogue and a correspondent at “Entertainment Tonight,” said he was inspired to mount the show after seeing Anna Wintour in a classic black Chanel dress, now framed in a shadow box on the cherry-red wall.

It was Coco Chanel and Vogue, after all, who popularized “the little nothings,” as they were known then, on Oct. 1, 1926, when the magazine published an illustration of a blouson black crepe de Chine sheath, predicting that every woman would aspire to have it in her closet, just as every man wanted a Model T in the garage.

“Chanel craved the power and independence of men,” says Gioia Diliberto, who has written a novel and a play about the couturière and who contributed an essay to the show’s catalog. “So in her designs, she borrowed the ease, comfort and muted palette of men’s clothes to create a style of pared-down elegance for women that liberated them from furbelows and froufrou confections.”

Talley says he collected a cavalcade of designer dresses from his friends in materials from “neoprene scuba diving fabric to latex to chicken feathers.” (Really ostrich feathers.)

In the rows of black glamour can be found Whoopi Goldberg’s Chado Ralph Rucci caftan — with a snake necklace strangling the mannequin’s neck; Sarah Jessica Parker’s buttery leather pleated Prabal Gurung; L’Wren Scott’s own design, a sexy wool and lace number that she wore to the Golden Globes with her boyfriend, Mick Jagger; a Tom Ford Chantilly lace and beaded concoction based on Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba.

“Lady Gaga wore that with blue hair,” Talley confides.

Renée Zellweger contributed a navy ribbon-candy-style dress. “Sometimes you wear midnight blue as black,” Talley opined.

I start to feel paranoid when my friend André offers a disquisition on how to identify a “good black” hue versus a “bad black” one, and which blacks don’t match. I’d assumed black was black.

“You don’t want a harsh black or a dead black that looks like an old bunker that’s been oxidized through years of neglect in a barren warehouse,” he says. “A good black is an electrifying black. It should be about dreams of beauty.”

Gazing at my green T-shirt, Talley murmurs scornfully, “Sea foam, I suppose,” before turning back to the inanimate but far more enticing mannequins. “When in doubt, you go to your best little black dress, not to your wimpy, seaweedy, outre-mer sea foam or your wretched yellow lemon drop.”

He sums up the staying power of noir style with a line straight out of film noir: “It’s just something that you know is right, even if it’s wrong.”

Well, all things being equal, I’d rather have MoDo crooning about clothes than trying to cover politics.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

For the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy. That is not “how things are supposed to be,” and Republicans sound apoplectic about it. But there is a reason President Obama is leading on national security, and it was apparent in his U.N. speech last week, which showed a president who understands that we really do live in a more complex world today — and that saying so is not a cop-out. It’s a road map. Mitt Romney, given his international business background, should understand this, but he acts instead as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes, where the menu and architecture rarely changes.

Rather than really thinking afresh about the world, Romney has chosen instead to go with the same old G.O.P. bacon and eggs — that the Democrats are toothless wimps who won’t stand up to our foes or for our values, that the Republicans are tough and that it is 1989 all over again. That is, America stands astride the globe with unrivaled power to bend the world our way, and the only thing missing is a president with “will.” The only thing missing is a president who is ready to simultaneously confront Russia, bash China, tell Iraqis we’re not leaving their country, snub the Muslim world by outsourcing our Arab-Israel policy to the prime minister of Israel, green light Israel to bomb Iran — and raise the defense budget while cutting taxes and eliminating the deficit.

It’s all “attitude” — without a hint at how we could possibly do all these contradictory things at once, or the simplest acknowledgment that two wars and a giant tax cut under George W. Bush has limited our ability to do even half of them.

Let’s look at the world we’re actually living in. It is a world that has become much more interdependent so that our friends failing (like Greece) can now harm us as much as our enemies threatening, and our rivals (like China) collapsing can hurt us as much as their rising. It’s a world where a cheap YouTube video made by a superempowered individual can cause us more trouble than the million-dollar propaganda campaign of a superpower competitor. It is a globalized economy in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s largest business lobby, has opposed Romney’s pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator and is pressing Congress to lift cold war trade restrictions on Russia, a country Romney has labeled America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” It is a world where, at times, pulling back — and focusing on rebuilding our strength at home — is the most meaningful foreign policy initiative we can undertake because when America is at its best — its institutions, schools and values — it can inspire emulation, whereas Russia and China still have to rely on transactions or bullying to get others to follow. It is still a world where the use of force, or the threat of force, against implacable foes (Iran) is required, but a world where a nudge at the right time and place can also be effective.

Add it all up and it’s a world in which America will have greater responsibility (because our European and Japanese allies are now economically enfeebled) and fewer resources (because we have to cut the defense budget) to manage a more complex set of actors (because so many of the states we have to deal with now are new democracies with power emanating from their people not just one man — like Egypt — or failing states like Pakistan) where our leverage on other major powers is limited (because Russia’s massive oil and gas income gives it great independence and any war we’d want to fight in Asia we’d have to borrow the money from China).

This complexity doesn’t argue for isolationism. It argues for using our power judiciously and in a nuanced fashion. For instance, if you had listened to Romney criticizing Obama for weakness after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, you’d have thought that, had Romney been president, he would have immediately ordered some counterstrike. But, had we done so, it would have aborted what was a much more meaningful response: Libyans themselves taking to the streets under the banner “Our Revolution Will Not Be Stolen” and storming the headquarters of the Islamist militias who killed the U.S. ambassador. It shows you how much this complexity can surprise you.

The one area where Romney could have really challenged Obama on foreign policy was on the president’s bad decision to double-down on Afghanistan. But Romney can’t, because the Republican Party wanted to triple down. So we’re having no debate about how to extricate ourselves from our biggest foreign policy mess and a cartoon debate — “I’m tough; he’s not” — about everything else. In that sense, foreign policy is a lot like domestic policy. The morning after the election, we will face a huge “cliff”: how to deal with Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, without guidance from the candidates or a mandate from voters. Voters will have to go with their gut about which guy has the best gut feel for navigating this world. Obama has demonstrated that he has something there. Romney has not.

Next up is Mr. Kristof:

Are female leaders better for the world’s women?

It would be nice to think that women who achieve power would want to help women at the bottom. But one continuing global drama underscores that women in power can be every bit as contemptible as men.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, is mounting a scorched-earth offensive against Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and champion of the economic empowerment of women around the world. Yunus, 72, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance, focused on helping women lift their families out of poverty.

Yet Sheikh Hasina’s government has already driven Yunus from his job as managing director of Grameen Bank. Worse, since last month, her government has tried to seize control of the bank from its 5.5 million small-time shareholders, almost all of them women, who collectively own more than 95 percent of the bank.

What a topsy-turvy picture: We see a woman who has benefited from evolving gender norms using her government powers to destroy the life’s work of a man who has done as much for the world’s most vulnerable women as anybody on earth.

The government has also started various investigations of Yunus and his finances and taxes, and his supporters fear that he might be arrested on some pretext or another.

“It’s an insane situation,” Yunus told me a few days ago at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, sounding subdued instead of his normally exuberant self. “I just don’t know how to deal with it.”

If the government succeeds in turning Grameen Bank into a government bank, Yunus said, “it is finished.”

Sheikh Hasina, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, initially agreed to be interviewed by me in a suite at the Grand Hyatt. At the last minute she canceled and refused to reschedule.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising. Metrics like girls’ education and maternal mortality don’t improve more when a nation is led by a woman. There is evidence that women matter as local leaders and on corporate boards, but that doesn’t seem to have been true at the national level, at least not for the first cohort of female leaders around the world.

Bangladesh is actually a prime example of the returns from investing in women. When it separated from Pakistan in 1971, it was a wreck. But it invested in girls’ education, and today more than half of its high school students are female — an astonishing achievement for an impoverished Muslim country.

All those educated women formed the basis for Bangladesh’s garment industry. They also had fewer births: the average Bangladeshi woman now has 2.2 children, down from 6 in 1980. Bringing women into the mainstream also seems to have soothed extremism, which is much less of a concern than in Pakistan (where female literacy in the tribal areas is only 3 percent).

To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken up for Yunus: “I highly respect Muhammad Yunus, and I highly respect the work that he has done, and I am hoping to see it continue without being in any way undermined or affected by any government action,” she said earlier this year. Two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, have also called on Sheikh Hasina to back off.

She shows no sign of doing so. One theory is that she is paranoid and sees Yunus as a threat, especially since he made an abortive effort to enter politics in 2007. Another theory is that she is envious of his Nobel Peace Prize and resentful of his global renown.

Sheikh Hasina is disappointing in other ways. She has turned a blind eye to murders widely attributed to the security services. My Times colleague Jim Yardley wrote just this month about a labor leader, Aminul Islam, who had been threatened by security officers and whose tortured body was found in a pauper’s grave.

Yunus fans are signing a petition on his behalf, but I’d like to see more American officials and politicians speak up for him. President Obama, how about another photo op with Yunus?

I still strongly believe that we need more women in leadership posts at home and around the world, from presidential palaces to corporate boards. The evidence suggests that diverse leadership leads to better decision making, and I think future generations of female leaders may be more attentive to women’s issues than the first.

In any case, this painful episode in Bangladesh is a reminder that the struggle to achieve gender equality isn’t simply a battle between the sexes.

It is far more subtle. Misogyny and indifference remain obstacles for women globally, but those are values that can be absorbed and transmitted by women as well as by men.

Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:

In a few days, as you may have heard, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will go head-to-head in their first presidential debate. What I most want from it isn’t fireworks, though I’m as big a fan of political theater as the next hack. It’s a word, one that has gone sadly out of vogue over recent decades and been mostly absent from this campaign.


And I’m not holding my breath.

Romney, in his convention speech, never uttered it, and Obama, in his, said those three syllables just once, in a telling context. He thanked servicemen and -women who were fighting or had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for what they’d risked and endured, a sacrifice limited to them and their families and not shared by the rest of us, who enjoyed tax cuts even as the wars’ costs drove the federal debt ever higher.

It’s odd. We revere the Americans who lived through World War II and call them the “greatest generation” precisely because of the sacrifices they made. But we seem more than content to let that brand of greatness pass us by.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the end of his presidency, warned Americans about “plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.”

“We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow,” he said, as the writer Evan Thomas recalls in a new biography, “Ike’s Bluff.”

But the last president to make a truly robust call for sacrifice was ridiculed for it. That president, Jimmy Carter, suggested only that we turn down our thermostats a tad and guzzle a bit less gas, and in July 1979 observed, “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”

Then came Ronald Reagan, whose many great contributions to America were coupled with less great ones, including the idea, which has dominated our political discourse ever since, that we should speak only of morning in America and that optimism, like virtue, is its own reward.

It isn’t, not if it crowds out realism, which we need more of these days.

The size of the federal debt and the pace of its growth can’t be ignored. Economists disagree on how soon and aggressively to tackle them, but not about the eventual need to.

Yet we have tax rates that, by some measures, are near the lowest in the postwar era. We also have polls that show that a clear majority of Americans don’t think our country is positioned to afford its children as good a life as its adults have enjoyed.

Conditions, all in all, are ripe for a serious conversation about sacrifice. But this presidential campaign has been noteworthy for its nonsensical insinuations or assurances that although we’re in a jam, we can emerge from it with discrete, minimal inconvenience.

This claim is most laughably manifest in Romney’s ill-defined tax “policy,” which promises lower marginal rates without any reduction in the amount of revenue the United States Treasury collects.

Romney says that he intends to make this magic happen by closing tax loopholes, but he won’t identify which, because God forbid any voter be told that he or she might have to surrender something advantageous. We live in a sacrifice-free bubble of volitional delusion.

Obama has lately taken to speaking of “economic patriotism,” which is in some sense his euphemism for sacrifice. But the patriotic pinch he suggests is a tax increase only for households that make more than $250,000. They represent a small minority of American taxpayers, and a tax hike extending well beyond them would be necessary to raise enough revenue to solve our debt problems.

Campaign rhetoric, of course, is campaign rhetoric. Even so, the amount of it devoted to lessening our anxieties about any financial pain in the present is alarming.

Those of us with health insurance are encouraged not to fear any negative consequence from the attempt to universalize coverage, rather than being told that such a goal is worth some giveback — which it is.

All of us are assured that the cost of Medicare can be contained without the program’s beneficiaries’ feeling a significant impact. Really?

What once made Paul Ryan exciting even to some moderates was his readiness to sing a more somber song and say: folks, we can’t have it all. But if you track his own changes to his budget proposals — and then add the alterations that Romney layered on — you hear a muffling of the summons to any current or imminent sacrifice.

Besides which, Ryan’s notion of sacrifice is lopsided: diminished entitlements even for people who truly depend on them but not a cent more in taxes for affluent Americans like him. These days sacrifice is what you recommend for others, not what you volunteer for yourself.

How did that happen? One theory is the end of military conscription after Vietnam.

“As we baby boomers became adults, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military,” wrote Matthew Paull, a former chief financial officer for McDonald’s, and Steve Krause, the director of finance at the University of Chicago’s business school, in an article in The New Republic last year. It was titled, “Why Are the Children of the ‘Greatest Generation’ So Selfish?”

“In World War II, that figure was over 10 percent,” the authors continued, later adding: “With relatively few of us sharing the bonds, lessons and sacrifices of military service, perhaps there is little widespread experiential counterbalance to each of us pursuing only our self-interest.”

I think the rise of interest groups, identity politics and cause-specific lobbyists has diminished our attention to, and sense of, a communal good.

And cynicism about the intentions of politicians and the effectiveness of government has become an easy out: why sacrifice in ways that plump federal coffers or reduce federal obligations when Washington can’t be trusted to make anything better or get anything right?

I have my own trust issues. But they’d be lessened considerably if one of the candidates got up at the first debate and said that climate change can’t be mourned from the back seat of an Escalade; that the future benefits of expanded health care and more affordable college have a price tag in the here and now; that pain is a precursor to healing; and that it’s time to take our medicine.

Somehow I doubt that there will be much “sacrifice” made by the MOTU, but I’d probably better start developing a taste for Friskies.


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