Archive for the ‘Gunga Din’ Category

Bobo. Just Bobo.

June 20, 2017

In “Let’s Not Get Carried Away” Bobo scolds us and says we should be wary of sinking into the politics of scandal. It won’t make us, America, or this administration’s governance any better.  Here’s his POS:

I was the op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal at the peak of the Whitewater scandal. We ran a series of investigative pieces “raising serious questions” (as we say in the scandal business) about the nefarious things the Clintons were thought to have done back in Arkansas.

Now I confess I couldn’t follow all the actual allegations made in those essays. They were six jungles deep in the weeds. But I do remember the intense atmosphere that the scandal created. A series of bombshell revelations came out in the media, which seemed monumental at the time. A special prosecutor was appointed and indictments were expected. Speculation became the national sport.

In retrospect Whitewater seems overblown. And yet it has to be confessed that, at least so far, the Whitewater scandal was far more substantive than the Russia-collusion scandal now gripping Washington.

There may be a giant revelation still to come. But as the Trump-Russia story has evolved, it is striking how little evidence there is that any underlying crime occurred — that there was any actual collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russians. Everything seems to be leaking out of this administration, but so far the leaks about actual collusion are meager.

There were some meetings between Trump officials and some Russians, but so far no more than you’d expect from a campaign that was publicly and proudly pro-Putin. And so far nothing we know of these meetings proves or even indicates collusion.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be an investigation into potential Russia-Trump links. Russia’s attack on American democracy was truly heinous, and if the Trump people were involved, that would be treason. I’m saying first, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and assume that this link exists.

Second, there is something disturbingly meta about this whole affair. This is, as Yuval Levin put it, an investigation about itself. Trump skeptics within the administration laid a legal minefield all around the president, and then Trump — being Trump — stomped all over it, blowing himself up six ways from Sunday.

Now of course Trump shouldn’t have tweeted about Oval Office tape recordings. Of course he shouldn’t have fired James Comey.

But even if you took a paragon of modern presidents — a contemporary Abraham Lincoln — and you directed a democratically unsupervised, infinitely financed team of prosecutors at him and gave them power to subpoena his staff and look under any related or unrelated rock in an attempt to bring him down, there’s a pretty good chance you could spur even this modern paragon to want to fight back. You could spur even him to do something that had the whiff of obstruction.

There’s just something worrisome every time we find ourselves replacing politics of democracy with the politics of scandal. In democracy, the issues count, and you try to win by persuasion. You recognize that your opponents are legitimate, that they will always be there and that some form of compromise is inevitable.

In the politics of scandal, at least since Watergate, you don’t have to engage in persuasion or even talk about issues. Political victories are won when you destroy your political opponents by catching them in some wrongdoing. You get seduced by the delightful possibility that your opponent will be eliminated. Politics is simply about moral superiority and personal destruction.

The politics of scandal is delightful for cable news. It’s hard to build ratings arguing about health insurance legislation. But it’s easy to build ratings if you are a glorified Court TV, if each whiff of scandal smoke generates hours of “Breaking News” intensity and a deluge of speculation from good-looking former prosecutors.

The politics is great for those forces responsible for the lawyerization of American life. It takes power out of the hands of voters and elected officials and puts power in the hands of prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The politics of scandal drives a wedge through society. Political elites get swept up in the scandals. Most voters don’t really care.

Donald Trump rose peddling the politics of scandal — oblivious to policy, spreading insane allegations about birth certificates and other things — so maybe it’s just that he gets swallowed by it. But frankly, on my list of reasons Trump is unfit for the presidency, the Russia-collusion story ranks number 971, well below, for example, the perfectly legal ways he kowtows to thugs and undermines the norms of democratic behavior.

The people who hype the politics of scandal don’t make American government purer. They deserve some of the blame for an administration and government too distracted to do its job, for a political culture that is both shallower and nastier, and for fostering a process that looks like an elite game of entrapment.

Things are so bad that I’m going to have to give Trump the last word. On June 15 he tweeted, “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story.” Unless there is some new revelation, that may turn out to be pretty accurate commentary.

You’d think he’d be tired of carrying water for Mein Fubar by now…

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Cohen and Nocera

August 18, 2015

In “Iran and American Jews” Mr. Cohen says Netanyahu makes another unsubtle pitch for Congress to undermine Obama.  Netanyahu is as subtle as a rubber crutch…  Mr. Nocera has found someone else to carry water for — the e-cig gang.  In “Lowering a Tobacco Tax to Save Lives” he babbles that we should learn from the Swedes’ approach to nicotine.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Earlier this month, Roland Moskowitz, a Cleveland physician, and Sandra Lippy, a retired health care executive of Boca Raton, Fla., got on the line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. As two people who have been active in major Jewish organizations, they were among thousands of American Jews invited to watch a webcast whose message was: oppose the Iran nuclear deal.

Moskowitz and Lippy listened as Netanyahu claimed the deal would give Iran “hundreds of bombs tomorrow”; turn any terrorist group backed by Iran into a “terrorist superpower”; allow Iran to “have its yellowcake and eat it, too”; cause a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; provide Iran with billions of dollars; and pave Iran’s path to a bomb.

The Israeli prime minister was contemptuous of the view, expressed by President Obama, that those who oppose the deal favor war, calling it “not just false, but outrageous.” Netanyahu insisted, against all evidence, that he rejects the deal “because I want to prevent war.”

Lippy was not impressed. She thought all the doomsday lines were tired. She’s not about to get on the phone to her representative to press for Congress to condemn the deal and then gather enough votes to override Obama’s inevitable veto of the resolution. That’s what Netanyahu wants to achieve, the deal’s demise, using American Jews as a vehicle.

“It’s not a great deal, but it’s enough of a deal to postpone the nuclear situation and maybe give us time to work things out,” Lippy told me. “While they’re being sharply reduced in their nuclear capacity, we can sit down again over the next several years and talk about the Holocaust, Israel and human rights, and that is why I go along with it.”

She’s right. A merit of this deal is that it would condemn the United States and Iran to a relationship — hostile, but still a framework for airing differences and doing business — over the next 15 years. Most young Iranians no more believe in “Death to America” than they believe the Hidden Imam is going to show up tomorrow.

Moskowitz was left feeling uneasy. On balance, not worrying enough for the United States to walk away. Nor does he want the family strife that would arise if he sided with his fears. His wife, Peta Moskowitz, is a firm supporter of the deal and a member of J Street, the largest Jewish organization to back Obama’s Iran diplomacy. These strains are not unusual. Within families and across the American Jewish community, discussion of the Iran deal is fiery.

A few things must be said. Netanyahu’s performance was of a piece with his habit of intervening in American politics, evident at the time of the last presidential election, when his preference for Mitt Romney was clear. His relations with Obama are bad. He tries to circumvent Obama, often in clumsy ways, further undermining the relationship. It’s enough to imagine Obama calling thousands of Israelis to encourage them to oppose a piece of sensitive legislation in the Knesset to gauge how inappropriate Netanyahu’s behavior is.

The Netanyahu webcast was co-sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (an umbrella organization so resistant to the age-old fertile cacophony of Jewish opinion that it rejected J Street’s application for membership last year) and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Several leading Jewish groups — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — have come out against the Iran deal. This is unsurprising; they tend to move in lock step with Israel. But it’s troubling because it’s unclear how representative of American Jews as a whole these organizations are.

Some polls have suggested a majority of Jews favor the Iran deal; certainly the community is divided. It’s no service to Jews, or Israel or Middle Eastern peace, for major Jewish organizations to be unreflective of this wide diversity of opinion within American Jewry — or for them to give airtime to Netanyahu on Iran rather than Obama.

The alternative to this deal, as Obama said, is war. Why? Because sanctions on Iran will fall apart as Russia and China conclude the United States is not serious about a compromise with Tehran that increases the distance between Iran and a bomb, ring-fences its nuclear program, and subjects it to intense international inspection. Centrifuges, slashed in number by America’s diplomacy, will increase again, as will Iran’s uranium stockpile. The war drumbeat will resume. Folly will loom.

Rather than listen to Netanyahu, American Jews should listen to the longest-serving Jewish member of the House, Sander M. Levin, who supports the agreement because it is “the best way to achieve” the goal of preventing Iran from advancing toward a nuclear weapon, so making the Middle East and Israel “far more secure.” They should note that five Jewish senators have come out in favor.

In the real world, this is the best achievable deal for America and the ally, Israel, it would never forsake.

Now here’s Gunga Din Mr. Cohen:

A smokeless tobacco product called snus, which a user puts between his gums and his upper lip, has a long history in Sweden. At the start of the last century, it was the most common way Swedes ingested nicotine. By the early 1950s, however, sales of snus had been overtaken by cigarettes, a trend that continued for two decades.

But in time, snus made a comeback, while cigarette use steadily declined. As of 2012, only 13 percent of adult Swedes smoked, less than half the European Union rate. Meanwhile, 19 to 21 percent of Swedish males use snus, which is now more prevalent than cigarettes. (Swedish women, for some reason, stuck with smokes.)

The result? Even though tobacco use in Sweden is comparable to its use in the rest of Europe, Sweden’s preference for snus means that it “has Europe’s lowest tobacco-attributable mortality among men,” according to a paper in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Indeed,a 2012 study by the World Health Organization found that tobacco caused 152 deaths per 100,000 men in Sweden, versus 467 deaths per 100,000 men in Europe.

It’s hard to know exactly what caused snus to regain its popularity. There was no explicit government policy promoting it. David Sweanor, one of the authors of the paper, told me that Sweden’s predominant tobacco company took it upon itself to market snus once the dangers of cigarettes had become irrefutable. (That company, Swedish Match, sells mainly snus today.) But another likely reason was a huge price differential between cigarettes and snus; at one point a pack of the former was taxed so heavily that it cost twice as much as a can of snus.

Sweanor, a tobacco policy expert at the University of Ottawa, and his co-authors, Kenneth Warner, a University of Michigan economist specializing in public health, and Frank J. Chaloupka, an economist focused on public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, would label snus a “harm reduction” product. Although it contains tobacco and allows users to get their fix of addictive nicotine, snus poses far less risk than cigarettes, as the statistics amply show.

All three men are big believers in the virtue of harm reduction policies to reduce the illness and death caused by cigarettes. Thus the point of their paper: The tax policies that worked in Sweden — raise taxes on the killer product while lowering them on the harm reduction product — should be applied today to electronic cigarettes and other noncombustible nicotine delivery systems.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I think this is a terrific idea. Because it contains tobacco, snus has traces of nitrosamines, a cancer-causing agent found in tobacco. Electronic cigarettes, by contrast, contain no tobacco at all. Instead, they vaporize nicotine, which gets to the user’s brain far quicker than, say, a nicotine patch, thus more closely replicating the nicotine hit delivered by a cigarette.

As Warner pointed out to me, nobody can say for sure how much safer e-cigarettes are because the products haven’t been around long enough for long-term studies. But it is plain as day that they are far less risky than cigarettes. Countries use tax policy all the time to affect behavior. Using tax policy to move people from cigarettes to e-cigarettes would, to be blunt, save lives. The e-cigarette has the potential to be the greatest tobacco cessation device ever invented.

Yet, as the authors note, because most of the tobacco-control community believes that “all tobacco products are seriously deleterious to health, conventional wisdom … has long been that all products should be taxed similarly.” Indeed, the World Health Organization has described “comparable” taxation on all tobacco products as a “best practice for tobacco taxation.”

As irrational as this is, it is easy to understand where it stems from. Health claims about e-cigarettes remind anti-tobacco activists of the days when Big Tobacco marketed low-tar cigarettes as a “healthier” smoking choice. E-cigarettes come in many flavors, which could appeal to kids. Their marketing aims to make e-cigarettes look cool — just like Big Tobacco once did. Despite a complete lack of proof, the tobacco-control community fears that young people who use e-cigarettes will eventually gravitate to combustible cigarettes.

Which is all the more reason the authors’ tax idea deserves consideration: It puts the emphasis on moving smokers to e-cigarettes, which is where it should be. “Studies have … shown that changes in the relative price of tobacco products lead some tobacco users to switch to less expensive products,” the authors write. A big tax differential is a way to take advantage of the lower risk of e-cigarettes without ever having to acknowledge it.

Not that I expect rationality to take hold any time soon. After all, you know how the European Union reacted to the Swedish snus experience, don’t you?

It banned snus.

Brooks and Nocera

July 14, 2015

In “The New Old Liberalism” Bobo babbles that Hillary Clinton’s speech was economically naive but politically masterful.  In the comments “Yankee Frankee” from NY, NY had this to say:  “Brooks, it appears, is congenitally incapable of seeing the waste, corruption and disastrous effects of the past 40 years while we allowed banks and corporations free reign to run amok over the economic needs of the citizenry.”  Mr. Nocera is playing the role of Gunga Din again.  You’d think that the water he totes would get heavy…  In “Shale Gas and Climate Change” he says that what the fracking debate needs is a dose of pragmatism.  Shut up, that’s why.  Here’s Bobo:

Well, Hillary Clinton hasn’t gone crazy. At a time when some in her party are drifting toward Bernie Sanders/Occupy Wall Street-style rhetoric, Clinton delivered her first major economic address of the campaign. It was solidly liberal — very solidly — but in tone and substance it was well within the general election mainstream. If any Republicans were hoping that Clinton would make herself unelectable by wandering into the class warfare fever swamps, they can forget about it.

The main narrative of the Sanders camp is that the economic game is rigged against ordinary people. The top 1 percent controls the fundamental economic conditions. Major transformation is required. There’s not much individuals can do given the structure of economic power.

Clinton did some Wall Street bashing in this speech, but it was either meaningless, bland (punish criminals) or broadly sensible (end the carried interest deduction). The main underlying assumption behind her speech was that individuals can rise and succeed if they are given the right helping hands from government.

This speech revealed a woman who does not have her heart in class conflict. The most passionate parts of her speech involved classic liberal efforts to give people a boost: early childhood education, family and medical leave, tax credits for job training, affordable child care programs.

She carefully avoided the more radical policy ideas embraced by the left, such as a blanket tax on the rich. She dodged the trade issue. She endorsed a minimum wage hike but didn’t commit, as many progressives do, to a $15an-hour rate.

This speech was more Children’s Defense Fund than Thomas Piketty. It was the sort of speech you give if you spend more time listening to voters, especially female ones, than studying the quintiles in the income distribution charts.

Stylistically, Clinton still sounds as if she is talking down to her audiences. But there was a wonky authenticity to this speech, which would not have been there if she had tried to sound like a pitchfork marauder. She has echoes of Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern in her voice, or a more liberal Michael Dukakis.

She’s way to the left of where her husband was and to the left of where Barack Obama was in 2008 or 2012. But she’s responded to the reality of growing inequality with a revived paleoliberalism, not with the edgier, angry economic policy you find among Bernie Sanders and the cutting-edge left. She is best viewed, as the progressive commentator Matt Yglesias put it in a Vox essay, as a new paleoliberal.

This neopaleoliberalism is built less on going after Wall Street and the rich and more on a tremendous faith in government to manage the economy more intelligently than the private sector. It’s less a negative assault on the elites and more an optimistic faith in the power of planning. The private sector is not evil or power hungry, just kind of dumb.

New Democrats like her husband believed in using market mechanisms to increase economic security. As a neopaleoliberal, Hillary Clinton used her kickoff economic address to embrace the idea that government can write rules to govern how much companies pay their workers. Government can direct investors toward more sensible long-term investments. Government can refashion the way companies distribute equity in their companies. Government can determine how companies should structure and manage themselves. “We’ll ensure that no firm is too complex to manage and oversee,” Clinton declared. One pictures squads of Federal Simplicity Enforcers roaming through the corridors of Midtown Manhattan telling C.E.O.s when their outfits are too mind-boggling.

In each case, in this view, government is more competent at steering companies toward their own best interests than the companies are themselves. Clinton’s constant refrain in this speech was that these federal interventions would increase growth and productivity, not limit them in the name of fairness.

Personally I find this faith epistemologically naïve. Clinton seems to have no awareness that many of the programs she endorsed have been tried and did not work. The Obama administration spent mightily on green energy jobs programs and they did not work to significantly increase employment. Empowerment zones, which she endorsed, have mostly failed to help low-income neighborhoods. Clinton displayed no awareness that most federal requirements involve difficult trade-offs. According to the Congressional Budget Office, raising the minimum wage to even $10.10 an hour would increase pay for millions of workers, but would cost roughly 500,000 jobs.

Clinton’s unchastened faith in the power of government planning is not shared by most voters. And she has no plausible chance of getting any of this through a divided Congress. But this agenda does pull off a neat trick. It will excite the progressive base without automatically alienating the rest of the country. Substantively she’s offered at least a coherent response to today’s economic conditions. Politically, she’s cleared the first hurdle in this campaign.

Now here’s Gunga Din:

Every columnist has his or her “go to” sources, people we rely on for their deep understanding of a particular subject, and a mode of thinking about that subject we find persuasive. For me, one such person is Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Levi believes in the power of facts. Though sensitive to the importance of dealing with climate change, he doesn’t indulge in the hyperbole that you sometimes hear from environmentalists. And while he appreciates the economic import of fracking and shale gas, he isn’t afraid to call out the industry on its problems. Early in the fracking boom, he went to Pennsylvania to observe what drilling for shale gas was doing to communities — and came away believing that “it was going to stir up much more local controversy than many were assuming.” Which is exactly what happened.

For the latest issue of Democracy, a quarterly magazine focused on progressive ideas, Levi has written an article titled “Fracking and the Climate Debate,” which he described to me the other day as a kind of summing up of his views about the role of cheap natural gas and fracking in the fight against climate change.

There are many people, of course, who believe that natural gas shouldn’t have any role at all in the climate change fight; while it may emit half the carbon dioxide of coal, it is still a fossil fuel that will keep us from going all-in on renewable energy. And the methane that can leak from fracked wells is a potent greenhouse gas that can negate natural gas’s advantage over coal.

There are others who see natural gas as a panacea. They believe that so long as we keep increasing production of inexpensive natural gas — mooting the need to build more coal-fired power plants, and even making it possible to shut some down — then we will be doing more than enough to control carbon emissions. In his article, Levi says, in effect: You’re both wrong.

After recounting a little history — was it really only a half dozen years ago that environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were promoting natural gas as a “step towards saving our planet”? — Levi delves into the three rationales behind their abrupt change of heart. One is the disruption that fracking imposes on communities. The second is the methane problem. The third is the “rapid progress” being made by renewable energy, which many environmentalists believe makes further reliance on natural gas unnecessary.

Levi believes that appropriate rules by both state and federal governments can mitigate the first two problems. Indeed, he believes that the industry needs to be better regulated for its own sake; otherwise, people will continue to fear the worst. As for renewables, the hard truth is that if the country were to move away from natural gas, the big winner would be coal, not solar or wind.

But that doesn’t mean that those who cling to the “free-market fundamentalist dream that a thriving shale gas industry will make climate policy unnecessary” have got it right. On the contrary, writes Levi, “merely making natural gas more abundant may do little, if anything, to curb carbon dioxide emissions.” How can this be? The answer is that, although cheap natural gas is helpful in that it “shoves aside coal,” it also boosts economic growth (which means more emissions), and “gives an edge to industries that are heavy energy users and big emitters.” These two conflicting forces effectively cancel each other out.

The best way to maximize the good that shale gas can do, concludes Levi, is to make it a key component of an overall energy policy that is bent on driving down carbon emissions. The government could promote policies to move the country away from coal, “which accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide produced in U.S. electricity generation.”

And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, he does seem to see shale gas as a potential bridge to renewables: If the government enacted policies that “reward emission cuts” no matter what technology achieves that goal, then coal users would gravitate to natural gas, while natural gas users might well move toward renewables. Government would also have to encourage policies that “drive down the cost of zero-based emissions.”

My own belief is that shale gas has been a blessing for all kinds of reasons: It has given us a degree of energy security that we haven’t seen in many decades, and has been a key source of economic growth. And, no matter how much environmentalists gnash their teeth, it is here to stay. That’s why the responsible approach is not to wish it away, but to exploit its benefits while straightforwardly addressing its problems. Ideologues will never get that done. That’s why Michael Levi’s realism — and his pragmatism — are so critical to hear.

Let’s all get together and finance Mr. Nocera’s move to an area where they’re fracking.  Maybe he’ll enjoy having his tap water catch fire…

Bobo, solo

June 23, 2015

Bobo’s decided to take on the Pope.  Who is, by the way, a scientist.  Something Bobo most certainly is not.  In “Fracking and the Franciscans” he babbles that Pope Francis’ new encyclical contains beautiful ideas that would make for terrible environmental and economic policy.  Since the word “Franciscan” is never mentioned in his column one must assume he thinks the Pope is a Franciscan because of the name he chose.  Wrong, Bobo, wrong again.  He’s a Jesuit.  As Charles Pierce at Esquire repeatedly reminds us, don’t fck with the Jesuits…  Here’s Bobo:

Pope Francis is one of the world’s most inspiring figures. There are passages in his new encyclical on the environment that beautifully place human beings within the seamless garment of life. And yet over all the encyclical is surprisingly disappointing.

Legitimate warnings about the perils of global warming morph into 1970s-style doom-mongering about technological civilization. There are too many overdrawn statements like “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.

The pope has a section on work in the encyclical. The section’s heroes are St. Francis of Assisi and monks — emblems of selfless love who seek to return, the pope says, to a state of “original innocence.”

He is relentlessly negative, on the other hand, when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point he links self-interest with violence. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California.

Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest. But Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world. He neglects the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good. Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness.

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

A few years ago, a team of researchers led by Daniel Esty of Yale looked at the environmental health of 150 countries. The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

You would never suspect, from this encyclical, that over the last decade, one of the most castigated industries has, ironically, produced some of the most important economic and environmental gains. I’m talking of course about fracking.

There was recently a vogue for polemical antifracking documentaries like “Gasland” that purport to show that fracking is causing flammable tap water and other horrors.

But a recent Environmental Protection Agency study found that there was no evidence that fracking was causing widespread harm to the nation’s water supply. On the contrary, there’s some evidence that fracking is a net environmental plus.

That’s because cheap natural gas from fracking displaces coal. A study by the Breakthrough Institute found coal-powered electricity declined to 37 percent from 50 percent of the generation mix between 2007 and 2012. Because natural gas has just half as much global-warming potential as coal, energy-related carbon emissions have declined more in the U.S. than in any other country over that time.

Fracking has also been an enormous boon to the nation’s wealth and the well-being of its people. In a new report called “America’s Unconventional Energy Opportunity,” Michael E. Porter, David S. Gee and Gregory J. Pope conclude that gas and oil resources extracted through fracking have already added more than $430 billion to annual gross domestic product and supported more than 2.7 million jobs that pay, on average, twice the median U.S. salary.

Pope Francis is a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person. But if we had followed his line of analysis, neither the Asian economic miracle nor the technology-based American energy revolution would have happened. There’d be no awareness that though industrialization can lead to catastrophic pollution in the short term (China), over the long haul both people and nature are better off with technological progress, growth and regulated affluence.

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

Well, since Mr. Nocera is off today I guess he left it up to Bobo to do the water carrying for Big Energy…

Nocera and Collins

February 28, 2015

Mr. Nocera is back to playing Gunga Din for the fossil fuel industry.  In “Bloomberg Sees a Way on Keystone” he tells us that the former mayor of New York suggests that the Obama administration negotiate directly with Canada on a climate pact.  He’ll just never stop, and I STILL want to get a look at his investment portfolio.  In “And Now, Homeland Insecurity” Ms. Collins says getting Congress to fund the Homeland Security Department has us back in the land of fiscal cliffs.  Here’s Gunga Din:

No one can question Michael Bloomberg’s climate change bona fides. As mayor of New York, he declared that cities had to lead the way in reducing the threat of climate change, and he strove to make New York greener. He has donated millions of dollars to the effort to shut down coal-fired power plants. He endorsed President Obama for re-election in 2012 primarily because the president, he said, “has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption.” Most recently, he was named the United Nations secretary general’s special envoy for cities and climate change, a position he appears to be taking quite seriously.

Bloomberg is also a supremely pragmatic man, who prides himself on not letting ideology get in the way of finding practical solutions to difficult problems. Thus it was that earlier this week — after Obama vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have forced him to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline — Bloomberg wrote an article for Bloomberg View, his media company’s opinion publication, proposing an idea for breaking the logjam over the pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

His idea is that the Obama administration should negotiate directly with the Canadian government, and come up with a climate pact that would more than offset the emissions that would be generated — indeed, are already being generated — by mining the oil from the sands. Though it is unlikely to satisfy the partisans on both sides, it is a wonderfully sensible solution.

“Keystone has become irrationally significant,” Bloomberg told me when I spoke to him about his idea. “Environmentalists overstate the danger of the pipeline to the environment,” he continued, “while those who say the economics would be significant are overstating as well.” Bloomberg believes we would all be better off if we stripped the pipeline of its symbolism and dealt with it more realistically.

Many in the environmental movement have taken the position that building Keystone — and thus allowing for increased production of tar sands oil — would be ruinous for the planet. Not only would it further the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, but, if it enabled the full exploitation of the tar sands, it would emit so much carbon that it would be “game over” for the planet, in the memorable words of James Hansen, an anti-Keystone scientist. As I’ve written before, these claims are wildly overstated; indeed, the Canadian government likes to note that, in 2012, eight states, starting with Texas, had higher emissions from their coal-fired power plants than Canada did from its oil sands. And transporting oil by train, as is currently being done, is far more dangerous than sending it through a state-of-the-art pipeline.

At the same time, the Republicans who want to use Obama’s veto as a symbol that he is willing to forego good jobs to please his environmental supporters are equally wrongheaded. Most of the American jobs related to Keystone would involve building the pipeline. Once it was up and running,the number of new jobs it would create would be minimal.

There is a third entity for whom Keystone has become a symbol: the conservative government of Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, which has pushed for approval of the pipeline by the United States with an urgency that has sometimes felt a little desperate. In 2011, Harper said that approval of the pipeline should be a “no brainer” for the U.S. Canadian officials have threatened that if the U.S. doesn’t approve the pipeline, the oil would likely go to China instead. And it has treated Obama’s reluctance to make a decision on the pipeline as a reflection of American-Canadian relations, rather than what it is: an issue of American politics. There are many Canadians who believe that the Harper government has badly mishandled the Keystone issue.

At the same time, Harper’s government has not exactly been leading the climate change charge. His administration pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocols, the landmark 1997 agreement that committed countries that signed on to mandatory emissions reductions. “We are known around the world as being climate change obstructionists,” said Peter McKenna, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island. “Harper always equates getting serious about climate change as having a negative effect on the Canadian economy.”

It is this state of affairs that Bloomberg seeks to exploit. Late last year, the Obama administration announced a climate change agreement with China, which commits both parties to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. Because Harper so badly wants the Keystone pipeline to be approved, the U.S. government has tremendous leverage, says Bloomberg, to cut the same kind of deal with Canada. After which, the president could approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline with a clear conscience, knowing that he had mitigated the worst of its effects on the planet.

Pragmatism, for a change, would upend ideology, and we could finally stop talking about this fractious pipeline.

We’ll stop howling about that death funnel when the idea has been killed, embalmed, cremated and buried.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Great news! Congress has voted to fund the Department of Homeland Security for a week.

Does that make you feel better, people? The department was due to run out of money Friday night, and the new congressional Republican majority threw itself at the challenge. And after the seventh day, they rested.

Earlier, Speaker John Boehner had attempted a far more ambitious piece of legislation that would have guaranteed the department’s employees would continue to get their paychecks for 21 more days. Those folks would have been on Easy Street until the middle of March. But the Republican right rebelled at Boehner’s audacious reach and the three-week bill failed miserably.

Then, after a few hours of scurrying around, One Week emerged. This time, Democrats gave Boehner a hand, and the bill passed on a bipartisan vote after a debate that almost literally boiled down to the following:

“This is no way to govern the nation.”

“This has been a day of confusion.”

There was absolutely no agreement on what will happen next. We look back with nostalgia on the era when congressional leaders would get together in secret and make deals to pass big, mushy pieces of legislation that were littered with secret appropriations for unnecessary highways and a stuffed-owl museum in some swing vote’s district. We complained a lot at the time, but that was because we didn’t realize it was the golden age.

Do you think it’s a little worrisome that the powerful right flank of the House is made up of people who believe a good way to show their opposition to Obama’s liberal immigration policy is to cut off the border patrol’s paychecks? That the critical role of speaker of the House is held by a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to control his membership? Or even count votes?

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas,” said Boehner when reporters pressed him about his plans earlier in the week.

That used to be a saying he kept for special occasions, but now it seems to be cropping up a lot. I take that to be a bad sign. As was the little kissy face Boehner made to reporters when he got another question.

If the Democrats don’t bail him out, Boehner can only afford to lose about 27 Republican votes on any issue. And he’s got a new group called the House Freedom Caucus that was organized to mobilize about 30 Republicans who feel the regular conservative caucus is too mainstream. (Once again we will express our displeasure about the way people keep messing with “freedom.” It used to be such a great word, and now when it comes up we are often forced to recall that song about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.)

The Freedom Caucus hated the homeland security bill the Senate passed, which simply continued to fund the department for the rest of the year without a side assault on the president’s immigration policy. “It’s an effort to punt, like Republicans like to do,” said Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho, who seems to be the voice for the caucus. If we have to have a brand-new group of people dedicated to making the House of Representatives more intransigent, we can at least take consolation in the fact that its spokesman is going to be a person named Raúl Labrador.

This take-no-prisoners right wing is a large part of the reason the Republicans can’t come up with their own policies on anything. It’s embarrassing. They hate Obama’s immigration initiative, but they’ve never passed an immigration bill of their own. They’ve voted to repeal Obamacare at least 56 times, but they’ve never come up with a replacement. Last term, the guy who chaired the committee that writes tax bills produced a tax reform plan, and it went absolutely nowhere.

On the same day the Republican leadership failed to find enough votes to fund Homeland Security for three weeks, it also failed to find enough votes to pass a bill rewriting No Child Left Behind, the massive 2001 education law that desperately needs updating. The Republicans chose not to compromise with the Democrats, and the right wing was angry because the bill didn’t include enough of its agenda. The House spent hours debating it, but, in the end, the leaders had to pull it off the calendar.

Before Boehner got his new, bigger majority, he did manage to get a No Child Left Behind bill through the House. Then it faced inevitable extinction in the Senate. Maybe the speaker will remember that as his glory days, when his troops were fully capable of passing a big bill that had no chance of making it into law.

Still to come: raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget. And, oh yeah, getting Homeland Security through a second week.

Pass the candy and nuts.

Does anyone know which member of the Lunatic Caucus has the tiny little box containing Boehner’s balls?  I know they’re supposed to show them to him once a month…

Nocera and Collins

January 24, 2015

Well, here’s Gunga Din Nocera again.  Except this time he’s carrying water for TPP.  In “Don’t Blame Nafta” he tells us that over the two decades since the trade deal, manufacturing jobs have vanished, but that it isn’t clear that there’s a link.  And to further clarify what a piece of crap this thing is “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say in the comments:  “There is nothing even remotely “left-leaning” about the Progressive Economy front group that Joe Nocera cites in this column. It’s a subsidiary of the decidedly right-leaning Global Works Foundation, founded only last year by National Association of Manufacturers consultant Wayne Palmer. The NAM is notorious as one of the most powerful anti-regulatory corporate lobbyists in Washington. And why not? It’s heavily funded by the Koch Brothers, who’d love the TPP to pass so they can spread their pollution at no cost to themselves and for much obscene profit. Before that, Palmer lobbied for Astra Zeneca. Before that, he was chief of staff to Rick Santorum, one of the more notorious right wing politicians of our oligarchy.”  So it would appear that Nocera’s found something else to shill for.  In “And Now: Air Republicans” Ms. Collins says so much for the House passing that bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Didn’t work out as planned.  Here’s Gunga Din:

On Wednesday, the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address, a handful of Democratic House members, along with one senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, held a news conference to denounce one of the very few proposals the president put forward that actually has a chance of passage. The objects of their displeasure were the new trade agreements currently being negotiated by the administration.

“Since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve never seen a trade bill that in any way benefited U.S. manufacturers and workers,” said Representative Louise Slaughter, who has represented the Rochester area for 28 years. She pointed to Kodak as an example of a company harmed by trade accords, especially the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. Since the deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico went into effect in 1994, Kodak’s Rochester work force has shrunk to 2,300 from 39,300.

“We are fighting for the future of middle-class families,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. “These trade deals make it much easier for corporations to send American jobs overseas.” Over the past 20 years, Connecticut has lost more than 96,000 manufacturing jobs, she said, because of agreements that failed to protect American workers.

Sanders told the assembled media that while he liked the president’s speech, “he was wrong on one major issue, and that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” He added, “I do not believe that continuing a set of bad policies, policies that have failed, makes any sense at all.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade agreement currently being negotiated between 12 countries, including Japan, Canada, Vietnam, Mexico, Australia and Peru; the countries involved in the negotiations represent nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product. It is as complex as it is ambitious.

Yet, while the Republican leadership has vowed to work with President Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (as well as on another deal being negotiated with the European Union), the Democrats have been vocal in their opposition. In the short term, they don’t want to give the president so-called fast-track authority, which would allow the administration to negotiate the deal and then hand Congress a finalized agreement that it could only vote up or down, with no amendments. (Fast-track procedures have been used to conclude 14 trade agreements since 1974.)

You’d need a heart of stone not to be sympathetic to the concerns of the Democrats. Over the last two decades, lots of manufacturing jobs have vanished in the United States, inflicting a great deal of pain on workers. During those same 20 years, Nafta has been in force. Linking those job losses to the existence of Nafta is a leap the Democrats — and progressives in general — have made.

The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether that link is justified. “I am skeptical of definitive judgments on Nafta,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We started offshoring television assembly in the 1960s” — decades before Nafta. Yes, many assembly plants have been built in Mexico since Nafta went into effect. But China, where millions more manufacturing jobs have migrated — and with which we have a huge trade deficit — doesn’t even have a trade agreement with the United States.

Edward Gresser, the executive director of Progressive Economy, a left-leaning think tank, noted that other factors were taking place at the same time as Nafta: the growth of container ships, the lowering cost of communications, the rise of global industries. With or without trade deals, globalization is an unstoppable force. What Nafta really is, Gresser told me, is a proxy for globalization.

One mistake the Nafta negotiators made more than two decades ago was taking worker rights and environmental protections out of the agreement itself and putting them into a side letter. They were never effectively enforced. Those negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership expect to rectify that error this go-round. They are also aiming to pry open the Japanese auto and agricultural markets to American producers, and include protections for a free and open Internet. It has, in other words, a lot more potential to do good than harm.

When I spoke to Slaughter on Thursday afternoon, she was still riled up. “These crazy trade agreements,” she called them at one point. She added, “Rochester really suffered.”

She told me about all the jobs lost at Kodak. “I think Nafta brought down Kodak,” she said. But of course it didn’t. Kodak’s problems came about because digital photography made film unnecessary and Kodak didn’t shift course in time. She was blaming Nafta for Kodak’s self-inflicted wounds.

But then her tone brightened. She told me about all the new companies — 55 in all, she said — that had taken space in the old Kodak buildings. Some were even run by former Kodak engineers.

Which, of course, is precisely the way globalization is supposed to work.

Bite me, you prick.  The field where I worked before I retired (medical transcription) has just about all vanished to India.  I wonder if it could possibly have anything to do with the fact that the workers there don’t get paid anything close to what American workers do…  Eat a huge plate of salted dicks, you water carrying shill.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Tough week for the House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner’s high point must have been not clapping when President Obama talked about job growth in the State of the Union.

After that, things went downhill fast. Anti-abortion groups converged on Washington on Thursday to protest the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. The plan was for the House to welcome them into town by passing a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Didn’t work out.

The signs had been bad for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. In committee, its sponsor, Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, claimed that the number of rapes resulting in pregnancy was “very low.” He did not actually say that a woman can’t get pregnant if she didn’t enjoy the sex, but it seemed for a minute as if we’d returned to that neighborhood.

Whoops. The bill was amended to provide an exemption for women who had been raped. But that sparked a new fight over whether the exemption should be for all victims of rape or just the ones who had reported the crime to the police. A group of Republican women, including Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, pointed out, correctly, that most victims don’t file such reports.

You may remember that Ellmers was challenged last fall by former “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken, who she defeated handily. Now Aiken, who turns out to have been filming his campaign, is moving forward to become the star of a TV reality series on elections. And probably having more fun than Ellmers.

“I’m sorry Clay Aiken lost,” tweeted the conservative blogger Erick Erickson when Republican leaders gave up and pulled the 20-week bill from the calendar. A contributor on the Red State blog followed up with the somewhat less playful: “Is Renee Ellmers Worthy of Life?”

Actually, it turns out that Ellmers is a co-sponsor of the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which holds that every fertilized egg has “all legal and constitutional attributes and privileges.” Her concerns about the language of the rape exemption seem to have been a mixture of legal, philosophical and political concerns, all of them nuanced in the extreme. She suggested to National Journal that her party shouldn’t be starting off the year with an issue that wasn’t of interest to “millennials.”

Rape exemptions have come to dominate the abortion debate. Abortion rights groups use lack of concern for rape victims as an illustration of the heartlessness of their opponents. Their opponents propose exemptions to show that they’re reasonable. But, really, it makes no sense either way. The question of when a fetus inside a woman’s body becomes a human being is theological. If you truly believe that human life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, you can’t admit any exceptions. The only real debate is whether you get to impose your religious beliefs on the entire country.

Not that anybody’s trying to be that rational. “I’m going to need your help to find a way out of this definitional problem with rape,” Senator Lindsey Graham told the anti-abortion marchers. This was four days after Graham announced that he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s very possible that the phrase “this definitional problem with rape” will last longer than his candidacy.

In his speech, Graham gave a shout-out to exemptions for rape and incest. “Some disagree, including the pope,” he noted to the marchers. Francis I has, indeed, been clear and consistent on this matter, despite the moment on a flight back from Manila when he expressed concern about people breeding “like rabbits.” One theologian told CBS News that people should understand that there was a difference between the pope-on-a-plane and the pope-on-the-ground, the latter’s comments being more official.

Perhaps we could all use this distinction in our daily lives. When your spouse quotes something you wish you’d never said, just explain that was an “in-the-air” remark.

Anyhow, about the House and abortion.

The moderate Republican women scored a big win — at least until a backlash from the right had their aides shooing away reporters. But other party members said they, too, were sick of fooling around with the Tea Party’s agenda. “Week 1, we had the vote for the speaker. Week 2, we debated deporting children. Week 3, we’re debating rape and incest. I just can’t wait for Week 4,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania complained to Jeremy Peters of The Times.

Humiliated by the collapse of the 20-week bill, House leaders quickly substituted one banning federal funding for abortion, which is already banned.

“This was such a high priority that they didn’t think about it until late last night,” sniped Representative Daniel Kilddee, a Michigan Democrat, during the rather lethargic debate.

The bill passed easily. No matter. It was all just in the air.

Nocera and Collins

January 17, 2015

In “The Keystone XL Illusion” Mr. Nocera kindly informs us that with or without the pipeline Canada’s tar sands oil is coming to the United States.  What a suprise — another puff piece for Big Energy.  In “Texas Is Sending You a Present” Ms. Collins says almost everybody has a favorite Rick Perry moment, and we all might get to revisit them during the 2016 campaign.  Here’s Gunga Din Nocera:

Greg Rickford, Canada’s minister of natural resources, was in the United States most of this past week, on a trip that didn’t get much attention in the media with so much bigger news swirling about. So let me fill you in.

Rickford spent the first two days of his trip in Washington, where of course debate over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is underway in earnest in the new Republican-led Senate. The Republican-led House, meanwhile, has already passed a bill giving the go-ahead to the pipeline, which, if it’s ever built, will transport heavy crude from the tar sands of Alberta to American refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course President Obama has threatened to veto any such bill, should one land on his desk.

In Washington, Rickford met with his Obama administration counterpart, Ernest Moniz, the secretary of energy. Although the Keystone pipeline was not on the agenda, the two men talked about it anyway. Rickford paid a visit to Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, who strongly supports the Keystone pipeline. (In addition to the Alberta crude, the pipeline would transport shale oil from North Dakota.)

He met with State Department officials to get a Keystone update; because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, the department has to do a review, which it has done several times, always coming down in favor of the project. In several speeches, Rickford talked up the close energy relationship between the United States and Canada, noting that Canada sends three million barrels per day to America — more than Venezuela and Saudi Arabia combined. He mentioned Canada’s new pipeline safety law. He said he thought the Keystone XL pipeline should be approved, which is essentially what Canadian officials have been saying for the past six years.

Then on Wednesday, Rickford went to Texas for two days. This is the part of his trip that really caught my attention. His main focus in Texas was on two new Canadian-controlled pipelines that became operational in mid-December. One is called the Flanagan South pipeline, which cost $2.8 billion. It covers nearly 600 miles, from Pontiac, Ill., to Cushing, Okla. The other pipeline, called the Seaway Twin, runs an additional 500 miles, from Cushing to Freeport, Tex., where the refineries are. It cost $1.2 billion. Guess where some of the oil that is going to run through those pipelines is coming from? Yep — the tar sands of Alberta.

If you are wondering why the environmental community hasn’t been chaining itself to the White House fence to protest these two new pipelines, the way it has with Keystone, the answer is that neither of these pipelines crosses the Canadian border, so they don’t require the same complicated approval process that Keystone requires. (The Flanagan South line will connect with a pipeline that already crosses the border.) More to the point, perhaps, they were never the symbol that the high-profile Keystone XL became, so that even the approvals they did require never aroused the same attention from environmentalists.

Yet these new pipelines are going to be carrying some 200,000 barrels per day of the heavy crude mined from the tar sands. True, that is only a third of what the Keystone XL would be able to deliver, but it essentially helps double the amount of tar sands oil that can be exported to the United States. In addition, there will be expanded rail capacity for Alberta’s oil, which is a far more dangerous way to move it than a state-of-the-art pipeline.

The point is: With or without Keystone, Canada’s tar sands oil is coming to the United States. One of the stated reasons that environmental activists wanted to prevent Keystone from being built was that doing so would force Canada to stop mining the oil. Without Keystone, it was said, Canada would have no means to export it. But that has never been a particularly plausible argument. Even before the opening of these two new pipelines, tar sands oil was coming to the United States, primarily by rail. Indeed, the only thing that can slow it down now is the rapid drop in the price of oil, which is likely to make expensive tar sands crude unprofitable.

Even as the Keystone debate reaches its current crescendo, all that is left, really, is the symbolism. The Republican right claims that Keystone will create jobs. It won’t, not to any significant degree. The Democratic left says that the oil Keystone will bring to the Gulf is so dirty, so carbon laden, that it will wreak havoc on the climate. It won’t do that either. If the president ultimately decides not to approve Keystone, he will do so knowing full well that he has not stopped the tar sands oil in any meaningful way.

To expect another outcome is, well, a pipe dream. It always was.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Rick Perry!

The man who has been governor of Texas since pterodactyls roamed the plains took his leave at the State Capitol this week. He is not saying anything for sure about running for president. Mum’s the word until springtime. However, he recently told a reporter that if voters want to break from the Obama era, “I am a very clear and compelling individual to support.”

Wow, the Republican race is getting to be like one of those crime shows where the detectives have to paste pictures all over the wall so they can keep the suspects straight. So many old friends popping up this month — Mitt Romney and now Rick Perry. The man who drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the car roof and the man who claims he shot a coyote while jogging. The animal lobby had better get out there and see how Jeb Bush feels about wolf hunting.

Almost everybody has a Rick Perry favorite moment. For 99 percent, it’s probably the dreaded “oops” debate when he announced that as president he was going to shutter three federal agencies — and then could only think of two.

And, yeah, that one was pretty good. However, I still cherish a television interview Perry did a few years earlier with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune in which he defended abstinence-only sex education despite the state’s astronomical rates of teenage pregnancy.

“It works,” Perry said defiantly and totally erroneously.

“Can you give me a statistic suggesting it works?” asked Smith.

“I’m going to tell you from my own personal life. Abstinence works,” Perry replied. Smith was too discreet to press for details, but let’s hope it comes up during the campaign.

Perry had been governor of Texas for more than 14 years, an all-time record. In his farewell speech to the State Legislature, he reminded the lawmakers of all they’d been through together, including hurricanes, wildfires and the tragic disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia over Texas in 2003, although Perry called it “Space Shuttle Challenger,” which blew up in 1986.

No mention of his pending felony indictment for abuse of power. Perry tried to force a county district attorney to resign by threatening to veto the money for an office she runs that investigates public corruption. It’s a complicated story. First you learn that the D.A. in question had been arrested in a rather spectacular drunken-driving case, and you tilt a little toward Perry. Then you discover that two other county D.A.’s were charged with drunken driving during the Perry administration without attracting the wrath of the governor. Then you sort of get distracted by wondering what’s going on with Texas district attorneys.

We’ve got ages to work it out.

Perry bragged about the state’s economy, which he often refers to as “the Texas Miracle.” Really, we have not heard so much about miracles since Our Lady of Fatima. The state’s record of job creation is his big calling card to the presidential league, and once he starts harping on it again we’re going to wonder: Has Texas been growing so many jobs because Perry cut taxes and regulations? Or is it because Texas happens to be a state with warm weather, lots of space for cheap housing, a huge border with Mexico and massive oil and gas deposits? Is Perry a great leader or just conveniently located? Eventually, someone will repeat the old Ann Richards joke about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.

Perry’s signature job-building initiative is something called the Texas Enterprise Fund, which aims to persuade out-of-state companies to move to Texas, or expand there. One of its beneficiaries, Texas Institute for Genomic Medicine, got $50 million in return for creating what Perry said were more than 12,000 jobs. An investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed the fund folk had been counting every single biotech job created anywhere in the state for the previous six years. Actually the number was more like 10.

But it’s great that the governor’s ambitions are forcing us to think a lot about Texas, a state that deserves more attention, having been home to only three of the last eight elected chief executives. Not even half! And although lawmakers from Texas currently lead six of the committees in the House of Representatives, that’s still under a third.

There’s also United States Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, making all the pre-presidential-campaign stops and offering an option to all of us who are yearning for a vision to the right of Rick Perry. I once threw out the possibility of an entire Republican ticket from the Lone Star State, and many readers desperately wrote to argue that that was unconstitutional. It might be fairer to say that the Constitution isn’t crazy about the idea.

We can figure that out down the line. Meanwhile, Perry and Cruz could both be in the presidential debates. Let’s see who’s better at counting to three.

Nocera, solo

December 20, 2014

Ms. Collins is off today, so Mr. Nocera has the place to himself.  In “The Cuomo Cop-Out” he tells us that by banning fracking and pushing casinos, the governor has gotten it backward.  You’d think he’d get tired carrying all that water for Big Energy…  Here he is:

On Wednesday, around noontime, during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, officials in his administration announced that they had decided not to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, anywhere in the state.

Despite the potential economic benefits of drilling for natural gas, the governor’s environmental commissioner, Joe Martens, and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, concluded that the health and environmental risks were too high. Cuomo, for his part, claimed — implausibly — that he had played no role in the decision. “I am not a scientist,” he said, maintaining that he had merely taken the advice of his experts.

A few hours later, a state board approved the building of three casino complexes, the largest of which would be located in the old Catskills borscht belt. After the announcement, Cuomo put out an ebullient statement saying that these projects will “create thousands of local jobs, drive economic development in surrounding communities,” et cetera.

Anyone who cares about the economic viability of New York State should be troubled by these two decisions. It is fracking — despite risks — that has the potential to boost struggling communities, by providing well-paying, middle-class jobs. Casinos, meanwhile, are a road to nowhere. The Cuomo administration got it exactly backward.

Let’s look at the gambling industry first. Although Albany appears not to have noticed, the industry is in deep trouble, especially in the Northeast, which is saturated with casinos. Four Atlantic City casinos have shut down this year. The second-largest casino in Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal, is staying open only because of a cash infusion by Carl Icahn, the financier. Both of the American Indian-run casinos in Connecticut are flirting with bankruptcy. Meanwhile, New Jersey and Massachusetts have plans to build yet more casinos.

“He’s 15 years too late,” the longtime gambling analyst Harold Vogel told The Times in August, referring to Cuomo’s plans.

And it’s not as if there’s no gambling in New York, which has nine “racinos” — essentially slot machines at racetracks — and five smaller casinos. “A successful casino should bring in lots of outsiders,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College economist and industry expert. But the new casinos in New York won’t do that; they’ll mainly attract locals, while siphoning off revenue and jobs from other gambling spots. “Maybe that’s O.K.,” said McGowan, “but I don’t think they’re going to be an economic engine.”

Which brings me to fracking. In his remarks, Martens pooh-poohed the potential economic gains in New York, noting that more than 60 percent of the Marcellus Shale — the rock formation most likely to yield large deposits of natural gas for the state — has already been declared a no-fracking zone, either for environmental reasons, such as being too close to a watershed, or because communities had voted to ban fracking.

But that still leaves nearly 40 percent of the shale, which runs through the southernmost counties — such as Broome, Tioga and Chemung — to explore. These are some of the most depressed areas of New York State, where jobs are scarce and hope is hard to come by. As of this summer, only one community in any of these counties had voted against fracking.

Indeed, they look across the border into Pennsylvania and they see areas that were once just as depressed, but have been economically rejuvenated thanks to fracking. In Pennsylvania, the average salary for someone in the oil and natural gas industry is more than $80,000 a year. More than $600 million has been distributed to landowners for drilling rights, according to the American Petroleum Institute. When you add in taxes generated, ancillary jobs, and the like, you have everything the southern tier of New York lacks.

Is fracking completely safe? Of course not. But it is worth pointing out that many of the scientific studies examined by New York State are not so much damning as they are inconclusive. There is still much science to be done. The industry needs to be more transparent. States and the federal government need to make sure fracking is regulated properly. All true.

But very little in life is completely safe. Instead of banning fracking, New York could have established a pilot program to see if it could safely regulate fracking, as other states are trying to do, and at least give people some hope. In rejecting fracking, Zucker said that he was guided by whether he would let his family live near fracking. “The answer is no,” he said. Long-term unemployment is also a scourge families would like to avoid.

And then there is Cuomo’s statement that his decision was guided by his experts. What a cop-out. He gets to please his liberal base, abandon the southern part of his state and then wash his hands of the decision.

Whatever that is, it’s not leadership.

But it’s not pandering either.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

October 21, 2014

Bobo thinks he’s going to tell us all about “The Quality of Fear.”  He babbles that the reaction nationally to Ebola is rooted in weaknesses in our cultural fabric.  I’m sure that the ginning up of pants-pissing terror by the media has nothing to do with anything…  Mr. Cohen, in “China Versus America,” ‘splains how Chinese “harmony” and American “freedom” produce the dangerous clash of two exceptionalisms.  Mr. Nocera, in “A World Without OPEC?”, thinks he knows how the shale revolution has weakened the power of the oil cartel.  In the comments “sdavidc9” from Cornwall had this to say:  “To write an article on the future of oil without mentioning global warming is oh so Republican. We are fighting over seating arrangements on the Titanic.”  Here’s Bobo:

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.

The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death. Philip Roth once wrote: “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” In cultures where death is more present, or at least dealt with more commonly, people are more familiar with that second person, and people can think a bit more clearly about risks of death in any given moment.

In cultures where people deal with death by simply getting it out of their minds, the prospect of sudden savage death, even if extremely unlikely, can arouse a mental fog of fear, and an unmoored and utopian desire to want to reduce the risk of early death to zero, all other considerations be damned.

Given all these conditions, you wind up with an emotional spiral that develops its own momentum.

The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear. It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.

In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought. Fear is, in the novelist Yann Martel’s words, “a wordless darkness.”

Ebola is a treacherous adversary. It’s found a weakness in our bodies. Worse, it exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture.

Go change your underwear, Bobo…  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Singapore:

Let us take it as a given that the post-1945 world order with the United States as dominant nation has begun to unravel, that China is rising to inherit the earth, that the unease of our times has much to do with that difficult transition, and that violent conflict is a normal accompaniment to the passing of the baton from one great power to the next. America stood tall at the end of World War II. It also stood on a vast field of corpses.

Let us further posit the far-fetched hypothesis that humankind has learned from history. It must then be determined to avoid another conflagration. Happy talk of hyper-connectivity is not enough. The dream of the victory of enlightened self-interest in the name of the collective good on a shrinking planet was an ephemeral late 20th-century illusion. What will matter above all is the capacity of the United States and China to avoid fatal misunderstanding. In a state of mutual incomprehension, clashing interests will escalate.

How far China and America are from understanding each other became clear to me the other day as I listened to George Yeo, the former Singaporean foreign minister. He set out his view of the United States as a “missionary” power filled with the righteous conviction that it must usher the earth to liberty and democracy, and of China as an anti-missionary power convinced by its own bitter experience of foreign domination that nonintervention in the affairs of other states is a necessary form of respect. Far from cynical exploitation, Yeo argued, China’s non-judgmental approach to other powers was above all a reflection of its own history, a form of moral rectitude. The West’s perception of Chinese bullying and ruthless mercantilism was just plain wrong.

Yeo is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man with a deep knowledge of China and considerable experience of life in America. I can’t help seeing cynicism in China’s readiness to extract resources from the realms of dictators or democrats and its unreadiness to do as much as America in stopping Ebola or the killers who call themselves Islamic State. I am sure that, for President Xi Jinping of China, the sight of America getting enmeshed in another Middle Eastern skirmish has its satisfactions. But Yeo made me wonder. Can the missionary mindset begin to comprehend the non-missionary worldview, or even accept such categorization?

The core problem is two forms of exceptionalism, the American and the Chinese. The United States is an idea as well as a nation. Americans, even in a battle-scarred inward-looking moment such as the present, are hard-wired to the notion of their country as a beacon to humanity. President Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular in part because he has interpreted a popular desire to regroup as license to be satisfied with hitting singles and avoiding strike-outs. That is the attitude of an unexceptional nation, which can never be America’s self-image.

But Chinese exceptionalism is no less powerful. It holds up China as a uniquely non-expansionist power over millennia of history, bringing harmony in a Confucian expression of its benevolence — a China standing in contrast to the predatory West. The Communist Party, with its mantra of “peaceful rise,” has fashioned an effective pillar of its ideology through the integration of Middle Kingdom thought. As Joe Studwell, the author of “How Asia Works,” put it to me in an e-mail, the party with “not much socialism to cling to, has reached into Middle Kingdom exceptionalism by resurrecting Confucius, starting Confucius Institutes all over the world.” The result, as Yuan-kang Wang, an associate professor at Western Michigan University, has written in Foreign Policy, is a widespread belief in “historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture.”

Exceptionalism, in all its forms, is tenacious. Tell Tibetans about China’s peace-loving culture. Tell Iraqis about America’s dedication to liberty. The contradictions, and failings, within the beliefs do not diminish them. I believe, still, in the overall beneficence of American power, the fundamental yearning of the human spirit for freedom, and the unique American identification with that desire. Xi’s clampdown on the Internet, his attempt to clean up corruption when corruption must be endemic to any one-party state, his expansionism in the South China Sea, and his difficulties with a stubborn pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong all strike me as demonstrating the internal contradictions of “harmony” and “peace” within a Chinese system that has generated prosperity but increasingly stifles the open debate more prosperous people want.

Europeans, with their experience of 20th-century devastation, would argue that all forms of exceptionalism are dangerous, the missionary and non-missionary equally so. They have settled for less in the interests of quiet. America and China will not do that in the foreseeable future, and so their relationship must be viewed with guarded pessimism. In war’s aftermath there are no exceptions to human suffering.

And now we get to Gunga Din:

Forty-one years ago this month, the Arab oil embargo began. The countries that were part of it belonged, of course, to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries — OPEC — which had banded together 13 years earlier to strengthen their ability to negotiate with international oil companies. The embargo led to widespread shortages in the United States, higher prices at the gas pump and long lines at gas stations. By the time it ended, the price of oil had risen to $12 a barrel from $3.

Perhaps more important than the price increases themselves was the new world order the embargo signaled. The embargo “set in motion geopolitical circumstances that eventually allowed [OPEC] to wrest control over global oil production and pricing from the giant international oil companies — ushering in an era of significantly higher oil prices,” as Amy Myers Jaffe and Ed Morse noted in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that was published last year at the 40th anniversary. Twice a year, OPEC’s oil ministers would meet in Vienna, where they would set oil policy — deciding to either hold back or increase oil production. There was always cheating among members, but there was usually enough discipline in the ranks to keep prices more or less where OPEC wanted them.

As it happens, the title of that Foreign Policy article was “The End of OPEC.” Jaffe and Morse are both global energy experts — she is the executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, and he is the global head of commodities research at Citigroup — who say that if America plays its cards right, OPEC’s dominance over the oil market could be over. I think that day may have already arrived.

“OPEC is not going to survive another 50 years,” Morse told me. “It probably won’t even survive another 10. It has become extremely difficult for them to forge an agreement.”

When Morse and Jaffe wrote their article last year, the price of oil was more than $100 a barrel. Today, the per-barrel price is in the low- to mid-$80s. It has dropped more than 25 percent since June. There was a time when $80 a barrel would have been more than satisfactory for OPEC members, but those days are long gone. Venezuela’s budgetary needs requires that it sell its oil at well above $100 a barrel. The Arab Spring prompted a number of important OPEC members — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to increase budgetary spending to keep their own populations quiescent. According to the International Monetary Fund, the United Arab Emirates needs a price of more than $80 to meet its budgetary obligations. That’s up from less than $25 a barrel in 2008.

Not long ago, Venezuela asked for an emergency OPEC meeting to discuss decreasing production. Iran has said that such a meeting is unnecessary. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is primarily concerned with not losing market share, so it will continue to pump out oil regardless of the needs of other OPEC members. This is not exactly cartel-like behavior. The next OPEC meeting is scheduled for late November, but there is little likelihood of an agreement.

And why does OPEC suddenly find itself in such disarray? Simply put, the supply of oil is greater than the demand, and OPEC has lost its ability to control the supply. Part of the reason is a slowdown in global demand. China’s economy has slowed, and so has its voracious appetite for oil. Japan, meanwhile, is increasingly turning to natural gas and nuclear power.

But an even bigger part of the reason is that the shale revolution in North America is utterly changing the supply-demand dynamic. Since 2008, says Bernard Weinstein, an energy expert at Southern Methodist University, oil production in the United States is up 60 percent. That’s an additional three million barrels a day. Within a few years, predicts Morse, America will overtake Russia and Saudi Arabia and become the world’s largest oil producer.

What’s more, according to another article Morse wrote, this one for Foreign Affairs magazine, “the costs of finding and producing oil and gas in shale and tight rock formations are steadily going down and will drop even more in the years to come.” In other words, the American energy industry might well be able to withstand further price drops easier than OPEC members.

When I got Jaffe on the phone, I asked her if she thought OPEC was a spent force. “You can never say never,” she replied, and then laid out a few dire scenarios — mostly revolving around oil fields being bombed or attacked — that might make supply scarce again. But barring that, this is a moment we’ve long been waiting for. Thanks to the shale revolution, OPEC has become a paper tiger.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 9, 2014

In “Becoming a Real Person” Bobo sighs that elite American universities give students extensive résumé guidance but seem to have forgotten the moral component of their mission.  Silly me — almost 69 years old and all this time I thought moral guidance was something that came from home and community, and started as soon as you were old enough to understand the word “no.”  In “A War of Choice in Gaza” Mr. Cohen says the fighting was unnecessary — it rehabilitated a beleaguered Hamas, and gained nothing for Israel.  Mr. Nocera is back to carrying water for Big Bidness.  In “Inversion Delusion” he actually tries to convince us that the argument is bogus that corporations leave the U.S. and set up overseas because of high corporate tax rates.   Here’s Bobo:

This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine’s history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.

This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover “just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the résumé race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.

The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.

Stephen Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.”

Pinker suggests the university’s job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc.

The way to select students into the elite colleges is not through any mysterious peering into applicants’ souls, Pinker continues. Students should be selected on the basis of standardized test scores:the S.A.T.’s. If colleges admitted kids with the highest scores and companies hired applicants with the highest scores, Pinker writes, “many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight.”

What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker’s cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz’s moral purpose (building an integrated self).

Over a century ago, most university administrators and faculty members would have said the moral purpose is the most important. As Mary Woolley, the president of Mount Holyoke, put it, “Character is the main object of education.” The most prominent Harvard psychology professor then, William James, wrote essays on the structure of the morally significant life. Such a life, he wrote, is organized around a self-imposed, heroic ideal and is pursued through endurance, courage, fidelity and struggle.

Today, people at these elite institutions have the same moral aspirations. Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind. Everybody — administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students — knows that the pressures of the résumé race are out of control.

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

The result is that the elite universities are strong at delivering their commercial mission. They are pretty strong in developing their cognitive mission. But when it comes to the sort of growth Deresiewicz is talking about, everyone is on their own. An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Résumé God and toward the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but résumé-padding internship. But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.

I’d say Deresiewicz significantly overstates the amount of moral decay at elite universities. But at least he reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.

Drawing the veil of charity over Bobo, let us proceed to Mr. Cohen:

Another round of violence is over in the Holy Land. More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, have been killed. More than 70 Israelis are dead. The grass, in that appalling Israeli metaphor, has been mown (and will now start growing again). Hamas, through its resistance, has burnished its reputation among Palestinians. Israel is angrier. Nobody is better off.

Periodic eruptions are intrinsic to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy of maintaining the status quo of rule over millions of Palestinians, expansion of West Bank settlements and maneuver to deflect American mediation. Oppressed people will rise up. Israel’s anemic embrace of a two-state objective is the best possible cover for the evisceration of that aim. Still, the question arises: Was this mini-war necessary?

I think not. Certainly it was not in Israel’s strategic interest. Much mystery continues to shroud its genesis, the abduction on June 12 of three Israeli youths near Hebron and their murder, now attributed to a local Palestinian clan including Hamas operatives who acted without the knowledge or direction of the Hamas leadership. (There has been no major investigative piece in the American press on the incident, a troubling omission.)

But enough detail has emerged to make clear that Netanyahu leapt on “unequivocal proof” of Hamas responsibility (still unproduced) for political ends. The prime minister’s aim was to discredit Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, for reconciling with Hamas; vindicate the collapse of the peace talks Secretary of State John Kerry had pursued; stir up Israeli rage over the fate of the teenagers; sweep through the West Bank arresting hundreds of suspected Hamas members, including 58 released under the terms of an earlier deal with Hamas; and consolidate divide-and-rule.

Assaf Sharon of Tel Aviv University, the academic director of a liberal think tank in Jerusalem, has a powerful piece in The New York Review of Books. It makes the important point that Hamas was beleaguered before the violence, isolated by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This weakness lay behind the reconciliation with Abbas. Netanyahu might have used this development to extend Abbas’s authority into a more open Gaza at the expense of Hamas, the very objective now apparently sought after so much needless loss of life.

For more than two weeks after the abduction, persuasive evidence that the teenagers were dead was kept from the Israeli public. A hugely emotional return-our-boys campaign was pursued while the recording of a phone call from one of those boys to the police in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping was not divulged. In it, shots and cries of pain could be heard. As Shlomi Eldar wrote, “It was a murder in real time, horrifying and monstrous.” After it, “Those who heard the emergency call recording knew that the best one could hope for was to bring the boys to their final resting places.”

The effect of this concealment, whatever its justification, was to whip up an Israeli frenzy. This was the context in which a Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli extremists. It was also the context of the drift to war: air campaign, Hamas rockets and tunnel raids, Israeli ground invasion. Drift is the operative word. Israel’s purpose was shifting. At different moments it included “zero rockets,” demilitarizing Gaza and destroying the tunnels. “Lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control,” Sharon writes.

The only certainty now is that this will happen again unless the situation in Gaza changes. That in turn necessitates Palestinian unity and renunciation of violence. It also hinges on a change in the Israeli calculus that settlement extension, a divided Palestinian movement, and vacuous blah-blah on a two-state peace are in its interest, whatever the intermittent cost in blood.

Two other recent pieces are essential reading in the aftermath of the fighting. The first is Connie Bruck’s “Friends of Israel” in The New Yorker, an examination of the political sway of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby group. In it, she quotes Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman, getting to the nub: “The difficult reality is this: in order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if Aipac is on your side, you can do that.” She also quotes John Yarmuth, a congressman from Kentucky, on upholding the interests of the United States: “We all took an oath of office. And Aipac, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.”

Finally, read Yehuda Shaul in The New Statesman on the corrosive effect of the occupation and his experience of military service in the West Bank: “We needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity.”

And now we get to Joe “Gunga Din” Nocera:

On Monday, the Tax Policy Center in Washington held a panel discussion on the subject of “corporate inversions” — the practice of taking over a small company in someplace like Ireland or the Netherlands, and then using that takeover to “relocate” to the foreign country for tax reasons. One of the panelists was John Samuels, the chief tax lawyer for General Electric.

Samuels started by saying that even the most junior tax lawyers know that, when structuring a cross-border merger, “you should do whatever you can, whatever’s possible, to make sure the ultimate parent or acquirer is a foreign company, not a U.S. company, to avoid having the entire worldwide income caught up in the U.S. tax net.” He went on: “Virtually every major developed country in the world has dramatically reformed its tax system to make it more business-friendly.” He cited Britain as an example. “The U.K. recently abandoned its worldwide system for a territorial system [and] reduced its corporate tax rate to 21 percent.” Quoting the exchequer secretary to the Treasury, he added, Britain “wants to send out the signal loud and clear that Britain is open for business.”

The corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, which is the highest in the industrialized world. And, unlike most other countries, it taxes a company’s worldwide earnings, at that same high rate, once they are repatriated into the United States. (That is what Samuels meant by a “worldwide system.”)

So, at first glance, Samuels’s analysis would seem to make sense: the disparity of our uncompetitive corporate tax rate versus their business-friendly rates must be driving the current mania for inversions. Many other corporate executives have made the same argument. Just a few months ago, Heather Bresch, the chief executive of Mylan, a $7 billion generic drug company, announced that her company would be doing an inversion that would place its new corporate address in the Netherlands, where the tax rate is 25 percent. She complained that the American corporate tax rate needed to become “more competitive.”

But upon closer inspection, this argument turns out to be mainly hogwash. As Edward D. Kleinbard put it in a recent report, “ ‘Competitiveness’ has nothing to do with it.”

Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California, has emerged as one of the leading critics of inversions. In his view, it isn’t so much that the corporate tax code is too tough or the rate is too high; rather, he says, companies are taking advantage of loopholes in the code that make inversions almost irresistible for corporate executives. As another critic, Kimberly Clausing of Reed College, wrote in a recent paper: “Both the high U.S. tax rate and the worldwide system of taxation have more bark than bite.”

For starters, American multinationals, with their high-powered tax departments, rarely pay 35 percent or anything close to it. And those earnings that are supposed to get taxed upon repatriation? Needless to say, they never get repatriated; by some estimates, $2 trillion in earnings by American multinationals reside, untaxed, outside the country.

Indeed, according to Kleinbard and other critics, gaining access to those earnings is a benefit of inversion. Clausing describes the tactic like this: Foreign affiliates of the American company lend money to the new foreign parent, skipping over the U.S. company and thus avoiding the repatriation tax. Kleinbard calls these “hopscotch” transactions.

Then there is something called “earnings stripping,” which inversion also makes possible. This involves using loans between the foreign “owner” and the American “affiliate” to shift income out of the United States. According to Clausing, Walgreens, which was planning an inversion but pulled back after a public outcry, would have saved “over $780 million in taxes in one year alone.”

For years, executives have called for an overhaul of the corporate tax system; recently, as per Samuels and Bresch, inversions have become a part of the argument. But, in truth, curbing inversions shouldn’t have to wait for wholesale reform. In 2004, George W. Bush pushed through a law that temporarily stopped what was then a flood of inversions.

It can be done again. Laws can be written that, for instance, insist that the foreign targets be much larger companies — thus trying to ensure that the deals are done for strategic reasons rather than solely for tax reasons. And the loopholes that allow for earnings stripping and hopscotching can be closed.

Before that panel discussion on Monday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made a speech in which he denounced inversions and essentially pleaded with Congress to take action. He also hinted that the administration might take regulatory action on its own, though there is disagreement among the experts whether regulation alone could stop inversions.

In either case, they need to be stopped. They aren’t just corrosive to the country’s tax base; they are corrosive, in a larger sense, to the country. Thanks to our Swiss cheese of a tax code, multinational companies already have a splendid little deal. They shouldn’t get to sweeten it even more.