Archive for the ‘I hate Tuesdays…’ Category

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.

Brooks, Cohen and Bruni

August 21, 2012

Mr. Nocera is off today.  Bobo, God help us, has decided we need his help and guidance.  He’s come up with a “Guide for the Perplexed.”  He gurgles that if you’re a moderate voter, it’s important to think through what really matters this year. He says how we go about entitlement spending should be a top priority.  No, Bobo, you flaming asshole, howzabout we talk about the defense budget, raising the cap on Social Security, and ending Bush’s tax cuts?  [crickets]  What a schmuck.  Mr. Cohen, in “Collision Course,” says there are dangers inherent in Mitt Romney’s proposed war against the “managed decline” of America.  In “Principle Over Politics” Mr. Bruni says in a conservative state, Bob Kerrey makes the case for gay marriage.  Here’s that poisonous toad Bobo:

Let’s say you’re generally a moderate voter. You look at the Romney-Ryan ticket and see that they are much more conservative than you. They don’t believe in tax increases ever. You think tax increases have to be a part of a budget deal. They want to slash social spending to the bone. You think that would be harsh on the vulnerable and bad for social cohesion.

You look at the Obama-Biden ticket. You like them personally. But you’re not sure what they want to achieve over the next four years. The country needs big changes, and they don’t seem to be offering many. Where’s the leadership?

In this disaffected frame of mind, you ask yourself: What really matters in this election? Well, the big issue is national decline. How can we ensure that the U.S. is as dynamic in the 21st century as it was in the 20th?

The biggest threat to national dynamism is spending money on the wrong things. If you go back and look at the federal budgets during the mid-20th century, you see that they spent money on the future — on programs like NASA, infrastructure projects, child welfare, research and technology. Today, we spend most of our money on the present — on tax loopholes and health care for people over 65.

A study by Jessica Perez and others at the group Third Way lays out the basic facts. In 1962, 14 cents of every federal dollar not going to interest payments were spent on entitlement programs. Today, 47 percent of every dollar is spent on entitlements. By 2030, 61 cents of every noninterest dollar will be spent on entitlements.

Entitlement spending is crowding out spending on investments in our children and on infrastructure. This spending is threatening national bankruptcy. It’s increasing so quickly that there is no tax increase imaginable that could conceivably cover it. And, these days, the real entitlement problem is Medicare.

So when you think about the election this way, the crucial question is: Which candidate can slow the explosion of entitlement spending so we can devote more resources toward our future?

Looking at the candidates through this prism, you see that President Obama deserves some credit for taking on entitlement spending. He had the courage to chop roughly $700 billion out of Medicare reimbursements. He had the courage to put some Medicare eligibility reforms on the table in his negotiations with Republicans. He created that (highly circumscribed) board of technocrats who might wring some efficiencies out of the system.

Still, you wouldn’t call Obama a passionate reformer. He’s trimmed on the edges of entitlements. He’s not done anything that might fundamentally alter their ruinous course.

When you look at Mitt Romney through this prism, you see surprising passion. By picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney has put Medicare at the center of the national debate. Possibly for the first time, he has done something politically perilous. He has made it clear that restructuring Medicare will be a high priority.

This is impressive. If you believe entitlement reform is essential for national solvency, then Romney-Ryan is the only train leaving the station.

Moreover, when you look at the Medicare reform package Romney and Ryan have proposed, you find yourself a little surprised. You think of them of as free-market purists, but this proposal features heavy government activism, flexibility and rampant pragmatism.

The federal government would define a package of mandatory health benefits. Private insurers and an agency akin to the current public Medicare system would submit bids to provide coverage for those benefits. The government would give senior citizens a payment equal to the second lowest bid in each region to buy insurance.

This system would provide a basic health safety net. It would also unleash a process of discovery. If the current Medicare structure proves most efficient, then it would dominate the market. If private insurers proved more efficient, they would dominate. Either way, we would find the best way to control Medicare costs. Either way, the burden for paying for basic health care would fall on the government, not on older Americans. (Much of the Democratic criticism on this point is based on an earlier, obsolete version of the proposal.)

You’re still deeply uncomfortable with many other Romney-Ryan proposals. But first things first. The priority in this election is to get a leader who can get Medicare costs under control. Then we can argue about everything else. Right now, Romney’s more likely to do this.

All of which causes you to look over to the Democrats and wonder: Why don’t they have an alternative? Silently, a voice in your head is pleading with them: Put up or shut up.

If Democrats can’t come up with an alternative on this most crucial issue, how can they promise to lead a dynamic growing nation?

Asks the man in the $4 million house with vast spaces for entertaining…  At least he’s getting flayed in the comments again.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I may have missed it but I’ve not seen a war that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan don’t want to fight. Romney vows never to negotiate with the Taliban and declares, “We go anywhere they are and we kill them.” He beats the war drums on Iran. He has a bizarre itch to open a new era of confrontation with Russia.

When he sniffs the possibility of war Romney drops his frequent imitation of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man (“Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to”). He becomes a Real Man fired up.

After more than a decade of inconclusive U.S. wars, this is not reassuring.

In a similar vein, Ryan, whose experience outside Washington is limited, believes that in Afghanistan, “Now is the time to lock in the success that is within reach.” Said “success” is as hard to identify as the tax loopholes Ryan insists he wants to close.

The big question, of course, is how all this squares with the concerns over the U.S. debt that Romney has placed at the center of the campaign by picking Ryan. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost over $1.3 trillion. Several estimates, including one last year from Brown University, suggest the final bill will be $3.7 trillion or higher.

New or rebooted wars are scarcely the fiscal medicine the United States needs.

Ryan seemed to grasp this last year when he declared in a speech in Washington: “If there’s one thing I could say with complete confidence about American foreign policy, it is this: Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power.”

The Wisconsin congressman was right about that.

He continued: “In the coming years, our debt is projected to grow to more than three times the size of our entire economy. This trajectory is catastrophic. By the end of the decade, we will be spending 20 percent of our tax revenue simply paying interest on the debt.”

Yet Romney and Ryan are up for any costly fight. One reason, of course, is that they face a president who, with a bold decision, eliminated America’s mortal enemy, Osama bin Laden, and whose cool review of “kill lists” selecting the next targets of drone attacks hardly suggests a lack of decider’s testosterone. Upping the military ante against this incumbent is not easy. But, as Ryan’s introduction before the U.S.S. Wisconsin suggests, it is something Romney feels he must do in pursuit of his new American Century.

Here we come to the heart of the matter: the desperate Republican quest to portray Obama as a quasi-European intent on the very European business of managed decline rather than renewed American glory.

No fiscal detail — a trillion here, a trillion there — can stand in the way of what Romney has called his “one overwhelming conviction and passion” — that the 21st century be as American as the 20th. Battlefield triumph seems to be part of the Romney-Ryan recipe for this.

Romney has zeroed in on a phrase in a campaign white paper written last fall by the historian Eliot Cohen, who argued that the Obama administration views U.S. decline as a “condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed.”

Aha! Romney declares: “I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known.”

Ryan, likewise, has said that some — read the Obama administration — have decided “that the choice we face is over how, not whether, to manage our nation’s decline.” But these “calls to surrender” must be rejected; the United States is “a nation whose best days still lie ahead of us, if we make the necessary choices today.”

I believe in the enduring centrality of American power; I don’t believe the nation’s immense capacity for renewal is exhausted. But more war is not the “necessary” choice for the United States today if fiscal and foreign policy are to be taken off their “collision course.” The 2014 timetable for ending the combat mission in Afghanistan is right; war with Iran is avoidable; the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan, wars without victories, must be learned. And even all the right choices for the United States will not alter the rise of India and China or make the 21st century America’s as the 20th was.

Obama, as Joseph Lelyveld wrote in a recent New York Review of Books essay, has two major foreign policy achievements: “Getting American forces out of Iraq and compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding ‘Global War on Terror’ into a narrowly focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the Qaeda network, relying largely on high-tech intelligence gathering and pilotless drones.”

These are sober achievements for sobering times. Economic turnaround is Job 1 for the next president. It will not be fostered by delusion, nostalgia or military overreach.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni, who’s in Omaha:

It makes no strategic sense for Bob Kerrey to bring up his support for gay marriage on the campaign trail in Nebraska, where he’s the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat. Republicans far outnumber Democrats here; the state’s voters are socially conservative; his opponents are already smearing him as some effete import from the bohemian wilds of Lower Manhattan; and he trails the Republican nominee in the polls.

He brings up gay marriage anyway. Not every day, but on many of them. Not in response to voters’ questions, but at the prodding of his own conscience.

I got the feeling that his advisers would like him to stop — and that he knows he’d probably be wise to.

But here’s the thing: he’s 68. This race to reclaim the Senate seat that he held from 1989 to 2001, after which he retired from politics and relocated to New York, could be his last. And if he’s going to go down, he told me, he wants to go down fighting for what’s right and for what he truly believes. That means making a pitch for gay marriage.

“What I usually say is, ‘Let me talk to you about the issue of homosexuality,’ ” Kerrey said over a drink here Saturday night. And then he indeed talks to voters about it, telling them that people are born the way they are and deserve a full complement of civil rights, including the right to marry. It’s that simple.

“People who are opposed to it are going to have to be explaining to their grandkids: why, why, why was that the rationale?” he said. “We’re going to be embarrassed in 25 years.”

A life in politics often means the death of candor, twisting candidates into disingenuous knots. Barack Obama was for gay marriage as an Illinois state senator in the 1990s, when his audience was one liberal district, before he was against it over the next decade, when his aspirations were national. As Mitt Romney’s term in the Massachusetts governor’s office progressed, his positions on social issues regressed, and he entered the 2008 Republican primaries as a political animal with a whole new set of stripes.

Kerrey has been consistent, starting with his vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It was signed into law by Bill Clinton.

All 53 Republicans in the Senate voted for it. So did 32 Democrats, including Joe Biden. Most of the 14 Democrats who opposed D.O.M.A. were from states — California, Massachusetts — that were unlikely to punish them for it. Kerrey stood out.

“I know that Bob Kerrey looked at this issue as a right-or-wrong question,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who also voted against D.O.M.A. “I remember talking with him about it at the time. With Bob, you just get an unvarnished judgment.”

He’s no across-the-board liberal. In fact, his centrist reputation had many Democrats upset about his decision to run this year. They wanted a bolder progressive.

He didn’t come to his position on gay marriage because of a close relative or Vietnam War buddy. But over the years, he developed friendships with gay people.

Had he sought re-election to the Senate in 2000, he might well have been hurt by his D.O.M.A. vote and by his opposition to a 2000 ballot measure in Nebraska that called for amending the state constitution to ban same-sex civil unions as well as marriages.

Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who ran for the Senate seat that Kerrey was giving up, supported the ban. Nebraskans approved it by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Nelson won, and is now retiring after two terms.

Kerrey’s bid to return to the Senate is driven largely, he said, by concerns over the country’s fiscal health and the breakdown of bipartisanship. He is already facing attack ads that preposterously cast him as a carpetbagger, though he was reared and educated in Nebraska, returned here after winning a Medal of Honor in Vietnam, and governed the state from 1983 to 1987. A bridge in Omaha is named for him.

Gay marriage isn’t his primary issue. I just happened to hear that he was mentioning it frequently and gave him a call, during which he said that any commitment to social justice compelled advocacy of gay rights. He told me that he often asks voters: “Do you think anyone in his right mind would choose to be gay in Nebraska?”

After he agreed to continue our conversation in person, an aide e-mailed to say that an interview couldn’t be arranged. Kerrey overruled the aide.

He knows that he has politically risky positions, including his longtime support of abortion rights, but said, “I think I can be the kind of senator who would make Nebraskans proud.”

If they value principle and valor, there’s no doubt.

Brooks and Nocera

October 11, 2011

Heh.  Occupy Wall Street must be working.  Bobo’s in a snit.  In “Milquetoast Radicals” he sniffs that the Occupy Wall Street movement is playing small ball with false equivalencies.  Mr. Nocera, however, says “This Time, It Really Is Different.”  He presents a sobering analysis of our country’s deep economic problems deserves some attention.  Here’s that jackass Bobo:

The U.S. economy is probably going to stink for a few more years. It is beset by short-term problems (low consumer demand, uncertain housing prices, too much debt) and long-term problems (wage stagnation, rising health care costs, eroding human capital).

Realistically, not much is going to be done to address the short-term problems, but we can at least use this winter of recuperation to address the country’s underlying structural ones. Do tax reform, fiscal reform, education reform and political reform so that when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is deep, broad and strong.

Unfortunately, the country has been wasting this winter of recuperation. Nothing of consequence has been achieved over the past two years. Instead, there have been a series of trivial sideshows. It’s as if people can’t keep their minds focused on the big things. They get diverted by scuffles that are small, contentious and symbolic.

Take the Occupy Wall Street movement. This uprising was sparked by the magazine Adbusters, previously best known for the 2004 essay, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” — an investigative report that identified some of the most influential Jews in America and their nefarious grip on policy.

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.

This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.

They will have no realistic proposal to reduce the debt or sustain the welfare state. Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. If you confiscate all the income of those making more than $10 million, you reduce the debt by 2 percent. You would still be nibbling only meekly around the edges.

The 99-versus-1 frame is also extremely self-limiting. If you think all problems flow from a small sliver of American society, then all your solutions are going to be small, too. The policy proposals that have been floating around the Occupy Wall Street movement — a financial transfer tax, forgiveness for student loans — are marginal.

The Occupy Wall Street movement may look radical, but its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club. Its members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these “radicals” really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

They are not the only small thinkers. President Obama promises not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The Occupy-types celebrate the bottom 99 percent. Republicans promise not to raise taxes on the bottom 100 percent. Through these and other pledges, leaders of all three movements are hedging themselves in. They are severely limiting the scope of their proposed solutions.

The thing about the current moment is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.

Look, for example, at a piece Matt Miller wrote for The Washington Post called “The Third Party Stump Speech We Need.” Miller is a former McKinsey consultant and Clinton staffer. But his ideas are much bigger than anything you hear from the protesters: slash corporate taxes and raise energy taxes, aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs; raise capital requirements for banks; require national service; balance the budget by 2018.

Other economists, for example, have revived the USA Tax, first introduced in 1995 by Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici. This would replace the personal income and business tax regime with a code that allows unlimited deduction for personal savings and business investment. It’s a consumption tax through the back door, which would clean out loopholes and weaken lobbyists.

Don’t be fooled by the clichés of protest movements past. The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring. It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom. Let’s occupy ourselves.

Bobo, why don’t you go and sit over there in the corner, occupy yourself, and just STFU, ‘kay?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The title of the white paper is, admittedly, a mouthful: “The Way Forward: Moving From the Post-Bubble, Post-Bust Economy to Renewed Growth and Competitiveness.” It was commissioned by the New America Foundation, which hoped that it might “re-center the political debate to better reflect the country’s deep economic problems,” according to Sherle Schwenninger, the director of the foundation’s Economic Growth Program. Its authors are Daniel Alpert, a managing partner of Westwood Capital; Robert Hockett, a professor of financial law at Cornell and a consultant to the New York Federal Reserve; and Nouriel Roubini, who is, well, Nouriel Roubini, whose consistently bearish views have been consistently right. It is scheduled to be released on Wednesday.

I don’t know that anything at this point could re-center the political debate, so unyielding are the two parties. But as Congress prepares to take steps, through the deliberations of the already deadlocked supercommittee, that will likely further wound our ailing economy, “The Way Forward” ought to at least give our politicians pause.

Its analysis of our problems is sobering. Its proposed solutions are far more ambitious than anything being talked about in Washington. And its prognosis, if we continue on the current path, is grim. “Unless we take dramatic steps, it will be Japan all over again,” says Alpert. “Continuous deflation, no economic growth, in and out of recessions. And high unemployment.” Adds Hockett: “It will be like the economic version of chronic fatigue syndrome. A low-grade fever all the time.”

The paper’s central premise is something I’ve been hearing from Alpert for more than a year now: this time, it really is different. What he and his co-authors mean by that is that the bursting of the debt bubble three years ago was not just a severe example of the ups and downs that are an inevitable part of American capitalism. Rather, it was the ultimate consequence of the modern global economy. Chief among the changes that have taken place is the integration of China, Russia, India and other countries into the global economic mainstream. The developed world once had maybe 500 million workers. Today, say the authors, we’ve added another two billion people to the global work force.

That change alone has had a great deal to do with the stagnant wages, income inequality and the oversupply of labor in America that was masked by rising home prices and access to credit. The bursting of the bubble exposed how much the American economy depended on cheap credit. Now that the curtain has been pulled back, cheap credit alone can’t fix our problems. The country is in a deflationary cycle that is very difficult to get out of: as wages decrease (or more workers become unemployed), people become afraid to spend. Assets like homes drop in value. Businesses react by lowering prices and laying off yet more workers — which only triggers a new round of deflation. The only thing that doesn’t change is the unsustainably high debt that was accrued during the bubble.

How can we break this cycle? Like most mainstream economists, Alpert, Hockett and Roubini roll their eyes at the calls for immediate government deficit reduction, which led to the creation of the supercommittee. Reducing government spending in the short term will only make things worse.

Instead, they believe that this is perhaps the best time in recent history for the government to take on a sustained infrastructure program, lasting from five to seven years, to create jobs and demand. “Labor costs will never be lower,” says Hockett. “Equipment costs will never be lower. The cost of capital will never be lower. Why wait?” Their plan calls for $1.2 trillion in spending — not all by the government, but all overseen by government — that would add 5.2 million jobs each year of the program. Alpert says that current ideas, like tax cuts, meant to stimulate the economy indirectly, just won’t work for a problem as big the one we are facing. Indeed, so far, they haven’t.

Their second solution involves restructuring the mortgage debt that is crushing so many Americans. It is a complex proposal that involves, for some homeowners, a bridge loan, for others, a reduction in mortgage principal, and, for others still, a plan that allows them to rent the homes they live in with the prospect of buying them back one day.

Finally, they call for a “global rebalancing,” which includes a radical change in the current dysfunctional relationship between creditor and debtor nations, and even a new global currency that would be administered by the International Monetary Fund.

It is impossible to do justice to “The Way Forward” in this space. It is rich in supporting data, deeply nuanced, with as clear-eyed a view of our economic predicament as I’ve ever read. Though it is not exactly beach reading, by academic standards it is quite accessible.

You can find it at http://newamerica.net/publications/policy/the_way_forward. You should read it — even if your congressman doesn’t.

 

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

October 4, 2011

Bobo is trying to make the best of a mess.  He’s writing “In Defense of Romney,” and squeaks that Mitt Romney does not fit the exciting mold Republicans think they want, but he may be just what the times require.  If Mittens is what the times require then we’re worse off than I feared.  Mr. Nocera, in “Hooray for Federal Loans!”, says Solyndra has caused a political firestorm, but the government program at the heart of the case does the country a lot of good.  Mr. Bruni addresses “The Twisting Route Back to Romney” and says on the far side of Super Tuesday, the Republican candidate will most likely be the very politician on whom the party establishment placed its bets from the start.  No shit?  Really?  Color me stunned…  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past several months, Mitt Romney has been an excellent presidential candidate. He has performed superbly in the debates. He has outorganized his rivals. He has relentlessly stayed on his core theme of putting Americans back to work. He has taken Rick Perry apart with a cold ruthlessness that is a wonder to behold.

And throughout this period of excellence, he has done almost nothing to endear himself to Republican activists. They have spent this season of excellence searching for anyone else: Palin, Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain and now (Please! Please!) Christie. On Nov. 4, 2010, Romney earned the support of 23 percent of Republican voters, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Today, he also has support from 23 percent of Republicans nationwide.

The central problem is that Mitt Romney doesn’t fit the mold of what many Republicans want in a presidential candidate. They don’t want a technocratic manager. They want a bold, blunt radical outsider who will take on the establishment, speak truth to power and offend the liberal news media.

They don’t want Organization Man. They want Braveheart.

The question is: Are they right to want this? Well, if they want an in-your-face media campaign that will produce delicious thrills for the true believers, they are absolutely right. But if they actually want to elect an effective executive who is right for this moment, they are probably not right.

There are two important features of the current Republican moment. First, this is not a party riven by big ideological differences. This is not Reagan versus Rockefeller. Whoever wins the nomination will be leading a party with a cohesive ideology and a common set of priorities: reform taxes, replace Obamacare, cut spending and reform entitlements. The next president won’t have to come up with a vision, just execute the things almost all Republicans agree upon.

Second, the challenges ahead are technically difficult. There’s a reason that no president since Reagan has been able to reform the tax code. There’s a reason no president save Obama has been able to pass health care reform. These are complicated issues that require a sophisticated inside game — navigating through the special interests, building complex coalitions. They are issues that require executive expertise.

It’s easy to see how Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, if he decides to run, could rally public support behind these priorities. He has an amazing ability to talk about policy in concrete, common-sense terms. He might easily be the Republicans’ best option.

Yet Romney’s skills are not to be underestimated. In the first place, he doesn’t throw interceptions. As with quarterbacks, the chief job of a president is not to give the game away with unforced errors. Romney does not take excessive risks. He doesn’t make decisions without advance preparation.

He does adapt. It has been stunning to see how much better Romney is as a candidate this time around than in 2008. This improvement must have come from a pretty thorough period of self-examination and self-correction.

He seems to know how to pick staff. His economic advisers include R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia, Greg Mankiw of Harvard, former Senator Jim Talent and Vin Weber, a former congressman. This is the gold standard of adviser teams.

He could probably work well with the leaders of his own party. If Romney were to be elected, he would probably share power with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House speaker, John Boehner. These are not exactly Tea Party radicals. Instead, they are consummate professionals and expert legislators who could plausibly work together. More presidents have been undone by the Congressional leaders in their own party than by members of the opposition.

Romney may be able to guard against ideological overreach. Each successive recent administration has overread its election mandate. Romney may be inauthentic, but he is rarely overzealous.

He comes from a blue state. Candidates who come from states where their party is in the minority are much more likely to be elected. In government, it really helps to have a feel for how people in the other party think. Neither President Obama nor George W. Bush had this.

Finally, Romney can be dull. Political activists like exciting candidates. But most people, who have lower expectations from politics and politicians, just want them to provide basic order. They want government to be orderly so they can be daring in other spheres of their lives. Romney is the most predictable of the candidates and would make for the most soporific of presidents. That’s a good thing. Government would function better if partisan passions were on a lower flame.

It’s exciting to have charismatic leaders. But often the best leaders in business, in government and in life are not glittering saviors. They are professionals you hire to get a job done.

The strongest case for Romney is that he’s nobody’s idea of a savior.

Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the firestorm over Solyndra, three main criticisms have emerged.

The first is that Solyndra wasn’t ready for prime time and that the Department of Energy, which gave it a $535 million federally guaranteed loan, should have known as much. The second is that Solyndra used political influence to land a loan that was destined to blow up. And the third is that Solyndra’s bankruptcy case shows why government bureaucrats shouldn’t be picking technology winners and losers — or making risky investments that the private sector won’t.

I think we can now safely concede the first point. Although what sunk Solyndra was the unsustainably high price of its innovative solar panels, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Megan McArdle’s blog at The Atlantic’s Web site have all made a convincing case that, internally, the company was a mess.

The second argument, on the other hand, strikes me as utterly bogus. Yes, there are a few e-mails from inside the government that questioned the loan guarantee. And, yes, Solyndra hired — shocker! — lobbyists. But you can always find, after the fact, “bad documents” that can be twisted to make something innocent sound nefarious.

“I suspect that when all the information finally comes out, there will be very little that is scandalous,” said Jonathan Rothwell, who has studied the Solyndra case as a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution. Although Republicans will surely try to keep Solyndra in the news until, oh, next November, the scandal will eventually evaporate because there is very little there.

The third criticism is the one that really matters: government “is a crappy vc,” as Obama’s former economic adviser, Larry Summers, put it in another embarrassing e-mail that was recently released as part of a Congressional investigation into Solyndra.

“VC,” of course, stands for venture capitalist; the notion is that government is not equipped to play that role. A corollary point, voiced by Holman Jenkins Jr. in The Wall Street Journal, is that solar projects that make financial sense get financed by the private sector and those that don’t are the ones that need federal backing.

But if you spend any time actually looking into how the Department of Energy doles out the loan guarantees, you quickly realize that it’s not acting like a venture capitalist. Rather, it is funding projects that have already attracted private capital — lots of it. The private sector, in other words, is still the one picking winners and losers.

What the program is essentially doing is moving alternative energy innovations to full-scale development. Why is the government doing this? Because this is precisely where the private sector fails. As Rothwell puts it, “The program is supposed to overcome the commercialization valley of death.”

In this country, it is relatively easy to get venture capital for a good idea — and alternative energy has attracted billions in the past few years. What is hard to come by is money to fund the far more expensive process of commercializing the innovation. Andy Grove, the former chief executive of Intel (and still one of the great business minds in America), has been sounding the alarm about this, pointing out that one reason so many American innovations wind up being manufactured in China is that the Chinese are more than happy to finance the commercialization process.

One company that has received three federally guaranteed loans, totaling more than $3 billion, is First Solar. That money is going to help the company build three solar power plants in California and Arizona. The plants already have long-term contracts with utilities. They have locked-in cash flows. The risk is minimal.

Shouldn’t banks be making these loans? Sure, but they are still paralyzed by the financial crisis and don’t understand the economics of solar power. Can you really argue that the government should, therefore, also sit on its hands? Indeed, one goal of the loan guarantee program is to show private capital that these loans make sense — so that the banks can eventually step in and replace the government.

The Republicans know all this, surely. In 2005, when the Energy Policy Act was first proposed by the Bush administration, they made some of these same arguments in support of the loan guarantee program, which was part of the bill. The bill passed the House with overwhelming Republican support. Most Democrats voted no.

Today, the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating Solyndra, forcing its executives to take the Fifth Amendment, and releasing embarrassing White House e-mails. I looked it up: every single Republican on that committee who was in office in 2005 voted for the loan guarantee program that they are now so gleefully condemning.

I wonder why.

Many readers have asked if Harold Burson’s Nuremberg trial scripts, which were the subject of my last column, are available online. Although they are not, Harold has posted a small sampling at www.haroldburson.com/nuremberg.html. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Mr. Nocera, anyone who quotes Megan McCurdle of the once-worth-reading Atlantic (which also gave us The Pasty Little Putz) as being knowledgable about anything other than pink salt is a fool.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

This just in: the Iowa caucuses have been moved up significantly, lest the state jeopardize its status as the nation’s Capital of Disproportionate Political Influence.

They will be held on Wednesday.

State Republican officials said they had no choice and could take no chances, not after their peers in Florida set a new date for their primary, Monday, Oct. 31st, and then, in a cunning bid for maximum television coverage, promised Halloween candy to voters who came in costume as the candidate they supported. This understandably infuriated South Carolinian Republicans, who rescheduled their primary for Monday, Oct. 17th, even though 9 of the 213 Republican debates won’t have been held by that point.

Far-fetched? Only a little. Whether judged by the leapfrog that states are playing with the contest calendar, the quicksilver rise and fall of candidates du jour, the showy dithering of supposedly would-be contenders or the dogged persistence of also-rans sprinting nowhere fast, this has been an epically silly primary season, and (cue the Carpenters) we’ve only just begun.

Almost makes you wonder why we bother with it at all. On the far side of Super Tuesday, which at this rate is going to have to be nicknamed Afterthought Tuesday, the victor will most likely be Mitt Romney, the very politician on whom the party establishment placed its bets from the start. Things weren’t so different in primary seasons past with John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole. The arc of Republican history bends toward the foregone conclusion.

But while it’s bending, what fun we have! The 24-hour news cycle demands nothing less. There are pundits to quiz, acres of cyberspace to fill, Op-Ed columns to file, chesty or creepy-eyed Newsweek covers to shoot, campaign strategists to deify, campaign strategists to demonize, and an Ed Rollins psychodrama to behold.

The media-political-industrial complex must have its way and its say, and so the Michele Bachmann crest gives way to the Rick Perry tsunami and now the Herman Cain ripple, thanks to his fearsome dominance at the fiercely contested Florida straw poll.

You thought straw polls were proprietary to Iowa? Only in Iowa’s dreams. Not just Florida but also the National Federation of Republican Women held such polls recently, and Cain triumphed in both.

He’s unstoppable, and could be stopping soon at a Costco or Barnes & Noble near you. For much of this month he’ll be promoting his just published, ambiguously titled book, “This is Herman Cain!” It’s not just exclamatory but delusional, as demonstrated by its subtitle, “My Journey to the White House.”

I don’t doubt that he’d like to get there. I doubt very much that he expects to, but then entering the primaries — or, the easier route, flirting with entering them — is less about viability than visibility. Donald Trump rode self-created speculation about a possible candidacy to enhanced ratings for the TV show “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Bachmann has a book due in late November. It has been titled to appeal to both the Pentecostal and Pilates crowds. It’s called “Core of Conviction.”

Down the line she and Cain and Rick Santorum will be in competition for the kinds of speaking gigs and television slots enjoyed by Sarah Palin, who still hasn’t made up her mind about the primaries, or so she says. All four now enjoy a currency well beyond their actual political offices or professional accomplishments — a currency derived from, and rising with, the sheer number of times a television camera turns their way. For that reason and by that arithmetic, the primaries are a profitable gig.

And the calendar gets ever kookier. It has long been frustrating, granting outsize sway to Iowa and South Carolina and thus tilting the Republican process in favor of candidates with conservative positions on social issues. It’s telling that Chris Christie opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Would the courting of him be so ardent, and the assessment of his prospects so hopeful, if he supported either?

As for actual dates, Iowa is indeed expected to hold its caucuses in early January rather than early February, because South Carolina on Monday moved its primary up to Jan. 21st, a reaction to Florida’s deciding on Jan. 31st, in defiance of national party leaders’ wishes.

That Florida was feeling neglected is perhaps the silliest primary-season twist of all. This is the place that educated a breathless nation on the distinction between dimpled, hanging and pregnant chads, and it becomes a veritable news media preserve for the months just before every presidential election.

There’s loud chatter about its junior senator, Marco Rubio, being tapped as the Republican nominee’s running mate. To top it all off, Cain himself — the straw poll victor!— will be hitting bookstores in St. Petersburg and near Orlando on Wednesday. Could a state really ask for anything more?

 

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

September 27, 2011

Bobo is getting all concern-troll.  In “The Lost Decade?” he gurgles that insular thinking and rigid ideas are holding the United States back from productive engagement with its most important problems.  Mr. Nocera, in “Factory Field Trip,” says a visit to brand-new manufacturing facilities in North Carolina offers reasons for optimism, but it also suggests a long road ahead.  Mr. Bruni, in “Doors Swinging Open,” says to meet Energy Maburutse is to get a crucial reference point for what we in America call hardship.  Here’s Bobo:

If you want a big swig of despair, listen to the people who know something about the global economy. Roger Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary, is arguing that America and Europe are on the verge of a disastrous double-dip recession. Various economists say it will be at least another three years before we see serious job growth. Others say European banks are teetering — if not now, then early next year.

Walter Russell Mead, who teaches foreign policy at Bard College, recently laid out some worst-case scenarios on his blog: “It is about whether the international financial system will survive the next six months in the form we now know it. It is about whether the foundations of the postwar order are cracking in Europe. It is about whether a global financial crash will further destabilize the Middle East. … It is about whether the incipient signs of a bubble burst in China signal the start of an extended economic and perhaps even political crisis there. It is about whether the American middle class is about to be knocked off its feet once again.”

The prognosis for the next few years is bad with a chance of worse. And the economic conditions are not even the scary part. The scary part is the political class’s inability to think about the economy in a realistic way.

This crisis has many currents, which merge and feed off each other. There is the lack of consumer demand, the credit crunch, the continuing slide in housing prices, the freeze in business investment, the still hefty consumer debt levels and the skills mismatch — not to mention regulatory burdens, the business class’s utter lack of confidence in the White House, the looming explosion of entitlement costs, the public’s lack of confidence in institutions across the board.

No single one of these currents prolongs the crisis. It is the product of the complex interplay between them. To put it in fancy terms, the crisis is an emergent condition — even more terrible than the sum of its parts.

Yet the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.

Many Democrats are predisposed to want more government spending. So they pick up on the one current they think can be cured with more government spending: low consumer demand. Increase government spending and that will pump up consumer spending.

When President Obama’s stimulus package produced insufficient results, they didn’t concede that maybe there are other factors at play, which mitigated the effects. They just called for more government spending. To a man in love with his hammer, every problem requires a nail.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, are predisposed to want lower taxes and less regulation. So they pick up on the one current they think can be solved with tax and regulatory cuts: low business investment. Cut taxes. Reduce regulation. All will be well.

Both orthodoxies take a constricted, mechanistic view of the situation. If we’re stuck with these two mentalities, we will be forever presented with proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand. Look at the recent Obama stimulus proposal. You may like it or not, but it’s trivial. It’s simply not significant enough to make a difference, given the size of the global mess.

We need an approach that is both grander and more modest. When you are confronted by a complex, emergent problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. You wouldn’t be smart enough to find it even if there was.

Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.

Simplify the tax code. End corporate taxes and create a consumption tax. Reshape the European Union to make it either more unified or less, but not halfway as it is now. Reduce the barriers to business formation. Reform Medicare so it is fiscally sustainable. Break up the banks and increase capital requirements. Lighten debt burdens even if it means hitting the institutional creditors.

There are six or seven big institutions that are fundamentally diseased, from government to banking to housing to entitlements and the tax code.

The Simpson-Bowles report on the deficit was an opportunity to begin a wave of institutional reform. But that proposal died because our political leaders are too ideologically rigid to take on big subjects like tax reform, which involve combining Republican and Democratic ideas. The failure to seize that moment was one of the Obama administration’s gravest errors.

The world economy has many rigidities. The worst ones are in people’s heads.

Here’s Mr. Nocera:

If you want to feel optimistic about the state of manufacturing in America, you ought to spend a day with Stephen Gray. Then again, if you want to feel depressed about the state of manufacturing in America, you ought to spend a day with — yep — Stephen Gray.

Gray, 46, is chief executive of Gray Construction, a family-owned company, based in Lexington, Ky., that builds factories for big firms. As a result, far more than most people, he has his finger on the pulse of manufacturing in this country.

Not so long ago, Gray told me, the future looked grim. Manufacturing companies were canceling construction projects. The 10 or so factories Gray was building were nearing completion, yet there was nothing new in the pipeline. Gray was forced to lay off employees. The recession was taking a terrible toll.

But, in the summer of 2010, Gray Construction began to turn around because manufacturing itself began to turn around. There were six big jobs up for bid, including a Siemens factory in Charlotte, N.C., and a Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem. Gray won them all. It now has 22 projects in various stages of development. With the two North Carolina plants nearly done, Gray asked me if I wanted to tour them. I said yes.

It is impossible not to be impressed with modern manufacturing plants like the Siemens and Caterpillar facilities. They are, first of all, immense; the Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem, for instance, which will make gigantic axles for its mining trucks, is 850,000 square feet. Both plants use complex robotics, yet still convey the brawn we associate with manufacturing, with giant cranes that lift — in the case of the Siemens plant — the 280-ton gas turbines the plant will soon be making.

Secondly, these plants offer something that has become increasingly rare: middle-class jobs that don’t require a college degree. The jobs pay between $20 and $30 an hour, plus benefits, allowing a skilled machinist to make a decent middle-class living.

The key word, of course, is “skilled.” One reason Siemens and Caterpillar chose North Carolina is that Charlotte and Winston-Salem have community colleges that stress manufacturing skills. In Winston-Salem, Forsyth Tech, a local community college, was involved in wooing Caterpillar and created a program, in cooperation with the company, to make sure its graduates have the machining skills the company needs. Job training was part of the incentives packages that were dangled in front of the companies to lure them to North Carolina.

When I asked Richard Voorberg of Siemens why the German company chose to put its new plant in Charlotte instead of, say, China, he said that for highly skilled work, the labor cost differential wasn’t very big and that, in any case, factors like shipping costs and efficiency mattered more. “For this kind of manufacturing,” he said, “the U.S. can compete with China.” Gray Construction’s backlog of projects suggests that other manufacturers — many of them foreign companies — have come to the same conclusion.

That’s the optimistic part.

Now for the depressing part. Despite the size of the factories, the tens of millions in investments the companies are making, not to mention the millions in incentives and tax abatements that Charlotte and Winston-Salem used to land them, neither Siemens nor Caterpillar is going to employ that many people. Caterpillar is getting an estimated $14 million in incentives, yet it will employ only 500 or so workers in Winston-Salem. Siemens doesn’t expect to employ more than 800 people in the Charlotte facility. The same robotics technology that makes these plants so efficient also means they don’t need many people on the factory floor.

At the airport, on my way back to New York, I saw a headline from that day’s Winston-Salem Journal: “Lost,” it read, “108,000 Jobs.” The article was about a study, conducted by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, that claimed that North Carolina had lost that many jobs, most of them in manufacturing, “due in part to the trade deficit with China.”

In particular, North Carolina’s once thriving furniture industry has been decimated in the last decade. But I saw another example just down the street from Caterpillar: a Dell factory that had employed more than 900 people — and had only been open four years — shut down in late 2010. The Caterpillar factory won’t even replace the lost Dell jobs next door, much less put a dent in all the jobs lost in the last decade.

Manufacturing is terribly important. “More than any other sector, manufacturing creates additional jobs in the supply chain,” says Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical, who has been pushing for a national manufacturing strategy.

It’s encouraging, for sure, that manufacturers again see America as a place where they can build things profitably. But my day in North Carolina suggests that the road back to true manufacturing prosperity is going to be a long one indeed.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Like many college freshmen, Energy Maburutse is adjusting to a new world. For him it’s not merely strange. More like wondrous.

That ceaselessly humming appliance in his dorm-room window? In Zimbabwe he had never seen an air-conditioner. That sweet treat in the student cafeteria? Frozen yogurt is another first — and one reason he has almost gained his freshman 15 already. He now weighs about 80 pounds.

Most amazing to him is the electric wheelchair in which he spends his waking hours. It’s nicer by far than any from his past. Because of it and the ramps and automatic doors at Lynn University here, he can move his hunched, twisted body from place to place without constantly asking for help. That, too, is a revelation.

“I can’t stop smiling,” he told me. “I’m free.”

To meet him is to get a crucial reference point for what we in America call hardship and an example of how profoundly a life can be changed by the right intervention and the right determination. His is a miserable story that became a miraculous one.

He was born 21 years ago in a rural village in Zimbabwe that still doesn’t have electricity or plumbing. Crippled, he never walked, so his mother would carry him four hours to the nearest medical clinic. It was a trip they made often, because his bones kept breaking.

The clinic’s workers berated and even slapped her, certain she was being negligent. In reality Energy had osteogenesis imperfecta, known as brittle bone disease, but it wasn’t diagnosed until he was 5.

He didn’t know there was such a thing as a wheelchair until he got one two years later at a school for disabled children where his mother, intent on his education, managed to place him. The school was far from home. Saying goodbye, his mother told him: “Make me proud.”

He was at another such school, King George VI, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, when my friend Elinor Burkett, an American journalist, happened to meet him in 2006. The school’s band, Liyana, caught her attention and deeply touched her, and she got to know its members, including three disabled boys who played marimba — Energy, Goodwell and Honest.

They confessed a fantasy: college in America. It was like “an ant dreaming of becoming King of the jungle,” Energy wrote in a recent class assignment.

Burkett connected them with the United States Achievers Program, administered by embassies. It helps disadvantaged foreigners apply to, and get scholarships from, American universities.

Each boy was admitted to a school, and Burkett lobbied each school for as much aid as possible. She hit up friends, strangers and foundations for the additional thousands necessary for the boys’ living expenses, a process she’ll repeat until all three have diplomas.

People are generous when faced with concrete situations rather than abstract causes. At Lynn University faculty members and students made sure Energy got a television and a mini-fridge. One of Burkett’s friends pays for his iPhone. His wheelchair was donated by UCP Wheels for Humanity; United Parcel Service delivered it free. His Kindle he won in a card game.

Around campus almost everyone greets him by name. He stands out, given the big chair and tiny body in it. His legs are stuck in a lotuslike position; he can’t straighten them all the way. He has no idea how tall he is.

Over the years his spine has curved badly. Some of his vital organs are compressed. With painful corrective surgery he could live a long life, and he hopes to get an operation this summer, from a doctor at Johns Hopkins Medical Center whom Burkett took him to see. Now that he has medical insurance through school, it just might happen.

He studies hard and frets all the time. He can’t fail, not if he wants to realize his goal of a job as a human rights advocate — maybe with the United Nations, maybe with Unicef — and of some sort of arrangement by which he can live in America or anywhere but Zimbabwe, where there are no ramps, astronomical unemployment and unfathomable poverty.

He told me that he’s surprised by the casual work habits of many of his fellow students.

“Americans are so relaxed,” he told me. “So rich.”

He pointed to a mop leaning against his room wall. Like most mops in this country, it can be wrung by a sliding mechanism on the handle. He thinks that’s hysterical — absurd. In Zimbabwe everyone wrings mops with their hands.

He had just returned from a class in which he’d given a presentation on global warming, a phenomenon he hasn’t thought much about. In Zimbabwe other issues, like hunger, crowd it out.

I asked him if anything about his new life disappointed him. He stared blankly at me. To him, the question made no sense whatsoever.

 

Brooks and Bruni

September 13, 2011

Mr. Cohen is off today.  Bobo is wringing his hands about those kids on his lawn again.  In “If It Feels Right…” he whines that the rise of moral individualism has produced a generation unable to speak intelligibly about the virtuous life.  What he neglects to consider is that the young ones he’s dithering about were raised, seemingly without any sort of moral compass, by people his age.  Typical Bobo crap, actually.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Agony and the Bunga Bunga,” says Italy presents a cautionary tale for Western democracies that have been lulled into complacency.  Here’s Bobo:

During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. The interviews were part of a larger study that Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, Patricia Snell Herzog and others have been conducting on the state of America’s youth.

Smith and company asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

Smith and company are stunned, for example, that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism. (This was the summer of 2008, just before the crash).

Many of these shortcomings will sort themselves out as these youngsters get married, have kids, enter a profession or fit into more clearly defined social roles. Institutions will inculcate certain habits. Broader moral horizons will be forced upon them. But their attitudes at the start of their adult lives do reveal something about American culture. For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.

Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called “The Death of Character.” Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Florence, Italy:

September has been Italy’s most uncertain month, with questions about whether the Parliament will pass an austerity package, if that package will be stringent enough and how Europe’s fiscal stewards will react.

There’s also this: what sort of celebration will the country’s epically libidinous emperor — sorry, prime minister — orchestrate for his 75th birthday? Silvio Berlusconi’s big milestone is about two weeks away, and you have to assume he’ll pull out all the stops, but you also have to wonder what stops are left to be pulled. The man hasn’t been shy about sating himself.

As we now know, thanks to his current trial on charges of paying for sex with a minor, he regularly assembles veritable harems of young women for bacchanals with a dress code that could be described as whimsical. He calls them “bunga bunga” parties, which has no particular translation and no need of one. The hormonal gist comes through.

The bunga allegations grabbing headlines last week were that Berlusconi, in moments of pulchritudinous piety, was treated to lap dances from women attired as nuns. This followed claims that he received ministrations from women outfitted as nurses. And it’s said that Italy is a chauvinistic society! For Berlusconi, no profession is beyond a woman’s pantomime.

We Americans have found great entertainment in all of this — lengthy Berlusconi exposés appeared recently in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair — because it’s lurid, yes, but also because it’s reassuring. Our own political madness pales beside his triple-X opera buffa.

But we shouldn’t just gape and laugh. His country’s path from glorious to ridiculous, paved in part by his carnal and legal distractions, threatens the financial stability of Europe, and benefits no one. Beyond that, Italy presents a cautionary tale for many immodestly privileged Western democracies that have been lulled by comfort into complacency; have let too much silliness create too much damage; and haven’t held leaders to adequate account.

Our is one of them. America is in some ways a petit guignol version of Italy. We also coast on the accomplishments of yesteryear. Also neglect our infrastructure. Also watch young people struggle. Also waste precious time while lawmakers behave in petty, self-serving fashions. Also let money corrupt politics.

Money is Berlusconi’s lance, his armor, his steed, his everything. A billionaire many times over, he uses it to engender loyalty, and his business empire reaches deep into the image-burnishing and opinion-manipulating realms of television, journalism and publishing. At the end of a long interview years ago, he asked me if a recent book of mine had been distributed in Italy. It hadn’t.

“Would you like it to be?” he said.

But Italians have had his number for a while, and have seen their country’s economy stagnate and debt rise over the last decade. And Berlusconi, in power for much of the last 17 years, has made minimal progress on necessary tax, regulatory and entitlement reforms.

So how does he last? I asked many smart, concerned Italians that question, and was told that Italians have been too slow to take a hard enough look at his shenanigans, and allowed him to entrench himself.

The opposition, meantime, hasn’t mustered the maturity to move past its fractiousness and make him go away.

“The fact remains that there’s no alternative,” Giuliano Pisapia, Milan’s new mayor, told me. Milan is a Berlusconi stronghold, and yet Pisapia unseated a Berlusconi loyalist, proving the prime minister’s vulnerability. But nationally, Pisapia doesn’t see someone poised to supplant Berlusconi.

In a country with such treasure and beauty, maybe hardship is dulled and the situation hasn’t become quite bad enough.

I asked Mario Calabresi, a celebrated Italian journalist, why young Italians, whose unemployment rate is estimated to be about 27 percent, weren’t protesting on the scale of the “indignados,” or indignant, who crowd public squares in Spain. He said it was partly because their parents remain affluent enough to supply them with money for clothes, clubs and beach vacations, at least for now.

“You’re indignado, but not so indignado that you’d rather go to the square than to the restaurant,” he said as we sipped espresso on a cobbled piazza in Turin.

Still he hasn’t given up his belief that Italians will pull it together. Neither has the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, an emerging center-left star.

“If Italians decide they really want to change 20 years of immobility, silence and political scandals, we have a future,” he said Monday in his Palazzo Vecchio office, whose walls and ceiling are covered in magnificent frescoes.

“It’s not easy to work here,” he added, “because you’re surrounded by the past. But I want to believe the most beautiful page in Florence’s history hasn’t been written.” I hope that’s true for all of Italy. For us, too.

 

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 6, 2011

Bobo tells us “Where the Jobs Aren’t.”  He gurgles that green innovation is a worthy enterprise, but it won’t create the jobs we need.  Of course, he has nothing whatsoever to suggest about where the jobs ARE…  Mr. Cohen says “Israel Isolates Itself,” and that the case for apologizing to Turkey is persuasive: Israel is losing one of its best friends in the Muslim world.  Mr. Nocera thinks he’s found “The Last Moderate.”  He says Representative Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat from the Nashville area, remembers the day when Congress still worked.  Gee, Mr. Nocera, I remember when there were still Democrats…  Here’s Bobo:

With the economy stagnating and unemployment high, where are the jobs of the future going to come from? A few years ago, it seemed as though the Green Economy could be a big part of the answer.

New clean-energy sources could address environmental, economic and national security problems all at once. In his 2008 convention speech, Barack Obama promised to create five million green economy jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimated in April 2009 that green jobs could account for 10 percent of new job growth over the next 30 years.

Alas, it was not to be. The gigantic public investments in green energy may be stimulating innovation and helping the environment. But they are not evidence that the government knows how to create private-sector jobs.

Recently, Aaron Glantz reported in The Times on some of the disappointments. California was awarded $186 million in federal stimulus money to weatherize homes. So far, the program has created the equivalent of only 538 full-time jobs. A $59 million effort to train people for green jobs in California produced only 719 job placements.

SolFocus designs solar panels in the United States, but the bulk of its employment is in China where the panels are actually made. As the company spokesman told Glantz, “Taxes and labor rates” are cheaper there.

There’s a wealth of other evidence to suggest that the green economy will not be a short-term jobs machine. According to Investor’s Business Daily, executives at Johnson Controls turned $300 million in green technology grants into 150 jobs — that’s $2 million per job.

Sunil Sharan, a former director of The Smart Grid Initiative at General Electric, wrote in The Washington Post that the Smart Grid, while efficient and environmentally beneficial, will be a net job destroyer. For example, 28,000 meter-reading jobs will be replaced by the Smart Grid’s automatic transmitters.

A study by McKinsey suggests that clean energy may produce jobs for highly skilled engineers, but it will not produce many jobs for U.S. manufacturing workers. Gordon Hughes, formerly of the World Bank and now an economist at the University of Edinburgh, surveyed the landscape and concluded: “There are no sound economic arguments to support an assertion that green energy policies will increase the total level of employment in the medium or longer term when we hold macroeconomic conditions constant.”

Many of the most celebrated green tech companies are foundering despite lavish public support. Evergreen Solar, the recipient of tens of millions of dollars in state support, moved its manufacturing facility to China before filing for bankruptcy protection.

The U.S. Department of Energy poured $535 million in loans into Solyndra, a solar panel maker backed by George Kaiser, a major Democratic donor.

The Government Accountability Office discovered that Solyndra had been permitted to bypass required steps in the government loan guarantee process. The Energy Department’s inspector general criticized the department for not maintaining e-mails that discussed how the loan guarantee winners were chosen.

Late last month, Solyndra announced that it was ceasing operations, laying off its 1,100 employees. The Department of Energy placed the wrong bet, potentially losing the taxpayers half-a-billion dollars.

All of this is not to say that the government shouldn’t be doing what it can to promote clean energy. It is to say that the government isn’t very good when it tries to directly create private-sector jobs.

In 2009, Josh Lerner of Harvard Business School published a useful book called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” He found that for each instance in which the government has successfully promoted entrepreneurial activity, there is a pile of instances in which it failed.

Lerner details case after case where public investments produced little or nothing. But he also makes an important distinction between government efforts to set the table for entrepreneurial activity and government efforts to create jobs directly. Setting the table means building an underlying context for innovation: funding academic research, establishing clear laws, improving immigration policies, building infrastructure and keeping capital gains tax rates low. Lerner notes that one of the most important government initiatives to encourage innovation was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which gave universities automatic title to research paid by the federal government.

These table-setting efforts work. The problem is the results are indirect, the jobs take a long time to emerge and the market may end up favoring old-energy sources instead of shiny new ones. So politicians invariably go for the instant rush. They try to use taxpayer money to create private jobs now. But they end up wasting billions.

We should pursue green innovation. We just shouldn’t imagine these efforts will create the jobs we need.

Of course, since one company failed the entire industry is a waste of time and a failure, right Bobo?  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Here’s what the United Nations report on Israel’s raid last year on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara had to say about the killing of a 19-year-old U.S. citizen on board:

“At least one of those killed, Furkan Dogan, was shot at extremely close range. Mr. Dogan sustained wounds to the face, back of the skull, back and left leg. That suggests he may already have been lying wounded when the fatal shot was delivered, as suggested by witness accounts to that effect.”

The four-member panel, led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, appears with these words to raise the possibility of an execution or something close.

Dogan, born in upstate New York, was an aspiring doctor. Little interested in politics, he’d won a lottery to travel on the Gaza-bound vessel. The report says of him and the other eight people killed that, “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

I met Dogan’s father, Ahmet, a professor at Erciyes University in Kayseri, last year in Ankara: His grief was as deep as his dismay at U.S. evasiveness. It’s hard to imagine any other circumstances in which the slaying in international waters, at point-blank range, of a U.S. citizen by forces of a foreign power would prompt such a singular American silence.

Senior Turkish officials told me Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had raised Dogan’s fate with President Obama. But of course no U.S. president, and certainly no first-term U.S. president, would say what Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said: “The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable.” Even if there’s an American citizen killed, raising such questions about Israel is a political no-no. So it goes in the taboo-littered cul-de-sac of U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, a foreign policy that is in large measure a domestic policy.

The Palmer report, leaked to The New York Times last week, is a split-the-difference document, with the Israeli and Turkish members of the panel including notes of dissent. My rough translation of its conclusion would be this message to Israel: You had the right to do it but what you did was way over the top and just plain dumb.

It found that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is legal and appropriate — “a legitimate security measure” — given Hamas’s persistent firing of thousands of rockets from the territory into Israel; that the flotilla acted recklessly in trying to breach the blockade; that the motives of the flotillas organizers raised serious questions; and that the Israeli commandos faced “organized and violent resistance.”

But it also called the raid — 72 nautical miles from land — “too heavy a response too quickly.” The flotilla, it says, was far from representing any immediate military threat to Israel. Clear prior warning should have been given. The decision to board “was excessive and unreasonable.” It criticizes Israel for providing “no adequate explanation” for the nine deaths or explaining “why force was used to the extent that it produced such high levels of injury.” The panel is left dismayed by Israel’s inability to give details on the killings. It calls Israel’s policy on land access to Gaza “unsustainable.”

Overall, the panel finds that Israel should issue “an appropriate statement of regret” and “make payment for the benefit of the deceased and injured victims and their families.”

Yes, Israel, increasingly isolated, should do just that. An apology is the right course and the smart course. What’s good for Egypt — an apology over lost lives — is good for Turkey, too.

Israel and Turkey have been talking for more than a year. Feridun Sinirlioglu, a senior Turkish foreign ministry official, has met with numerous Israeli officials. At times agreement has been close. Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, Israel’s defense and intelligence ministers, have argued the case for an apology; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has led the hawks saying Israel never bends; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had his finger to the wind. In the end, Lieberman and the far right have won, as they tend to with this abject Israeli government.

“It’s a typical case where coalition considerations trumped strategic thinking, and that’s the tragedy,” Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli political scientist, told me. “Given the Palestinian issue at the U.N., and relations with the new Egypt, we could use strategic wisdom.”

That’s right. Instead, locked in its siege mentality, led by the nose by Lieberman and his ilk — unable to grasp the change in the Middle East driven by the Arab demand for dignity and freedom, inflexible on expanding settlements, ignoring U.S. prodding that it apologize — Israel is losing one of its best friends in the Muslim world, Turkey. The expulsion last week of the Israeli ambassador was a debacle foretold.

Israeli society, as it has shown through civic protest, deserves much better.

“We need not apologize,” Netanyahu thundered Sunday — and repeated the phrase three times. He’s opted for a needless road to an isolation that weakens Israel and undermines the strategic interests of its closest ally, the United States. Not that I expect Obama to raise his voice about this any more than he has over Dogan.

Of course, if anyone ever says anything that implies Israel may be wrong about anything it proves that they’re anti-Semitic…  Here’s Mr. Nocera;

Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat who represents the Nashville area, was first elected to Congress in 1982. He was 28, and if it’s not quite right to say he’s been there ever since — he spent eight years in the private sector after losing the race for Al Gore’s Senate seat — he’s still been a congressman most of his adult life.

You’d think that Cooper’s tenure would ensure him the privileges of seniority. It doesn’t. A mild-mannered man, you’d think he’d have friends on both sides of the aisle. Not so. He’s loathed by Republicans for being in the wrong party, and scorned by Democrats for his fiscal conservatism. At the least, you’d think that he’d be respected for his institutional memory. Wrong again.

The reason is that Cooper is the House’s conscience, a lonely voice for civility in this ugly era. He remembers when compromise was not a dirty word and politicians put country ahead of party. And he’s not afraid to talk about it. “We’ve gone from Brigadoon to Lord of the Flies,” he likes to say.

I first heard him lament the state of Congress during one of those “get Elizabeth Warren” hearings held earlier this year. When it was Cooper’s turn to question her, he turned instead to the Republicans. “This Congress is viewed as dysfunctional,” he said, “and this alleged hearing is one of the reasons why. It too easily degenerates into a partisan food fight.” He pleaded with the junior members to change their mean-spirited ways before they became ingrained.

With Congress back in session this week — and the mean-spirited wrangling about to begin anew — I thought it would be useful to ask Cooper how Congress became so dysfunctional. His answer surprised me. He said almost nothing about the Tea Party. Instead, he focused on the internal dynamics of Congress itself.

To Cooper, the true villain is not the Tea Party; it’s Newt Gingrich. In the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House, “Congress was functional,” Cooper told me. “Committees worked. Tip saw his role as speaker of the whole House, not just the Democrats.”

Gingrich was a new kind of speaker: deeply partisan and startlingly power-hungry. “His first move was to get rid of the Democratic Study Group, which analyzed bills, and which was so trusted that Republicans as well as Democrats relied on it,” Cooper recalled. “This was his way of preventing us from knowing what we were voting on. Today,” he added, “the ignorance around here is staggering. Nobody has any idea what they’re voting on.”

In the O’Neill era, when an important issue was being debated, there were often several legislative alternatives. But, under Gingrich, “that was eliminated in favor of one partisan bill,” said Cooper. That continued after the Democrats retook the House in 2006. “We no longer search for the best ideas or the best policies,” he said. “There was only one health care bill offered. One Dodd-Frank. Now you are either an ally or a traitor.”

Cooper was rolling now. “The real problem with big issues like Medicare is that both parties have to be brave at the same time,” he said. “Every pollster will tell you not to do that to get partisan advantage. Too many people here are willing to deliberately harm the country for partisan gain. That is borderline treason.

“This is not a collegial body anymore,” he said. “It is more like gang behavior. Members walk into the chamber full of hatred. They believe the worst lies about the other side. Two senators stopped by my office just a few hours ago. Why? They had a plot to nail somebody on the other side. That’s what Congress has come to.”

Inevitably, Cooper turned to the subject of money in politics. “Money changes hands here way too much,” he said. “Members buy their way onto committees. When I first came to Congress, the party was supposed to help you. Now, when a new member is sworn in, he or she is told what their dues are — how much they are expected to raise for the party for the next election. It’s worse in the Senate. It turns the whole place into a money machine.”

Cooper had lots more to say: about how redistricting has fostered extremism, on both the left and the right; about how Congress has become incapable of legislating on behalf of the nation; about how we are living through a new McCarthyism, aimed at destroying innocent people who want to serve their country by coming to Washington to run an agency or department.

“We survived McCarthy,” he said, suddenly, sounding a small, surprising note of optimism. “We’ll survive this.” I hope he’s right. As I prepared to leave, he added, “You can’t lose hope.”

So, yes: Let’s all hope that the next few, critical months for Congress will be better than the last few. For the country’s sake, they have to be.

 

Solo Bobo

August 30, 2011

Mr. Nocera is off today, so Bobo is flying solo.  In “The Haimish Line” he has a question:  What is it you really want to buy?  It’s very useful information if you’re planning on going on a safari or are debating which gated community to live in, but for about 98% of Americans his advice is as useless as he is.  Here he is:

Recently I did a little reporting from Kenya and Tanzania before taking a safari with my family. We stayed in seven camps. Some were relatively simple, without electricity or running water. Some were relatively luxurious, with regular showers and even pools.

The simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff on a vast field in the Serengeti before an audience of wildebeests. At another camp, we had impromptu spear-throwing and archery competitions with the kitchen staff. Two of the Maasai guides led my youngest son and me on spontaneous mock hunts — stalking our “prey” on foot through ravines and across streams. I can tell you that this is the definition of heaven for a 12-year-old boy, and for someone with the emotional maturity of one.

The more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel.

I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.

It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more comfortable ones did not.

This is a generalized phenomenon, which applies to other aspects of life. Often, as we spend more on something, what we gain in privacy and elegance we lose in spontaneous sociability.

I once visited a university that had a large, lavishly financed Hillel House to serve as a Jewish center on campus. But the students told me they preferred the Chabad House nearby, which was run by the orthodox Lubavitchers. At the Chabad house, the sofas were tattered and the rooms cramped, but, the students said, it was more haimish.

Restaurants and bars can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. At some diners and family restaurants, people are more comfortable leaning back, laughing loud, interrupting more and sweeping one another up in a collective euphoria. They talk more to the servers, and even across tables. At nicer restaurants, the food is better, the atmosphere is more refined, but there is a tighter code about what is permissible.

Hotels can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. You’ll find multiple generations at a Comfort Inn breakfast area, and people are likely to exchange pleasantries over the waffle machine. At a four-star hotel’s breakfast dining room, people are quietly answering e-mail on their phones.

Whole neighborhoods can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. Alan Ehrenhalt once wrote a great book called “The Lost City,” about the old densely packed Chicago neighborhoods where kids ran from home to home, where people hung out on their stoops. When the people in those neighborhoods made more money, they moved out to more thinly spaced suburbs with bigger homes where they were much less likely to know their neighbors.

In the 1990s, millions of Americans moved outward so they could have bigger houses and bigger lots, even if it meant long commutes. Research by Robert Frank of Cornell suggests this is usually a bad trade-off.

People are often bad at knowing how to spend their money — I’ve been at least as bad as everybody else in this regard. Lottery winners, for example, barely benefit from their new fortunes. When we get some extra income, we spend it on privacy, space and refinement. This has some obvious benefits: let’s not forget the nights at the Comfort Inn when we were trying to fall asleep while lacrosse teams partied in the hallways and the rooms next door. But suddenly we look around and we’re on the wrong side of the Haimish Line.

We also live in a highly individualistic culture. When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.

I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggest: Buy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.

To which I’d only add: Sometimes its best to spend carefully so you can stay south of the Haimish Line.

 

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

July 26, 2011

Now Bobo haz a happy!  In “Congress In the Lead” he crows that after the dream of a Grand Bargain officially died, the Old Guard in Washington has taken the reins and President Obama has faltered.  I guess the “Old Guard” in Washington now takes its marching orders from Rush Limbaugh, else why would have The Tan One vetted his speech with him?  Mr. Cohen, in “Breivik and His Enablers,” says anti-immigrant Islamophobia is an ideology rampant on both sides of the Atlantic.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “This Is Considered Punishment?”  He says Wells Fargo gets a wrist slap from the Federal Reserve, and the federal government still won’t prosecute financial wrongdoers.  Here’s Bobo:

Some of us like to think big. We thought at the beginning of this debt crisis that it might be possible to reach a Grand Bargain. This deal would make a serious dent in the country’s awful debt problem. It would begin to reform entitlements. It would involve enough revenue to forestall ruinous cuts in domestic programs.

The Grand Bargain would yield obvious political benefits. President Obama would show independents that he could move to the center. Republicans would be able to brag about a big reduction in the size of government.

Alas, the dream of a Grand Bargain died Friday evening for three reasons.

First, it was always going to be difficult to round up the necessary Congressional votes. Republicans didn’t want the tax increases. Democrats didn’t want the entitlement cuts.

Second, the White House negotiating process was inadequate. Neither the president nor the House speaker ever wrote down and released their negotiating positions. Everything was mysterious, shifting and slippery. One day the president was agreeing to an $800 billion revenue increase; the next day he was asking for $400 billion more. Spending cuts that seemed to be part of the package suddenly seemed hollow. Negotiating partners disappeared.

It was phenomenally hard to figure out exactly who was offering what. Democrats in Congress were kept in the dark and were understandably suspicious. It was all a recipe for misunderstandings, hurt feelings and collapse.

Third, the president lost his cool. Obama never should have gone in front of the cameras just minutes after the talks faltered Friday evening. His appearance was suffused with that “I’m the only mature person in Washington” condescension that drives everybody else crazy. Obama lectured the leaders of the House and Senate in the sort of patronizing tone that a junior high principal might use with immature delinquents. He talked about unreturned phone calls and being left at the altar, personalizing the issue like a spurned prom date.

Obama’s Friday appearance had a gigantic unintended consequence. It brought members of Congress together. They decided to take control. The White House is now on the sidelines. Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders are negotiating directly with one another.

The atmosphere has changed. It now seems more likely that we will get a deal. It just won’t be as significant as we Grand Bargainers originally wanted.

John Boehner and Harry Reid will continue to verbally abuse each other. But there’s a script to their taunts. Nobody’s feelings are hurt. The old pros are perfectly capable of exchanging clichéd volleys in the morning and then going off and negotiating with each other in the afternoon.

Furthermore, the negotiating process has changed. On Monday, both Boehner and Reid produced proposals. The main points were written down and available for all to see. Each side not only represented its own views, it sent signals about where future agreements could be found.

Boehner released a plan that involved statutory spending caps with an enforcement mechanism to make sure the cuts are real. Reid released a plan involving bigger long-term spending cuts, with much of the heavy lifting done by a bipartisan select committee. These two carefully coordinated plans are different, but they naturally fit together.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how they could be merged to give everybody something. Republicans would get some guaranteed spending reductions. Democrats in swing states could campaign on a nominal multitrillion-dollar debt reduction while protecting entitlements. Republicans wouldn’t have to vote on raising the debt ceiling until after some guaranteed spending cuts. Democrats could count the reduced Iraq and Afghanistan war costs as part of the spending reductions.

It’s not clear if an arrangement would really push the next debt ceiling fight until after the 2012 election, but even that could presumably be fudged, especially if Democrats were willing to give the Republicans broader spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment vote in the Senate.

On the one hand, there has been an outbreak of sanity since Congress took control. On the other hand, the deal they are working on doesn’t come close to cutting the $4 trillion or so many say would be required to prevent a downgrade of the U.S. debt.

This should be a humbling moment for the White House, and maybe a learning experience. There are other people who have been around Washington a long time. They know how to play this game. As a result of their efforts, we may see some debt reduction but nothing big and transformational. Obama won’t get his centrist election boost. Republicans won’t have to wrestle with tax increases. Democrats won’t have to wrestle with entitlement reform.

The Old Guard wins. Obama’s televised campaign speech Monday night was behind the times. The action has moved to Capitol Hill.

Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from London:

On one level Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian responsible for the biggest massacre by a single gunman in modern times, is just a particularly murderous psychotic loner: the 32-year-old mama’s boy with no contact with his father, obsessed by video games (Dragon Age II) as he preens himself (“There was a relatively hot girl on [sic] the restaurant today checking me out”) and dedicates his time in asexual isolation to the cultivation of hatred and the assembly of a bomb from crushed aspirin and fertilizer.

No doubt, that is how Islamophobic right-wingers in Europe and the United States who share his views but not his methods will seek to portray Breivik.

We’ve seen the movie. When Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords this year in Tuscon, Arizona — after Sarah Palin placed rifle sights over Giffords’ constituency and Giffords herself predicted that “there are consequences to that” — the right went into overdrive to portray Loughner as a schizophrenic loner whose crazed universe owed nothing to those fanning hatred under the slogan of “Take America Back.” (That non-specific taking-back would of course be from Muslims and the likes of the liberal and Jewish Giffords.)

Breivik is no loner. His violence was brewed in a specific European environment that shares characteristics with the specific American environment of Loughner: relative economic decline, a jobless recovery, middle-class anxiety and high levels of immigration serving as the backdrop for racist Islamophobia and use of the spurious specter of a “Muslim takeover” as a wedge political issue to channel frustrations rightward.

In a June 11 entry from his 1,500-page online manifesto, Breivik wrote: “I prayed for the first time in a very long time today. I explained to God that unless he wanted the Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom within the next hundred years he must ensure that the warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom prevail.”

Two days later, he tests his homemade bomb: “BOOM! The detonation was successful.”

European Christendom in this context is a mirror image of the idealized caliphate of Osama bin Laden. It is a dream-world cause through which to enlist the masses in apocalyptical warfare against an “infidel” enemy supposedly threatening the territory, morals and culture of an imagined community of devout believers.

This particular Christian Europe — the Continent is overwhelmingly secular for reasons that have nothing to do with a growing Muslim presence — is just as fantastical as a restored 7th-century dominion of the caliph. Bin Laden inveighed against “crusaders.” Breivik attended a 2002 meeting to reconstitute the Knights Templar, a Crusader military order. This is the stuff of video games — except that it kills real teenagers of all faiths.

What has become clear in Oslo and on Utoya Island is that delusional anti-Muslim rightist hatred aimed at “multiculturalist” liberals can be just as dangerous as Al Qaeda’s anti-infidel poison: Breivik alone killed many more people than the four Islamist suicide bombers in the 7/7 London attack of 2005.

Breivik has many ideological fellow travelers on both sides of the Atlantic. Theirs is the poison in which he refined his murderous resentment. The enablers include Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who compared the Koran to “Mein Kampf” on his way to 15.5 percent of the vote in the 2010 election; the surging Marine Le Pen in France, who uses Nazi analogies as she pours scorn on devout Muslims; far-rightist parties in Sweden and Denmark and Britain equating every problem with Muslim immigration; Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Peter King, who have found it politically opportune to target “creeping Shariah in the United States” at a time when the middle name of the president is Hussein; U.S. church pastors using their bully pulpits week after week to say America is a Christian nation under imminent threat from Islam.

Muslims over the past decade have not done enough to denounce those who deformed their religion in the name of jihadist murder. Will the European and U.S. anti-immigrant Islamophobic crowd now denounce what Breivik has done under their ideological banner? I doubt it. We’ll be hearing a lot about what a loner he was.

Huge social problems have accompanied Muslim immigration in Europe in recent decades, much greater than in the more open United States. There is plenty of blame to go around. Immigrants have often faced racism and exclusion. The values of Islam on women, on marriage and on homosexuality, as well as the very vitality of the religion, have grated on a secular Europe. The picture is not uniform — successful integration exists — but it is troubling.

Nothing, however, can excuse the widespread condoning of an anti-Muslim racism once reserved for the Jews of Europe. Not on the weekend when Amy Winehouse, a Jewish girl from East London whose artistry would once have been dismissed by a racist and murderous European right as degenerate “cosmopolitan” trash, died. A good way to remember her is finally to confront the latest iteration of a European bigotry that kills.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

Last Wednesday, nearly lost in the furor over Rupert-gate and the debt ceiling crisis, came the surprising news that the Federal Reserve has issued a cease-and-desist order against a Too-Big-to-Fail bank. The bank was Wells Fargo, which was also fined $85 million and ordered to compensate customers it had unfairly — indeed, illegally — taken advantage of during the subprime bubble.

What made the news surprising, of course, was that the Federal Reserve has rarely, if ever, taken action against a bank for making predatory loans. Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, didn’t believe in regulation and turned a blind eye to subprime abuses. His successor, Ben Bernanke, is not the ideologue that Greenspan is, but, as an institution, the Fed prefers to coddle banks rather than punish them. That the Fed would crack down on Wells Fargo would seem to suggest a long-overdue awakening.

Yet, for anyone still hoping for justice in the wake of the financial crisis, the news was hardly encouraging. First, the Fed did not force Wells Fargo to admit guilt — and even let the company issue a press release blaming its wrongdoing on a “relatively small group.” The $85 million fine was a joke; in just the last quarter, Wells Fargo’s revenues exceeded $20 billion. And compensating borrowers isn’t going to hurt much either. By my calculation, it won’t top $20 million.

Most upsetting of all, the settlement raises the question that just won’t go away: Why can’t the federal government prosecute financial wrongdoers?

I realize that the Federal Reserve can’t bring a criminal case (and, to be fair, there are statutory limits on how big a fine it can levy). But the Justice Department certainly can. Yet ever since it lost an early case against two Bear Stearns fund managers in 2009, it has gone after only the smallest of small fry: individual borrowers, brokers and appraisers who lack the means to do much more than plead guilty.

In March, for instance, I wrote about the sad case of Charlie Engle, the ultra-marathoner, who was convicted of lying on a liar loan — that is, exaggerating his income on a subprime mortgage application — even though the evidence against him was thin. Prosecuted by Neil H. MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Engle was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

Now compare Engle’s alleged crime to the case the Federal Reserve brought against Wells Fargo Financial, which, until it was shut down last summer, was the subprime subsidiary of Wells Fargo, based in Des Moines. There were several allegations, but the one that caught my eye was that Wells employees “falsified income information on mortgage applications.” In other words, they lied on liar loans! The only difference is that the lying was done by a group of Wells Fargo brokers rather than by some poor sap like Charlie Engle.

What’s more, this practice appears to have been quite widespread — “fostered,” as the Fed puts it, “by Wells Fargo Financial’s incentive compensation and sales quota programs.” Matthew R. Lee, the executive director of Inner City Press/Community on the Move and Fair Finance Watch, spent years bringing Wells’ subprime abuses to the attention of the Federal Reserve. “The way the compensation was designed ensured that abuses would take place,” he says. “It was a predatory system.”

These are exactly the kind of loans — built on illegal practices — that gave us the financial crisis. Brokers working for subprime mortgage companies routinely doctored incomes to hand out subprime loans they knew the borrowers could never repay — and then, after taking their fat fees, shoveled the loans to Wall Street, which bundled them into subprime securities. This was the kindling that lit the inferno of September 2008. So again, I ask: Why is there no criminal investigation into what went on at Wells Fargo Financial?

The person I called for answers was the press secretary to Nicholas A. Klinefeldt, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, which includes Des Moines. A glance at Klinefeldt’s 2011 press releases suggests that he takes the MacBride approach to mortgage fraud: only the little guy has anything to fear. Needless to say, his press secretary knew nothing about the Wells Fargo case and even questioned whether the Southern District of Iowa had jurisdiction.

The next day, he referred me to a Justice Department spokeswoman. I wrote her an e-mail laying out my question as plainly as I could: “I am trying to understand why the mortgage brokers who work at a major bank are getting a pass when they have lied on liar loans,” I said.

That was Friday. On Monday, at 8:30 p.m., a half-hour from press time, the Justice Department sent me a statement claiming that in 2010 “the number of defendants in mortgage fraud cases more than doubled” from 2009.

Not one of those defendants ever worked for Wells Fargo Financial.

 

Brooks and Cohen

June 28, 2011

Mr. Nocera is off today.  Bobo has a question in “Convener in Chief:”  What sort of leader can get things done in an age of austerity? A comparison of three management styles sheds some light.  Well, the sort of dim bulb light that Bobo sheds…  Mr. Cohen, in  “America, Awaken,” says the U.S. economic crisis is not a temporary blip. An energy and an industrial policy are urgently needed.  Here’s Bobo:

This is a column about management styles. What sort of leader can get things done in an age of austerity?

Our first case study is what you might call the Straight Up the Middle Approach. When Chris Christie ran for governor of New Jersey, he campaigned bluntly on the need to reduce the state’s debt. After he was elected, he held 30 contentious town meetings with charts to explain how the debt would crush homeowners in each municipality.

Christie makes himself the center of the action and is always in the room. He sat down with Democratic leaders at meeting after meeting and hammered out compromises, detail after detail. The bipartisan pension reform bill Christie signed this month is controversial, but it is a huge step toward avoiding fiscal catastrophe. Christie, needless to say, quotes Springsteen to describe his approach: “No retreat. No surrender.”

Our second case study exemplifies the Insurgent Approach. While campaigning to be mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel also spoke bluntly about the tough steps he would take to reduce the city’s $650 million deficit.

But, in office, he hasn’t led a single frontal assault. Instead, Emanuel has introduced a flurry of initiatives in all directions. He took away credit cards from many city officials. He’s moved to lengthen the school day. He redeployed 650 cops from offices to the streets. He cut $75 million from the 2011 budget. He induced United Airlines to bring 1,300 jobs.

At any given moment there seems to be six Mayor Emanuels announcing six different initiatives. The measures to reduce spending are submerged in a frenetic reinvigoration agenda.

The key for Emanuel is to know which fights to pick (making it harder for teachers to strike, for example), and sequencing those fights within broader narratives about city growth.

It’s almost physical. Christie relies on power and mass. Emanuel relies on dexterity and speed. Both have begun their administrations in spectacular fashion.

The third case study is the most unexpected: President Obama’s Convening Approach. First, some context: In 1961, John F. Kennedy gave an Inaugural Address that did enormous damage to the country. It defined the modern president as an elevated, heroic leader who issues clarion calls in the manner of Henry V at Agincourt. Ever since that speech, presidents have felt compelled to live up to that grandiose image, and they have done enormous damage to themselves and the nation. That speech gave a generation an unrealistic, immature vision of the power of the presidency.

President Obama has renounced that approach. Far from being a heroic quasi Napoleon who runs the country from the Oval Office, Obama has been a delegator and a convener. He sets the agenda, sketches broad policy outlines and then summons some Congressional chairmen to dominate the substance. This has been the approach with the stimulus package, the health care law, the Waxman-Markey energy bill, the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and, so far, the Biden commission on the budget.

As president, Obama has proved to be a very good Senate majority leader — convening committees to do the work and intervening at the end.

All his life, Obama has worked in nonhierarchical institutions — community groups, universities, legislatures — so maybe it is natural that he has a nonhierarchical style. He tends to see issues from several vantage points at once, so maybe it is natural that he favors a process that involves negotiating and fudging between different points of view.

Still, I would never have predicted he would be this sort of leader. I thought he would get into trouble via excessive self-confidence. Obama’s actual governing style emphasizes delegation and occasional passivity. Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.

But this is who Obama is, and he’s not going to change, no matter how many liberals plead for him to start acting like Howard Dean.

The Obama style has advantages, but it has served his party poorly in the current budget fight. He has not educated the country about the debt challenge. He has not laid out a plan, aside from one vague, hyperpoliticized speech. He has ceded the initiative to the Republicans, who have dominated the debate by establishing facts on the ground.

Now Obama is compelled to engage. If ever there was an issue that called for his complex, balancing approach, this is it. But, to reach an agreement, he will have to resolve the contradiction in his management style. He values negotiation but radiates disdain for large swathes of official Washington. If he can overcome his aloofness and work intimately with Republicans, he may be able to avert a catastrophe and establish a model for a more realistic, collegial presidency.

The former messiah will have to become a manager.

Still with the messiah shit, eh, Bobo?  And of COURSE it’s all Obama’s fault that Republicans walk out of meetings designed to avert that catastrophe.  What a horse’s ass you are, Bobo.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once remarked that the United States was “aesthetically inferior but morally superior” to Europe.

On the aesthetics, there’s not much doubt. Savoir vivre is a French expression that English finds it needs. Style is many things but one reason Italy elevates it is because it is a fine disguise for lost power. When you’re running the world you don’t have much time for Windsor knots.

The aesthetics of European cities offer the consolation of the past’s grandeur but seldom the adrenalin of future possibility. It’s wonderful to be lost in Bruges or Amsterdam, Venice or Vienna. The palaces bear no relation to current obligations. They have become outsized repositories of beauty.

Sleepwalk through them and feel content. The only problem is awakening. One of the things you awaken to is that it’s now almost a century since Europe ripped itself to shreds at Verdun. Geoffrey Wheatcroft recently calculated in The New York Review of Books that British losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, given respective populations, were the equivalent of “280,000 GI’s killed between dawn and dusk.”

The Great War had its midcentury European sequel. And so power passed to America. It was of a United States ascendant that Berlin wrote, a confident nation assuming responsibility for the world.

He found it “morally superior” to Europe. I think he meant above all the can-do vigor of a young nation still able to dream big and gather its collective resources to realize great projects. Not for America the moral relativism of tired European powers that, ambition exhausted or crushed, settled for comfort and compromise.

I was talking about puritanism the other day with an American friend who observed: “Don’t knock it — that’s what got us this country in the first place!” There’s something to that: America has been inseparable from a city-on-the-hill idealism but also from a strong work ethic. When I became an American citizen and had to do an English test the second sentence of my dictation was: “I plan to work very hard every day.”

But of course you can’t work if you don’t have a job and today that’s the situation of 9.1 percent of Americans and 24 percent of U.S. youth. These are shocking numbers that aren’t temporary blips. They reflect shifts in the global economy. Every year developing economies are producing tens of millions of middle class people who can do American jobs.

What’s most worrying is that the U.S. response to this crisis seems to be one of a country in middle age, a nation that has lost its can-do moral edge, the ability to come together and overcome. In this critical regard President Obama has failed to deliver.

Berlin observed that Americans were a “2×2=4 sort of people who want yes or no for an answer.” They’ve gotten neither of late, only muddle.

Bill Clinton recently took Obama to task in Newsweek, proposing 14 measures to create employment. Given that the Clinton presidency saw the creation of 23 million jobs his advice is probably worth a glance even if it grates. I was struck by two underlying themes: the need for an energy policy and for an industrial policy.

Here’s why: It’s absurd that “climate change” has become an unpronounceable phrase under Obama and that green technology initiatives have been stymied by sterile ideological dispute. Intelligent use of resources makes strategic sense for America whatever your hang-up on global warming. It’s equally absurd that private U.S. corporations, having made $1.68 trillion in profits in the last quarter of 2010 and sitting on piles of cash, are doing fine while job numbers languish and more Americans struggle.

None of this makes moral or any other sense. America needs an energy policy and an industrial policy. It has to lead in green technology and — purist capitalist reflexes notwithstanding — it must find ways to get corporate America involved in a national revival.

In these regards it might look to Europe: Copenhagen now heats itself in winter by burning its own garbage; Germany has 6 percent unemployment in part because the government and corporations have cooperated to keep jobs.

One of Clinton’s energy ideas related to the cash incentive Obama had offered for start-up green companies. America moved in the past few years, the former president noted, from having less than 2 percent of the world market in manufacturing high-powered batteries for hybrid or all-electric cars to 20 percent, with 30 new battery plants built or under construction. Then — wait for it — Republicans in Congress wouldn’t extend the plan because they viewed it as a “spending program” rather than a tax cut.

This is madness, the ne plus ultra of American politicians betraying the American people. As Clinton noted, “We could get lots of manufacturing jobs in the same way” — that is, combining green energy and industrial policy.

It’s past time for Obama to lead in these areas. Americans, Berlin also suggested, are the “largest assemblage of fundamentally benevolent human beings ever gathered together.” But their representatives have lost their moral compass. History tells us where that leads.