Archive for the ‘Krugman’ Category

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 8, 2016

In “Hillary Has ‘Half a Dream'” Mr. Blow says practicality and realistic goals are proving to be a handicap for Mrs. Clinton when it comes to young voters.  Mr. Cohen has produced a thing called “America’s Syrian Shame” in which he howls that Putin’s policy is hard to distinguish from Obama’s, and that America’s capitulation is complete, with appalling results.  In the comments “TDurk” from Rochester, NY had this to say:  “Really? President Obama’s Syrian policy has contributed to the slaughter in Paris and San Bernardino? That our president is not really interested in Europe?  When did Roger Cohen announce his candidacy for the republican presidential nomination? His non-logic and emotional assertions would fit in perfectly with that political circus.”  Prof. Krugman considers “The Time-Loop Party” and says Republican candidates keep repeating their canned policy statements, despite evidence that these prescriptions have failed in the real world.  Here’s Mr. Blow, writing from Durham, NH:

One of the most striking statistics to come of the Iowa caucus entry polling was the enormous skew of young voters away from Hillary Clinton and to Bernie Sanders. Only 14 percent of caucusgoers 17 to 29 supported Clinton, while 84 percent supported Sanders.

On Thursday, I traveled to the University of New Hampshire, site of a debate between Clinton and Sanders that night. Before the debate, I mingled on campus with people rallying for both candidates, with the Sanders rally many times larger than the Clinton one. The energy for Sanders at the school was electric.

For the actually debate, I went to a debate-watching party for Clinton supporters at the Three Chimneys Inn, just off campus. There were more heads of white hair in that room than a jar of cotton balls.

The two scenes so close to each other drove home the point for me: Hillary Clinton has a threatening young voter problem.

Young folks are facing a warming planet, exploding student debt, stunted mobility, stagnant wages and the increasing corporatization of the country due in part to the increasing consolidation of wealth and the impact of that wealth on American institutions.

Young folks are staring down a barrel and they want to put a flower in it, or conversely, smash it to bits. And they’re angry at those who came before them for doing too little, too late. They want a dramatic correction, and they want it now.

Sanders’s rhetoric plays well to young folks’ anxiety and offers a ray of hope. He wants to fix the system they see as broken, and he’s not new to those positions. He has held many of the same positions most of his life, but they have never had as much resonance as they do now. Never mind that Sanders has been in Congress for decades and doesn’t have the stronger record of accomplishments, as my colleague Nick Kristof put it last week.

Sanders is good at setting the goals, but not so good at getting there.

When people question Sanders on the feasibility of pushing his ambitious policies through an obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress, he often responds with the broad and loose talk of a political revolution, like he put it in his closing remarks Thursday:

“I do believe we need a political revolution where millions of people stand up and say loudly and clearly that our government belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.”

What he is saying is that a political revolution, meaning massive numbers of new voters and unprecedented voter turnout by people who support his policies, would result in flipping control of Congress and an easier path to his policies’ passage and implementation.

But if Iowa is any measure, that revolution has yet to materialize, and indeed, may never.

Iowa did see a record number of caucusgoers … for the Republican candidate. The number of Democratic caucusgoers fell significantly, and half of those went to Clinton.

As RealClearPolitics reported:

“The trend line is positive for Republicans (turnout up 54 percent from 2012) and negative for Democrats (turnout was down 22 percent from 2008).”

This doesn’t sound anything like the kind of numbers Sanders would need to push his agenda forward, and he knows that. If anything, it sounds like the budding of another Republican revolution. But these facts are ones that would never pass Sanders’s lips. They would puncture the balloon and end his ascendance.

Clinton, on the other hand, represents much of what they distrust or even despise. There is an aura of ethical ambiguity — from the emails to the Wall Street paid speeches to the super PACs. (There is growing pressure for her to release the transcripts of those speeches and have the content of them compared to her public pronouncement.) There is the legacy of her military hawkishness, including her Iraq war vote. There is the articulation of her positions that are at odds with young folks’ aspirations and sensibilities, like saying Thursday, “I don’t believe in free college,” and saying that she continues to support capital punishment.

But possibly the most damaging of Clinton’s attributes is, ironically, her practicality. As one person commented to me on social media: Clinton is running an I-Have-Half-A-Dream campaign. That simply doesn’t inspire young people brimming with the biggest of dreams. Clinton’s message says: Aim lower, think smaller, move slower. It says, I have more modest ambitions, but they are more realistic.

As Clinton put it Thursday in a swipe at Sanders, “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep.”

But the pragmatic progressive line is not going to help her chip away at Sanders’s support among the young. That support is hardening into hipness. Supporting Sanders is quickly becoming the thing to do if you are young and want to appeal to those who are. Clinton’s time to reverse that is quickly running out, and a strategy of simply holding out long enough so that the heavy black and brown support for her counters it may not be sufficient.

And if those young voters don’t turn out and vote for Hillary if she’s the nominee they will deserve the hell that they’ll unleash on us all.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, foaming at the mouth:

The Putin policy in Syria is clear enough as the encirclement of rebel-held Aleppo proceeds and tens of thousands more Syrians flee toward the Turkish border. It is to entrench the brutal government of Bashar al-Assad by controlling the useful part of Syrian territory, bomb the moderate opposition into submission, block any possibility of Western-instigated regime change, use diplomatic blah-blah in Geneva as cover for changing the facts on the ground, and, maybe fifth or sixth down the list, strengthen the Syrian Army to the point it may one day confront the murderous jihadist stronghold of the Islamic State.

The troubling thing is that the Putin policy on Syria has become hard to distinguish from the Obama policy.

Sure, the Obama administration still pays lip service to the notion that Assad is part of the problem and not the solution, and that if the Syrian leader may survive through some political transition period he cannot remain beyond that. But these are words. It is President Vladimir Putin and Russia who are “making the weather” in Syria absent any corresponding commitment or articulable policy from President Obama.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now virtually encircled by the Syrian Army. A war that has already produced a quarter of a million dead, more than 4.5 million refugees, some 6.5 million internally displaced, and the destabilization of Europe through a massive influx of terrorized people, is about to see further abominations as Aleppo agonizes.

Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria. It is already the Munich.

By which I mean that the city’s plight today, its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs, is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.

Where such feeble evasions masquerading as strategy lead is to United States policy becoming Putin’s policy in Syria, to awkward acquiescence to Moscow’s end game, and to embarrassed shrugs encapsulating the wish that — perhaps, somehow, with a little luck — Putin may crush ISIS.

Obama’s Syrian agonizing, his constant what-ifs and recurrent “what then?” have also lead to the slaughter in Paris and San Bernardino. They have contributed to a potential unraveling of the core of the European Union as internal borders eliminated on a free continent are re-established as a response to an unrelenting refugee tide — to which the United States has responded by taking in around 2,500 Syrians since 2012, or about 0.06 percent of the total.

“The Syrian crisis is now a European crisis,” a senior European diplomat told me. “But the president is not interested in Europe.” That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.

Syria is now the Obama administration’s shame, a debacle of such dimensions that it may overshadow the president’s domestic achievements.

Obama’s decision in 2013, at a time when ISIS scarcely existed, not to uphold the American “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a pivotal moment in which he undermined America’s word, incurred the lasting fury of Sunni Gulf allies, shored up Assad by not subjecting him to serious one-off punitive strikes, and opened the way for Putin to determine Syria’s fate.

Putin policy is American policy because the United States has offered no serious alternative. As T.S. Eliot wrote after Munich in 1938, “We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us.” Syria has been the bloody graveyard of American conviction.

It is too late, as well as pure illusion, to expect significant change in Obama’s Syria policy. Aleppo’s agony will be drawn-out. But the president should at least do everything in his power, as suggested in a report prepared by Michael Ignatieff at the Harvard Kennedy School, to “surge” the number of Syrian refugees taken in this year to 65,000 from his proposed 10,000. As the report notes, “If we allow fear to dictate policy, terrorists win.”

Putin already has.

And now we finally get to Prof. Krugman:

By now everyone who follows politics knows about Marco Rubio’s software-glitch performance in Saturday’s Republican debate. (I’d say broken-record performance, but that would be showing my age.) Not only did he respond to a challenge from Chris Christie about his lack of achievements by repeating, verbatim, the same line from his stump speech he had used a moment earlier; when Mr. Christie mocked his canned delivery, he repeated the same line yet again.

In other news, last week — on Groundhog Day, to be precise — Republicans in the House of Representatives cast what everyone knew was a purely symbolic, substance-free vote to repeal Obamacare. It was the 63rd time they’ve done so.

These are related stories.

Mr. Rubio’s inability to do anything besides repeat canned talking points was startling. Worse, it was funny, which means that it has gone viral. And it reinforced the narrative that he is nothing but an empty suit. But really, isn’t everyone in his party doing pretty much the same thing, if not so conspicuously?

The truth is that the whole G.O.P. seems stuck in a time loop, saying and doing the same things over and over. And unlike Bill Murray’s character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” Republicans show no sign of learning anything from experience.

Think about the doctrines every Republican politician now needs to endorse, on pain of excommunication.

First, there’s the ritual denunciation of Obamacare as a terrible, very bad, no good, job-killing law. Did I mention that it kills jobs? Strange to say, this line hasn’t changed at all despite the fact that we’ve gained 5.7 million private-sector jobs since January 2014, which is when the Affordable Care Act went into full effect.

Then there’s the assertion that taxing the rich has terrible effects on economic growth, and conversely that tax cuts at the top can be counted on to produce an economic miracle.

This doctrine was tested more than two decades ago, when Bill Clinton raised tax rates on high incomes; Republicans predicted disaster, but what we got was the economy’s best run since the 1960s. It was tested again when George W. Bush cut taxes on the wealthy; Republicans predicted a “Bush boom,” but actually got a lackluster expansion followed by the worst slump since the Great Depression. And it got tested a third time after President Obama won re-election, and tax rates at the top went up substantially; since then we’ve gained eight million private-sector jobs.

Oh, and there’s also the spectacular failure of the Kansas experiment, where huge tax cuts have created a budget crisis without delivering any hint of the promised economic miracle.

But Republican faith in tax cuts as a universal economic elixir has, if anything, grown stronger, with Mr. Rubio, in particular, going even further than the other candidates by promising to eliminate all taxes on capital gains.

Meanwhile, on foreign policy the required G.O.P. position has become one of utter confidence in the effectiveness of military force. How did that work in Iraq? Never mind: The only reason anybody in the world fails to do exactly what America wants must be because our leadership is lily-livered if not treasonous. And diplomacy, no matter how successful, is denounced as appeasement.

Not incidentally, the shared Republican stance on foreign policy is basically the same view Richard Hofstadter famously described in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: Whenever America fails to impose its will on the rest of the world, it must be because it has been betrayed. The John Birch Society has won the war for the party’s soul.

But don’t all politicians spout canned answers that bear little relationship to reality? No.

Like her or not, Hillary Clinton is a genuine policy wonk, who can think on her feet and clearly knows what she is talking about on many issues. Bernie Sanders is much more of a one-note candidate, but at least his signature issue — rising inequality and the effects of money on politics — reflects real concerns. When you revisit Democratic debates after what went down Saturday, it doesn’t feel as if you’re watching a different party, it feels as if you’ve entered a different intellectual and moral universe.

So how did this happen to the G.O.P.? In a direct sense, I suspect that it has a lot to do with Foxification, the way Republican primary voters live in a media bubble into which awkward facts can’t penetrate. But there must be deeper causes behind the creation of that bubble.

Whatever the ultimate reason, however, the point is that while Mr. Rubio did indeed make a fool of himself on Saturday, he wasn’t the only person on that stage spouting canned talking points that are divorced from reality. They all were, even if the other candidates managed to avoid repeating themselves word for word.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

February 5, 2016

Sigh.  Bobo’s preaching again.  In “A Question of Moral Radicalism” he babbles that stories of extreme do-gooders are both inspiring and unnerving. So how altruistic must one be?  In the comments “Stuart” said “I am so incredibly tired of lectures from David Brooks about morals. Where has he been on the moral issues of the day? Absent or in support of his morally objectionable party.”  In “Europe’s Huddled Masses” Mr. Cohen says a digital migration of epic proportions is underway. But America is nowhere to be seen on the refugee crisis.  Prof. Krugman asks “Who Hates Obamacare?”  He says left-wing attacks on an imperfect program could undermine progressives’ interests.  Here’s Bobo:

At the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama told the story of a group of Americans who were captured by the Nazis during World War II. The head of the German prison camp gave an order that the Jewish soldiers step forward. An American master sergeant, Roddie Edmonds, ordered all of his men to step forward. The Nazi held a gun to the sergeant’s head and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” The sergeant replied, “We are all Jews.” Rather than execute all of the men, the Nazi backed down.

That kind of moral heroism took place in extraordinary circumstances. But even today there are moral heroes making similar if less celebrated sacrifices than those soldiers were ready to make.

Larissa MacFarquhar’s recent book, “Strangers Drowning,” is about such people. She writes about radical do-gooders. One of her subjects started a leper colony in India. One couple had two biological children and then adopted 20 more kids who needed a home. A women risked rape to serve as a nurse in war-torn Nicaragua. One couple lived on $12,000 a year so they could donate the additional money they earned annually, about $50,000, to charity.

These people were often driven by moral rage and a need to be of pure service to the world. They tend to despise comfort and require a life that is difficult, ascetic and self-sacrificial. They yearn for the feeling that they are doing their utmost to relieve suffering. One abandoned a marriage to serve the poor.

For these extreme do-gooders, MacFarquhar writes, it is always wartime. There are always sufferers somewhere in the world as urgently in need of rescue as victims of a battle. The do-gooders feel themselves conscripted to duty.

Some radical do-gooders are what the philosopher Susan Wolf calls rational saints. It is their duty to reduce the sum total of suffering in the world, and the suffering of people halfway around the world is no different than the suffering of someone next door.

There’s a philosophy question: If you were confronted with the choice between rescuing your mother from drowning or two strangers, who should you rescue? With utilitarian logic, the rational saint would rescue the two strangers because saving two lives is better than saving one. Their altruism is impartial, universal and self-denying. “The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other,” one man MacFarquhar writes about says.

Others Wolf calls loving saints. They are good with others’ goodness, suffering in others’ pain. They are the ones holding the leper, talking to the potential suicide hour upon hour. Their service is radically personal, direct and not always pleasant.

This sort of radical selflessness forces us to confront our own lives. Should we all be living lives with as much moral heroism as these people? Given the suffering in the world, are we called to drop everything and give it our all? Did you really need that $4 Frappuccino when that money could have gone to the poor?

The argument against this sort of pure moral heroism is that fanaticism in the relief of suffering is still a form of fanaticism. It makes reciprocal relationships difficult, because one is always giving, never receiving. It can lead to a draconian asceticism that almost seems to invite unnecessary suffering.

Love, by its nature, should be strongest when it is personal and intimate. To make love universal, to give no priority to the near over the far, is to denude love of its texture and warmth. It is really a way of avoiding love because you make yourself invulnerable.

In an essay on Gandhi, George Orwell argued that the essence of being human is in the imperfect flux of life, not in the single-minded purity of sainthood. It is the shared beer, the lazy afternoon, the life of accepted imperfection. Full humanness is in having multiple messy commitments and pleasures, not one monistic duty that eclipses all else.

In a 1982 essay called “Moral Saints,” Wolf argued that the desire to be supremely good can never be just one desire among many; it demotes and subsumes all the other desires. She wrote that a world in which everybody strove to achieve moral sainthood “would probably contain less happiness than a world in which people realized a diversity of ideals involving a variety of personal and perfectionist values.”

As Andrew Kuper of LeapFrog Investments put it, sometimes you can do more good by buying that beautiful piece of furniture, putting somebody in Ghana to work.

Yet I don’t want to let us off the hook. There’s a continuum of moral radicalism. Most of us are too far on the comfortable end and too far from the altruistic one. It could be that you or I will only really feel fulfilled after a daring and concrete leap in the direction of moral radicalism.

Gawd, but he’s insufferable.  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

From London to Athens Europe is questioned. Some people, mainly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are dying to get into the European Union. Many British conservatives are fighting to get out of it. Others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, plot to undermine it. Yet others are bored by it. The 20th century and the strategic imperatives behind NATO and the European Union seem far away to wired millennials.

The two most powerful symbols of European integration — the euro that binds 19 European Union states in a currency union, and the Schengen accords that allow people to move freely between 22 borderless European Union nations — are in danger of unraveling under the pressure of polarized politics, diverging economic performance and the influx of more than one million desperate migrants and refugees in the past year.

There is an identity crisis. Christian Europe, a notion that Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has turned into a kind of illusory fetish, is in fact much less Christian. Around 6 percent of the European population is Muslim today; by 2030 that figure will be 8 percent.

A small minority of those Muslims — told by online jihadi propagandists that there is no gray zone between Islam and the infidel, only the obligation to slaughter the unbeliever — drift off via Turkey to ISIS-held territory in Syria and return to kill — Charlie Hebdo, the Paris kosher supermarket, Paris sports and music halls and restaurants, the Brussels Jewish museum. Division and demagoguery spread. Xenophobic rightist parties thrive at the margins from Sweden to Greece.

At Cologne and Stockholm stations, in the two countries that have overwhelmingly taken in the most refugees, two rampages — by asylum seekers against women in Germany and by masked nationalist thugs against refugee children in Sweden — illustrate the tensions.

Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, recently told my colleague Jim Yardley, “This is not Europe. This is a nightmare.” That nightmare is one of looming fragmentation, violence and walls for the half-billion people now moving freely between Warsaw and Lisbon.

It can be averted. The Europe of today is not the Europe of the 1930s. In Berlin, Angela Merkel stands tall, a European leader of immense stature. Still, the fissuring pressures are intense.

Sometimes, as Yeats noted, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We live in an age of unraveling. The postwar is over. The post-Cold War is over. The United States, under President Obama, has quietly stepped back from Europe. Washington is nowhere to be seen on the refugee crisis, the absent power, much as it was absent from the Minsk process on the Ukraine crisis.

The world is most dangerous in a power vacuum. The geopolitical divides across the world are the most marked in at least a generation. This makes every issue more intractable. The United Nations has proved a complete dud on Syria. It took almost five years, 250,000 dead and more than 11 million displaced people for the Security Council to pass a resolution on a “road map” to peace. That map, for now, is utter fiction. For as many years, Obama did nothing.

Now refugees stream from Syria and elsewhere into Europe. If they carried a banner, it should read, “Reap what you sow, feckless world.” A digital migration of epic proportions is underway. Each refugee carries a smartphone and knows his or her desired destination.

From this New Europe to New Hampshire, unpredictable forces are at play. Show me a Donald Trump, even a slightly Iowa-humbled one, and I’ll see you with a Marine Le Pen.

The strange thing is this troubled Europe has rescued the United States. That’s new. Without Merkel’s courageous decision to take in 1.1 million refugees last year, Europe would have faced catastrophe — and America, even in an election year, could not have ignored violent mayhem among its allies as borders closed and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were cast adrift.

Another 65,000 refugees arrived in Germany in January, setting the country on course for 780,000 more this year. Some 200,000 mainly Muslim children are entering German schools. Imagine if America, which has four times the German population, were to register 800,000 mainly Muslim children in schools in a few months. On reflection, don’t even try.

Nobody knows what Germany’s limit is. But there is one. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will turn on her if the numbers keep rising. Other European nations are not going to take significant quotas: There’s scant democratic support for the right and ethical thing to do.

So Germany has to cut a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The deal will probably see Turkey getting piles of cash — and perhaps the visa waiver that Turks desperately want from Germany — in exchange for Turkey strictly curtailing the refugee flow to an agreed number who would not have to risk their lives in flimsy boats.

Turkish politics have become German domestic politics. A troubled Europe, cast loose from America, slouches toward Ankara to be saved.

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

Ted Cruz had a teachable moment in Iowa, although he himself will learn nothing from it. A voter told Mr. Cruz the story of his brother-in-law, a barber who had never been able to afford health insurance. He finally got insurance thanks to Obamacare — and discovered that it was too late. He had terminal cancer, and nothing could be done.

The voter asked how the candidate would replace the law that might have saved his brother-in-law if it had been in effect earlier. Needless to say, all he got was boilerplate about government regulations and the usual false claims that Obamacare has destroyed “millions of jobs” and caused premiums to “skyrocket.”

For the record, job growth since the Affordable Care Act went fully into effect has been the best since the 1990s, and health costs have risen much more slowly than before.

So Mr. Cruz has a truth problem. But what else can we learn from this encounter? That the Affordable Care Act is already doing enormous good. It came too late to save one man’s life, but it will surely save many others. Why, then, do we hear not just conservatives but also many progressives trashing President Obama’s biggest policy achievement?

Part of the answer is that Bernie Sanders has chosen to make re-litigating reform, and trying for single-payer, a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. So some Sanders supporters have taken to attacking Obamacare as a failed system.

We saw something similar back in 2008, when some Obama supporters temporarily became bitter opponents of the individual mandate — the requirement that everyone buy insurance — which Hillary Clintonsupported but Mr. Obama opposed. (Once in office, he in effect conceded that she had been right, and included the mandate in his initiative.)

But the truth is, Mr. Sanders is just amplifying left-wing critiques of health reform that were already out there. And some of these critiques have merit. Others don’t.

Let’s start with the good critiques, which involve coverage and cost.

The number of uninsured Americans has dropped sharply, especially in states that have tried to make the law work. But millions are still uncovered, and in some cases high deductibles make coverage less useful than it should be.

This isn’t inherent in a non-single-payer system: Other countries with Obamacare-type systems, like the Netherlands and Switzerland, do have near-universal coverage even though they rely on private insurers. But Obamacare as currently constituted doesn’t seem likely to get there, perhaps because it’s somewhat underfunded.

Meanwhile, although cost control is looking better than even reform advocates expected, America’s health care remains much more expensive than anyone else’s.

So yes, there are real issues with Obamacare. The question is how to address those issues in a politically feasible way.

But a lot of what I hear from the left is not so much a complaint about how the reform falls short as outrage that private insurers get to play any role. The idea seems to be that any role for the profit motive taints the whole effort.

That is, however, a really bad critique. Yes, Obamacare did preserve private insurance — mainly to avoid big, politically risky changes for Americans who already had good insurance, but also to buy support or at least quiescence from the insurance industry. But the fact that some insurers are making money from reform (and their profits are not, by the way, all that large) isn’t a reason to oppose that reform. The point is to help the uninsured, not to punish or demonize insurance companies.

And speaking of demonization: One unpleasant, ugly side of this debate has been the tendency of some Sanders supporters, and sometimes the campaign itself, to suggest that anyone raising questions about the senator’s proposals must be a corrupt tool of vested interests.

Recently Kenneth Thorpe, a respected health policy expert and a longtime supporter of reform, tried to put numbers on the Sanders plan, and concluded that it would cost substantially more than the campaign says. He may or may not be right, although most of the health wonks I know have reached similar conclusions.

But the campaign’s policy director immediately attacked Mr. Thorpe’s integrity: “It’s coming from a gentleman that worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield. It’s exactly what you would expect somebody who worked for B.C.B.S. to come up with.” Oh, boy.

And let’s be clear: This kind of thing can do real harm. The truth is that whomever the Democrats nominate, the general election is mainly going to be a referendum on whether we preserve the real if incomplete progress we’ve made on health, financial reform and the environment. The last thing progressives should be doing is trash-talking that progress and impugning the motives of people who are fundamentally on their side.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 1, 2016

In “Iowa’s Black Caucusgoers” Mr. Blow says despite their relatively small numbers, black voters on Monday could make a difference in the direction of the presidential campaign.  In “Italian-Iranian Hall of Mirrors” Mr. Cohen says the West has not capitulated by hiding the Capitoline nudes. But Italy has again failed the test of seriousness.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Wind, Sun and Fire:”  Will we have a renewables revolution? He says it may be closer than you think.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

On Monday, Iowans will become the first people in the nation to officially express their choices for the next president of the United States.

But what interested me in particular was that a subset of those voters will be black. And since black voters in national polls are overwhelmingly Democratic and overwhelming prefer Hillary Clinton to her rivals, it seemed important to explore how these voters are processing this election cycle and its candidates.

Over three days in Des Moines — from Friday to Sunday — I interviewed more than 30 black people, and spoke briefly to many more at a black church, a black-owned barbershop, a popular soul food restaurant and at African-American social events.

My first impression from these conversations was that there existed a staggering level of ambivalence and absence of enthusiasm. A surprising number of people said that they were undecided and started an answer with the clause, “If I had to chose …”

Furthermore, there also seemed to be a generational divide between the people who felt more embraced and informed by the political campaigns — the older ones, and those who felt more abandoned or ignored by them — the younger ones.

As Wayne Ford, co-founder and co-chairman of the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, told me Sunday, the level of excitement in the black community is “nowhere near where it was 2008” when Barack Obama was a candidate.

Also, the preference for Clinton over Bernie Sanders was a two-pronged assessment; it was a sophisticated weighing of comfort and of policy without an absolutism of good vs. bad, but rather a matter of degrees better or worse, more real or more fantasy.

On the policy front, many simply found Sanders’s policies unrealistically ambitious, an over-promising of giveaways. As one woman put it, “He sounds like Oprah: ‘You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!’ How is he going to pay for all that?”

Clinton’s ambitions seemed to be judged more realistic.

Then, there was the problem of comfort.

The Clintons seem to intuitively understand the value of retail politics, particularly when doing outreach to marginalized groups. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from black people about the time that one of the Clintons — most often Bill Clinton — spoke at or showed up at an event important to the black community.

This means something. It adds to an aura of familiarity that doesn’t extend to Sanders.

For instance, on Saturday, the second and final day of the “I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa” annual festival, billed as the largest African-American festival in the state, Hillary Clinton was the only candidate to make an appearance, albeit incredibly briefly.

(Some may recognize the phrase “I’ll make me a world” as a line in James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” from his 1927 book of poems “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” Those who don’t may already be at a deficit in African-American outreach.)

This year for the first time a straw poll was taken at the event, and Clinton got more votes than all other candidates combined.

But it seemed to me that the support was remarkably soft. People, in general, weren’t charging toward passion but slumping toward acquiescence.

The next day, Bill Clinton strode into the Corinthian Baptist Church — accompanied by Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee. While Hillary had spoken for just a few minutes at the previous day’s event, Bill spoke so long at the church that there was no time left for a sermon.

Bill Clinton seems to understand the powerful role the griot plays in black culture, and he channels that spirit when he speaks, far more than any non-black candidate I’ve seen.

Maybe that is why no one I spoke to mentioned “how much damage the Clintons have done — the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes,” as Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” put it Thursday on her Facebook page.

For Sanders’s part, he seemed to be judged too unfamiliar and too absent, particularly down the homestretch. This feels to me like a terrible tactical error. No matter how much his positions and policies may benefit black voters, they are no more interested than any other group of voters in a long-distance love affair. You have to show up. You have to put in the time.

It is true that in the last census, blacks were only 3.7 percent of the population in Iowa, but that vote matters, not only for Iowa but also as a harbinger for those who will come after.

As Rick Wade, Obama’s director of African-American outreach in 2008, told CNN last week, “In both large and small caucuses, black voters can tilt the scales when the numbers are close.” He continued: “And strong black support in Iowa could affect black response and support in South Carolina and nationally.”

As an aside, if you haven’t read “God’s Trombones” find a copy.  You won’t regret it.  Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Italy’s decision to cover up the nudes at the Capitoline Museum in deference to the sensibilities of the visiting Glasgow-educated Iranian president has been widely interpreted as final proof of the capitulation of Western civilization to theocratic Islam.

It was, Hisham Melhem, a columnist for Al Arabiya English, suggested, a “brazen act of self-emasculation and obeisance.”

If Italy, inheritor of the glories of the Roman Empire, boxes up some of its finest works of art just in case the eye of President Hassan Rouhani should fall on the plum-like breast of a marble goddess, then nobody should be surprised if Islamic fanatics (Sunni, not Shia, but still) choose to destroy the glorious Greco-Roman legacy at Palmyra.

Or so the reasoning goes.

As a consequence of Boxgate, Italy has suffered ridicule. Nothing is worse than ridicule. Here it is merited. Not so much, I would argue, for Italy’s clumsy attempt at courtesy, for courtesy is important and has become an undervalued virtue. Reading the fall of the West into the concealment of a nude is going too far. Mistakes happen.

No, the ridicule is merited because the decision to hide the works of art was, it seems, taken by nobody. In Rome, the buck stops nowhere.

The Capitoline Venus just boxed herself up one night because she was bored and took a few deities along with her.

The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, did not know. The foreign minister did not know. The culture minister called the decision “incomprehensible.” They were, they insist (perhaps too much), as surprised as anyone to find all those white cubes — none, incidentally, provided by the prestigious White Cube gallery in London.

One account has it that a woman named Ilva Sapora who works at Palazzo Chigi, where Renzi’s office is located, made the decision after visiting the Capitoline with Iranian Embassy officials. “Nonsense,” Jas Gawronski, a former Italian member of the European Parliament, told me. The notion that a mid-level Chigi official in charge of ceremonial matters could have made the decision does seem far-fetched. Gawronski believes it is more likely to have been officials at the Farnesina, home to the Foreign Ministry.

One thing can be safely said: Nobody will ever know. I was a correspondent in Rome for some years in the 1980s. Periodically there would be developments in terrorist cases — the Piazza Fontana bombing of 1969 or the Brescia bombing of 1974. Trials, verdicts, appeals followed one another. Facts grew murkier not clearer. It would take decades to arrive at convictions that did not resolve doubts. Italy has never had much time for the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.

Renzi has wanted to break with this Italy of murky secrets, modernize it, bring stable government and install accountability. He’s made significant changes in electoral and labor law. But he has a problem. At the same time as the Boxgate scandal was unfolding he was telling my colleague Jim Yardley in an interview that, “I’m the leader of a great country.”

A great country doesn’t have statues that box themselves up all by themselves.

Truth in Italy is elastic. A much-conquered country learned the wisdom of ambiguous expression, as for that matter did much-conquered Persia. The Italians say, “Se non é vero, é ben trovato” — roughly if it’s not true it ought to be.

At bottom, this story is one of an Iranian-Italian hall of mirrors with a pot of gold sitting in the middle of the hall valued at about $18 billion in new trade deals.

The Iranians insist nobody asked for those masterpieces of Classical humanism to be hidden: another case of nobody’s decision.

Iran too distrusts clarity. It is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof,” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.

Speaking of truth denial, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has again questioned the existence of the Holocaust. He chose to do so in a video uploaded to his website on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is to be another “Holocaust Cartoon and Caricature Contest” in June.

Needless to say this Holocaust denial is odious, the regime at its worst. It is also a sign of desperation among the hard-liners determined to block Rouhani’s opening to the world. They reckon Holocaust denial will derail any détente. The buzzword of the hard-liners is “nufuz,” or infiltration by the West. Iranians are being warned to guard against it in this month’s parliamentary elections.

You can hide a few statues in the Capitoline Museum, but you can’t hide the deep rifts between an Iranian society overwhelmingly in favor of opening to the West and a theocratic regime determined to ensure the nuclear deal does not lead to wider cooperation with the United States and Europe.

Far from finding itself in a state of capitulation, the West exerts a very powerful cultural magnetism, evident in the rabid desperation of its opponents.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So what’s really at stake in this year’s election? Well, among other things, the fate of the planet.

Last year was the hottest on record, by a wide margin, which should — but won’t — put an end to climate deniers’ claims that global warming has stopped. The truth is that climate change just keeps getting scarier; it is, by far, the most important policy issue facing America and the world. Still, this election wouldn’t have much bearing on the issue if there were no prospect of effective action against the looming catastrophe.

But the situation on that front has changed drastically for the better in recent years, because we’re now achingly close to achieving a renewable-energy revolution. What’s more, getting that energy revolution wouldn’t require a political revolution. All it would take are fairly modest policy changes, some of which have already happened and others of which are already underway. But those changes won’t happen if the wrong people end up in power.

To see what I’m talking about, you need to know something about the current state of climate economics, which has changed far more in recent years than most people seem to realize.

Most people who think about the issue at all probably imagine that achieving a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would necessarily involve big economic sacrifices. This view is required orthodoxy on the right, where it forms a sort of second line of defense against action, just in case denial of climate science and witch hunts against climate scientists don’t do the trick. For example, in the last Republican debate Marco Rubio — the last, best hope of the G.O.P. establishment — insisted, as he has before, that a cap-and-trade program would be “devastating for our economy.”

To find anything equivalent on the left you have to go far out of the mainstream, to activists who insist that climate change can’t be fought without overthrowing capitalism. Still, my sense is that many Democrats believe that politics as usual isn’t up to the task, that we need a political earthquake to make real action possible. In particular, I keep hearing that the Obama administration’s environmental efforts have been so far short of what’s needed as to be barely worth mentioning.

But things are actually much more hopeful than that, thanks to remarkable technological progress in renewable energy.

The numbers are really stunning. According to a recent report by the investment firm Lazard, the cost of electricity generation using wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power fell 82 percent. These numbers — which are in line with other estimates — show progress at rates we normally only expect to see for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.

Now, there are still some issues special to renewables, in particular problems of intermittency: consumers may want power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But this issue seems to be of diminishing significance, partly thanks to improving storage technology, partly thanks to the realization that “demand response” — paying consumers to cut energy use during peak periods — can greatly reduce the problem.

So what will it take to achieve a large-scale shift from fossil fuels to renewables, a shift to sun and wind instead of fire? Financial incentives, and they don’t have to be all that huge. Tax credits for renewables that were part of the Obama stimulus plan, and were extended under the recent budget deal, have already done a lot to accelerate the energy revolution. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which if implemented will create strong incentives to move away from coal, will do much more.

And none of this will require new legislation; we can have an energy revolution even if the crazies retain control of the House.

Now, skeptics may point out that even if all these good things happen, they won’t be enough on their own to save the planet. For one thing, we’re only talking about electricity generation, which is a big part of the climate change problem but not the whole thing. For another, we’re only talking about one country when the problem is global.

But I’d argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point, in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let us take the lead in global action.

Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary. But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging in the balance.

Brooks, Bruni, and Krugman

January 29, 2016

Bobo thinks he knows “What Republicans Should Say.”  He says David Cameron has outlined a truly conservative, pragmatic response to poverty, and we need an American version of it.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “This is why conservatives make my skin crawl. They treat poverty as a disease that some people catch, and then try to cure it by improving their character. Feed them religion instead of steak. Teach them how to live in poverty instead of paying higher wages.  Conservatives fret about values, as if they don’t emerge from the day-to-day experiences of people who struggle through unemployment and the economic abandonment of entire cities.”  Mr. Bruni, in “G.O.P. Debate Stars the Ghost of Donald Trump,” says during a night of spirited exchanges, there was no getting away from the spirit of the missing Republican front-runner.  In “Plutocrats and Prejudice” Prof. Krugman says an unspoken agenda is behind the ugliness in American politics.  Here’s Bobo:

For a few decades, American and British conservatism marched in tandem. Thatcher was philosophically akin to Reagan. John Major was akin to George Bush.

But now the two conservatisms have split. The key divide is over what to do about the slow-motion devastation being felt by the less educated, the working class and the poor.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have appealed to working-class voters mostly by blaming outsiders. If we could kick out all the immigrants there wouldn’t be lawbreakers driving down wages. If we could dismantle the Washington cartel the economy would rise.

In Britain David Cameron is going down another path. This month he gave a speech called “Life Chances.” Not to give away the ending or anything, but I’d give a lung to have a Republican politician give a speech like that in this country.

First, he defined the role of government: basic security. In a world full of risks, government can help furnish a secure base from which people can work, dream and rise.

Cameron argued that both sides in the debate over poverty suffered real limitations because they still used 20th-century thinking. The left has traditionally wanted to use the state to redistribute money downward. The right has traditionally relied on the market to generate the growth that lifts all boats.

The welfare state and the market are important, but, he argues, “talk to a single mum on a poverty-stricken estate, someone who suffers from chronic depression, someone who perhaps drinks all day to numb the pain of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Tell her that because her benefits have risen by a couple of pounds a week, she and her children have been magically lifted out of poverty. Or on the other hand, if you told her about the great opportunities created by our market economy, I expect she’ll ask you what planet you’re actually on.”

Cameron called for a more social approach. He believes government can play a role in rebuilding social capital and in healing some of the traumas fueled by scarcity and family breakdown.

He laid out a broad agenda: Strengthen family bonds with shared parental leave and a tax code that rewards marriage. Widen opportunities for free marital counseling. Speed up the adoption process. Create a voucher program for parenting classes. Expand the Troubled Families program by 400,000 slots. This program spends 4,000 pounds (about $5,700) per family over three years and uses family coaches to help heal the most disrupted households.

Cameron would also create “character modules” for schools, so that there are intentional programs that teach resilience, curiosity, honesty and service. He would expand the National Citizen Service so that by 2021 60 percent of the nation’s 16-year-olds are performing national service, and meeting others from across society. He wants to create a program to recruit 25,000 mentors to work with young teenagers.

To address concentrated poverty, he would replace or revamp 100 public housing projects across the country. He would invest big sums in mental health programs and create a social impact fund to unlock millions for new drug and alcohol treatment.

It’s an agenda that covers the entire life cycle, aiming to give people the strength and social resources to stand on their own. In the U.S. we could use exactly this sort of agenda. There is an epidemic of isolation, addiction and trauma.

According to an AARP survey, one-third of adults over 45 report being chronically lonely. Drug overdose deaths of people ages 45 to 64 increased 11-fold between 1990 and 2010. More than half the American births to women under 30 are outside of marriage. Poorer parents are too strained and stressed to spend as much quality time raising their kids. According to the sociologist Robert Putnam, college-educated parents spend 50 percent more “Goodnight Moon” time with their kids than less-educated parents.

Meanwhile social support systems are fraying, especially for those without a college degree. Religious affiliation is plummeting. Since 1990 the number of people who declare no religious preference has tripled. Social trust is declining. Only 18 percent of high school seniors say that most people can be trusted.

There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop.

The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives.

But Republicans have walked away from their traditional Burkean turf. The two leading Republican presidential candidates offer little more than nativism and demagogy.

David Cameron has offered an agenda for a nation that is coming apart. There desperately needs to be an American version.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Des Moines:

Donald Trump’s absence, of course, was the most compelling presence.

At the Republican debate here on Thursday night, Fox News didn’t put up an empty lectern. It didn’t need to. Trump was remembered. Trump was invoked. His ghost lingered, because he’d reshaped his Republican rivals’ images, reconfigured the challenges in front of them, rewritten the rules of this extraordinary race.

“Let’s address the elephant not in the room tonight,” said Megyn Kelly at the very start, and there was no doubt that the tusked behemoth in question had an oddly shaped swirl of vaguely cantaloupe-colored hair. She then asked Ted Cruz what message Trump’s failure to attend the event sent to the voters of Iowa.

Cruz didn’t just discuss Trump. He imitated him.

“I’m a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly,” Cruz said. Addressing Ben Carson, he added: “You’re a terrible surgeon.”

“Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way,” he continued, “I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up.”

He was mocking Trump, but in the process affirmed that everything revolves around Trump.

Almost a half-hour later, he was still making fun of Trump.

“If you guys ask one more mean question, I may have to leave the stage,” Cruz warned sarcastically.

Marco Rubio got in on the action by chiming in: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.” The point of reference remained Trump, who was also the subject of some of the first words out of Jeb Bush’s mouth.

“I kind of miss Donald Trump,” Bush said. “He was a little teddy bear to me.” He then claimed that in debates past, he had taken on Trump more boldly than any of his competitors on the stage. Trump, in other words, was the proof of his mettle, the dragon that he alone set out to slay.

Shortly before the event began, Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, tweeted, “Republican candidates must be looking forward to tonight’s debate. Speaking without Donald getting all attention.”

Wishful thinking.

Trump got plenty of attention, because the drama offstage matched the drama onstage. For the two days leading up to the event, the main story — seemingly the only story — was his decision to skip it: Political suicide or stroke of genius?

In the hours before it, CNN could speak of almost nothing but Trump. It kept flashing footage of the fan-packed rally he had orchestrated just a couple of miles from the debate, to compete with it.

“There are thousands who have waited hours throughout the day,” the anchor Erin Burnett marveled.

When her colleague Anderson Cooper then interviewed a CNN correspondent at the debate itself, the first question he asked her was about how the debaters were likely to adjust to a Trump-less event.

“His shadow is looming large, even though he is not there,” Cooper said to the correspondent, then he turned to the network’s panel of political analysts, who talked about Trump, Trump, Trump.

And here I am, writing about Trump, Trump, Trump.

It’s impossible not to. It would be irresponsible not to, because believe it or not, hate it or love it, he’s the Republican campaign’s great and sobering lesson to the country, telling us things about its discontents that we didn’t properly understand. He’s the campaign’s undeniable force of gravity, exerting a pull on everyone and everything around him.

You could feel that pull at the debate, where the toughness with which Kelly grilled Cruz and Rubio on immigration — even showing footage of past remarks that caught them in flips, flops and contradictions — was a clear demonstration of her readiness to put any candidate on the skewer, not just Trump.

You could feel that pull in the fieriness of many candidates’ manners and the extremes to which they pushed their positions. Trump has set the temperature of the conversation, and it’s a blistering one that had Rubio pledging over and over to keep Guantánamo Bay open and stuff it full of terrorists.

You could feel that pull above all in the duration and emotionalism of the immigration discussion itself. It’s Trump’s promised wall and Trump’s pledges to deport millions of immigrants that have made this issue so prominent and compelled Republican candidates to take harder lines than they previously had.

On Thursday night, those lines tripped up Rubio and Cruz, whose difficult time onstage had everything to do with the fact that Trump wasn’t there. He’s the front-runner; he would have been the main target. Without him, they drew more fire.

“I’m kind of confused,” Bush said of Rubio’s approach to immigration reform over the years. “He led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, for 30 years. And then he cut and run because it wasn’t popular among conservatives, I guess.”

Rubio didn’t have a persuasive response, but later went after Cruz, insinuating that he once had an approach to immigration less unyielding than the one he’s promoting on the campaign trail.

“Now you want to trump Trump on immigration,” Rubio said.

Political observers have been waiting for Rubio’s breakout moment, and many predicted that he’d have it at this debate. He didn’t. Put frequently on the defensive, he reverted to lines he’d used before and nuggets from his stump speech, and he kept returning to ISIS and military might, military might and ISIS. He came across as overly programmed, one-dimensional and itchy to go to war.

And Cruz couldn’t banish a sour expression and an air of grievance.

Three of the underdogs — Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul — had the best moments. Christie circled back too frequently to his beloved, overworked boast that he would make sure that Hillary Clinton never again got close to the White House, but he had a terrific retort to Cruz’s and Rubio’s explanations of their legislative histories on immigration reform.

“I feel like I need a Washington-to-English dictionary,” Christie said.

Bush was genuinely funny, as when he reintroduced Trump toward the end of the debate.

“I mentioned his name again just if anybody was missing him,” Bush said.

Missing him? Not really. I’d be glad to have him gone for good.

But he isn’t and he wasn’t, not on a night when the candidates molded their answers to the reality (and the reality show) that he’s created, not when they felt obliged to bring him up, not when he dominated the discussion without even taking part of it. Nifty trick, that.

Elephant, bear, dragon: Those aren’t the right beasts.

What the debate made clear is that Trump is all fox.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Every time you think that our political discourse can’t get any worse, it does. The Republican primary fight has devolved into a race to the bottom, achieving something you might have thought impossible: making George W. Bush look like a beacon of tolerance and statesmanship. But where is all the nastiness coming from?

Well, there’s debate about that — and it’s a debate that is at the heart of the Democratic contest.

Like many people, I’ve described the competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as an argument between competing theories of change, which it is. But underlying that argument is a deeper dispute about what’s wrong with America, what brought us to the state we’re in.

To oversimplify a bit — but only, I think, a bit — the Sanders view is that money is the root of all evil. Or more specifically, the corrupting influence of big money, of the 1 percent and the corporate elite, is the overarching source of the political ugliness we see all around us.

The Clinton view, on the other hand, seems to be that money is the root of some evil, maybe a lot of evil, but it isn’t the whole story. Instead, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are powerful forces in their own right. This may not seem like a very big difference — both candidates oppose prejudice, both want to reduce economic inequality. But it matters for political strategy.

As you might guess, I’m on the many-evils side of this debate. Oligarchy is a very real issue, and I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today’s Sanders supporters were in elementary school. But it’s important to understand how America’s oligarchs got so powerful.

For they didn’t get there just by buying influence (which is not to deny that there’s a lot of influence-buying out there). Crucially, the rise of the American hard right was the rise of a coalition, an alliance between an elite seeking low taxes and deregulation and a base of voters motivated by fears of social change and, above all, by hostility toward you-know-who.

Yes, there was a concerted, successful effort by billionaires to push America to the right. That’s not conspiracy theorizing; it’s just history, documented at length in Jane Mayer’s eye-opening new book “Dark Money.” But that effort wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as it has without the political aftermath of the Civil Rights Act, and the resulting flip of Southern white voters to the G.O.P.

Until recently you could argue that whatever the motivations of conservative voters, the oligarchs remained firmly in control. Racial dog whistles, demagogy on abortion and so on would be rolled out during election years, then put back into storage while the Republican Party focused on its real business of enabling shadow banking and cutting top tax rates.

But in this age of Trump, not so much. The 1 percent has no problems with immigration that brings in cheap labor; it doesn’t want a confrontation over Planned Parenthood; but the base isn’t taking guidance the way it used to.

In any case, however, the question for progressives is what all of this says about political strategy.

If the ugliness in American politics is all, or almost all, about the influence of big money, then working-class voters who support the right are victims of false consciousness. And it might — might — be possible for a candidate preaching economic populism to break through this false consciousness, thereby achieving a revolutionary restructuring of the political landscape, by making a sufficiently strong case that he’s on their side. Some activists go further and call on Democrats to stop talking about social issues other than income inequality, although Mr. Sanders hasn’t gone there.

On the other hand, if the divisions in American politics aren’t just about money, if they reflect deep-seated prejudices that progressives simply can’t appease, such visions of radical change are naïve. And I believe that they are.

That doesn’t say that movement toward progressive goals is impossible — America is becoming both more diverse and more tolerant over time. Look, for example, at how quickly opposition to gay marriage has gone from a reliable vote-getter for the right to a Republican liability.

But there’s still a lot of real prejudice out there, and probably enough so that political revolution from the left is off the table. Instead, it’s going to be a hard slog at best.

Is this an unacceptably downbeat vision? Not to my eyes. After all, one reason the right has gone so berserk is that the Obama years have in fact been marked by significant if incomplete progressive victories, on health policy, taxes, financial reform and the environment. And isn’t there something noble, even inspiring, about fighting the good fight, year after year, and gradually making things better?

Blow and Krugman

January 25, 2016

In “Hillary Clinton Stumbles” Mr. Blow says although Bernie Sanders has electability issues, the Clinton campaign has made mistakes that give him a better chance at the nomination.  Prof. Krugman considers “Michigan’s Great Stink,” ideology and the neglect of public health.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In October, when Hillary Clinton made a spectacle of the congressional Benghazi committee during a marathon interrogation that seemed designed to make a spectacle of her, she emerged stronger than ever. Herpolls numbers surged.

That performance had come on the heels of a strong debate performancethe week before in the first Democratic presidential debate.

She had bolstered the image she wanted to project: strong, smart, capable and battle-tested.

But now, on the verge of Monday night’s Democratic town hall in Iowa — the last time the candidates will face off before the caucuses in that state — and with Bernie Sanders’s poll numbers climbing not only in Iowa, but also in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign seems increasingly desperate and reckless.

I noticed the turn in the last debate as Clinton seemed to me to go too far in her attacks on Sanders, while simultaneously painting herself into a box that will be very hard to escape.

She wrapped herself in President Obama’s legacy so tightly that she could hardly breathe, and then built an image of herself as a practical politician who could build on Obama’s accomplishments by taking small steps and negotiating tough deals.

But practicality and incrementalism, as reasonable as that strategy and persona may be, are simply no match for what animates the Sanders campaign — a kind of kinetic, even if sometimes overblown, idealism. His is a passionate exposition of liberalism — and yes, democratic socialism — in its most positive light.

But, let me be clear and unequivocal: I find his earnest philosophic positions to be clear and often laudable, but also somewhat quixotic. I think that he is promising far more than even he knows he can deliver, and the electability question is still a real one, even though polls now show him matching up well against possible Republican opponents.

For instance, Sanders’s plan for universal health care is an admirable ambition of any true liberal, but as presented seems to me unworkable, and the prospect of getting it passed through this Congress or any Congress that vaguely resembles it is nil. Congress has voted to repeal Obamacare, which is far shy of Sanders’s proposal, more than 60 times. Suggesting that it would pass something even more expansive is mere fantasy.

When Sanders is pressed on how he will accomplish his ambitious goals, he often responds with the nebulous answer that it will require a “political revolution,” which seems to mean energizing and engaging an unprecedented number of new voters who would not only ensure his election but flip control of the Senate and possibly the House.

Interesting, but also unlikely. Go talk to all the Blue Dog Democrats who lost their seats in the wake of Obamacare passage. Go talk to all the voters who are being disenfranchised by new voter suppression laws. Go talk to all the poor people who live in states where conservative voters ensure Republican leadership, and therefore prevent Medicaid from being expanded in their states.

There are political realities that exist in America that can be changed sometimes, and often are, but that are not often subject to sea changes.

Furthermore, Sanders likes to tout that he doesn’t have a “super PAC” and doesn’t want one. That is a principled position. But the Republican candidate will have the support of many super PACs, awash in hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money, and the Republican nominee himself might even be a billionaire. They are going to beat Sanders like he is a nail with the “socialist” label and his proposal on new taxation. Middle of the spectrum Middle America is likely to be very susceptible to this negative messaging.

But instead of Clinton finding a way to express that her plans are more tangible than Sanders’s, and her chances in the general election are stronger than his, she and her campaign have made some incredulous inferences about Sanders’s honor.

The swipes at him as being soft on the gun industry as some way of cozying up to it, or of being anti-Obama because he wanted Obama to be stronger in pursuing a liberal agenda, or that he wants to scrap Obamacare, simply do not connect.

Sanders may be a dreamer, but he’s not dishonorable. Trying to sully him in this way only sullies her.

There are a tremendous number of echoes starting to be heard between the way Clinton ran against Obama, and the way she is running against Sanders.

Clinton has what political insiders call the “firewall”: Overwhelming support among black and Hispanic voters in Southern and some Western states. But a win by Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire could supply a boost of momentum that could greatly erode the Clinton firewall.

If Clinton can’t find a positive, energetic message to project, and soon, she is going to be swept away by Sanders.

Some part of Sanders’s proposals and even his vision for this country may indeed be a fairy tale. But in the 2008 race, Bill Clinton criticized Obamaand his position on the Iraq war as a “fairy tale.” Well fairy tales sometimes come true, particularly when Hillary Clinton stumbles.

Brooks and Krugman

January 22, 2016

In “The Anxieties of Impotence” Bobo tells us that the sense of powerlessness that is sweeping our nation and the world can only be addressed by rebuilding our institutions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Nice try, Mr. Brooks, but our political dysfunction is not the result of some diffuse or indefinable failure of our institutions. It’s the result of a herd of musty conservative ideologues that went on a rampage, bent on destruction, and taking no prisoners. … The feeling of powerlessness that we experienced was the goal. Republicans knew that voters in pain would vote for change, so they sought to make government as painful as possible. This strategy delivered a midterm Republican majority in the House and Senate, and gave them the power they wanted. But instead of using it to build, they tried to destroy affordable health care, filibustered endlessly and impotently, and generally wasted time and resources on tearing down the government they wanted so badly to run.”  I do so hope that Bobo is tied to a chair and has the comments read to him.  Prof. Krugman considers “How Change Happens” and says idealism is nice, but it’s not a virtue without tough minded realism.  Here’s Bobo:

In 1936 George Orwell wrote a magnificent essay called “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell had been working as a British police officer in Burma, enforcing colonial rule. An elephant had gone “must,” broken its chains, trampled some homes and killed a man.

As Orwell walked, gun in hand, toward the elephant, a crowd of over 2,000 Burmese gathered behind him. They hated him, but it would be a diverting spectacle to see an elephant shot and they could use the meat. Orwell didn’t want to shoot the poor creature, whose “must,” or frenzied state, had passed and who was peacefully eating grass. But he felt the pressure of the crowd behind him. They’d laugh at him if he didn’t kill the thing.

“I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind,” Orwell wrote. And so he subjected the animal to a long and agonizing death.

In his essay nobody feels like they have any power. The locals, the imperial victims, sure didn’t. Orwell, the guy with the gun, didn’t feel like he had any. The imperialists back in London were too far away.

That’s sort of the way much of the world is today. As Anand Giridharadas writes in The International New York Times, “If anything unites America in this fractious moment it is a widespread sentiment that power is somewhere other than where you are.”

The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do. The Pew Research Center asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of Americans, with majorities of both parties, believe their side has been losing more.

These days people seem to underestimate their own power or suffer from what Giridharadas calls the “anxiety of impotence.”

Sometimes when groups feel oppressed, they organize by coming up with concrete reform proposals to empower themselves. The Black Lives Matter movement is doing this.

But in other cases the feeling of absolute powerlessness can corrupt absolutely. As psychological research has shown, many people who feel powerless come to feel unworthy, and become complicit in their own oppression. Some exaggerate the weight and size of the obstacles in front of them. Some feel dehumanized, forsaken, doomed and guilty.

Today we live in a world of isolation and atomization, where people distrust their own institutions. In such circumstances many people respond to powerlessness with pointless acts of self-destruction.

In the Palestinian territories, for example, young people don’t organize or work with their government to improve their prospects. They wander into Israel, try to stab a soldier or a pregnant woman and get shot or arrested — every single time. They throw away their lives for a pointless and usually botched moment of terrorism.

In a different way, the American election has been perverted by feelings of powerlessness.

Americans are beset by complex, intractable problems that don’t have a clear villain: technological change displaces workers; globalization and the rapid movement of people destabilize communities; family structure dissolves; the political order in the Middle East teeters, the Chinese economy craters, inequality rises, the global order frays, etc.

To address these problems we need big, responsible institutions (power centers) that can mobilize people, cobble together governing majorities and enact plans of actions. In the U.S. context that means functioning political parties and a functioning Congress.

Those institutions have been weakened of late. Parties have been rendered weak by both campaign finance laws and the Citizens United decision, which have cut off their funding streams and given power to polarized super-donors who work outside the party system. Congress has been weakened by polarization and disruptive members who don’t believe in legislating.

Instead of shoring up these institutions, many voters are inclined to make everything worse. Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain. Donald Trump says stupid elites are the problem. Ted Cruz says it’s the Washington cartel. Bernie Sanders says it’s Wall Street.

The fact is, for all the problems we may have with Wall Street or Washington, our biggest problems are systemic — the disruptions caused by technological progress and globalization, mass migration, family breakdown and so on. There’s no all-controlling Wizard of Oz to slay.

If we’re to have any hope of addressing big systemic problems we’ll have to repair big institutions and have functioning parties and a functioning Congress. We have to discard the anti-political, anti-institutional mood that is prevalent and rebuild effective democratic power centers.

This requires less atomization and more collective action, fewer strongmen but greater citizenship. It requires the craft of political architecture, not the demagogy of destruction.

Bobo, here’s a large plate of salted rat dicks for you.  Eat up.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

There are still quite a few pundits determined to pretend that America’s two great parties are symmetric — equally unwilling to face reality, equally pushed into extreme positions by special interests and rabid partisans. It’s nonsense, of course. Planned Parenthood isn’t the same thing as the Koch brothers, nor is Bernie Sanders the moral equivalent of Ted Cruz. And there’s no Democratic counterpart whatsoever to Donald Trump.

Moreover, when self-proclaimed centrist pundits get concrete about the policies they want, they have to tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting that what they’re describing are basically the positions of a guy named Barack Obama.

Still, there are some currents in our political life that do run through both parties. And one of them is the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.

You see this on the right among hard-line conservatives, who insist that only the cowardice of Republican leaders has prevented the rollback of every progressive program instituted in the past couple of generations. Actually, you also see a version of this tendency among genteel, country-club-type Republicans, who continue to imagine that they represent the party’s mainstream even as polls show that almost two-thirds of likely primary voters support Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz or Ben Carson.

Meanwhile, on the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions. In 2008 that contingent rallied behind Mr. Obama; now they’re backing Mr. Sanders, who has adopted such a purist stance that the other day he dismissed Planned Parenthood (which has endorsed Hillary Clinton) as part of the “establishment.”

But as Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.

Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.

There’s a sort of mini-dispute among Democrats over who can claim to be Mr. Obama’s true heir — Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton? But the answer is obvious: Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama. (In fact, the health reform we got was basically her proposal, not his.)

Could Mr. Obama have been more transformational? Maybe he could have done more at the margins. But the truth is that he was elected under the most favorable circumstances possible, a financial crisis that utterly discredited his predecessor — and still faced scorched-earth opposition from Day 1.

And the question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.

Remember, too, that the institutions F.D.R. created were add-ons, not replacements: Social Security didn’t replace private pensions, unlike the Sanders proposal to replace private health insurance with single-payer. Oh, and Social Security originally covered only half the work force, and as a result largely excluded African-Americans.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that someone like Mr. Sanders is unelectable, although Republican operatives would evidently rather face him than Mrs. Clinton — they know that his current polling is meaningless, because he has never yet faced their attack machine. But even if he was to become president, he would end up facing the same harsh realities that constrained Mr. Obama.

The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.

Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

January 18, 2016

In “G.O.P. and the Apocalypse” Mr. Blow says the Republican candidates are sending such a negative message that it may backfire in the general election.  In “Iran Opens for Business” Mr. Cohen says Netanyahu and Rubio are wrong, and that toughness is no more than empty aggression when it will not admit to misjudgment.  Prof. Krugman has a question in “Health Reform Realities:”  Should progressives re-litigate Obamacare? He says there are many reasons to think that it just wouldn’t work.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week I suffered through another dust-dry Republican debate in which a slimmed-down roster of seven candidates leveled many of the same attacks and regurgitated many of the same staid pitches.

There were a few flashes of life that caught my attention or made me chuckle:

Ted Cruz debuting some entertaining lines of attack to rebuff the questions the real estate developer keeps raising about whether Cruz is indeed a “natural born citizen” and able to become president. The real estate developer managed a surprisingly maudlin moment when he rebuked, quite successfully, Cruz for his outrageous us-against-them comments about “New York values.” Jeb Bush calling the perpetual squabbling between Marco Rubio and Cruz a “back and forth between two senators — backbench senators.”

But what struck me most about the debate was just how unremittingly bleak the tone of it was.

These Republican candidates have countered Obama’s “ Hope” and “Change” message from 2008 and “Forward” message from 2012 with “War” and “Ruin” and “Backwards.”

There seemed to be a competition to see who could describe the state of the country.

Understandably, a candidate has to identify a problem that they plan to fix. That’s simply the nature of politics. If there is no problem to fix, there is no need of a fixer.

Democrats are identifying problems as well.

Bernie Sanders has identified Wall Street greed, the “casino capitalist process” and income inequality as the enemy, and himself as the only one in the race with the credibility and philosophical track record to bring them to heel.

Hillary Clinton has identified Republicans and the prospects of their dismantling the progress made under the Obama presidency as her enemy, and she has positioned herself as the only logical heir to the current president, to protect his legacy and build on it.

But even as the Democratic candidates point to very real concerns, they seem to my mind also able to offer a vision of hopefulness and idealism.

Republicans are missing the second shoe. They are describing a coming apocalypse from which we must be saved, not a future that is full of light. Indeed, it is as if they must inflate some mythical beast so that they will appear more valiant in their quest to slay it. Everything is about arms and war and the Islamic State, guns and taxes and joblessness. It is about taking the country back to a different posture, a different period.

I can’t imagine that this will work in the end. While fear and anger can be effective electoral motivators, presidents are often elected on messages that carry a positive vision.

That positive vision is achingly absent from the Republican field. At least Ben Carson, with his meandering, absent-minded answer, came across as positive — not by his policies so much as by his soft-spoken, easy to laugh, slow to attack demeanor. But even that, during the most recent debate, didn’t work. Carson came off as more jester than that cogent candidate. When asked a question early in the debate, Carson responded with awkward self-deprecation: “Well, I’m very happy to get a question this early on. I was going to ask you to wake me up when that time came.” Oh Ben, they always look like they are waking you.

Most of the rest of the evening was consumed by the negative.

The real estate developer: “Our country’s a mess.” Later: “I’m angry because our country is a mess.”

Bush: “We have the mess in Washington, D.C.” Later, on Hillary Clinton: “She wants to continue down the path of Iran, Benghazi, the Russian reset, Dodd-Frank, all the things that have — that have gone wrong in this country. She would be a national security mess.”

Chris Christie: “There’s a number of things that the next president is going to have to do to clean up this mess.”

But, mess wasn’t always a strong enough word, so they sometimes amped it up.

Rubio: “She wouldn’t just be a disaster. Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander in chief of the United States.”

The real estate developer: “Our military is a disaster.”

Bush: “Hillary Clinton would be a national security disaster.” Later: “Everybody’s record’s going to be scrutinized, and at the end of the day we need to unite behind the winner so we can defeat Hillary Clinton, because she is a disaster.”

It isn’t completely clear to me the relationship between the candidates’ rhetoric and the prevailing views of Republican voters: Are the candidates merely a reflection of the disaffected base, are the candidates helping to create the disaffection, or do they all exist in a national echo chamber amplifying each other?

But whatever the origins or the source of the expansion, this strikes me as a losing strategy. At some point, someone among the Republican candidates will have to offer a positive message to reach the middle of the voter spectrum and the crossover voters that one needs to win the presidency. If not, this field is destined to be remembered as a group of hyperbolic doomsayers rather than as successful presidential politicians.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Some people cannot stand good news. It troubles their fixed view of the world. These would include Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican presidential candidate, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who were cast into a huff by the confirmed reversal of Iran’s nuclear program and its release of several Americans, including Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post.

Try a smile, guys. Toughness is no more than empty aggression when it will not admit to misjudgment. Diplomacy delivers.

Rezaian is coming home after a year and a half of groundless imprisonment. An American pastor and a former Marine will be reunited with their families. Iran had more than 19,000 first-generation centrifuges installed; that number is now 6,104. Its advanced centrifuges have been slashed from over 1,000 to zero. Its low-enriched uranium stockpile has been cut to 660 pounds from over 19,000.

The plutonium route to a bomb has been cut off. Iran is subject to what President Obama called “the most comprehensive, intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.” The country’s “break-out” time — the period needed to rush for a bomb — has been extended to a year from two to three months.

The trauma-induced Iranian-American psychosis, ongoing since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, has been overcome. Two tireless diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and the University of Denver-educated Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speak when needed. American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters are released within 24 hours. A financial dispute outstanding since 1981 is resolved. The world’s 18th-largest economy is about to rejoin the world at a time when the sinking global economy sure could use a jolt. The nuclear deal, even in these early days, is not hermetic. It opens doors.

To all of which Rubio responds that Obama has put “a price on the head of every American abroad” when he should have used “crippling sanctions” (oh, please, not that crippled phrase again). Netanyahu actually claims that if it were not for Israel “leading the way” on sanctions, “Iran would have had a nuclear weapon long ago.” Iran, he baritones, “has not relinquished its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons.”

That may be — or not. We can all go guessing in the Iranian bazaar. Nothing comes cheaper than an Iran pontificator.

What is clear is that Iran is much further from a nuclear weapon because of the courageous diplomacy of Obama and Kerry and Zarif and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who all confronted hostile constituencies at home to get the deal done.

For Iran, the arrival of “implementation day” means the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions and access to about $100 billion in frozen assets. A big nation is open for business again, back in the global financial system and world oil market.

Netanyahu, Rubio and their ilk believe Iran will use the windfall to do its worst. That cannot be discounted. The United States and Iran remain hostile on most fronts, from Syria to Israel. Revolutionary Guard hard-liners have not drunk the Kool-Aid at the Rouhani-Zarif school of diplomacy. Obama’s imposition of mild new sanctions for banned missile tests was a reminder of differences.

But if the developments of recent days demonstrate one thing, it is that Iran, 37 years from its revolution, is delicately poised between hard-liners and reformers, neither of whom can dictate the country’s course, each of whom need the other for now. Imminent parliamentary elections may indicate which camp is ascendant. Whatever happens, it is hard to argue that greater contact with the world will be bad for the large, modernizing, highly educated younger generation. Iran is a pro-American country with a tired anti-American refrain. It has a successful diaspora community ready to help revive the country — if allowed to do so.

The breakthrough with Iran is Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement, one that may have a transformative effect on the region. The next decade will show to what degree. That potential is what has American allies from Saudi Arabia to Israel so perturbed. They preferred the status quo.

Of course it could all unravel. Predicting Doomsday is easy. But with hard work, I believe the chances are greater that American-Iranian diplomatic relations will be restored within five years.

The Economist had a good summary of why Iran’s reintegration is so important and consequential. It noted that “the prospects in a post-deal Iran are vast.” The country is not “an oil-soaked rentier state,” like some of its neighbors, but a “regional power with an industrial economy” — if a grossly mismanaged one. Its population of 80 million is well-educated, its oil and gas reserves enormous. The country’s pent-up need for foreign investment may amount to $1 trillion. Iran, it concluded, is “preparing for takeoff.”

Try saying the word Iran without saying the word “nuclear.” It’s time. In fact, it’s past time, even if good news is too much for some.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Health reform is the signature achievement of the Obama presidency. It was the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare was established in the 1960s. It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations. And it is already producing dramatic results, with the percentage of uninsured Americans falling to record lows.

Obamacare is, however, what engineers would call a kludge: a somewhat awkward, clumsy device with lots of moving parts. This makes it more expensive than it should be, and will probably always cause a significant number of people to fall through the cracks.

The question for progressives — a question that is now central to the Democratic primary — is whether these failings mean that they should re-litigate their own biggest political success in almost half a century, and try for something better.

My answer, as you might guess, is that they shouldn’t, that they should seek incremental change on health care (Bring back the public option!) and focus their main efforts on other issues — that is, that Bernie Sanders is wrong about this and Hillary Clinton is right. But the main point is that we should think clearly about why health reform looks the way it does.

If we could start from scratch, many, perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer, a Medicare-type program covering everyone. But single-payer wasn’t a politically feasible goal in America, for three big reasons that aren’t going away.

First, like it or not, incumbent players have a lot of power. Private insurers played a major part in killing health reform in the early 1990s, so this time around reformers went for a system that preserved their role and gave them plenty of new business.

Second, single-payer would require a lot of additional tax revenue — and we would be talking about taxes on the middle class, not just the wealthy. It’s true that higher taxes would be offset by a sharp reduction or even elimination of private insurance premiums, but it would be difficult to make that case to the broad public, especially given the chorus of misinformation you know would dominate the airwaves.

Finally, and I suspect most important, switching to single-payer would impose a lot of disruption on tens of millions of families who currently have good coverage through their employers. You might say that they would end up just as well off, and it might well be true for most people — although not those with especially good policies. But getting voters to believe that would be a very steep climb.

What this means, as the health policy expert Harold Pollack points out, is that a simple, straightforward single-payer system just isn’t going to happen. Even if you imagine a political earthquake that eliminated the power of the insurance industry and objections to higher taxes, you’d still have to protect the interests of workers with better-than-average coverage, so that in practice single-payer, American style, would be almost as kludgy as Obamacare.

Which brings me to the Affordable Care Act, which was designed to bypass these obstacles. It was careful to preserve and even enlarge the role of private insurers. Its measures to cover the uninsured rely on a combination of regulation and subsidies, rather than simply on an expansion of government programs, so that the on-budget cost is limited — and can, in fact, be covered without raising middle-class taxes. Perhaps most crucially, it leaves employer-based insurance intact, so that the great majority of Americans have experienced no disruption, in fact no change in their health-care experience.

Even so, achieving this reform was a close-run thing: Democrats barely got it through during the brief period when they controlled Congress. Is there any realistic prospect that a drastic overhaul could be enacted any time soon — say, in the next eight years? No.

You might say that it’s still worth trying. But politics, like life, involves trade-offs.

There are many items on the progressive agenda, ranging from an effective climate change policy, to making college affordable for all, to restoring some of the lost bargaining power of workers. Making progress on any of these items is going to be a hard slog, even if Democrats hold the White House and, less likely, retake the Senate. Indeed, room for maneuver will be limited even if a post-Trump Republican Party moves away from the scorched-earth opposition it offered President Obama.

So progressives must set some priorities. And it’s really hard to see, given this picture, why it makes any sense to spend political capital on a quixotic attempt at a do-over, not of a political failure, but of health reform — their biggest victory in many years.

Bobo, Cohen, Bruni and Krugman, and not Kristof

January 15, 2016

In “When Beauty Strikes” Bobo gurgles that modern art has certain kinds of social value, but we have suffered the loss of an old understanding of how beauty transforms the soul.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “I miss the days when Mr. Brooks simply tried to convince us to vote Republican. Since recent candidates have pulled that rug out from under him, he now tends to wax philosophical. His conservative urges have not left him, but they’ve changed form. Instead of an artist descending to the level of pundits, our pundit has become an artist, masterfully constructing a platonic ideal of a world, and longing for a time that never really existed.”  Mr. Cohen, in “Fermi, Sinatra, DiMaggio — and Capone” says the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs, but American openness is shrinking.  Mr. Bruni says “Trump and Cruz Set an Ugly, Nasty Tone” and that with time running out, the Republicans went for broke at their most venomous meeting yet.  Prof. Krugman has a question:  “Is Vast Inequality Necessary?”  He says of course not, despite what many of its beneficiaries believe.  Mr. Kristof treated us to more of his tweets and is being ignored again.  Here’s Bobo:

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day. But it also reminds me of a worldview, which was more common in eras more romantic than our own.

This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.

By arousing the senses, beauty arouses thought and spirit. A person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life. A person who has appreciated the Pietà has a greater capacity for empathy, a more refined sense of the different forms of sadness and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.

John O’Donohue, a modern proponent of this humanistic viewpoint, writes in his book “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace”: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. … Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”

The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”

By this philosophy, beauty incites spiritual longing.

Today the word eros refers to sex, but to the Greeks it meant the fervent desire to reach excellence and deepen the voyage of life. This eros is a powerful longing. Whenever you see people doing art, whether they are amateurs at a swing dance class or a professional painter, you invariably see them trying to get better. “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart,” Vincent van Gogh wrote.

Some people call eros the fierce longing for truth. “Making your unknown known is the important thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote. Mathematicians talk about their solutions in aesthetic terms, as beautiful or elegant.

Others describe eros as a more spiritual or religious longing. They note that beauty is numinous and fleeting, a passing experience that enlarges the soul and gives us a glimpse of the sacred. As the painter Paul Klee put it, “Color links us with cosmic regions.”

These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.

Over the past century, artists have had suspicious and varied attitudes toward beauty. Some regard all that aesthetics-can-save-your-soul mumbo jumbo as sentimental claptrap. They want something grittier and more confrontational. In the academy, theory washed like an avalanche over the celebration of sheer beauty — at least for a time.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence). Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

President Obama showcased a Syrian immigrant, Refaai Hamo, during his State of the Union address as evidence of “our diversity and our openness,” qualities that have long defined and sustained the United States.

But given the degree of openness America has offered Syrian refugees over close to five years of war in which a quarter of a million people have been killed, this political choreography qualified as serious chutzpah.

Hamo, who lost his wife and daughter in the war, is one of about 2,500 refugees Washington has admitted since 2012. That’s roughly 0.06 percent of the 4.4 million Syrians who have fled their country, most of them marooned in neighboring Middle Eastern states, many staggering into Europe.

In fact Hamo, in his relative isolation on this side of the Atlantic, might better have been offered as a symbol of the closing of the American mind — its post 9/11 susceptibility to fear of terrorism, its anxiety about downward social drift, its uncertainty about the future, its postwar fatigue, its plague-on-all-their-houses dismissal of the war-without-victory Middle East.

Obama tried to inject hope. That’s where the world began with Obama. Yes, we could. In truth, after seven years in the White House, he seemed weary himself, straining for conviction.

As the world knows by now, Obama’s temperament is more inclined toward explanation than exhortation. The president is primed to out-reason the Islamic State — they want this, so we’ll do that — as if reason even flirts with the outer galaxies of the Raqqa universe. When feeling does take over, as with Obama’s passionate appeal this month for America to rein in its gun madness, the effect is particularly powerful because rare.

Republicans have sought to block Obama at every turn, not least on immigration, balking even at his plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. The politics of anti-Muslim bigotry will not be far from the surface throughout this American election year.

For everyone — from Donald Trump to rightist parties in Germany and Sweden — itching to close borders, the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have become the great I-told-you-so moment. Germany last year admitted 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, of whom close to 40 percent are Syrian. That’s a huge number. Sweden’s admission last year of up to 190,000 refugees is also substantial, relative to its population.

In small towns, when hundreds of newcomers abruptly arrive, social tensions are inevitable. Far-right forces — Germany’s Pegida movement or the Sweden Democrats — believe they can benefit.

The refugee flow is unlikely to stop. Saudi Arabia just took a hatchet to already forlorn international peacemaking efforts through a mass execution that infuriated Iran. No peace is possible in Syria until the Saudis and Iranians both want it.

Still, I’d bet on Germany and Sweden, societies that have absorbed substantial numbers of refugees in the past, to prove resilient, and the aging European countries most open to immigration to be the more dynamic over time. What happened in Cologne was vile. Chancellor Angela Merkel has rightly spoken of “disgusting, criminal acts,” and responded by toughening laws. She should go further. As a woman who reached the pinnacle, addressing refugees who have fled Muslim countries where women are often demeaned, she is uniquely placed to address the direct relationship between successful societies and female dignity, freedom and independence.

Meanwhile, let’s keep some perspective. Even the most aggressive estimate of the number of asylum seekers involved in the Cologne incidents still leaves more than 1,099,500 newly admitted refugees in Germany who had nothing to do with what happened.

Merkel has done the right thing. Where would Europe be today with 1.1 million desperate people trudging from closed border to closed border? The Western responsibility for the Syrian debacle is immense. Her decision, alone among leaders, implicitly acknowledges this fact. Germany, over the past quarter-century, has absorbed 16 million former East Germans and ushered them from the paranoid, subjugated mind-set of the Soviet imperium. Its large Turkish community is unevenly integrated, but ever better with the years. Germany will handle the current influx.

Immigration is a challenge but also a measure of the confidence of a society, its preparedness for self-renewal. That confidence is low in America right now. “The dignity of a person is untouchable” — so begins Germany’s postwar Constitution, with words drawn from bitter experience. Merkel has shown the conviction that this idea can eventually be absorbed by everyone now in Germany. She will be vindicated.

The United States, between the 1880’s and 1924, admitted about 4 million Italian immigrants. As Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, observed to me, “We got Enrico Fermi, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Antonin Scalia — and Al Capone. Who in their right mind would suggest that the Italian immigration was not a great blessing for our country?”

Call it the Capone Principle: Costs of immigration are outweighed by benefits.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

Remember that phase of the campaign when Ted Cruz spoke no ill of Donald Trump, who returned the favor?

You may now forget it. Bury it. Write its obituary, in a pen dipped in acid.

At Thursday night’s Republican debate, the two frontrunners didn’t merely spar, as was expected. They glared at and scolded each other with a venomousness that was initially mesmerizing, then horrifying and finally just sad—very, very sad.

The trajectory of the Republican primary has been one of growing pessimism, intensifying acrimony and abundant pettiness, and it reached its ugly nadir on the stage in North Charleston, S.C.

This happened when Cruz was asked to respond to Trump’s claim that he might not qualify as a “natural-born citizen” eligible for the presidency. Cruz was ready for it, asserting that as recently as four months ago, Trump had sung a different tune.

“Since September, the Constitution hasn’t changed,” Cruz said. “But the poll numbers have, and I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa.”

The two men argued about what the numbers really said, Trump insisting that his were bigger. They battled over the legitimacy and motivations of a Harvard law professor who had weighed in skeptically on Cruz’s eligibility. They traded barbs about Trump’s mother. Yes, his mother.

Some of their lines were wicked—some of Cruz’s, at least. He’s frighteningly talented at this sort of thing, and told Trump: “I’m happy to consider naming you as V.P., and so, if you happen to be right, you can get the top job at the end of the day.”

But as the scabrous exchange went on (and on) and John Kasich visibly slumped in frustration and the other candidates gaped in what seemed like genuine disbelief at the length of this endless digression, it was impossible to be entertained or amused.

The only sane response was sorrow—that this is a presidential election in the greatest democracy on earth, and that blowhards like Trump and Cruz are, for now, setting the pace and the terms in one of our two major political parties.

Over the course of this sixth meeting of the leading Republican candidates, serious issues were indeed broached, and the candidates raised legitimate questions about what President Obama had and hadn’t done to make Americans feel safe. They had a warranted discussion about whether the American economy had improved enough and in the right ways.

But the tone eclipsed the substance, and the tone was nastier than it had to be, sometimes to the point of pure silliness.

With the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away, the New Hampshire primary right after that and several of the seven men onstage still looking for elusive traction, they went for broke: exaggerated words, extreme claims, voices raised high and chests puffed out as never before.

Trump was, as ever, at center stage.

For such a small-minded man, he hovers so large over this country’s political landscape, casting the longest and most sinister of shadows. He was the sire of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which could be heard as a point-by-point retort to the gloom, doom and bigotry that Trump peddles. He was the sire of Nikki Haley’s State of the Union response, which was as concerned with chastising him as with contradicting the president.

And he was the sire of this debate, inasmuch as the anger that he summons and the uncompromising toughness that he projects have infected his adversaries, tugging them toward truculence. On Thursday night, several of them seemed intent on out-Trumping Trump.

Chris Christie didn’t merely portray himself as the most effective opponent for Hillary Clinton.

“If I’m the nominee, she won’t get within 10 miles of the White House,” he proclaimed.

He didn’t merely state his differences with Obama. He compared the president to “a petulant child” and made him a promise.

“We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall,” he said. Trump couldn’t have expressed it more crudely.

Rubio, for his part, wholly abandoned the upbeat message and mien that once defined him. There’s no sunshine in a race that orbits around a star as dark as Trump. There’s only thunder, fear, apocalyptic musings and bellicose vows to exert America’s muscle around the world.

Rubio talked about handing out many a “one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.” Cruz talked about “the full force and fury of the United States of America.”

Rubio and Cruz squared off against each other just before the debate clock ran out, with Cruz calling Rubio soft on immigration and Rubio calling him soft on national defense. But it wasn’t typical political theater: It was more sneering and more savage than that—jarringly so.

“That is not consistent conservatism,” Rubio said of Cruz’s record. “That is political calculation.”

Cruz insisted on ample time to respond. “He had no fewer than 11 attacks there,” he said, and then, addressing Rubio directly, added: “I appreciate your dumping your oppo research folder.”

By the time it was all over, I was fantasizing about Trump’s promised wall, only it didn’t separate the United States from Mexico. It separated Cruz from Trump, Rubio from Cruz and all three of them from the rest of us, who are looking for leadership, not egos and vitriol.

And last but never least here’s Prof. Krugman:

How rich do we need the rich to be?

That’s not an idle question. It is, arguably, what U.S. politics are substantively about. Liberals want to raise taxes on high incomes and use the proceeds to strengthen the social safety net; conservatives want to do the reverse, claiming that tax-the-rich policies hurt everyone by reducing the incentives to create wealth.

Now, recent experience has not been kind to the conservative position. President Obama pushed through a substantial rise in top tax rates, and his health care reform was the biggest expansion of the welfare state since L.B.J. Conservatives confidently predicted disaster, just as they did when Bill Clinton raised taxes on the top 1 percent. Instead, Mr. Obama has ended up presiding over the best job growth since the 1990s. Is there, however, a longer-term case in favor of vast inequality?

It won’t surprise you to hear that many members of the economic elite believe that there is. It also won’t surprise you to learn that I disagree, that I believe that the economy can flourish with much less concentration of income and wealth at the very top. But why do I believe that?

I find it helpful to think in terms of three stylized models of where extreme inequality might come from, with the real economy involving elements from all three.

First, we could have huge inequality because individuals vary hugely in their productivity: Some people are just capable of making a contribution hundreds or thousands of times greater than average. This is the view expressed in a widely quoted recent essay by the venture capitalist Paul Graham, and it’s popular in Silicon Valley — that is, among people who are paid hundreds or thousands of times as much as ordinary workers.

Second, we could have huge inequality based largely on luck. In the classic old movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” an old prospector explainsthat gold is worth so much — and those who find it become rich — thanks to the labor of all the people who went looking for gold but didn’t find it. Similarly, we might have an economy in which those who hit the jackpot aren’t necessarily any smarter or harder working than those who don’t, but just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Third, we could have huge inequality based on power: executives at large corporations who get to set their own compensation, financial wheeler-dealers who get rich on inside information or by collecting undeserved fees from naïve investors.

As I said, the real economy contains elements of all three stories. It would be foolish to deny that some people are, in fact, a lot more productive than average. It would be equally foolish, however, to deny that great success in business (or, actually, anything else) has a strong element of luck — not just the luck of being the first to stumble on a highly profitable idea or strategy, but also the luck of being born to the right parents.

And power is surely a big factor, too. Reading someone like Mr. Graham, you might imagine that America’s wealthy are mainly entrepreneurs. In fact, the top 0.1 percent consists mainly of business executives, and while some of these executives may have made their fortunes by being associated with risky start-ups, most probably got where they are by climbing well-established corporate ladders. And the rise in incomes at the top largely reflects the soaring pay of top executives, not the rewards to innovation.

But the real question, in any case, is whether we can redistribute some of the income currently going to the elite few to other purposes without crippling economic progress.

Don’t say that redistribution is inherently wrong. Even if high incomes perfectly reflected productivity, market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification. And given the reality that wealth often reflects either luck or power, there’s a strong case to be made for collecting some of that wealth in taxes and using it to make society as a whole stronger, as long as it doesn’t destroy the incentive to keep creating more wealth.

And there’s no reason to believe that it would. Historically, America achieved its most rapid growth and technological progress ever during the 1950s and 1960s, despite much higher top tax rates and much lower inequality than it has today.

In today’s world, high-tax, low-inequalitycountries like Sweden are also both highly innovative and home to many business start-ups. This may in part be because a strong safety net encourages risk-taking: People may be willing to prospect for gold, even if a successful foray won’t make them quite as rich as before, if they know they won’t starve if they come up empty.

So coming back to my original question, no, the rich don’t have to be as rich as they are. Inequality is inevitable; the vast inequality of America today isn’t.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

January 11, 2016

In “Focus on Illegal Guns” Mr. Blow says regulations such as safety features and registration are needed to make a dent in gun violence.  Mr. Cohen, in “The Limits of American Realism,” says excise the idea of the extension of liberty from U.S. foreign policy and something very meager remains.  In “The Obama Boom” Prof. Krugman says dire warnings from Republicans about the effect of President Obama’s policies on employment have simply not come true.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Late Thursday night a madman approached a police cruiser in Philadelphia and fired at least 11 times at the officer in the vehicle, striking him three times in the left arm.

Even with those wounds, the officer was able to get out, chase the shooter and return fire, striking him in the buttocks.

The shooter would later tell the police, according to Capt. James Clark, commander of the Police Department’s homicide division: “I follow Allah and I pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. That is the reason why I did what I did.”

This is a disturbing reminder of the influence of ISIS on individuals disposed to acts of terror, and how hard it is to identify all of them before they commit a violent act.

But the episode also highlighted something else that does not get enough discussion: the use of stolen guns in crimes.

You see, the gun used in the Philadelphia attack had been stolen, from a police officer no less, in 2013.

Our current discussion about increasing gun regulations often centers on efforts that would mostly affect people who legally buy firearms. Many of them make sense, in theory, but the truth is that they would not be likely to have a huge impact on criminal gun violence, because many of those criminals obtain their weapons illegally.

So, when the gun lobby and gun owners make this case, we must admit that they have a point.

In 2013, Samuel Bieler of the Urban Institute wrote a fascinating article about where criminals get their guns, and his findings were somewhat shocking.

Corrupt dealers supply some of the guns. According to Bieler:

“Some researchers have suggested that gun retailers divert a relatively low volume of weapons, while others have found them to be a major source.”

Some come from gangs and family and friends. Specifically, “Research has put their role as a supply source at 30 to 40 percent of crime guns, but little is known about the composition of this nebulous ‘friends and family’ category.”

And research by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives suggests that “just one percent of licensed firearms dealers sold more than half of the guns recovered in crimes, and that most gun dealers rarely have one of their guns show up in crime.”

But what I found most shocking was the number of guns that are stolen each year: as many as half a million. Each year! And many of those stolen guns are then used in other crimes.

In a 2003 book, “The Challenge of Crime,” published by Harvard University Press, authors quoted researchers who found the following:

“They learned that 32 percent of the felons had acquired their most recent weapon through their own theft; an additional 14 percent knew that their friend, family, or street source had stolen the weapon before conveying it; and an additional 24 percent thought that the weapon probably had been stolen by his source. At least 46 percent, then, and possibly as many as 70 percent of felons’ most recently owned firearms had been stolen either by the offender himself or by the source from whom he acquired the weapon. In addition, 47 percent of the respondents quizzed as to whether they had ever stolen a firearm during a crime admitted to so doing and 86 percent of the felons who admitted prior stealing of firearms reported multiple thefts.”

Rather than focusing on all guns, the vast, vast majority of which are owned by responsible people and are never used in the commission of a crime, we have to focus on keeping guns out of the hands of this relatively small number of criminals.

People, including the president in his speech and town hall meeting last week, like to compare increasing gun regulations to the way cars are regulated. But they didn’t simply get safer due to regulations. They also got safer because the market desired more safety, as well as anti-theft features. Many of the innovations, carmakers came up with on their own. The gun market doesn’t behave that way.

Furthermore, cars are required to be licensed, registered, insured and periodically inspected. Also, you can’t hide a car the way you can hide a gun. Cars are operated on public roads.

If we want to truly put a dent in gun violence, we must take some incredibly unpopular steps in some pockets. Safety features — including smart guns that can only be fired by the owner — are going to have to be added to the market. That will be hard to sell because no one wants a gun to fail to because it lacks a charge or due to a technology glitch. One of benefits of traditional guns is that, technologically, they are simple and ancient. There are no batteries or chips.

We are also likely to have to register guns and require insurance. This would be almost impossible, given the gun lobby’s and many gun owners’ current stance and the paranoid fears of confiscation, a fear some liberals feed.

Making guns safer and keeping more of them out of the hands of criminals and in the hands of responsible owners can be done, but not as long as many responsible owners are also unreasonable ones.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy?

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”

Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge.

He describes the expansion eastward of NATO after the end of the Cold War as “a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics” that needlessly poisoned relations with Russia. This argument is in fact a textbook example of the cynicism and smallness inherent in realism.

Guaranteeing security as the basis for a liberal order in nations from Poland to Estonia emerging from the trauma of the Soviet Imperium amounts to a major American strategic achievement. (Baker was instrumental in it, proof he was more than a Walt-school realist.) Ask any Pole, Lithuanian or Romanian if they think America erred.

Realists tend to dismiss human suffering; it’s just the way of the world. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe were ushered from totalitarian misery to democratic decency under the protection of the United States and its allies. A debt incurred at Yalta was repaid. European peace and security were extended, an American interest. There is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin would today have overrun at least one of the Baltic countries, absent their NATO membership.

Putin has created havoc precisely in the no man’s lands — Georgia and Ukraine — rather than in the NATO lands. Russia’s interest, post-1990, was in the dismemberment of the European-American bond, most potently expressed in NATO. That was the real problem.

The United States, almost alone among nations, is also an idea. Excise the notion of the global extension of liberty and its guarantees from American policy and something very meager remains. Putin is a fierce, opportunistic realist. But Americans — Donald Trump notwithstanding — do not want that dish on their tables.

They especially do not want it after the Syrian debacle. Walt argues that realists would have dissuaded President Obama from saying President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and setting a “red line.” But the problem was not that uttering these words was unrealistic. It was that failing to follow up on them was feckless.

Syria has illustrated the limits of White House realism. Realism has dictated nonintervention as hundreds of thousands were killed, millions displaced, and Islamic State emerged. Realism has been behind acquiescence to Assad’s barrel-bomb brutality. If Iraq illustrated disastrous American pursuit of an “ideological blueprint,” Syria has demonstrated a disastrous vacuum of American ideas.

Realism is an essential starting point for American foreign policy. It was absent on Iraq: The result was mayhem that, as Walt rightly says, cost America several trillion dollars. Realism brought the Iran nuclear accord, a signal achievement. More of it might help on Israel-Palestine.

But this is more a time to acknowledge the limits of realism — as a means to deal with the evil of ISIS, the debacle of Syria, or the desperate European refugee crisis — than to cry out for more, or suggest that it is underrepresented in American discourse.

More saber rattling and dick swinging from someone with no dog in the fight he wants to start.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Do you remember the “Bush boom”? Probably not. Anyway, the administration of George W. Bush began its tenure with a recession, followed by an extended “jobless recovery.” By the summer of 2003, however, the economy began adding jobs again. The pace of job creation wasn’t anything special by historical standards, but conservatives insisted that the job gains after that trough represented a huge triumph, a vindication of the Bush tax cuts.

So what should we say about the Obama job record? Private-sector employment — the relevant number, as I’ll explain in a minute — hit its low point in February 2010. Since then we’ve gained 14 million jobs, a figure that startled even me, roughly double the number of jobs added during the supposed Bush boom before it turned into the Great Recession. If that was a boom, this expansion, capped by last month’s really good report, outbooms it by a wide margin.

Does President Obama deserve credit for these gains? No. In general, presidents and their policies matter much less for the economy’s performance than most people imagine. Times of crisis are an exception, and the Obama stimulus plan enacted in 2009 made a big positive difference. But that stimulus faded out fast after 2010, and has very little to do with the economy’s current situation.

The point, however, is that politicians and pundits, especially on the right, constantly insist that presidential policies matter a lot. And Mr. Obama, in particular, has been attacked at every stage of his presidency for policies that his critics allege are “job-killing” — the former House speaker, John Boehner, once used the phrase seven times in less than 14 minutes. So the fact that the Obama job record is as good as it is tells you something about the validity of those attacks.

What did Mr. Obama do that was supposed to kill jobs? Quite a lot, actually. He signed the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform, which critics claimed would crush employment by starving businesses of capital. Heraised taxes on high incomes, especially at the very top, where average tax rates rose by about six and a half percentage points after 2012, a step that critics claimed would destroy incentives. And he enacted a health reform that went into full effect in 2014, amid claims that it would have catastrophic effects on employment.

Yet none of the dire predicted consequences of these policies have materialized. It’s not just that overall job creation in the private sector — which was what Mr. Obama was supposedly killing — has been strong. More detailed examinations of labor markets also show no evidence of predicted ill effects. For example, there’s no evidence that Obamacare led to a shift from full-time to part-time work, and no evidence that the expansion of Medicaid led to large reductions in labor supply.

So what do we learn from this impressive failure to fail? That the conservative economic orthodoxy dominating the Republican Party is very, very wrong.

In a way, that should have been obvious. For conservative orthodoxy has a curiously inconsistent view of the abilities and motivations of corporations and wealthy individuals — I mean, job creators.

On one side, this elite is presumed to be a bunch of economic superheroes, able to deliver universal prosperity by summoning the magic of the marketplace. On the other side, they’re depicted as incredibly sensitive flowers who wilt in the face of adversity — raise their taxes a bit, subject them to a few regulations, or for that matter hurt their feelings in a speech or two, and they’ll stop creating jobs and go sulk in their tents, or more likely their mansions.

It’s a doctrine that doesn’t make much sense, but it conveys a clear message that, whaddya know, turns out to be very convenient for the elite: namely, that injustice is a law of nature, that we’d better not do anything to make our society less unequal or protect ordinary families from financial risks. Because if we do, the usual suspects insist, we’ll be severely punished by the invisible hand, which will collapse the economy.

Economists could and did argue that history proves this doctrine wrong. After all, America achieved rapid, indeed unprecedented, income growth in the 1950s and 1960s, despite top tax rates beyond the wildest dreams of modern progressives. For that matter, there are countries like Denmark that combine high taxes and generous social programs with very good employment performance.

But for those who don’t know much about either history or the world outside America, the Obama economy offers a powerful lesson in the here and now. From a conservative point of view, Mr. Obama did everything wrong, afflicting the comfortable (slightly) and comforting the afflicted (a lot), and nothing bad happened. We can, it turns out, make our society better after all.

Brooks and Krugman

January 8, 2016

In “The Self-Reliant Generation” Bobo gurgles that millennials lean to the left, but because of several other characteristics, they may not help the Democratic ticket in November.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “What does Mr. Brooks expect young people to do when they see what is happening all around them? Millennials haven’t detached from “solid supporting structures,” like religion, marriage and government. These supporting structures have crumbled like the rest of our country’s infrastructure. … Brooks makes a dire prediction: there will be change in the future. This may come as a shock to conservatives, but considering the shambles in which they’ve left the social and political institutions, we can only hope he’s right.”  Prof. Krugman, in “When China Stumbles,” says Beijing’s financial troubles shouldn’t add up to global devastation. But more than math is involved in economics.  Here’s Bobo:

Last month Fox News released a poll showing Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in Iowa by 14 points. But the amazing part of the poll was the generation gap. Among likely caucusgoers under 45, Sanders was crushing Clinton 56 to 34 percent. Among the older voters, Clinton was leading 59 to 24.

When you look at numbers like that you get the impression that this millennial generation, having endured the financial crash and stagnant wages, is ready to lead a big leftward push.

Indeed, a Harvard Institute of Politics poll of Americans 18 to 29 found that 56 percent want a Democrat to win the White House while only 36 percent favor a Republican. The leftward shift is striking even within the G.O.P. According to the Pew Research Center, young Republicans are much more moderate than older Republicans. Among millennials who lean Republican, only 31 percent have consistently conservative views. About 51 percent have a mixture of liberal and conservative views.

But philosophically millennials are harder to pin down. According to the Harvard Public Opinion Project, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as liberal and 35 percent identify as conservative.

If you look at how millennials actually live, you certainly don’t see a progressive counterculture. In fact, you see what you’d expect from a generation that lived through a financial crisis, family instability and political dysfunction. You see an abstract celebration of creative transformation but a concrete hunger for order, security and stability.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials change jobs less frequently than people in other generations. And a study of 25,000 millennials in 22 countries by Jennifer J. Deal and Alec Levenson found that at least 40 percent expect to stay with their current employer for at least nine years. Forty-four percent said they would be happy to spend the rest of their career at their current organization.

Millennials travel and move less than earlier generations. They are less likely to have cars, and their relative lack of driving time is not compensated for by the use of other modes of transportation.

Another glaring feature of millennial culture is they have been forced to be self-reliant and to take a loosely networked individualism as the normal order of the universe. Millennials have extremely low social trust. According to Pew Research, just 19 percent say most people can be trusted, compared with 40 percent of boomers.

This leads to detachment from large entities. Just 32 percent of millennialssay America is the greatest country on earth, compared with 50 percent of boomers. Millennials are very suspicious of organized religion. Thirty-five percent say they are unaffiliated with any religious group, compared with 23 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980).

Just 26 percent of millennials are married, compared with 48 percent of boomers at that age. Only 42 percent plan to have kids. They are also having less sex. A study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior projected that millennials would have eight sexual partners by middle age while boomers had 10 or 11. According to a survey from the online dating service Match, 49 percent of people in their 20s have not had sex in the past year.

The general impression one gets is of a generation that is stressed, energetic, creative, skeptical and in the middle of redefining, and thinning out, the nature of affiliation. Its members have been thrust into a harsher world where it is necessary to be guarded, and sensitive to risk. They want systemic change but there is no compelling form of collective action available. Their only alternative, which is their genius, is to try to fix their lives themselves, through technology and new forms of social interaction, rather than mass movements.

Their attitudes toward Social Security perfectly reflect this stance. Most millennials expect to see no Social Security benefits by the time they retire. But they oppose reforms to take money away from older workers to distribute it downward. They just figure they’ll take care of retirement individually, often using algorithm-based investment vehicles like Wealthfront.

Politically, this means that millennials may lean Democratic, but unless Barack Obama (or Bernie Sanders) is on the ticket, they don’t strongly attach to the party and it is not clear that they will vote. They didn’t in the 2014 midterm elections. It could be they are more interested in improving their lives by having richer experiences, and not through the sort of income transfers that come out of Washington.

My own guess is that millennials will be a muted political force, at least in 2016. But there will be some giant cultural explosion down the road. You just can’t be as detached from solid supporting structures as millennials now are and lead a happy middle-aged life. Something is going to change.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So, will China’s problems cause a global crisis? The good news is that the numbers, as I read them, don’t seem big enough. The bad news is that I could be wrong, because global contagion often seems to end up being worse than hard numbers say it should. And the worse news is that if China does deliver a bad shock to the rest of the world, we are remarkably unready to deal with the consequences.

For those just starting to pay attention: It has been obvious for a while that China’s economy is in big trouble. How big is hard to say, because nobody believes official Chinese statistics.

The basic problem is that China’s economic model, which involves very high saving and very low consumption, was only sustainable as long as the country could grow extremely fast, justifying high investment. This in turn was possible when China had vast reserves of underemployed rural labor. But that’s no longer true, and China now faces the tricky task of transitioning to much lower growth without stumbling into recession.

A reasonable strategy would have been to buy time with credit expansion and infrastructure spending while reforming the economy in ways that put more purchasing power into families’ hands. Unfortunately, China pursued only the first half of that strategy, buying time and then squandering it. The result has been rapidly rising debt, much of it owed to poorly regulated “shadow banks,” and a threat of financial meltdown.

So the Chinese situation looks fairly grim — and new numbers have reinforced fears of a hard landing, leading not just to a plunge in Chinese stocks but to sharp declines in stock prices worldwide.

O.K., so far so bad. And some smart people think that the global implications are really scary; George Soros is comparing it to 2008.

As I suggested above, however, I have a hard time making the numbers for that kind of catastrophe work. Yes, China is a big economy, accounting in particular for about a quarter of world manufacturing, so what happens there has implications for all of us. And China buys more than $2 trillion worth of goods and services from the rest of the world each year. But it’s a big world, with a total gross domestic product excluding China of more than $60 trillion. Even a drastic fall in Chinese imports would be only a modest hit to world spending.

What about financial linkages? One reason America’s subprime crisis turned global in 2008 was that foreigners in general, and European banks in particular, turned out to be badly exposed to losses on U.S. securities. But China has capital controls — that is, it isn’t very open to foreign investors — so there’s very little direct spillover from plunging stocks or even domestic debt defaults.

All of this says that while China itself is in big trouble, the consequences for the rest of us should be manageable. But I have to admit that I’m not as relaxed about this as the above analysis says I should be. If you like, I lack the courage of my complacency. Why?

Part of the answer is that business cycles across nations often seem to be more synchronized than they “should” be. For example, Europe and the United States export to each other only a small fraction of what they produce, yet they often have recessions and recoveries at the same time. Financial linkages may be part of the story, but one also suspects that there is psychological contagion: Good or bad news in one major economy affects animal spirits in others.

So I worry that China may export its woes in ways back-of-the-envelope calculations miss, that the Middle Kingdom’s troubles will one way or another have the effect of depressing investment spending in America and Europe as well as in other emerging markets. And if my worries come true, we are woefully unready to deal with the shock.

After all, who would respond to a China shock, and how? Monetary policy would probably be of little help. With interest rates still close to zero and inflation still below target, the Fed would have limited ability to fight an economic downdraft in any case, and it has probably reduced its effectiveness further by signaling its eagerness to raise rates at the first excuse. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank is already pushing to the limits of its political mandate in its own so far unsuccessful effort to raise inflation.

And while fiscal policy — essentially, spending more to offset the effects of China spending less — would surely work, how many people believe that Republicans would be receptive to a new Obama stimulus plan, or that German politicians would look kindly on a proposal for bigger deficits in Europe?

Now, my best guess is still that things won’t be that bad — nasty in China, but just a bit of turbulence elsewhere. And I really, really hope that guess is right, because we don’t seem to have a plan B anywhere in sight.


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