Archive for the ‘Krugman’ Category

Blow and Krugman

April 27, 2015

In “‘Lynch Mob:’ Misuse of Language” Mr. Blow says neither partisans nor protesters should be equated with killers.  In “Nobody Said That” Prof. Krugman says that in the age of unacknowledged error, soul-searching and apologies about faulty predictions are conspicuously missing.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Last week, the Baltimore police union president, Gene Ryan, compared those protesting the death of Freddie Gray to a “lynch mob.”

Freddie Gray was the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died of grave, mysterious injuries after being taken into police custody. Gray’s family, citizens of Baltimore and indeed those of the nation have questions. And yes, there is a palpable frustration and fatigue that yet another young person of color has died after an encounter with police officers.

So, there have been protests. But protests are not the same as a lynch mob, and to conflate the two diminishes the painful history of this country and unfairly slanders the citizens who have taken to the streets. Maybe Mr. Ryan is unaware not only of the history of lynching and lynch mobs in America overall, but also in Maryland itself.

For instance, according to the Maryland Historical Society Library: “Mary Denston, the elderly wife of a Somerset County farmer, was returning to her home in Princess Anne on the morning of October 17, 1933 when she was attacked by an assailant. A manhunt quickly began for the alleged perpetrator, 22-year-old African-American George Armwood. He was soon arrested and charged with felonious assault. By 5:00 pm, an angry mob of local white residents had gathered outside the Salisbury jail where the suspect had been taken. In order to protect Armwood from the increasingly hostile crowd, state police transferred him to Baltimore. But just as quickly he was returned to Somerset County. After assuring Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie that Armwood’s safety would be guaranteed, Somerset County officials transferred Armwood to the jail house in Princess Anne, with tragic consequences.”

The report continued: “Sources are conflicting regarding many of the details of the assault on Denston and the subsequent murder of George Armwood, but what is certain is that on the evening of October 18 a mob of a thousand or more people stormed into the Princess Anne jail house and hauled Armwood from his cell down to the street below. Before he was hung from a tree some distance away, Armwood was dragged through the streets, beaten, stabbed, and had one ear hacked off. Armwood’s lifeless body was then paraded through the town, finally ending up near the town’s courthouse, where the mob doused the corpse with gasoline and set it on fire.”

As Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper reported at the time, in addition to Armwood’s blackened skin, mutilated face and missing ear, his tongue was “clenched between his teeth,” giving “evidence of his great agony before death.” It continued: “There is no adequate description of the mute evidence of gloating on the part of whites who gathered to watch the effect upon our people.”

Additionally, according to the historical society, there were 32 lynchings in Maryland between 1882 and 1931.

Perhaps Mr. Ryan had never heard the haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, with its plaintive lyrics shining light on the depravity of lynchings:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

Maybe Mr. Ryan does not appreciate the irony that it was not the officers’ bodies that video showed being dragged limp and screaming through the street, but that of Mr. Gray. Maybe Mr. Ryan does not register coincidence that actual lynching often damages or cuts the spinal cord, and according to a statement by the Gray family’s attorney, Gray’s spine was “80 percent severed at his neck.”

And this is not the first protest of the killing of people of color where “lynch mobs” have been invoked.

Fox News’s Howard Kurtz accused “some liberal outlets” of “creating almost a lynch mob mentality” in Ferguson.”

Possible presidential candidate Mike Huckabee also compared Ferguson protesters to lynch mobs, as did Laura Ingraham, FrontPage magazine and an opinion piece on The Daily Caller.

In 2013, after almost completely peaceful protests the weekend after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Newt Gingrich said that protesters were “prepared, basically, to be a lynch mob.”

These “lynch mob” invocations are an incredible misuse of language, in which the lexicon of slaughter, subjugation and suffering are reduced to mere colloquialism, and therefore bleached of the blood in which it was originally written and used against the people who were historically victims of the atrocities.

“Lynch mob” is the same ghastly rhetorical overreach that is often bandied about in political discussions — including in this column I wrote seven years ago. It was a too-extreme comparison then, and it’s a too-extreme comparison now.

Nothing that political partisans or protesters have done — nothing! — comes remotely close to the barbarism executed by the lynch mobs that stain this country’s history.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Imagine yourself as a regular commentator on public affairs — maybe a paid pundit, maybe an supposed expert in some area, maybe just an opinionated billionaire. You weigh in on a major policy initiative that’s about to happen, making strong predictions of disaster. The Obama stimulus, you declare, will cause soaring interest rates; the Fed’s bond purchases will “debase the dollar” and cause high inflation; the Affordable Care Act will collapse in a vicious circle of declining enrollment and surging costs.

But nothing you predicted actually comes to pass. What do you do?

You might admit that you were wrong, and try to figure out why. But almost nobody does that; we live in an age of unacknowledged error.

Alternatively, you might insist that sinister forces are covering up the grim reality. Quite a few well-known pundits are, or at some point were,“inflation truthers,” claiming that the government is lying about the pace of price increases. There have also been many prominent Obamacare truthersdeclaring that the White House is cooking the books, that the policies are worthless, and so on.

Finally, there’s a third option: You can pretend that you didn’t make the predictions you did. I see that a lot when it comes to people who issued dire warnings about interest rates and inflation, and now claim that they did no such thing. Where I’m seeing it most, however, is on the health care front. Obamacare is working better than even its supporters expected — but its enemies say that the good news proves nothing, because nobody predicted anything different.

Go back to 2013, before reform went fully into effect, or early 2014, before the numbers on first-year enrollment came in. What were Obamacare’s opponents predicting?The answer is, utter disaster. Americans, declared a May 2013 report from a House committee, were about to face a devastating “rate shock,” with premiums almost doubling on average.

And it would only get worse: At the beginning of 2014 the right’s favored experts — or maybe that should be “experts” — were warning about a“death spiral” in which only the sickest citizens would sign up, causing premiums to soar even higher and many people to drop out of the program.

What about the overall effect on insurance coverage? Several months into 2014 many leading Republicans — including John Boehner, the speaker of the House — were predicting that more people would lose coverage than gain it. And everyone on the right was predicting that the law would cost far more than projected, adding hundreds of billions if not trillions to budget deficits.

What actually happened? There was no rate shock: average premiums in 2014 were about 16 percent lower than projected. There is no death spiral: On average, premiums for 2015 are between 2 and 4 percent higher than in 2014, which is a much slower rate of increase than the historical norm. The number of Americans without health insurance has fallen by around 15 million, and would have fallen substantially more if so many Republican-controlled states weren’t blocking the expansion of Medicaid. And the overall cost of the program is coming in well below expectations.

One more thing: You sometimes hear complaints about the alleged poor quality of the policies offered to newly insured families. But a new surveyby J. D. Power, the market research company, finds that the newly enrolled are very satisfied with their coverage — more satisfied than the average person with conventional, non-Obamacare insurance.

This is what policy success looks like, and it should have the critics engaged in soul-searching about why they got it so wrong. But no.

Instead, the new line — exemplified by, but not unique to, a recent op-ed article by the hedge-fund manager Cliff Asness — is that there’s nothing to see here: “That more people would be insured was never in dispute.” Never, I guess, except in everything ever said by anyone in a position of influence on the American right. Oh, and all the good news on costs is just a coincidence.

It’s both easy and entirely appropriate to ridicule this kind of thing. But there are some serious stakes here, and they go beyond the issue of health reform, important as it is.

You see, in a polarized political environment, policy debates always involve more than just the specific issue on the table. They are also clashes of world views. Predictions of debt disaster, a debased dollar, and Obama death spirals reflect the same ideology, and the utter failure of these predictions should inspire major doubts about that ideology.

And there’s also a moral issue involved. Refusing to accept responsibility for past errors is a serious character flaw in one’s private life. It rises to the level of real wrongdoing when policies that affect millions of lives are at stake.

Brooks and Krugman

April 24, 2015

In “Love and Merit” Bobo babbles that parenting in America is experiencing a silent epidemic of conditional love.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “From what muck-filled pond does David Brooks dredge these ideas? Not that there isn’t precedent– Brooks always spits on the ground when he mentions meritocracy, but this is taking things a bit too far. It’s important to realize that Brooks despises meritocracy because it’s a form of liberalism. It suggests that anyone can rise to power, which might threaten the aristocracy or the plutocracy or some other less egalitarian –ocracy that he thinks should rightly run the show.”  Also in the comments “Glenn Cheney” from Hanover, CT says “I wish someone would pay me to promulgate my presumptions and unjustified generalizations as if they were facts.”  Prof. Krugman, in “Zombies of 2016,” says the Republican presidential hopefuls are resurrecting long-refuted ideas as if they actually worked.  Here’s Bobo:

There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree. As Dorothy Parker once joked, American children aren’t raised; they are incited. They are given food, shelter and applause. That’s a thousand times more true today. Children are incessantly told how special they are.

The second defining feature is that children are honed to an unprecedented degree. The meritocracy is more competitive than ever before. Parents are more anxious about their kids getting into good colleges and onto good career paths. Parents spend much more time than in past generations investing in their children’s skills and résumés and driving them to practices and rehearsals.

These two great trends — greater praise and greater honing — combine in intense ways. Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection. It is intermingled with the desire to help their children achieve worldly success.

Very frequently it is manipulative. Parents unconsciously shape their smiles and frowns to steer their children toward behavior they think will lead to achievement. Parents glow with extra fervor when their child studies hard, practices hard, wins first place, gets into a prestigious college.

This sort of love is merit based. It is not simply: I love you. It is, I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam.

The wolf of conditional love is lurking in these homes. The parents don’t perceive this; they feel they love their children in all circumstances. But the children often perceive things differently.

Children in such families come to feel that childhood is a performance — on the athletic field, in school and beyond. They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn.

These children begin to assume that this merit-tangled love is the natural order of the universe. The tiny glances of approval and disapproval are built into the fabric of communication so deep that they flow under the level of awareness. But they generate enormous internal pressure, the assumption that it is necessary to behave in a certain way to be worthy of love — to be self-worthy. The shadowy presence of conditional love produces a fear, the fear that there is no utterly safe love; there is no completely secure place where young people can be utterly honest and themselves.

On the one hand, many of the parents in these families are extremely close to their children. They communicate constantly. But the whole situation is fraught. These parents unconsciously regard their children as an arts project and insist their children go to colleges and have jobs that will give the parents status and pleasure — that will validate their effectiveness as dads and moms.

Meanwhile, children who are uncertain of their parents’ love develop a voracious hunger for it. This conditional love is like an acid that dissolves children’s internal criteria to make their own decisions about their own colleges, majors and careers. At key decision-points, they unconsciously imagine how their parents will react. They guide their lives by these imagined reactions and respond with hair-trigger sensitivity to any possibility of coldness or distancing.

These children tell their parents those things that will elicit praise and hide the parts of their lives that won’t. Studies by Avi Assor, Guy Roth and Edward L. Deci suggest that children who receive conditional love often do better in the short run. They can be model students. But they suffer in the long run. They come to resent their parents. They are so influenced by fear that they become risk averse. They lose a sense of agency. They feel driven by internalized pressures more than by real freedom of choice. They feel less worthy as adults.

Parents two generations ago were much more likely to say that they expected their children to be more obedient than parents today. But this desire for obedience hasn’t gone away; it’s just gone underground. Parents are less likely to demand obedience with explicit rules and lectures. But they are more likely to use love as a tool to exercise control.

The culture of the meritocracy is incredibly powerful. Parents desperately want happiness for their children and naturally want to steer them toward success in every way they can. But the pressures of the meritocracy can sometimes put this love on a false basis. The meritocracy is based on earned success. It is based on talent and achievement. But parental love is supposed to be oblivious to achievement. It’s meant to be an unconditional support — a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of the meritocracy, the closest humans come to grace.

This is the sort of crap you come up with when you’re wandering around your vast spaces for entertaining.  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week, a zombie went to New Hampshire and staked its claim to the Republican presidential nomination. Well, O.K., it was actually Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. But it’s pretty much the same thing.

You see, Mr. Christie gave a speech in which he tried to position himself as a tough-minded fiscal realist. In fact, however, his supposedly tough-minded policy idea was a classic zombie — an idea that should have died long ago in the face of evidence that undermines its basic premise, but somehow just keeps shambling along.

But let us not be too harsh on Mr. Christie. A deep attachment to long-refuted ideas seems to be required of all prominent Republicans. Whoever finally gets the nomination for 2016 will have multiple zombies as his running mates.

Start with Mr. Christie, who thought he was being smart and brave by proposing that we raise the age of eligibility for both Social Security and Medicare to 69. Doesn’t this make sense now that Americans are living longer?

No, it doesn’t. This whole line of argument should have died in 2007, when the Social Security Administration issued a report showing that almost allthe rise in life expectancy has taken place among the affluent. The bottom half of workers, who are precisely the Americans who rely on Social Security most, have seen their life expectancy at age 65 rise only a bit more than a year since the 1970s. Furthermore, while lawyers and politicians may consider working into their late 60s no hardship, things look somewhat different to ordinary workers, many of whom still have to perform manual labor.

And while raising the retirement age would impose a great deal of hardship, it would save remarkably little money. In fact, a 2013 report from the Congressional Budget Office found that raising the Medicare age would save almost no money at all.

But Mr. Christie — like Jeb Bush, who quickly echoed his proposal — evidently knows none of this. The zombie ideas have eaten his brain.

And there are plenty of other zombies out there. Consider, for example, the zombification of the debate over health reform.

Before the Affordable Care Act went fully into effect, conservatives made a series of dire predictions about what would happen when it did. It would actually reduce the number of Americans with health insurance; it would lead to “rate shock,” as premiums soared; it would cost the government far more than projected, and blow up the deficit; it would be a huge job-destroyer.

In reality, the act has produced a dramatic drop in the number of uninsured adults; premiums have grown much more slowly than in the years before reform; the law’s cost is coming in well below projections; and 2014, the first year of full implementation, also had the best job growth since 1999.

So how has this changed the discourse? On the right, not at all. As far as I can tell, every prominent Republican talks about Obamacare as if all the predicted disasters have, in fact, come to pass.

Finally, one of the interesting political developments of this election cycle has been the triumphant return of voodoo economics, the “supply-side” claim that tax cuts for the rich stimulate the economy so much that they pay for themselves.

In the real world, this doctrine has an unblemished record of failure. Despite confident right-wing predictions of doom, neither the Clinton tax increase of 1993 nor the Obama tax increase of 2013 killed the economy (far from it), while the “Bush boom” that followed the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 was unimpressive even before it ended in financial crisis. Kansas, whose governor promised a “real live experiment” that would prove supply-side doctrine right, has failed even to match the growth of neighboring states.

In the world of Republican politics, however, voodoo’s grip has never been stronger. Would-be presidential candidates must audition in front of prominent supply-siders to prove their fealty to failed doctrine. Tax proposals like Marco Rubio’s would create a giant hole in the budget, then claim that this hole would be filled by a miraculous economic upsurge. Supply-side economics, it’s now clear, is the ultimate zombie: no amount of evidence or logic can kill it.

So why has the Republican Party experienced a zombie apocalypse? One reason, surely, is the fact that most Republican politicians represent states or districts that will never, ever vote for a Democrat, so the only thing they fear is a challenge from the far right. Another is the need to tell Big Money what it wants to hear: a candidate saying anything realistic about Obamacare or tax cuts won’t survive the Sheldon Adelson/Koch brothers primary.

Whatever the reasons, the result is clear. Pundits will try to pretend that we’re having a serious policy debate, but, as far as issues go, 2016 is already set up to be the election of the living dead.

Blow and Krugman

April 20, 2015

Mr. Blow asks a question:  “Has the N.R.A. Won?”  He says perceptions of crime have not been in step with the facts, and gun ownership is rising.  Prof. Krugman, in “Greece on the Brink,” says just as a workable economic compromise should be possible, a new government is wary of Europe’s intentions.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

It is now fair to ask whether the National Rifle Association is winning — or has in fact won — this era of the gun debate in this country.

Gun control advocates have tried to use the horror that exists in the wake of mass shootings to catalyze the public into action around sensible gun restrictions. But rather than these tragedies being a cause for pause in ownership of guns, gun ownership has spiked in the wake of these shootings.

A striking report released Friday by the Pew Research Center revealed that “for the first time, more Americans say that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership, 52 percent to 46 percent.”

One of the reasons cited was Americans’ inverse understanding of the reality and perception of crime in this country. As the report spells out, in the 1990s, people’s perception of the prevalence of crime fell in concert with actual instances of violent crime. But since the turn of the century, things have changed: “A majority of Americans (63 percent) said in a Gallup survey last year that crime was on the rise, despite crime statistics holding near 20-year lows.”

Furthermore, it used to be that the people most worried about crime favored stricter gun control, but “now, they tend to desire keeping the laws as they are or loosening gun control. In short, we are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership — not gun control — makes people safer.”

The report adds: “Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear, though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV and political rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this trend is not without consequence. Today, those who say that crime is rising are the most opposed to gun control: Just 45 percent want to see gun laws made more strict, compared with 53 percent of those who see crime rates as unchanged or dropping.”

Another cause is most likely the intermingling of politics and high-profile crimes. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2012: “As sure as summer follows spring, gun sales rise after a mass shooting. It happened after the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. It happened after the Tucson, Ariz., shootings last year that killed six. Now, after the killing of 12 people last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., gun sales are spiking again — not just in Colorado but around the country.”

It continued: “Self-protection is part of the reason. But a bigger factor, say gun dealers, is fear of something else:  politicians, specifically, their ability to enact restrictions on gun ownership and acquisition of ammunition. When a high-profile shooting takes place, invariably the airwaves are full of talk about gun control.”

It appears to be an extreme example of unintended consequences, or a boomerang: the more people talk about gun control, the more people buy guns. And not only do gun sales surge, but apparently so does N.R.A. membership. As The Huffington Post reported in 2013: “The National Rifle Association’s paying member ranks have grown by 100,000 in the wake of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the organization told Politico.”

The report continued: “In the week after the shooting, Fox News reported that the N.R.A. was claiming an average of 8,000 new members a day. High-profile mass shootings are often followed by periods of increased interest in the N.R.A., but representatives said this rate was higher than usual.”

It was after the Newtown shooting that President Obama established a task force, led by Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., to develop a proposal to reduce gun violence, which the president said he intended to “push without delay.”

Those proposals, including expanded background checks (which were characterized as “misguided” by the N.R.A.’s Chris Cox) and a ban on some semiautomatic weapons, were roundly defeated in the Senate, although polls showed about 90 percent public approval for expanded background checks.

In fact, this month The Washington Times reported: “The American firearms industry is as healthy as ever, seeing an unprecedented surge that has sent production of guns soaring to more than 10.8 million manufactured in 2013 alone — double the total of just three years earlier.”

It continued: “The 2013 surge — the latest for which the government has figures — came in the first full year after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, signaling that the push for stricter gun controls, strongly backed by President Obama, did little to chill the industry despite the passage of stricter laws in states such as New York, Maryland, Connecticut and California.”

One may begrudge and bemoan the fact, but it is hard to deny it: the N.R.A. appears to be winning this round.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“Don’t you think they want us to fail?” That’s the question I kept hearing during a brief but intense visit to Athens. My answer was that there is no “they” — that Greece does not, in fact, face a solid bloc of implacable creditors who would rather see default and exit from the euro than let a leftist government succeed, that there’s more good will on the other side of the table than many Greeks suppose.

But you can understand why Greeks see things that way. And I came away from the visit fearing that Greece and Europe may suffer a terrible accident, an unnecessary rupture that will cast long shadows over the future.

The story so far: At the end of 2009 Greece faced a crisis driven by two factors: High debt, and inflated costs and prices that left the country uncompetitive.

Europe responded with loans that kept the cash flowing, but only on condition that Greece pursue extremely painful policies. These included spending cuts and tax hikes that, if imposed on the United States, would amount to $3 trillion a year. There were also wage cuts on a scale that’s hard to fathom, with average wages down 25 percent from their peak.

These immense sacrifices were supposed to produce recovery. Instead, the destruction of purchasing power deepened the slump, creating Great Depression-level suffering and a huge humanitarian crisis. On Saturday I visited a shelter for the homeless, and was told heartbreaking tales of a health care system in collapse: patients turned away from hospitals because they couldn’t pay the 5 euro entrance fee, sent away without needed medicine because cash-starved clinics had run out, and more.

It has been an endless nightmare, yet Greece’s political establishment, determined to stay within Europe and fearing the consequences of default and exit from the euro, stayed with the program year after year. Finally, the Greek public could take no more. As creditors demanded yet more austerity — on a scale that might well have pushed the economy down by another 8 percent and driven unemployment to 30 percent — the nation voted in Syriza, a genuinely left-wing (as opposed to center-left) coalition, which has vowed to change the nation’s course. Can Greek exit from the euro be avoided?

Yes, it can. The irony of Syriza’s victory is that it came just at the point when a workable compromise should be possible.

The key point is that exiting the euro would be extremely costly and disruptive in Greece, and would pose huge political and financial risks for the rest of Europe. It’s therefore something to be avoided if there’s a halfway decent alternative. And there is, or should be.

By late 2014 Greece had managed to eke out a small “primary” budget surplus, with tax receipts exceeding spending, excluding interest payments. That’s all that creditors can reasonably demand, since you can’t keep squeezing blood from a stone. Meanwhile, all those wage cuts have made Greece competitive on world markets — or would make it competitive if some stability can be restored.

The shape of a deal is therefore clear: basically, a standstill on further austerity, with Greece agreeing to make significant but not ever-growing payments to its creditors. Such a deal would set the stage for economic recovery, perhaps slow at the start, but finally offering some hope.

But right now that deal doesn’t seem to be coming together. Maybe it’s true, as the creditors say, that the new Greek government is hard to deal with. But what do you expect when parties that have no previous experience in governing take over from a discredited establishment? More important, the creditors are demanding things — big cuts in pensions and public employment — that a newly elected government of the left simply can’t agree to, as opposed to reforms like an improvement in tax enforcement that it can. And the Greeks, as I suggested, are all too ready to see these demands as part of an effort either to bring down their government or to make their country into an example of what will happen to other debtor countries if they balk at harsh austerity.

To make things even worse, political uncertainty is hurting tax receipts, probably causing that hard-earned primary surplus to evaporate. The sensible thing, surely, is to show some patience on that front: if and when a deal is reached, uncertainty will subside and the budget should improve again. But in the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, patience is in short supply.

It doesn’t have to be this way. True, avoiding a full-blown crisis would require that creditors advance a significant amount of cash, albeit cash that would immediately be recycled into debt payments. But consider the alternative. The last thing Europe needs is for fraying tempers to bring on yet another catastrophe, this one completely gratuitous.

Brooks and Krugman

April 17, 2015

In “When Cultures Shift” Bobo tells us that we ave experienced a major shift in moral culture. But it happened in the 1940s, not the 1960s.  In the comments “Jeo” from New York had this to say:  “This is such a jumble of half-baked ideas, none of which hold up to the slightest scrutiny. Does David Brooks truly think that self-glorifying, flamboyant figures like Joe Namath never existed before the 1940s or after? Has he ever heard of Al Capone? The flappers? The entire roaring 20s?  This loopy thesis is classic David Brooks, cherry-picking examples from here and there to weave some overarching theory that makes no sense whatsoever.”  Prof. Krugman, in “That Old-Time Economics,” says the United States and Europe are on different paths to recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Bad new ideas have perpetuated depression in Europe.

Here’s Bobo:

In January 1969, two quarterbacks played against each other in Super Bowl III. Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath were both superstars. They were both from Western Pennsylvania, but they came from different cultural universes. Unitas was reticent, workmanlike and deliberately unglamorous. Namath was flashy and a playboy. He turned himself into a marketing brand and wrote a memoir jokingly called, “I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow ’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day.”

The contrast between these two men symbolizes a broader shift from a culture of self-effacement, which says, “I’m no better than anybody else and nobody is better than me,” to a culture of self-expression, which says, “Look at what I’ve accomplished. I’m special.”

The conventional story, beloved especially on the right, is that this cultural shift took place in the 1960s. First there was the Greatest Generation, whose members were modest and self-sacrificing, but then along came the baby boomers who were narcissistic and relativistic.

As I found while researching a book, this story line doesn’t really fit the facts. The big shift in American culture did not happen around the time of Woodstock and the Age of Aquarius. It happened in the late 1940s, and it was the members of the Greatest Generation that led the shift.

The real pivot point was the end of World War II. By the fall of 1945, Americans had endured 16 years of hardship, stretching back through the Depression. They were ready to let loose and say farewell to all that. There followed what the historian Alan Petigny called “the renunciation of renunciation.” The amount of consumer advertising on the radio exploded. Magazines ran articles on the wonderful lifestyle changes that were going to make lives easier — ultraviolet lights that would sterilize dishes in place of dishwashing.

There was a softening in the moral sphere. In 1946, Rabbi Joshua Liebman published a book called “Peace of Mind” that told everybody to relax and love themselves. He wrote a new set of commandments, including “Thou shalt not be afraid of thy hidden impulses;” thou shalt “love thyself.” Liebman’s book touched a nerve. It stayed atop The New York Times’s best-seller list for 58 weeks.

A few years later, Harry Overstreet published “The Mature Mind,” which similarly advised people to discard the doctrine based on human sinfulness and embrace self affirmation. That book topped the list for 16 weeks.

In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale came out with “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which rejected a morality of restraint for an upbeat morality of growth. That book rested atop the best-seller list for an astounding 98 weeks.

Then along came humanistic psychology, led by people like Carl Rogers, who was the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. Rogers followed the same basic line. Human nature is intrinsically good. People need to love themselves more. They need to remove external restraints on their glorious selves. “Man’s behavior is exquisitely rational,” Rogers wrote, “moving with subtle and ordered complexity toward the goal his organism is endeavoring to achieve.”

Humanistic psychology led to the self-esteem movement and much else, reshaping the atmosphere in schools, human-resources departments and across American society.

In short, American popular culture pivoted. Once the dominant view was that the self is to be distrusted but external institutions are to be trusted. Then the dominant view was that the self is to be trusted and external constraints are to be distrusted.

This more positive view of human nature produced some very good social benefits. For centuries people in certain groups in society had been taught to think too poorly of themselves. Many feminists and civil rights activists seized on these messages to help formerly oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations.

But I would say that we have overshot the mark. We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.

So perhaps the culture needs a rebalance. The romantic culture of self-glorification has to be balanced with an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgment that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up. That great tradition and body of wisdom was accidentally tossed aside in the late 1940s. It’s worth reviving and modernizing it.

That was just another word salad from Bobo…  Here’s Prof. Krugman, writing from Brussels:

America has yet to achieve a full recovery from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Still, it seems fair to say that we’ve made up much, though by no means all, of the lost ground.

But you can’t say the same about the eurozone, where real G.D.P. per capita is still lower than it was in 2007, and 10 percent or more below where it was supposed to be by now. This is worse than Europe’s track record during the 1930s.

Why has Europe done so badly? In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of speeches and articles suggesting that the problem lies in the inadequacy of our economic models — that we need to rethink macroeconomic theory, which has failed to offer useful policy guidance in the crisis. But is this really the story?

No, it isn’t. It’s true that few economists predicted the crisis. The clean little secret of economics since then, however, is that basic textbook models, reflecting an approach to recessions and recoveries that would have seemed familiar to students half a century ago, have performed very well. The trouble is that policy makers in Europe decided to reject those basic models in favor of alternative approaches that were innovative, exciting and completely wrong.

I’ve been revisiting economic policy debates since 2008, and what stands out from around 2010 onward is the huge divergence in thinking that emerged between the United States and Europe. In America, the White House and the Federal Reserve mainly stayed faithful to standard Keynesian economics. The Obama administration wasted a lot of time and effort pursuing a so-called Grand Bargain on the budget, but it continued to believe in the textbook proposition that deficit spending is actually a good thing in a depressed economy. Meanwhile, the Fed ignored ominous warnings that it was “debasing the dollar,” sticking with the view that its low-interest-rate policies wouldn’t cause inflation as long as unemployment remained high.

In Europe, by contrast, policy makers were ready and eager to throw textbook economics out the window in favor of new approaches. The European Commission, headquartered here in Brussels, eagerly seized upon supposed evidence for “expansionary austerity,” rejecting the conventional case for deficit spending in favor of the claim that slashing spending in a depressed economy actually creates jobs, because it boosts confidence. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank took inflation warnings to heart and raised interest rates in 2011 even though unemployment was still very high.

But while European policy makers may have imagined that they were showing a praiseworthy openness to new economic ideas, the economists they chose to listen to were those telling them what they wanted to hear. They sought justifications for the harsh policies they were determined, for political and ideological reasons, to impose on debtor nations; they lionized economists, like Harvard’s Alberto Alesina, Carmen Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff, who seemed to offer that justification. As it turned out, however, all that exciting new research was deeply flawed, one way or another.

And while new ideas were crashing and burning, that old-time economics was going from strength to strength. Some readers may recall that there was much scoffing at predictions from Keynesian economists, myself included, that interest rates would stay low despite huge budget deficits; that inflation would remain subdued despite huge bond purchases by the Fed; that sharp cuts in government spending, far from unleashing a confidence-driven boom in private spending, would cause private spending to fall further. But all these predictions came true.

The point is that it’s wrong to claim, as many do, that policy failed because economic theory didn’t provide the guidance policy makers needed. In reality, theory provided excellent guidance, if only policy makers had been willing to listen. Unfortunately, they weren’t.

And they still aren’t. If you want to feel really depressed about Europe’s future, read the Op-Ed article by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, that was published Wednesday by The Times. It’s a flat-out rejection of everything we know about macroeconomics, of all the insights that European experience these past five years confirms. In Mr. Schäuble’s world, austerity leads to confidence, confidence creates growth, and, if it’s not working for your country, it’s because you’re not doing it right.

But back to the question of new ideas and their role in policy. It’s hard to argue against new ideas in general. In recent years, however, innovative economic ideas, far from helping to provide a solution, have been part of the problem. We would have been far better off if we had stuck to that old-time macroeconomics, which is looking better than ever.

Blow and Krugman

April 13, 2015

In “Walter Scott Is Not on Trial” Mr. Blow says that running from the police does not justify being killed by them.  In “It Takes a Party” Prof. Krugman says the 2016 election will be about ideologies, not individuals, despite much media attention to the latter.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I not only watched television pundits discuss the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., last week, I participated in some of those discussions.

And the most disturbing thread that emerged for me was people who said up front that they saw no justification for Scott being killed, but nevertheless stalked around for a back door that would allow them to surreptitiously blame the victim for his own death. Some formulation of “if only he hadn’t run…” was the way this dark door was eased open.

I find it particularly disturbing the way that we try to find excuses for killings, the way that we seek to deprecate a person when they have been killed rather than insisting that they deserved to remain among the living.

For me, there is only one issue in the Walter Scott case: he is dead, and that cannot be undone. And not only was he killed, but he was killed in a most dishonorable way: shot in the back as he fled. So, for me there is only one question: Should the dead man be dead? Is there anything, under American jurisprudence and universal moral law, that justifies the taking of this man’s life?

All else wanders into the weeds. The judicial system could have easily dealt with any misdeed Scott is accused of — failure to pay child support, failure to present proper documentation for a car he was driving, resisting arrest, fleeing — and none of those offenses, if he were found guilty of any or all, would have carried the death sentence.

Unfortunately, police officers encounter lawbreakers on a regular basis. Unfortunately, some resist arrest. Some flee. These are simply occupational conditions of being an officer — an admittedly tough job that few of us would sign up to do. But none of those offenses grant a license to gun a man down.

A life is the most precious, most valuable thing in creation. It cannot be casually ended. It cannot be callously taken. It must always be honored and protected, and the person living it needn’t be perfect; he or she is human.

The bar of justification for extrajudicial killings is high, and necessarily so, even among suspects accused of crimes. Killing sanctioned by courts in the form of executions are problematic enough, as evidenced by recent exonerations of men who spent decades on death row. How much more problematic could killings be of people who don’t live to get a trial?

It is tragic to somehow try to falsely equate what appear to be bad decisions made by Scott and those made by the officer who killed him. There is no moral equivalency between running and killing, and anyone who argues this obdurate absurdity reveals a deficiency in their own humanity. Death is not the appropriate punishment for disobedience. Being entrusted with power does not shield imprudent use of power. And one of the saddest and most frustrating features of our current debate about police use of force, in communities of color in particular, is the degree to which justice itself has been absorbed into the ideological struggle in this country.

Social justice, equal treatment and violence exerted by structures of power against a vulnerable population shouldn’t become a sprocket in our political machines. This is about right and wrong, not right and left.

Neither should we have such widely differing racial perceptions about whether use of force is appropriate and to what degree. For instance, as The Associated Press reported last week: “Seven of 10 whites polled, or 70 percent, said they can imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking a man. Most blacks and Hispanics did not agree.”

The article continued: “The poll results don’t surprise experts on American attitudes toward police, who say experiences and history with law enforcement shape opinions about the use of violence by officers.”

Furthermore, we as a nation simply must do a better job of collectiing data about these kinds of cases so that we can all discuss them from a point of mutually accepted fact rather that as an outgrowth of tribal narratives.

As the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, lamented in February:

“How can we address concerns about ‘use of force,’ how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.”

There will be an investigation and a trial in this case. Evidence will be examined and presented. It is proper to wait for that. But any exculpatory evidence must justify this use of force, not simply seek to excuse it. That will most likely be a high bar.

The video that has now been made public is incredibly disturbing and may prove incontrovertible. We will wait and see. But it is important to remember that waiting is a luxury of time afforded to the living. Time has ceased for Mr. Scott.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

So Hillary Clinton is officially running, to nobody’s surprise. And you know what’s coming: endless attempts to psychoanalyze the candidate, endless attempts to read significance into what she says or doesn’t say about President Obama, endless thumb-sucking about her “positioning” on this or that issue.

Please pay no attention. Personality-based political analysis is always a dubious venture — in my experience, pundits are terrible judges of character. Those old enough to remember the 2000 election may also remember how we were assured that George W. Bush was a nice, affable fellow who would pursue moderate, bipartisan policies.

In any case, there has never been a time in American history when the alleged personal traits of candidates mattered less. As we head into 2016, each party is quite unified on major policy issues — and these unified positions are very far from each other. The huge, substantive gulf between the parties will be reflected in the policy positions of whomever they nominate, and will almost surely be reflected in the actual policies adopted by whoever wins.

For example, any Democrat would, if elected, seek to maintain the basic U.S. social insurance programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — in essentially their current form, while also preserving and extending the Affordable Care Act. Any Republican would seek to destroy Obamacare, make deep cuts in Medicaid, and probably try to convert Medicare into a voucher system.

Any Democrat would retain the tax hikes on high-income Americans that went into effect in 2013, and possibly seek more. Any Republican would try to cut taxes on the wealthy — House Republicans plan to vote next week to repeal the estate tax — while slashing programs that aid low-income families.

Any Democrat would try to preserve the 2010 financial reform, which has recently been looking much more effective than critics suggested. Any Republican would seek to roll it back, eliminating both consumer protection and the extra regulation applied to large, “systemically important” financial institutions.

And any Democrat would try to move forward on climate policy, through executive action if necessary, while any Republican — whether or not he is an outright climate-science denialist — would block efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

How did the parties get this far apart? Political scientists suggest that it has a lot to do with income inequality. As the wealthy grow richer compared with everyone else, their policy preferences have moved to the right — and they have pulled the Republican Party ever further in their direction. Meanwhile, the influence of big money on Democrats has at least eroded a bit, now that Wall Street, furious over regulations and modest tax hikes, has deserted the party en masse. The result is a level of political polarization not seen since the Civil War.

Now, some people won’t want to acknowledge that the choices in the 2016 election are as stark as I’ve asserted. Political commentators who specialize in covering personalities rather than issues will balk at the assertion that their alleged area of expertise matters not at all. Self-proclaimed centrists will look for a middle ground that doesn’t actually exist. And as a result, we’ll hear many assertions that the candidates don’t really mean what they say. There will, however, be an asymmetry in the way this supposed gap between rhetoric and real views is presented.

On one side, suppose that Ms. Clinton is indeed the Democratic nominee. If so, you can be sure that she’ll be accused, early and often, of insincerity, of not being the populist progressive she claims to be.

On the other side, suppose that the Republican nominee is a supposed moderate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. In either case we’d be sure to hear many assertions from political pundits that the candidate doesn’t believe a lot of what he says. But in their cases this alleged insincerity would be presented as a virtue, not a vice — sure, Mr. Bush is saying crazy things about health care and climate change, but he doesn’t really mean it, and he’d be reasonable once in office. Just like his brother.

As you can probably tell, I’m dreading the next 18 months, which will be full of sound bites and fury, signifying nothing. O.K., I guess we might learn a few things — Where will Ms. Clinton come out on trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership? How much influence will Republican Fed-bashers exert? — but the differences between the parties are so clear and dramatic that it’s hard to see how anyone who has been paying attention could be undecided even now, or be induced to change his or her mind between now and the election.

One thing is for sure: American voters will be getting a real choice. May the best party win.

One could say “best party” if we had more than two…  Should be “better party.”  (Can’t help it — every now and then the Grammar Nazi rears her ugly head…)

Brooks and Krugman

April 10, 2015

Bobo shrieks “The Revolution Lives!”  He then tells us we are fooling ourselves if we think the Iranian regime actually intends to make and obey a substantive deal.  In the comments “SDW” from Cleveland had this to say:  “If David Brooks were completely candid, he would write that (A) he is faithfully adopting the position espoused by Benjamin Netanyahu and the far right in Israel, (B) he realizes that all independent experts believe the deal with Iran strongly favors the American and international interests, (C) he has no idea what the alternative is to a treaty with Iran is except a long and costly war, and (D) above all, he does not want to offend the Republicans on Capitol Hill, even if they haven’t really thought this thing through either.”  In “Where Government Excels” Prof. Krugman says Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement, and Social Security isn’t currently big enough to fill the gap.  He then poses the question:  So why not make it bigger?  Here’s Bobo:

Beyond all the talk of centrifuges and enrichment capacities, President Obama’s deal with Iran is really a giant gamble on the nature of the Iranian regime. The core question is: Are the men who control that country more like Lenin or are they more like Gorbachev? Do they still fervently believe in their revolution and would they use their postsanctions wealth to export it and destabilize their region? Or have they lost faith in their revolution? Will they use a deal as a way to rejoin the community of nations?

We got a big piece of evidence on those questions on Thursday. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivered his first big response to the sort-of-agreed-upon nuclear framework. What did we learn?

First, we learned that Iran’s supreme leader still regards the United States as his enemy. The audience chanted “Death to America” during his speech, and Khamenei himself dismissed America’s “devilish” intentions. When a radical religious leader uses a word like “devilish,” he’s not using it the way it’s used in a chocolate-cake commercial. He means he thinks the United States is the embodiment of evil.

Second, we learned that the West wants a deal more than Khamenei does. “I was never optimistic about negotiating with America,” he declared. Throughout the speech, his words dripped with a lack of enthusiasm for the whole enterprise.

President Obama is campaigning for a deal, while Khamenei is unmoved. That imbalance explains why Western negotiators had to give away so many of their original demands. The United States had originally insisted upon an end to Iran’s nuclear program, a suspension of its enrichment of uranium, but that was conceded to keep Iran at the table.

Third, we learned that the ayatollah is demanding total trust from us while offering maximum contempt in return. Khamenei communicated a smug and self-righteous sense of superiority toward the West throughout his remarks. He haughtily repeated his demand that the West permanently end all sanctions on the very day the deal is signed. He insisted that no inspectors could visit Iranian military facilities. This would make a hash of verification and enforcement.

Fourth, we learned that Khamenei and the U.S. see different realities. It’s been pointed out that Iranian and American officials describe the “agreed upon” framework in different ways. That’s because, Khamenei suggested, the Americans are lying. “I’m really worried as the other side is into lying and breaching promises. An example was the White House fact sheet,” he said. “This came out a few hours after the negotiations, and most of it was against the agreement and was wrong. They are always trying to deceive and break promises.”

Fifth, Khamenei reminded us that, even at the most delicate moment in these talks, he is still intent on putting Iran on a collision course with Sunnis and the West. He attacked the Saudi leaders as “inexperienced youngsters” and criticized efforts to push back on Iranian efforts to destabilize Yemen.

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, characterized Iran’s recent bellicosity this way: “It’s about Iran believing in exporting the revolution. It’s part of their regime, a part of their ideology.”

Khamenei’s remarks could be bluster, tactical positioning for some domestic or international audience. But they are entirely consistent with recent Iranian behavior. His speech suggests that Iran still fundamentally sees itself in a holy war with the West, a war that can be managed prudently but that is still a fundamental clash of values and interests. His speech suggests, as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz put it in a brilliant op-ed essay in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, that there is no congruence of interests between us and Iran. We envision a region of stable nation-states. They see a revolutionary anti-Western order.

If Iran still has revolutionary intent, then no amount of treaty subtlety will enforce this deal. Iran will begin subtly subverting any agreement. It will continue to work on its advanced nuclear technology even during the agreement. It will inevitably use nuclear weaponry, or even the threat of eventual nuclear weaponry, to advance its apocalyptic interests. Every other regional power will prepare for the worst, and we’ll get a pseudo-nuclear-arms race in a region of disintegrating nation-states.

If President Obama is right and Iran is on the verge of change, the deal is a home run. But we have a terrible record of predicting trends in the Middle East. Republican and Democratic administrations have continually anticipated turning points in the Middle East: Republicans after interventions, Democrats after negotiations. But the dawns never come.

At some point, there has to be a scintilla of evidence that Iran wants to change. Khamenei’s speech offers none. Negotiating an arms treaty with Brezhnev and Gorbachev was one thing. But with this guy? Good luck with that.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

As Republican presidential hopefuls trot out their policy agendas — which always involve cutting taxes on the rich while slashing benefits for the poor and middle class — some real new thinking is happening on the other side of the aisle. Suddenly, it seems, many Democrats have decided to break with Beltway orthodoxy, which always calls for cuts in “entitlements.” Instead, they’re proposing that Social Security benefits actually be expanded.

This is a welcome development in two ways. First, the specific case for expanding Social Security is quite good. Second, and more fundamentally, Democrats finally seem to be standing up to antigovernment propaganda and recognizing the reality that there are some things the government does better than the private sector.

Like all advanced nations, America mainly relies on private markets and private initiatives to provide its citizens with the things they want and need, and hardly anyone in our political discourse would propose changing that. The days when it sounded like a good idea to have the government directly run large parts of the economy are long past.

Yet we also know that some things more or less must be done by government. Every economics textbooks talks about “public goods” like national defense and air traffic control that can’t be made available to anyone without being made available to everyone, and which profit-seeking firms, therefore, have no incentive to provide. But are public goods the only area where the government outperforms the private sector? By no means.

One classic example of government doing it better is health insurance. Yes, conservatives constantly agitate for more privatization — in particular, they want to convert Medicare into nothing more than vouchers for the purchase of private insurance — but all the evidence says this would move us in precisely the wrong direction. Medicare and Medicaid are substantially cheaper and more efficient than private insurance; they even involve less bureaucracy. Internationally, the American health system is unique in the extent to which it relies on the private sector, and it’s also unique in its incredible inefficiency and high costs.

And there’s another major example of government superiority: providing retirement security.

Maybe we wouldn’t need Social Security if ordinary people really were the perfectly rational, farsighted agents economists like to assume in their models (and right-wingers like to assume in their propaganda). In an idealized world, 25-year-old workers would base their decisions about how much to save on a realistic assessment of what they will need to live comfortably when they’re in their 70s. They’d also be smart and sophisticated in how they invested those savings, carefully seeking the best trade-offs between risk and return.

In the real world, however, many and arguably most working Americans are saving much too little for their retirement. They’re also investing these savings badly. For example, a recent White House report found that Americans are losing billions each year thanks to investment advisers trying to maximize their own fees rather than their clients’ welfare.

You might be tempted to say that if workers save too little and invest badly, it’s their own fault. But people have jobs and children, and they must cope with all the crises of life. It’s unfair to expect them to be expert investors, too. In any case, the economy is supposed to work for real people leading real lives; it shouldn’t be an obstacle course only a few can navigate.

And in the real world of retirement, Social Security is a shining example of a system that works. It’s simple and clean, with low operating costs and minimal bureaucracy. It provides older Americans who worked hard all their lives with a chance of living decently in retirement, without requiring that they show an inhuman ability to think decades ahead and be investment whizzes as well. The only problem is that the decline of private pensions, and their replacement with inadequate 401(k)-type plans, has left a gap that Social Security isn’t currently big enough to fill. So why not make it bigger?

Needless to say, suggestions along these lines are already provoking near-hysterical reactions, not just from the right, but from self-proclaimed centrists. As I wrote some years ago, calling for cuts to Social Security has long been seen inside the Beltway as a “badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are.” And it’s only a decade since former President George W. Bush tried to privatize the program, with a lot of centrist support.

But true seriousness means looking at what works and what doesn’t. Privatized retirement schemes work very badly; Social Security works very well. And we should build on that success.

Amen.

Cohen and Krugman

April 6, 2015

In “United States Embassy, Tehran” Mr. Cohen says the ice has been broken. A hermetic nuclear deal, without a wider opening, is unlikely.  In “Economics and Elections” Prof. Krugman says what mainly matters is income growth immediately before a vote. Can anything be done about this weakness?  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The nuclear deal with Iran is still only preliminary but if concluded it will represent the most important American diplomatic achievement since the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian war two decades ago. That agreement was imperfect. Still, not another shot was fired in anger after the loss of more than 100,000 lives. This accord, too, reflects harsh realities — Iran has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle — yet represents the best possibility by far of holding Iran short of a bomb, ring-fencing its nuclear capacities, coaxing change in the Islamic Republic, and ushering a hopeful society closer to the world. If the yardstick is effectiveness, and it must be, no conceivable alternative even comes close. Perfection is not part of diplomacy’s repertoire.

President Obama, through his courageous persistence, has changed the strategic dynamic in the Middle East. As he reassures worried allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, he has also signaled that the United States will pursue its national interest, even in the face of fierce criticism, where the logic of that interest is irrefutable. Blocking Iran’s path to a bomb, avoiding another war with a Muslim country, and re-establishing diplomatic contact with a stable power hostile to the butchers of the Islamic State amounts to a compelling case for an America faced by a fragmenting Middle Eastern order.

It is not a bad thing to remind allies that enjoying irrevocable support from the United States cannot mean exercising a veto on American actions. Indeed, it may be a good thing, because it stimulates creative reflection. This breakthrough with Iran, impossible without the tireless work of Secretary of State John Kerry, looks like the cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Of course, the president needed partners. He found them in other major powers, but most of all in President Hassan Rouhani of Iran who, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observed to me, “aspires to be Iran’s Deng Xiaoping.” Rouhani’s mantra is: Preserve the system, fast-forward the economy, open to the world.

Rouhani does not aspire to be Iran’s Gorbachev. His thing is adaptation, not transformation. He is of the system, hence his room for maneuver. Unlike Iran’s hard-liners, he believes preservation of Iran’s theocracy is compatible with — perhaps dependent on — normalized relations with the rest of the world, including the United States. That is a potential game-changer.

Perhaps the most significant words after the agreement came from Rouhani: “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world.” He added: “With those countries with which we have a cold relationship, we would like a better relationship. And if we have tension or hostility with any countries, we want an end to tension and hostility with those countries.”

There were no qualifiers there — not for “The Great Satan,” as the United States has been widely known in Iran since the theocratic revolution of 1979, not even for Israel. The message to the fight-or-surrender, heads-in-the-sand hard-liners was clear. Once again, Rouhani suggested he is a more courageous and resourceful reformer than Iran’s other presidential reformist, Mohammad Khatami, who spoke a good line but could not deliver.

Many Iranians are rubbing their eyes in disbelief: Obama’s post-accord statement broadcast in Tehran (selfies taken against that TV backdrop became popular); praise of Obama’s understanding of Iran from former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; support for the preliminary agreement at Friday prayers. A revolution that promised only to deceive, delivering not freedom but oppression, is promising once again: reasonable adaptation to changed times. But of course Iran has often veered from reason.

Renewed disappointment is not implausible. There are implacable opponents of this American-Iranian détente in both countries. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been silent, even if things could never have come this far without his backing. He may well fight to keep the nuclear deal hermetic, sealed off from a wider opening. Rouhani takes an opposite view: He wants a nuclear deal that is a catalyst to fixing Iran’s relations with the world. Obama, too, has spoken of his hope that a concluded deal “ushers in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.”

At the very least, if finalized, the deal condemns the United States and Iran to interact for more than a decade. They will be in conflict about most things. That’s alright. Institutionalized discord is far better than traumatized alienation. I cannot see the accord being hermetic. There’s too much pent-up expectation among Iran’s youth, too much economic possibility, too much pro-Western sentiment in Iran, too much American business interest in Iran. Of course, that’s what Khamenei is afraid of. Yet he’s come this far.

The 40th anniversary of the revolution, and the seizing of American hostages in Iran, is four years off. I’d bet on the United States Embassy in Tehran reopening then. The ice has broken.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Britain’s economic performance since the financial crisis struck has been startlingly bad. A tentative recovery began in 2009, but it stalled in 2010. Although growth resumed in 2013, real income per capita is only now reaching its level on the eve of the crisis — which means that Britain has had a much worse track record since 2007 than it had during the Great Depression.

Yet as Britain prepares to go to the polls, the leaders of the coalition government that has ruled the country since 2010 are posing as the guardians of prosperity, the people who really know how to run the economy. And they are, by and large, getting away with it.

There are some important lessons here, not just for Britain but for all democracies struggling to manage their economies in difficult times. I’ll get to those lessons in a minute. But first, let’s ask how a British government with such a poor economic record can manage to run on its supposed economic achievements.

Well, you could blame the weakness of the opposition, which has done an absolutely terrible job of making its case. You could blame the fecklessness of the news media, which has gotten much wrong. But the truth is that what’s happening in British politics is what almost always happens, there and everywhere else: Voters have fairly short memories, and they judge economic policy not by long-term results but by recent growth. Over five years, the coalition’s record looks terrible. But over the past couple of quarters it looks pretty good, and that’s what matters politically.

In making these assertions, I’m not engaged in casual speculation — I’m drawing on a large body of political science research, mainly focused on presidential contests in the United States but clearly applicable elsewhere. This research debunks almost all the horse-race narratives beloved by political pundits — never mind who wins the news cycle, or who appeals to the supposed concerns of independent voters. What mainly matters is income growth immediately before the election. And I mean immediately: We’re talking about something less than a year, maybe less than half a year.

This is, if you think about it, a distressing result, because it says that there is little or no political reward for good policy. A nation’s leaders may do an excellent job of economic stewardship for four or five years yet get booted out because of weakness in the last two quarters before the election. In fact, the evidence suggests that the politically smart thing might well be to impose a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls.

Actually, that’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear that it was deliberate.

The point, then, is that elections — which are supposed to hold politicians accountable — don’t seem to fulfill that function very well when it comes to economic policy. But can anything be done about this weakness?

One possible answer, which appeals to many pundits, might be to remove economic policy making from the political sphere and turn it over to nonpartisan elite commissions. This presumes, however, that elites know what they are doing — and it’s hard to see what, in recent events, might make you believe that. After all, American elites spent years in the thrall of Bowles-Simpsonism, a completely misplaced obsession over budget deficits. European elites, with their commitment to punitive austerity, have been even worse.

A better, more democratic answer would be to seek a better-informed electorate. One really striking thing about the British economic debate is the contrast between what passes for economic analysis in the news media — even in high-end newspapers and on elite-oriented TV shows — and the consensus of professional economists. News reports often portray recent growth as a vindication of austerity policies, but surveys of economists find only a small minority agreeing with that assertion. Claims that budget deficits are the most important issue facing Britain are made as if they were simple assertions of fact, when they are actually contentious, if not foolish.

So reporting on economic issues could and should be vastly better. But political scientists would surely scoff at the idea that this would make much difference to election outcomes, and they’re probably right.

What, then, should those of us who study economic policy and care about real-world outcomes do? The answer, surely, is that we should do our jobs: Try to get it right, and explain our answers as clearly as we can. Realistically, the political impact will usually be marginal at best. Bad things will happen to good ideas, and vice versa. So be it. Elections determine who has the power, not who has the truth.

Brooks and Krugman

April 3, 2015

We’ve got Rabbi Brooks again this morning.  In “On Conquering Fear” he gurgles that the story from the Book of Exodus that Jews read as part of the Passover Seder offers subtler strategies and techniques for finding strength and happiness.  While “gemli” from Boston had a nice comment, “There is much to fear in the world, but I’ve learned from reading the religious texts of Brooks and Douthat that there is comfort to be found in incoherence,” I really wish the Times’ editorial staff would read, mark, and inwardly digest the following from “Aussie Dude” in Melbourne:  “Can any explain to me what Brooks is babbling on about? I have got five degrees but I am struggling to make sense of this piece.  Yes, yes I get it – the Times has to include a couple of right wing ideologues for the sake of balance. But can’t they find any one that writes more sense than Brooks or that other godawful “writer” Douthat?”  In “Power and Paychecks” Prof. Krugman tells us that maybe it’s not that hard to give American workers a raise, after all.  Here’s Rabbi Bobo:

Everybody is afraid sometimes, and, at those moments, it doesn’t really help to say, “Suck it up and get over it!” So it would be nice if there were subtler strategies and techniques to conquer fear.

Fortunately, one such method is embedded in the story that Jews read tonight as part of the Passover Seder. It’s an attractive technique because it involves kissing, talking and singing your way through fear.

There is, especially at the start, a lot of dread in the Exodus story. Moses is afraid of the responsibility he is given. He’s afraid of being ridiculed and making mistakes. He’s afraid that his people are not worthy or ready to be liberated. The Israelites are afraid of the pharaoh and his soldiers. They are afraid of death but also afraid of really living.

The fear makes people apathetic, torpid and skeptical. The Israelites are unable to absorb words of hope. They shroud their lives in secrecy. As the magnificent Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg puts it in her book “The Particulars of Rapture,” “It is this fear that makes hearing, reverie, and speech impossible: a defensive rigidity that narrows the channels and closes the apertures.”

To harden their lot, according to post-Temple commentaries, the pharaoh forced the Israelite men to do endless labor and sleep in the fields, away from their wives and marital beds. But the women made meals and brought wine to their husbands in the evenings. After drinking and dining, the women would pull out mirrors and the couples would gaze at themselves in the mirror. “I’m more beautiful than you,” the women would say. “I’m more beautiful than you,” the men would respond.

In this way, they would break out of their apathy and accustom themselves to desire. They were covered with dirt and fear, but they challenged each other to see beauty in the other. Gazing jointly into the mirrors, and aroused by each other, they began to sense unexpected possibilities.

Before this desire was kindled, language had lost its power because the people were rendered stone-deaf by fear. But, in this aroused, anticipatory state, their ears open up. Their mouths become looser. From a state of being cramped up in terror, there is a moment of relaxing.

The 18th-century thinker Rabbi Nachman of Breslov wrote that romantic desire clears the throat. Once people start speaking to each other and telling stories to each other, they generate alternate worlds. A story isn’t an argument or a collection of data. It contains multiple meanings that can be discussed, questioned and reinterpreted.

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

After the plagues, Pharaoh is compelled to accept the truth of the story that Moses has been telling about his people. The Israelites are now strong enough to make the leap from bondage.

The nature of that leap is illustrated by an incident that takes place at the start. The normal version of this episode is that God parts the Dead Sea, the Israelites cross, the Egyptians are engulfed and then the Israelites sing in celebration. But the alternate version is that the Israelites are singing at the moment of crossing. They are not singing in celebration. They are singing in defiance of terror.

The climactic break from bondage is thus done in a mood of enchantment. The women, who have experienced the worst suffering, take out their timbrels and become joyful and buoyant. According to some rabbis, Miriam, who leads the singing, has a higher spiritual consciousness than even Moses because, with all the bitterness behind her, she can leap into song. The song produces energy and spiritual generosity. Borrowing from Oliver Sacks, Zornberg writes that the people have become “unmusicked” by fear and pain. They have to become “remusicked.”

Eventually, the Israelites are able to cope with fear. This makes them capable of loving and being loved. The image of fire plays a role in this transformation. At first, fire — even in the burning bush — is just scary. But eventually fire is semicontrolled as candlelight at the center of the meal, intimacy and home.

Zornberg’s emphasis on the role women play brings out the hidden, unconscious layer of the Exodus story. But it also illustrates an important element in the struggle against fear. We’re always told to confront our fears. Take them head-on. But, in the sophisticated psychology of Exodus, fears are confronted obliquely and happily, through sexiness, storytelling and song.

Gawd, but he’s full of crap…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Wednesday, McDonald’s — which has been facing demonstrations denouncing its low wages — announced that it would give workers a raise. The pay increase won’t, in itself, be a very big deal: the new wage floor is just $1 above the local minimum wage, and even that policy only applies to outlets McDonald’s owns directly, not the many outlets owned by people who bought franchises. But it’s at least possible that this latest announcement, like Walmart’s much bigger pay-raise announcement a couple of months ago, is a harbinger of an important change in U.S. labor relations.

Maybe it’s not that hard to give American workers a raise, after all.

Most people would surely agree that stagnant wages, and more broadly the shrinking number of jobs that can support middle-class status, are big problems for this country. But the general attitude to the decline in good jobs is fatalistic. Isn’t it just supply and demand? Haven’t labor-saving technology and global competition made it impossible to pay decent wages to workers unless they have a lot of education?

Strange to say, however, the more you know about labor economics the less likely you are to share this fatalism. For one thing, global competition is overrated as a factor in labor markets; yes, manufacturing faces a lot more competition than it did in the past, but the great majority of American workers are employed in service industries that aren’t exposed to international trade. And the evidence that technology is pushing down wages is a lot less clear than all the harrumphing about a “skills gap” might suggest.

Even more important is the fact that the market for labor isn’t like the markets for soybeans or pork bellies. Workers are people; relations between employers and employees are more complicated than simple supply and demand. And this complexity means that there’s a lot more wiggle room in wage determination than conventional wisdom would have you believe. We can, in fact, raise wages significantly if we want to.

How do we know that labor markets are different? Start with the effects of minimum wages. There’s a lot of evidence on those effects: Every time a state raises its minimum wage while neighboring states don’t, it, in effect, performs a controlled experiment. And the overwhelming conclusion from all that evidence is that the effect you might expect to see — higher minimum wages leading to fewer jobs — is weak to nonexistent. Raising the minimum wage makes jobs better; it doesn’t seem to make them scarcer.

How is that possible? At least part of the answer is that workers are not, in fact, commodities. A bushel of soybeans doesn’t care how much you paid for it; but decently paid workers tend to do a better job, not to mention being less likely to quit and require replacement, than workers paid the absolute minimum an employer can get away with. As a result, raising the minimum wage, while it makes labor more expensive, has offsetting benefits that tend to lower costs, limiting any adverse effect on jobs.

Similar factors explain another puzzle about labor markets: the way different firms in what looks like the same business can pay very different wages. The classic comparison is between Walmart (with its low wages, low morale, and very high turnover) and Costco (which offers higher wages and better benefits, and makes up the difference with better productivity and worker loyalty). True, the two retailers serve different markets; Costco’s merchandise is higher-end and its customers more affluent. But the comparison nonetheless suggests that paying higher wages costs employers a lot less than you might think.

And this, in turn, suggests that it shouldn’t be all that hard to raise wages across the board. Suppose that we were to give workers some bargaining power by raising minimum wages, making it easier for them to organize, and, crucially, aiming for full employment rather than finding reasons to choke off recovery despite low inflation. Given what we now know about labor markets, the results might be surprisingly big — because a moderate push might be all it takes to persuade much of American business to turn away from the low-wage strategy that has dominated our society for so many years.

There’s historical precedent for this kind of wage push. The middle-class society now dwindling in our rearview mirrors didn’t emerge spontaneously; it was largely created by the “great compression” of wages that took place during World War II, with effects that lasted for more than a generation.

So can we repeat this achievement? The pay raises at Walmart and McDonald’s — brought on by a tightening job market plus activist pressure — offer a small taste of what could happen on a vastly larger scale. There’s no excuse for wage fatalism. We can give American workers a raise if we want to.

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

March 30, 2015

In “The Beating of Floyd Dent” Mr. Blow says another horrifically violent incident furthers the perception that the police are more likely to use force against blacks.  Mr. Cohen says “Iran Matters Most” and that America cannot stop the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East or its violence. It’s a time for fierce realism.  Prof. Krugman, in “Imaginary Healthcare Horrors,” says the Affordable Care Act is costing taxpayers much less than expected, but that hasn’t deterred the prophets of disaster.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“He was beating me upside the head,” Floyd Dent, a 57-year-old longtime autoworker told a gaggle of reporters last week, according to The Detroit Free Press. “I was trying to protect my face with my right arm. I heard one of them say, ‘Tase the M…F.’ ”

Dent was describing what he experienced in a horrifically violent dashboard camera video that shows Inkster, Mich., police officers pulling him over, dragging him from his car, punching him 16 times in the head and tasing him three times, while he lay bloody and struggling on the ground, before arresting him.

According to the website for a local NBC News affiliate: “Police said they first saw Dent’s car through binoculars while watching an area known to have drug activity. They followed Dent’s car and said he didn’t make a complete stop at a stop sign. Police said that when they turned on their flashing lights, Dent didn’t immediately pull over.”

Furthermore: “Police said they ordered Dent to put his hands up, but they could only see one. Police said Dent yelled ‘I’ll kill you’ at the officers. Dent’s attorney, Greg Rohl, said there’s no audio of the alleged threat.”

Finally: “Police said Dent refused to put his hands behind his back. Dent said he thought he was being choked to death and tried to pull the officers’ arms away from his throat. One of the officers said Dent bit him on the arm, and that’s why he started punching Dent. Police said the force was needed to restrain Dent. The officer who said he was bit did not seek medical attention or photograph the bite marks.”

According to The Free Press, “Police initially charged him with assault, resisting arrest and possession of cocaine, insisting they found cocaine beneath the passenger seat of his Cadillac. Dent says police planted the drugs at the time of his arrest. An Inkster district court judge, after reviewing the tape, tossed the assault and resisting charges, but Dent faces an April 1 hearing on the drug charge.”

Dent’s lawyer says the drugs were planted by the officer who punched him, William Melendez. And there is video that the lawyer claims backs up the allegation. As a reporter at the local NBC News affiliate describes it: “In the video, the officer seen throwing the punches, William Melendez, is seen pulling something from his pocket that looks like a plastic baggy with something inside it. Melendez testified in court police found a baggy of crack cocaine under the passenger seat of Dent’s car.”

It should be noted that, according to the local NBC News affiliate website, Dent said a blood test showed no drugs in his system.

It should also be noted that, according to The Free Press, Melendez, who federal investigators in 2003 said “was known on the street as ‘Robocop,’ ” “has been involved in 12 lawsuits related to his conduct as an officer over the years, including similar allegations in a civil rights suit now pending in federal court.”

Those lawsuits allege, “among other things, that he planted evidence, assaulted people in their homes, fabricated police reports and wrongly arrested people.”

Videos like the Dent footage further the perception, especially among African-Americans, that the police are more likely to use force — specifically deadly force — against blacks than whites.

A December CBS News poll found that 84 percent of blacks and 33 percent of whites believe that the police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against blacks. Just 2 percent of whites, and 0 percent of blacks, believe the police are more likely to use such force against whites.

(Fifty-seven percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks said they thought race did not affect the use of deadly force.)

And it is important to register where the most recent cases are centered.

As Isabel Wilkerson, author of the monumental book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” put it in a January New York Times essay titled “When Will the North Face Its Racism?”: “High-profile cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution.”

She concluded: “If the events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that, as much progress has been made over the generations, the challenges of color and tribe were not locked away in another century or confined to a single region but persist as a national problem and require the commitment of the entire nation to resolve.”

So much about Dent’s case is troublesome, and so he has become the latest touchstone in our coalescing conversation about the intersection of police forces and communities of color, particularly in the parts of this country that African-Americans fled to in search of a better life.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

Do the Iran deal. Defeat the barbaric marauders of Islamic State. In the fragmenting mayhem of the Middle East, these must be the American and Western priorities.

They are objectives rooted in the strict Western interest. An Iranian nuclear accord lasting at least a decade that ring-fences a fiercely monitored and strictly limited enrichment program compatible only with civilian use is not an ideal outcome, but it is the best conceivable outcome of protracted talks that have already reversed the nuclear momentum in Iran and established a bridgehead between Washington and Tehran.

Any such agreement — and the deadline is imminent — must leave Iran a minimum of a year from any ‘‘break-out’’ to a bomb. The alternatives are far worse. Centrifuges and enrichment levels would resume their upward curve. War drums would beat again despite the fact that calls to attack Iran are an irresponsible invitation to disaster.

American or Israeli bombs on Persia (or both) would have all sorts of ghastly consequences, but the fundamental argument against such folly is that they would cause no more than a hiccup in Iran’s nuclear program before spurring it to renewed and unmonitored intensity. This would be war without purpose, or war on false pretenses. We’ve seen enough of that.

Iran is a hopeful and youthful society. Nurture the hope. Don’t imprison it. A deal lasting 10 years would condemn Iran and America to a working relationship over that period. I use the word ‘‘condemn’’ advisedly. It would not be pretty. In fact it would be ugly. There would be plenty of disagreements.

But jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Much can be achieved with nations that have fundamental ideological differences with the United States; look at the history of Chinese-American relations since they resumed in the 1970’s. During the next decade the Islamic Republic is likely to go through a leadership change. Its society is aspirational and Westward-looking. ‘‘Death to America’’ has become a tired refrain. What these elements will produce in terms of change is unpredictable, but the chance of positive developments is enhanced by contact and diminished by punitive estrangement of Tehran.

Would it be preferable that Iran not have the nuclear capacity it has acquired? Sure. Can there be absolute guarantees a deal would be honored? No. But diplomacy deals with the real world. The toughest, most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Opponents of an accord have offered no serious alternatives.

Only elementary knowledge of Iran is needed to know that sanctions will never bring this proud nation to its knees. It would rather starve than cave. What better assures Israel’s security, a decade of strict limitation and inspection of Iran’s nuclear program that prevents it making a bomb, or a war that delays the program a couple of years, locks in the most radical factions in Tehran, and intensifies Middle Eastern violence? It’s a no-brainer.

I like the current inconsistencies in President Obama’s Middle East policy. Some ask how it can make sense to pursue an Iran deal while backing Arab states, principally Sunni Saudi Arabia, in a campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. To which the answer is first that interests drive foreign policy, not the pursuit of consistency (Stalin was once the most effective of American allies); and second that America is making it clear to Iran, even before any possible deal, that it will not abandon its allies, including Egypt and the Saudis, just because a nuclear agreement has been reached. This is an important message. The United States will oppose Iran where its interests and those of its allies demand that, deal or no deal.

One area where American and Iranian interests broadly coincide is in defeating Islamic State, the latest expression of the metastasizing Salafi Islamist ideology of murderous hatred toward Western civilization that produced 9/11 and recent murderous rampages in Europe. Islamic State is also a Sunni revanchist movement in Iraq and Syria, directly opposed to Shia Iran. There is nothing uplifting about the overlap in American and Iranian interests, but that does not make it any the less important. Rolling back Islamic State requires at least tacit Iranian cooperation.

America cannot stop the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East that its invasion of Iraq exacerbated. It cannot rebuild the Sykes-Picot order, or the borders that went with it. It cannot reverse its failure to prevent the worst in Syria (which will forever blot Obama’s record), nor its failure, outside Tunisia, and particularly in Egypt, to nurture the hope of the Arab spring for more representative societies freed from the paralyzing (and mutually reinforcing) confrontation of dictatorship and Islamism. It cannot prevent the violence inherent in all these developments. Nor should it hide its eyes from the fact that this violence will last a generation at least.

This is not cause for despair but reason to concentrate, fiercely, on the two attainable objectives that matter most now.

Last but not least we have Prof. Krugman:

There’s a lot of fuzzy math in American politics, but Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, recently set a new standard when he declared the cost of Obamacare “unconscionable.” If you do “simple multiplication,” he insisted, you find that the coverage expansion is costing $5 million per recipient. But his calculation was a bit off — namely, by a factor of more than a thousand. The actual cost per newly insured American is about $4,000.

Now, everyone makes mistakes. But this wasn’t a forgivable error. Whatever your overall view of the Affordable Care Act, one indisputable fact is that it’s costing taxpayers much less than expected — about 20 percent less, according to the Congressional Budget Office. A senior member of Congress should know that, and he certainly has no business making speeches about an issue if he won’t bother to read budget office reports.

But that is, of course, how it’s been all along with Obamacare. Before the law went into effect, opponents predicted disaster on all levels. What has happened instead is that the law is working pretty well. So how have the prophets of disaster responded? By pretending that the bad things they said would happen have, in fact, happened.

Costs aren’t the only area where enemies of reform prefer to talk about imaginary disasters rather than real success stories. Remember, Obamacare was also supposed to be a huge job-killer. In 2011, the House even passed a bill called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. Health reform, opponents declared, would cripple the economy and in particular cause businesses to force their employees into part-time work.

Well, Obamacare went into effect fully at the beginning of 2014 — and private-sector job growth actually accelerated, to a pace we haven’t seen since the Clinton years. Meanwhile, involuntary part-time employment — the number of workers who want full-time work but can’t get it — has dropped sharply. But the usual suspects talk as if their dire predictions came true. Obamacare, Jeb Bush declared a few weeks ago, is “the greatest job suppressor in the so-called recovery.”

Finally, there’s the never-ending hunt for snarks and boojums — for ordinary, hard-working Americans who have suffered hardship thanks to health reform. As we’ve just seen, Obamacare opponents by and large don’t do math (and they’re sorry when they try). But all they really need are a few sob stories, tales of sympathetic individuals who have been impoverished by some aspect of the law.

Remarkably, however, they haven’t been able to find those stories. Early last year, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed group, ran a series of ads featuring alleged Obamacare victims — but not one of those tales of woe stood up to scrutiny. More recently, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State took to Facebook to ask for Obamacare horror stories. What she got instead was a torrent of testimonials from people whose lives have been improved, and in some cases saved, by health reform.

In reality, the only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a relatively small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young and healthy (so insurers previously saw them as good risks) and affluent (so they don’t qualify for subsidies). Neither group supplies suitable victims for attack ads.

In short, when it comes to the facts, the attack on health reform has come up empty-handed. But the public doesn’t know that. The good news about costs hasn’t made it through at all: According to a recent poll by Vox.com, only 5 percent of Americans know that Obamacare is costing less than predicted, while 42 percent think the government is spending more than expected.

And the favorable experiences of the roughly 16 million Americans who have gained insurance so far have had little effect on public perceptions. Partly that’s because the Affordable Care Act, by design, has had almost no effect on those who already had good health insurance: Before the act, a large majority of Americans were already covered by their employers, by Medicare or by Medicaid, and they have seen no change in their status.

At a deeper level, however, what we’re looking at here is the impact of post-truth politics. We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.

And the result is that imaginary disasters can overshadow real successes. Obamacare isn’t perfect, but it has dramatically improved the lives of millions. Someone should tell the voters.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

March 27, 2015

In “The Field Is Flat” Bobo tries to convince us of something.  He gurgles that many people think the Democrats have an advantage heading into 2016, but he says they don’t.  Keep on trying to convince yourself of that, Bobo, as you watch the 2016 Clown Car fill up with lunatic Teatards.  Mr. Cohen, in “Of Catfish Wars and Shooting Wars,” says graves in the life-giving rice paddies along the Mekong Delta suggest the Asian gift for acceptance.  In “Mornings in Blue America” Prof. Krugman tells us about when good news of solid job growth at both the national level and in states is a conservative nightmare.  Here’s Bobo, who should read Prof. Krugman today:

Like a lot of people who pay attention to such things, I had assumed that Democrats had a huge advantage going into next year’s presidential race. Democrats do really well among the growing demographic groups, like Hispanics, single people and the young. Republicans, meanwhile, do doing sensationally well with just about every shrinking group. If 67-year-old rural white men were the future of the electorate, the G.O.P. would be rolling.

But there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that, in fact, Democrats do not enter this election with an advantage. There are a series of trends that may cancel out the Democratic gains with immigrants, singles and the like.

We first began to notice these counterforces in the high-immigrant red states that were supposed to start turning purple by now — places like Texas, Arizona and Georgia. New types of voters have, indeed, flooded into these places, but as Ronald Brownstein points out in The National Journal, since 1992 Democratic presidential nominees have averaged only 44.5 percent of the vote in Georgia, 43.7 percent of the vote in Arizona and a pathetic 40.4 percent of the vote in Texas.

Instead of turning pink or purple, these states have become more thoroughly Republican — from school board elections on up.

Nationally, three big things are happening to at least temporarily hold off the Democratic realignment. First, the aging of the electorate is partially canceling out the diversifying of the electorate. People tend to get more Republican as they get older, and they vote at higher rates. And older people are moving to crucial states. In Arizona, Obama won 63 percent of the young adults but only 29 percent of the oldsters.

This aging effect could have a big impact in the swing states of the Midwest, like Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These states have generally gone Democratic in presidential years, but it’s hard to miss the growing Republican strength at every other level. As Brownstein notes, Republicans have a 42-to-18 advantage in House seats in these states. They control the governorships in all but Pennsylvania. They control both statehouses in all these states save the Iowa Senate.

Second, Democrats continue to lose support among the white working class. In 2008, Barack Obama carried 40 percent of white voters with a high school degree. By 2012, that was down to 36 percent. As John B. Judis points out in a National Journal piece called “The Emerging Republican Advantage,” the tilt of the white working class to the G.O.P. has been even more pronounced in other races. In 2006, Democrats got 44 percent of the white-working-class vote in House races. By 2014, they got only 34 percent. In 2009, Republicans had a 20-seat advantage in House districts that were majority white working class. Today, they have a 125-seat advantage.

Most surprising, Democrats are now doing worse among college-educated voters. Obama won white college graduates in 2008, but he lost them to Mitt Romney in 2012. In Colorado, for example, Obama lost 8 points in his support from college-educated voters from 2008 to 2012.

White college grads are drifting away from Democrats down ballot, too. And, most significant, there are signs that Hispanic voters, at least in Sun Belt states, are getting more Republican as they move up the educational ladder.

Surveys and interviews give us some sense of what’s going on. Voters have a lot of economic anxieties. But they also have a template in their heads for what economic dynamism looks like.

That template does not include a big role for government. Polls show that faith in government is near all-time lows. In a Gallup survey, voters listed dysfunctional government as the nation’s No. 1 problem. In fact, American voters’ traditional distrust has morphed and hardened. They used to think it was bloated and ineffective. Now they think it is bloated and ineffective and rigged to help those who need it least.

When many of these voters think of economic dynamism, they think of places like Texas, the top job producer in the nation over the past decade, and, especially, places like Houston, a low-regulation, low-cost-of-living place. In places like Wisconsin, voters in the middle class private sector support candidates who cut state pensions and pass right-to-work laws, so that economic governance can be more Texas-style.

In short, economic philosophy is mitigating the effect of demographic change, at least for a little while longer. The political guru Charlie Cook asks: Will this be a “Time for a Change” election or will this be a “Changing American Demographics” election? I suspect it will be a “Time for a Change” election. The crucial swing voters will be white and Hispanic college graduates in suburban office parks. They are not into redistribution or that Senator Ted Cruz opened his campaign at Liberty University.

The 2016 campaign is starting on level ground.

This is wishful thinking and whistling past the graveyard.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Than Binh, Vietnam:

I drove out through a watery landscape, the rice paddies shimmering, watermelon being planted in muddy fields. There were ducks on the canals, graves and shrines in the light green rice fields, the dead among the living, not hidden but recalled daily. Women in conical hats pushed bicycles over rickety wooden bridges. The breeze was warm, the viscous coffee sweet. Cafes set with hammocks, some advertising Wi-Fi, offered sugar cane juice pressed through small hand-cranked mills. Everything felt liquid, soft, fluid here in the Mekong Delta, an aqueous microclimate.

Yes, the dead among the living: four decades gone by since the war, the bombs and the napalm — twitchy young Americans at the other side of the world wondering what menace lurked in this lush vegetation. America mired in the mud of an unwinnable war.

Now, if anything, the Vietnamese wonder whether the United States military would protect them against the Chinese, if it ever came to that. The temporary enemy has become a partner of sorts against the eternal enemy. Annual trade between Vietnam and the United States has soared from a mere $220 million in 1994 to $29.6 billion in 2013.

The wars over, the Vietnamese did not want to dwell on them. They wanted to sow seeds of commerce rather than grievance. Asia could offer this lesson to other parts of the world where I have spent too much time. Vengeance and victimhood wither the soul. The life-giving rice growing around the dead is an image fecund with acceptance. Even the mud yields.

At its banks the lazy Mekong seems boundless. Business along the river has boomed. I watched with Huynh Khanh Chau, the vice general director of Asia Commerce Fisheries, as large blue plastic containers of live fish were unloaded from boats into a pipe system that swept them in a watery gush into a nearby factory. The fish are raised on nearby farms; aquaculture has become a big industry in the Mekong.

The name of the small-headed, fat-bodied fish is a matter of some dispute. It is catfish-like. So it has been called Vietnamese catfish. In the United States it is sometimes called “swai.” It has also been dubbed “basa” and in Europe is often referred to as “pangasius.” This has not been a mere lexicographical game. The “catfish wars” between the United States and Vietnam have been bitter.

The U.S. catfish industry initially pressed Congress to prohibit labeling “basa” as catfish. The first antidumping duties against “certain frozen fish fillets from Vietnam” went into effect in 2003. They have not been lifted. More recently, Vietnam has been angered by an attempt to reclassify “basa” as catfish, which could lead to stricter United States Department of Agriculture inspection standards. Where are Joseph Heller and “Catch-22” when you need them?

Huynh has no doubt this is a simple case of American protectionism. When it comes to catfish, Vietnam with its ideal climate and cheap labor is more competitive. Its fish tastes good — or at least just as good. Still, better catfish war than hot war.

His company has had to adjust. It’s exporting more to China, but the Chinese taste is only for large fillets. Europe likes medium-sized fillets. By contrast, the United States, ever the omnivore, “is a great market because it likes large, medium-sized and small fillets!”

Inside, the fish are killed by workers with a single throat-cutting thrust of the knife through the gill. Blood drips down a stainless-steel chute into a pool. The fish are cleaned. Another team of men in brown numbered uniforms does the initial filleting, knives sweeping in practiced incisions through the pale pink flesh to leave, in seconds, a carcass of head and bone. The men pile the fillets in blue trays and add a disc with their number; pay depends on productivity.

Now it is the turn of blue-uniformed women, whose work is more skilled. It is easy to tear the fillet. With precision and speed, they nip, they scrape, they flip, they excise — until every blemish is gone. The factory floor is a sea of young women and quicksilver knife movements. Fillets are then sorted by size and color, before freezing. From live fish to the frozen fillet ready to be boxed and exported to Western or Chinese supermarkets, no more than an hour elapses.

Outside, in a cafe, I met a worker, Nguyen Van Tu, from the adjacent Hung Ca fish factory and exporter. He said he works a 12-hour shift, six days a week, with one-hour lunch break, and two 20-minute pauses. He earns about $220 a month. Next time I eat a frozen fish fillet in New York or blackened catfish in Louisiana I’ll think of his smiling face, his low pay, flashing knives in female hands, fish wars versus shooting wars, the peace of the watery Delta, and those graves in the glistening rice paddies.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Two impossible things happened to the U.S. economy over the course of the past year — or at least they were supposed to be impossible, according to the ideology that dominates half our political spectrum. First, remember how Obamacare was supposed to be a gigantic job killer? Well, in the first year of the Affordable Care Act’s full implementation, the U.S. economy as a whole added 3.3 million jobs — the biggest gain since the 1990s. Second, half a million of those jobs were added in California, which has taken the lead in job creation away from Texas.

Were President Obama’s policies the cause of national job growth? Did Jerry Brown — the tax-raising, Obamacare-embracing governor of California — engineer his state’s boom? No, and few liberals would claim otherwise. What we’ve been seeing at both the national and the state level is mainly a natural process of recovery as the economy finally starts to heal from the housing and debt bubbles of the Bush years.

But recent job growth, nonetheless, has big political implications — implications so disturbing to many on the right that they are in frantic denial, claiming that the recovery is somehow bogus. Why can’t they handle the good news? The answer actually comes on three levels: Obama Derangement Syndrome, or O.D.S.; Reaganolatry; and the confidence con.

Not much need be said about O.D.S. It is, by now, a fixed idea on the right that this president is both evil and incompetent, that everything touched by the atheist Islamic Marxist Kenyan Democrat — mostly that last item — must go terribly wrong. When good news arrives about the budget, or the economy, or Obamacare — which is, by the way, rapidly reducing the number of uninsured while costing much less than expected — it must be denied.

At a deeper level, modern conservative ideology utterly depends on the proposition that conservatives, and only they, possess the secret key to prosperity. As a result, you often have politicians on the right making claims like this one, from Senator Rand Paul: “When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan.”

Actually, if creating “millions of jobs” means adding two million or more jobs in a given year, we’ve done that 13 times since Reagan left office: eight times under Bill Clinton, twice under George W. Bush, and three times, so far, under Barack Obama. But who’s counting?

Still, don’t liberals have similar delusions? Not really. The economy added 23 million jobs under Clinton, compared with 16 million under Reagan, but there’s nothing on the left comparable to the cult of the Blessed Ronald. That’s because liberals don’t need to claim that their policies will produce spectacular growth. All they need to claim is feasibility: that we can do things like, say, guaranteeing health insurance to everyone without killing the economy. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to block such things and, instead, to cut taxes on the rich and slash aid to the less fortunate. So they must claim both that liberal policies are job killers and that being nice to the rich is a magic elixir.

Which brings us to the last point: the confidence con.

One enduring puzzle of political economy is why business interests so often oppose policies to fight unemployment. After all, boosting the economy with expansionary monetary and fiscal policy is good for profits as well as wages, yet many wealthy individuals and business leaders demand tight money and austerity instead.

As a number of observers have pointed out, however, for big businesses to admit that government policies can create jobs would be to devalue one of their favorite political arguments — the claim that to achieve prosperity politicians must preserve business confidence, among other things, by refraining from any criticism of what businesspeople do.

In the case of the Obama economy, this kind of thinking led to what I like to call the “Ma! He’s looking at me funny!” theory of sluggish recovery. By this I mean the insistence that recovery wasn’t being held back by objective factors like spending cuts and debt overhang, but rather by the corporate elite’s hurt feelings after Mr. Obama suggested that some bankers behaved badly and some executives might be overpaid. Who knew that moguls and tycoons were such sensitive souls? In any case, however, that theory is unsustainable in the face of a recovery that has finally started to deliver big job gains, even if it should have happened sooner.

So, as I said at the beginning, the fact that we’re now seeing mornings in blue America — solid job growth both at the national level and in states that have defied the right’s tax-cutting, deregulatory orthodoxy — is a big problem for conservatives. Although they would never admit it, events have proved their most cherished beliefs wrong.


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