Archive for the ‘Let’s all beat the war drums’ Category

Blow, Cohen and Krugman

February 9, 2015

In “Beyond ‘Black Lives Matter'” Mr. Blow has a question.  He says Michael Brown and Eric Garner are now old news. He then asks: Where do we go from here?  Mr. Cohen, in “Western Illusions Over Ukraine,” says the only way to change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis is to help arm Ukraine.  JUST what we need — more saber rattling and dick swinging…  Prof. Krugman says “Nobody Understands Debt.”  He says families who rely on it make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true of nations? No, it isn’t, as he explains.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Black Lives Matter protesters took some criticism for what others viewed as a lack of clear focus and detailed agenda. But in truth, raising an issue to the point where it can no longer be ignored is the grist for the policy mill. Visibility and vocalization have value.

In the same way that Occupy Wall Street forever elevated that concept of income inequality, the Black Lives Matter protesters have elevated the idea of inequity in policing as it relates to minority communities.

Protests following the grand jury decisions in the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island have largely died down. Those stories no longer command front page placement or lead the news. The news machine, hungry for newness, as is its wont, has moved on to measles and back to the Islamic State’s medieval murder tactics.

But, as is often the case, there was no full resolution or reconciliation. The issue of police-community relations was raised but not solved. The memory of mistrust still wafts through the air like the smell of rot being carried by the breeze.

What was it all for? What came of it? Where do we go from here?

First, the encouraging news.

In December, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which in part aims to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect.”

The White House has promoted the use of body cameras, and police departments across the country are considering their purchase and use.

The task force has held listening sessions around the country, and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is holding round-table discussions.

The Ferguson Police Department last week began testing a “less lethal” device that attaches to an officer’s gun. According to The Washington Post, “When a bullet fired, it melded with an attached projectile the size of a Ping-Pong ball that flew with enough force to knock a person down, maybe break some ribs, but not kill him, the product’s makers said — even at close range.”

The Huffington Post reported in November that in 2013, 27 law enforcement officers “were killed as a result of felonious acts — the lowest such figure in more than 50 years of F.B.I. reporting.” That month, The Chicago Tribune reported that “U.S. violent crimes including murders fell 4.4 percent in 2013 to their lowest number since the 1970s, continuing a decades-long downturn, the F.B.I. said.”

Now the discouraging news. According to a November USA Today report, “The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police last year — 461 — was the most in two decades, according to a new F.B.I. report.”

Something about these numbers doesn’t add up, and it will be interesting to see whether the protests and the heightened sensibilities they brought to the surface will affect these numbers in next year’s reporting.

In New York, after Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police union came to loggerheads, the mayor skipped an opportunity to address the issue of the police and minorities communities, and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton seems to be going out of his way to reassure the department at the expense of future protests.

The worry is that rapprochement may come to resemble appeasement.

In this month’s State of the City speech, as The Village Voice put it, de Blasio hardly mentioned policing, offering anodyne praise for the city’s officers. This raised the hackles of many reform advocates, even among his supporters.

Bratton has announced the creation of a separate police unit of roughly 500 patrol officers to handle temporary issues like large protests. He has resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for an independent monitor in cases where grand juries fail to indict officers in the death of a civilian. And he proposed raising resisting arrest from a misdemeanor — a charge that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and is often tossed out — to a felony.

According to BuzzFeed, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, “also called for enhanced penalties against protesters, asking the Legislature to make assaulting a police officer at a public assembly a Class B felony, which would carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.”

Few people support resisting arrest or assaulting officers, but in the scrum of protests, such severe penalties for sometimes subjective or even dubious charges seem disproportionate and an attempt to chill dissent.

This is what happens when a story fades from the headlines, the heat is dialed down and the eyes avert: In the silence, amid the stillness, there is movement. The immediacy of protests gives way to the glacial pace of policy. The burden is to remain vigilant, so that movement is in the right direction.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen, who just can’t wait to whale away on those war drums:

The most difficult thing for a communist, it has been observed, is to predict the past. I was reminded of this as I listened to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in full Soviet mode at the Munich Security Conference, suggesting that after World War II it was “the Soviet Union that was against splitting Germany.”

People laughed; they guffawed. Germans recall the Soviet clamp on the east of the country and the Berlin Wall. But in a way Lavrov was right: The Soviet Union would have been quite happy to swallow all of Germany, given the chance.

Today, in similar fashion, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia would be quite happy to absorb all of Ukraine, which it views as an extension of the motherland, an upstart deluded by the West into imagining independent statehood.

Lavrov’s performance here reflected the alternate universe in which the Russian spaceship has docked almost a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. George Orwell’s doublethink scarcely begins to describe his assertions.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was, he insisted, a popular uprising, the people “invoking the right of self-determination” as per the United Nations Charter. Ukrainians were engaged in an orgy of “nationalistic violence” characterized by ethnic purges directed against Jews and Russians. The United States was driven by an insatiable desire for global dominance and, in Ukraine, had orchestrated the “coup d’état” last year that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Europe post-1989 had turned its back on building “the common European house,” declining the prospect of a “free economic zone” from Lisbon to Vladivostok in favor of the expansion of NATO eastward to the doorstep of mother Russia.

Dream on, Sergei.

In fact, the Russian annexation of Crimea tore up by forceful means “the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine, in direct violation of Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. It also shredded Russia’s formal commitment under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukraine’s international borders. The “nationalistic violence” that has again raised issues of war and peace in Europe stems not from Kiev but from Moscow, where Putin has cultivated a preposterous fable of encirclement, humiliation and Western depredation to generate hysteria and buttress Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, the fascism Lavrov purports to locate in Ukraine through allusions to attacks against Jews and other ethnic groups can in fact be far more persuasively identified back home. Putin has reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason. The Russian leader has invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He has persevered in the nonsense that all the Russian forces and matériel in eastern Ukraine are figments of the world’s imagination.

Lavrov’s “coup” in Ukraine was nothing of the sort: It was a popular uprising against a corrupt Russian puppet strong-armed into turning his country away from closer association with the West. Ukrainians are not nuts. They find the allure of Warsaw or Berlin greater than that of sunny Minsk. When they hear “common European house” they translate it as “Soviet imperium.”

Two plus two equals five was a Soviet slogan. It was deployed in 1931 in support of the notion that Stalin’s five-year plan could be completed in four. Two plus two equals five is still the “truth” emanating from Moscow. This is worth recalling in all negotiations over Ukraine.

There was much talk here of a possible Franco-German engineered cease-fire; of there being “no military solution” to the Ukrainian conflict (except, of course, the one Putin has in mind); of the advisability or not for the West of sending weapons to support the Ukrainian government (Chancellor Angela Merkel is opposed); and of the need to be resolute, at least in word.

Resolute-schmesolute: It’s time to get real over Putin. He has not poured tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems over the Ukrainian border because he is about to settle for anything less than a weak Ukraine, sapped by low-level conflict in the Donetsk region, a country with its very own pro-Russian enclave à la Abkhazia or Transnistria, firmly within the Russian sphere of influence: the symbol of his definitive strategic turn away from closer cooperation with the West toward the confrontation that shores him up as oil prices and the currency plunge. He will not let Ukraine go.

There is a language Moscow understands: antitank missiles, battlefield radars, reconnaissance drones. Bolster the Ukrainian Army with them and other arms. Change Putin’s cost-benefit analysis. There are risks but no policy is risk-free. Recall that Ukraine gave up more than 1,800 nuclear warheads in exchange for that bogus commitment from Russia back in 1994 to respect its sovereignty and borders. Surely it has thereby earned the right to something more than night-vision goggles. The West’s current Ukraine diplomacy is long on illusion and short on realism. Two plus two equals four, in war and peace.

I wonder if there’s an area that he doesn’t want to arm…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Many economists, including Janet Yellen, view global economic troubles since 2008 largely as a story about “deleveraging” — a simultaneous attempt by debtors almost everywhere to reduce their liabilities. Why is deleveraging a problem? Because my spending is your income, and your spending is my income, so if everyone slashes spending at the same time, incomes go down around the world.

Or as Ms. Yellen put it in 2009, “Precautions that may be smart for individuals and firms — and indeed essential to return the economy to a normal state — nevertheless magnify the distress of the economy as a whole.”

So how much progress have we made in returning the economy to that “normal state”? None at all. You see, policy makers have been basing their actions on a false view of what debt is all about, and their attempts to reduce the problem have actually made it worse.

First, the facts: Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report titled “Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging,” which found, basically, that no nation has reduced its ratio of total debt to G.D.P. Household debt is down in some countries, especially in the United States. But it’s up in others, and even where there has been significant private deleveraging, government debt has risen by more than private debt has fallen.

You might think our failure to reduce debt ratios shows that we aren’t trying hard enough — that families and governments haven’t been making a serious effort to tighten their belts, and that what the world needs is, yes, more austerity. But we have, in fact, had unprecedented austerity. As the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, real government spending excluding interest has fallen across wealthy nations — there have been deep cuts by the troubled debtors of Southern Europe, but there have also been cuts in countries, like Germany and the United States, that can borrow at some of the lowest interest rates in history.

All this austerity has, however, only made things worse — and predictably so, because demands that everyone tighten their belts were based on a misunderstanding of the role debt plays in the economy.

You can see that misunderstanding at work every time someone rails against deficits with slogans like “Stop stealing from our kids.” It sounds right, if you don’t think about it: Families who run up debts make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true when we look at overall national debt?

No, it isn’t. An indebted family owes money to other people; the world economy as a whole owes money to itself. And while it’s true that countries can borrow from other countries, America has actually been borrowing less from abroad since 2008 than it did before, and Europe is a net lender to the rest of the world.

Because debt is money we owe to ourselves, it does not directly make the economy poorer (and paying it off doesn’t make us richer). True, debt can pose a threat to financial stability — but the situation is not improved if efforts to reduce debt end up pushing the economy into deflation and depression.

Which brings us to current events, for there is a direct connection between the overall failure to deleverage and the emerging political crisis in Europe.

European leaders completely bought into the notion that the economic crisis was brought on by too much spending, by nations living beyond their means. The way forward, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany insisted, was a return to frugality. Europe, she declared, should emulate the famously thrifty Swabian housewife.

This was a prescription for slow-motion disaster. European debtors did, in fact, need to tighten their belts — but the austerity they were actually forced to impose was incredibly savage. Meanwhile, Germany and other core economies — which needed to spend more, to offset belt-tightening in the periphery — also tried to spend less. The result was to create an environment in which reducing debt ratios was impossible: Real growth slowed to a crawl, inflation fell to almost nothing and outright deflation has taken hold in the worst-hit nations.

Suffering voters put up with this policy disaster for a remarkably long time, believing in the promises of the elite that they would soon see their sacrifices rewarded. But as the pain went on and on, with no visible progress, radicalization was inevitable. Anyone surprised by the left’s victory in Greece, or the surge of anti-establishment forces in Spain, hasn’t been paying attention.

Nobody knows what happens next, although bookmakers are now giving better than even odds that Greece will exit the euro. Maybe the damage would stop there, but I don’t believe it — a Greek exit is all too likely to threaten the whole currency project. And if the euro does fail, here’s what should be written on its tombstone: “Died of a bad analogy.”

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Cohen and Nocera

September 30, 2014

Mr. Cohen loves him some war.  In “Here There is No Why” he shrieks that the Islamic State represents the counterhuman and that the human has no alternative but to fight back.  In the comments “Mark Thomasen” from Clawson, WI has this to say:  “This begins by comparing the deaths of three men to the Holocaust, with several excerpts from an account of a death camp. It ends with Hitler. Along the way it says both this enemy like Hitler is ‘non-human,’ and ‘really counter-human.’ … This is purest propaganda for war.”  Mr. Nocera takes a look at “The Hole in Holder’s Legacy” and says the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. failed to prosecute cases related to the financial crisis.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In a famous passage from “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi relates an incident upon arrival in the Nazi death camp that captures the intersection of the human with the inhuman. He and other Italian prisoners have been held in a shed as they await their fate. Levi looks around in search of some means to quench his thirst:

“I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”

There is no why here. The phrase has been reverberating in me since I watched a henchman of the organization that calls itself Islamic State behead two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a British aid worker, David Haines. The men had been broken by their imprisonment. They had been hollowed out, a terrible thing to behold. How many times they must have asked themselves the why of their captivity, humiliation and torture right up to the moment when a small knife was applied, with a sawing motion, to their throats. Each of the three men died alone, unlike the Yazidis murdered in droves, the Shiite soldiers massacred, the women and children slaughtered during the advance of black-clad ISIS forces across northern Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has created a cult of violence that makes the elimination of all nonbelievers the cornerstone of a movement whose avowed objective is a restored Islamic caliphate but whose raison d’être is the slaughter itself.

It is human to seek for reasons. Perhaps the rise of ISIS may be seen as the culmination of decades of Arab resentment at perceived Western domination, drawing support from the same anger as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda before it; or as an expression of the abject failure of Arab societies; or as an armed Sunni response to the Shia-bolstering American invasion of Iraq; or as brutal payback for Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo (where, it must be said, there was scant “why” for prisoners detained for years and guilty of no crime); or as a well-funded offshoot of Saudi Wahhabism interpreted in its most literal form; or as a heady alternative for disaffected young Muslims to the moral void of Western civilization; or as evidence of the crisis of Islam and the inevitable Thirty Years War of its Sunni and Shia branches; or simply as a call to arms to drive out the United States the way the infidel Crusaders were ousted from the Levant.

Yet, in the end, there is no why to the barbarism of ISIS. There is no why in Raqqa. Evil may adduce reasons; they fall short. The Nazi death machine was unique. Facile invocation of it is too frequent, belittling the phenomenon and its victims. But I was given pause by Martin Amis’ afterword to his powerful new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” where he probes the “why” of Hitler and quotes both the icicle passage and another from Levi:

“Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.” Levi, referring to Hitler, Himmler and the rest, goes on: “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.”

Presented with the counter-human, the human must fight back. In the joint “Statement on Atrocities” of October 1943, issued by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, there was no mention of the Jews, although millions had been gassed or shot by then. A defense mechanism to the incomprehensible is to pretend it does not exist. “Leave it to the Arabs, it’s their mess, they can clean it up,” is an inadequate (if understandable) response to ISIS. It would have been the wrong one. President Obama’s coalition in the war to eradicate ISIS may be flimsy but passivity was not an option.

Hitler, of course, destroyed Germany. His fury was directed outward but its ultimate impact was inward. Al-Baghdadi with his 1,000-year caliphate targets the West, but it is a rotten Arab order that is at risk and must find a response to ISIS and the frustrations of its citizens. This is an Arab Zero Hour. One other thing: In this fight, I would say, all means are good. The Soviet Union, an ideological rival, was a key ally of the United States in defeating Nazism. It is obvious which nation today can play that role against ISIS. Its name is Iran.

“All means are good.”  So he’s telling us that the end justifies the means…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

A few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. gave a speech at the New York University School of Law on the subject of white-collar prosecutions. In it, he offered a full-throated defense of his department’s efforts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. With his resignation announcement coming eight days later, one can’t help but view his speech as a kind of valedictory.

The Justice Department, he said, had stood vigilant against financial fraud “wherever it is uncovered” — and prosecuted “criminal conduct to the fullest extent of the law.” He took credit for negotiating huge fines against financial firms, and for forcing several big banks — Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas — to accept guilty pleas.

As for the prosecution of individuals involved in the financial crisis, he claimed that the Justice Department had “taken aggressive action, nearly doubling the number of mortgage fraud indictments and criminal convictions between 2009 and 2010, then increasing them even further the following year.”

Actually, Holder’s Justice Department has been notoriously laggard in prosecuting crimes that stemmed from the financial crisis, and much of what it has done amounts to an exercise in public relations.

Take, for instance, those guilty pleas extracted from Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas. Last March, Holder said that he feared that prosecuting large financial institutions could hurt the economy. This became known as his “too big to jail” remark — which he quickly disavowed. No wonder he was eager to have some firms plead guilty! Yet, as Peter Henning notes in a New York Times DealBook article, the Justice Department made sure those guilty pleas didn’t inflict too much pain. In the case of BNP Paribas, prosecutors secured agreements from state banking regulators that they wouldn’t pull the bank’s license to do business.

Or take the claim that the Justice Department has been rigorously rooting out mortgage fraud. In fact, after a grand announcement that the department was putting together a mortgage fraud task force, U.S. attorneys around the country began aiming their fire at easy prey: small-time mortgage brokers, or homeowners who had lied on “liar loans.” None of the top executives from any of the major firms were indicted. Indeed, according to an article in The New York Times Magazine in May, only one executive of any kind — a mid-level executive with Credit Suisse — has gone to prison as a result of his actions during the financial crisis. The notion that he’s the only one who committed a crime in the mortgage-crazed run-up to the financial crisis is, quite simply, implausible.

As for those big fines against Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, not only did they come very late, but their terms were such that it was impossible to know for sure the extent of their wrongdoing. And, of course, despite fines that went into the billions, no actual human was prosecuted for any wrongdoing.

So the question worth asking, as Holder plans to step down, is not what his department did but why it did so little. Why was it so reluctant to pursue the financial crimes connected to the 2008 crisis? One answer is that these are hard cases to prosecute — harder than negotiating a financial settlement with a big bank. Early on, the Justice Department tried two Bear Stearns portfolio managers whose hedge fund — stuffed with mortgage-backed securities — collapsed. The two men were found innocent. That verdict seems to have sent a chill through prosecutors, making them reluctant to go after others.

Jesse Eisinger, the author of that Times Magazine article, wrote that, over the years, the Justice Department saw “an erosion of the department’s actual trial skills,” as well as a drop in resources. In the Southern District of New York, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara focused — with great success — on insider-trading cases, where he had wiretaps that made prosecutions relatively easy, instead of difficult-to-try financial crisis cases.

Adam Levitin, a professor at Georgetown Law School, had his own list of reasons, which he emailed me. They included fear that the Obama administration would be accused of an anti-business witch hunt if it went after Wall Street; “deep personal, cultural, financial and political ties” between the administration and Wall Street; and a lack of understanding of the products and markets involved. “What it all boils down to,” Levitin concluded, “is that we didn’t have prosecutions because no one ever really wanted to prosecute.”

Holder’s legacy is a mixed bag. As The Times’s Matt Apuzzo wrote last week, he “succeeded in reducing lengthy prison sentences, opened civil rights investigations against police departments in record numbers and challenged identification requirements for voters.” On the negative side, he subpoenaed journalists and went after their sources.

No matter how he tries to spin it, Holder’s inability — or unwillingness — to prosecute financial crimes is on the negative side of the ledger.

Of course he wasn’t going to prosecute the banksters.  And he’s heading right back to the same white shoe law firm he came from.  A firm that represents those very banksters, as well as good citizens like the NFL…

Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

August 12, 2014

In “Clinton, Obama and Iraq” Bobo gurgles that Hillary Clinton’s muscular approach to foreign policy offers a wise contrast to President Obama’s excess of caution.  The word “Bush” appears nowhere…  In “From Sneakers to O’Bannon” Mr. Nocera explains how a sports marketer came to take on the N.C.A.A.  In “Hillary Clinton, Barbed and Bellicose” Mr. Bruni says it’s clear that she’s in the race. It’s just as clear that she’s in a bind.  Here’s Bobo:

Last week, Hillary Clinton had a fascinating interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. The interview got immediate attention because of the way she discussed her differences with President Obama.

While admitting that no one will ever know who was right, Clinton argues that Obama might have done more to help the moderate opposition in Syria fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she told Goldberg.

While showing lavish respect for the president’s intelligence and judgment, Clinton also made it clear that she’d be a more aggressive foreign policy leader. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” she said, citing Obama’s famous phrase.

But the interview also illuminates the different flavors of Democratic thinking on foreign policy. We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq. The last four presidents have found themselves drawn into that nation because it epitomizes the core problem at the center of so many crises: the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.

In her interview with Goldberg, Clinton likens the current moment to the Cold War. The U.S. confronts a diverse global movement, motivated by a hostile ideology: jihadism.

“Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand.” This jihadism shows up in many contexts, but whether in Gaza or Syria or Iraq, she says, “it is all one big threat.”

Clinton speaks as a Truman-Kennedy Democrat. She’s obviously much, much more multilateral than Republicans, but there’s a certain muscular tone, a certain assumption that there will be hostile ideologies that threaten America. There is also a grand strategic cast to her mind. The U.S. has to come up with an “overarching” strategy, she told Goldberg, to contain, deter and defeat anti-democratic foes.

She argues that harsh action is sometimes necessary. “I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets, “ she declared, embracing recent Israeli policy. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas.”

This tone sometimes stands in tension with the approach President Obama articulated in his West Point speech in the spring, or in his interview with my colleague Thomas Friedman on Friday.

Obama has carefully not organized a large part of his foreign policy around a war against jihadism. The foreign policy vision he describes is, as you’d expect from a former law professor, built around reverence for certain procedures: compromise, inclusiveness, rules and norms. The threat he described in his West Point speech was a tactic, terrorism, not an ideology, jihadism. His main argument was against a means not an end: the efficacy of military action.

Obama is notably cautious, arguing that the U.S. errs when it tries to do too much. The cast of his mind is against intervention. Sometimes, when the situation demands it, he goes against his natural temperament (he told Friedman that he regrets not getting more involved in Libya), but it takes a mighty shove, and he is resistant all the way. In his West Point speech, he erected barriers to action. He argued, for example, that the U.S. could take direct action only when “there is near certainty of no civilian casualties.” (This is not a standard Franklin Roosevelt would have applied.)

Obama and Clinton represent different Democratic tendencies. In their descriptions of the current situation in Iraq, Clinton emphasizes that there cannot be inclusive politics unless the caliphate is seriously pushed back, while Obama argues that we will be unable to push back the caliphate unless the Iraqis themselves create inclusive politics. The Clinton language points toward some sort of intervention. Obama’s points away from it, though he may be forced by events into being more involved.

It will be fascinating to see how Clinton’s approach plays in Democratic primaries. (I’d bet she is going to get a more serious challenge than people now expect.) In practice, the Clinton approach strikes me as more sound, for the same reason that early intervention against cancer is safer than late-term surgery. In the Middle East, malevolent groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria grow unless checked. Even in situations where our “friends” are dysfunctional, the world has to somehow check them, using a multitude of levers. Having done so little in Syria and Iraq for the past year, we can end the caliphate or we can stay out of Iraq, but we can’t do both.

If you don’t take steady, aggressive preventive action, of the sort that Clinton leans toward, then you end up compelled to take the sort of large risky action that Obama abhors.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

“When I first heard about the decision, I was speechless,” said Sonny Vaccaro. Speechless as in he never thought this day would come.

Vaccaro is the former sneaker marketer turned anti-N.C.A.A. crusader, and he was talking about Friday’s decision in the O’Bannon case — the one in which Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the principle of amateurism is not a legal justification for business practices that violate the nation’s antitrust laws.

Though he is not a lawyer, Vaccaro is as responsible for the O’Bannon case as anyone. (Disclosure: One of the O’Bannon lawyers works for same law firm as my wife. She has no involvement in the case.)

Vaccaro first got the idea for the lawsuit in the late 1990s, around the time that ESPN bought Classic Sports Network for $175 million. ESPN Classic, as it was renamed, replays games from the past, many of which involve college teams. The players in those games have long since left college, yet they have no rights to their names and likenesses, just as had been the case when they were in school.

How, wondered Vaccaro, could that possibly be O.K.?

Vaccaro is probably best known for coming up with the idea of the “sneaker contract” during his heyday as a marketer for Nike. That’s a deal in which a college coach receives payment for having his team wear a particular brand of sneakers. In the 1980s, still with Nike, he took the idea a step further, paying a university to have all its athletes wear the same brand. There is not much question that Vaccaro helped fuel the commercialization of college sports. Though, as he likes to remind people, “the schools could have turned the money down. They never did.”

In 2007, Vaccaro quit his final job in the sneaker industry — he was at Reebok at the time — to devote his time to fighting the N.C.A.A., an organization he had come to loathe. He began going around the country making anti-N.C.A.A. speeches at universities. Five years ago, while in Washington to make a speech at Howard University, he had dinner with a lawyer friend and laid out his idea of bringing a lawsuit revolving around the names and likenesses of former college athletes. Before long, he was put in touch with Michael Hausfeld, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who was looking for a high-profile case to run with.

And one other thing: He found Ed O’Bannon, the former U.C.L.A. basketball star who became the lead plaintiff. Or, rather, O’Bannon called Vaccaro after seeing an avatar, clearly based on himself, in a video game, asking if he had any recourse. Vaccaro, in turn, put O’Bannon together with Hausfeld. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the cool light of day, Judge Wilken’s decision does not appear likely to radically reshape college sports. The relief she granted the plaintiffs is likely to put some money into the pockets of athletes who play big-time football or men’s basketball. But it is certainly not going to make anybody rich, and the average fan won’t even notice the difference. It is not like the kind of change that took place when major league baseball players gained the right to become free agents in the 1970s. For instance, she ruled that players still won’t be able to endorse products for money. In so ruling, she bought into one of the N.C.A.A.’s core views — namely that college athletes need to be protected from “commercial exploitation.”

What is radical about her decision — and what could pave the way for further changes in other lawsuits — was her dismantling of the various rationales the N.C.A.A. has put forth over the years as its justification for insisting on amateurism as the bedrock of college athletics. Assuming her decision stands up on appeal, the N.C.A.A. will lose its ability to argue that amateurism is so noble an ideal that, in and of itself, it justifies anticompetitive behavior.

“Do I wish the decision had gone further?” Vaccaro said on Monday.  “Sure. It vindicated people like me, who have been voices in the wilderness for so long.”

“We have exposed them,” said Hausfeld.  “We have gotten rid of their implicit immunity from the antitrust laws.”

In March, another antitrust suit was filed against the N.C.A.A., by Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer best known in the sports world for bringing the suit that gained free agency for professional football players.

 Kessler’s suit is much more ambitious than O’Bannon’s. He is arguing that the “matrix of restrictions” (as he put it to me) that prevent universities from deciding how to value and compensate players is anticompetitive and violates the antitrust laws.

Thus does O’Bannon now pass the baton to Kessler, as the N.C.A.A.’s critics begin the next leg of this race.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

The other night, a prominent Democrat I know made the craziest statement.

“I don’t think Hillary’s going to run,” he proclaimed, silencing the room. He might as well have said that he’d just spotted Bigfoot pilfering rhubarb from the White House vegetable garden or that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in line to play Lear on Broadway. (“Cordelia, I’ll be baaaaack.”) He was humming some kind of loony tune.

His evidence?

“She seems tired,” he said, and that’s when all of us cracked up. Oh, yeah, she seems positively exhausted. That explains the juggernaut of a book tour, the CNN town hall and all the other interviews, including the doozy with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, which I’ll turn to in a bit. If there was nap time in there, I missed it.

Without yet becoming president, she has ascended to some level of saturation exposure that’s above and beyond omnipresent. At this point she’s practically ambient. Her “inevitability” may boil down to the fact that no one can imagine a political ecosystem — nay, a habitable environment! — without her. When it comes to the Clintons, we apparently have two choices. Put them on Rushmore, or put them back in the White House.

And yet.

She is walking a tightrope, and the challenge and peril of it become clearer all the time. The question isn’t whether she’s running: Of course she is, and the only newsworthy announcement down the road would be that she’s getting out of the race. The question is whether she can belittle Barack Obama as much as she must in order to win, but not so much that it plays as an act of sheer betrayal.

She needs the voters who elected him, twice, and who maintain affection for him. She also needs the voters in the throes of buyer’s remorse. Many of them jilted her for their romance with him and now see it as a heady but heedless affair. Can she exploit that, but in a high-minded, diplomatic fashion?

Not on the evidence of her blunt and condescending remarks to Goldberg, which were published over the weekend.

With Obama’s approval ratings sinking lower, especially in the realm of foreign policy, she reiterated that he’d made the wrong call in not arming Syrian rebels. This time around she also suggested that the jihadists of ISIS wouldn’t be so potent if we’d gone a different route.

But that wasn’t the surprise. Nor, really, were the words that she summoned — stronger than the president’s — to defend Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

The clincher was this withering assessment of Obama’s approach to the world: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” A sagacious elder was rolling her eyes at a novice’s folly.

It wasn’t her only admonishment. “When you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.” That would presumably be the fault of the storyteller in chief.

Her welling dissent leaves her exposed on several fronts. If decisions made while she was still the secretary of state were flawed, is she blameless? Sure, her job, like any appointee’s, was to implement the chief executive’s vision, to follow his lead. But it was also to lobby and leave an imprint. Is she conceding that she didn’t do that effectively enough?

Her dissent also subjects her to the charge that has long dogged her: Everything is calculation and calibration. Obama’s down, so she’s suddenly and gratuitously blunt, dismissing his doctrine as more of a ditty.

Clinton is in a bind, because the president is indeed ripe for second-guessing, and because she is and has to be her own person, with differences of opinion that are surely genuine.

She must marvel at the strange turn of events. In the 2008 presidential campaign, she suffered for seeming too truculent in comparison with him, and he held her vote to authorize force in Iraq over her. Now she feels forced to make clear that she’s more truculent than he is, and his authorization of force in Iraq could have reverberations for his successor.

And she’s compelled to pledge a departure from the last six and a half years, because polls reveal a profound, stubborn discontent and pessimism in Americans. The soft bromides of “Hard Choices” aren’t going to do the trick. Is her barbed commentary in the Goldberg interview a better bet? Or can she find a bittersweet spot in between?

Although she’s always been a stickler for loyalty, her inevitability could hinge on how well she finesses disloyalty. It’s not going to be easy. But if you think it’ll dissuade her, have I got a Broadway play for you.

We need Clinton like a moose needs roller skates.  Count me among the ABC (Anybody But Clinton) folks.

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

August 10, 2014

In “The Right War” The Putz babbles that America can’t fix Iraq, but we can make a difference.  Well, we’ve sure as hell made a difference there over the past 10 years…  MoDo, in “Back to Iraq,” says once again, we are ensnared in our mess in Mesopotamia.  Mr. Cohen has a question:  “Will the Voices of Conscience Be Heard?”  He says Israelis and Palestinians struggle to defeat fear.  Mr. Kristof also has a question:  “Is a Hard Life Inherited?”  He wants us to meet Rick Goff of Yamhill, Ore. His life story is a study in the national crisis facing working-class men.  In “Grief, Smoke and Salvation” Mr. Bruni says a trailblazing ambassador for Israeli food acknowledges his secrets, his struggle and how the violence of his homeland factored into it all.  Here’s The Putz:

Three times before last week’s decision to launch airstrikes against the self-styled caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, President Obama was urged to intervene in Middle Eastern conflicts: in Libya in the spring of 2011, in Syria from 2011 onward and in Iraq two short months ago, when Baghdad was threatened by the swift advance of ISIS.

In each case, there were good reasons to hesitate. In Libya, we had little to gain strategically from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fall, and more to fear from the vacuum that might follow. Syria was a more significant theater, and Bashar al-Assad’s downfall a consummation more devoutly to be wished — but there as in Libya, there was little clarity about what forces (liberals? warlords? jihadis?) we would be empowering and what would follow Assad’s rule.

A similar problem existed for the recent battles outside Baghdad. There was no question that America had an interest in seeing the southward advance of ISIS rolled back. But dropping bombs on behalf of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s thuggish, failing government was a possible fool’s errand: We would have been essentially serving as “the air force for Shia militias” (to quote David Petraeus, no dove) and by extension for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

All three situations were hard calls, and the fact that intervention in Libya and inaction in Syria produced similar outcomes — rippling chaos and jihadi gains — has allowed both hawks and doves to claim vindication.

But in all three debates, the noninterventionist position ultimately had the better of the argument. We were better off sending advisers but not warplanes when ISIS threatened Baghdad; we were wise not to funnel arms (or at least not that many, depending on what the C.I.A.’s been doing) into Syria’s chaos; and Obama would have been wise to heed the cautious Robert Gates on Libya, rather than Samantha Power and Bernard-Henri Lévy.

The latest crisis, however, is different. This time, the case for war is much stronger, and the decision to intervene is almost certainly the right call.

In the earlier debates, the humanitarian case for action was in clear tension with strategic issues on the ground. In northern Iraq right now, the two are much more closely aligned. Alongside a stronger moral obligation to act than we had in Syria or Libya, we have a clear enough military objective, a more tested ally in the Kurds and a plausible long-term strategy that could follow from intervening now.

The stronger moral obligation flows from two realities. First, this humanitarian crisis is one our actions directly helped create: The cleansing of Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities began in the chaos following our invasion of Iraq, and it has taken a more ruthless turn because ISIS profited from the fallout from our too-swift 2011 withdrawal. (Indeed, it’s often using American-made weapons to harry, persecute and kill.)

Second, ISIS represents a more distinctive form of evil even than a butcher like Assad. As the blogger Razib Khan argued last week, the would-be caliphate is “utopian in its fundamentals,” and so its ruthless religious cleansing isn’t just a tyrant’s “tool to instill terror” and consolidate power; it’s the point of gaining power, an end unto itself.

These arguments — a distinctive obligation, a distinctive (and thus potentially more expansive) evil — still do not compel action absent a clear strategic plan, which is why the president was right to hesitate to take the fight to ISIS around Baghdad.

But in this case, such a plan is visible. We do not need to re-invade or restabilize Iraq to deal ISIS a blow and help its victims, because Kurdistan is already relatively stable, and the line of conflict is relatively clear. And the Kurds themselves, crucially, are a known quantity with a longstanding relationship to the United States — something that wasn’t on offer in Libya or Syria.

So our intervention in northern Iraq has a limited, attainable objective: Push ISIS back toward the Sunni heartland, allow its victims to seek refuge in Kurdish territory and increase the Kurds’ capacity to go on offense against the caliphate.

But if this president is thinking strategically, instead of just conducting a humanitarian drive-by, this intervention could also set the stage for a broader policy shift. Swiftly or gradually, depending on political developments in Baghdad, an independent, secure, well-armed Kurdistan could replace an unstable, perpetually fragmenting Iraq as the intended locus of American influence in the region.

That influence will be necessarily limited: We are not going to stamp out ISIS on our own, or prevent the Middle East’s rival coalitions — Sunni vs. Shiite, oligarchic vs. populist — from continuing their brutal proxy wars. There is not going to be a major American-aligned model nation in the Arab world anytime soon, of the sort the Iraq invasion’s architects naïvely hoped to build.

But by protecting a Kurdistan that can extend protection to groups made homeless by the fighting, we can still help save something from the wreckage.

Not a model, but a refuge.

Next up we have MoDo:

It was exhilarating to drop a bunch of 500-pound bombs on whatstheirname.

Just when Americans thought they could stop trying to figure out the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, we’re in a new war in Iraq with some bad “folks,” as the president might say, whose name we’re still fuzzy on.

We never know what we’re getting into over there, and this time we can’t even agree what to call the enemy. All we know is that a barbaric force is pillaging so swiftly and brutally across the Middle East that it seems like some mutated virus from a sci-fi film.

Most news organizations call the sulfurous spawn of Al Qaeda leading the rampage through Iraq “ISIS,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” (Isis is also the name of an Egyptian goddess and the Earl of Grantham’s yellow lab on “Downton Abbey.”) Yet the White House, State Department and United Nations refer to the group as “ISIL,” short for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”

The BBC reported that some people have also started referring to the jihadis as “Da’ish” or “Daesh,” a designation that the extremists object to because it is “a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham.’ ” Al-Sham, the BBC noted, can be translated as “the Levant,” “Greater Syria,” “Syria” or “Damascus.”

Adding to the confusion, ISIS a.k.a. ISIL engaged in a slick “Mad Men” rebranding in June, announcing that, in tribute to its ambition to establish a caliphate, it was renaming itself “the Islamic State.” So then Agence France-Presse began referring to the militants as “IS” or “the group formerly known as ISIS,” and The Wall Street Journal switched to “IS.” The Times, however, still calls our murderous new enemy “ISIS” while quoting administration officials and military officers using the acronym “ISIL.”

It’s a bit odd that the administration is using “the Levant,” given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it’s a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.

If all that is not confusing enough, we also have to fathom a new entry in the vicious religious wars in Iraq: the Yazidis, a small and secretive sect belonging to one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. Their faith has origins in Islam and Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century B.C. As Time pointed out, though the name “Izidis” translates to “worshipers of God,” ISIS considers them “devil-worshipers” who must convert to Islam or be killed.

ISIS mistakenly torments the sect that has survived 72 genocides, The Telegraph explained, because the Yazidis worship a fallen angel called the Malek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. But unlike Lucifer, their angel sought forgiveness and went back to heaven.

Fifty thousand Yazidis were driven by the jihadis to take refuge on Mount Sinjar in Kurdish-controlled Erbil, where they were trapped and dying of dehydration and exposure, which spurred President Obama to order Navy planes to drop food and water for them.

Although it felt momentarily bracing to see American pilots trying to save innocents in a country we messed up so badly that it’s not even a country any more, some critics warned that the pinprick bombings were a political gesture, not a military strategy, and “almost worse than nothing,” as John McCain put it.

The latest turn of the screw in Iraq also underscored how we keep getting pulled back, “Godfather”-style, without ever understanding the culture. Our boneheaded meddling just creates ever-more-virulent monsters. The United States has taken military action in Iraq during at least 17 of the last 24 years, the ultimate mission creep in a country smaller than Texas on the other side of the world.

What better symbol of the Middle East quicksand than the fact that Navy planes took off for their rescue mission — two years after Obama declared the war in Iraq over — from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea?

Bush Senior’s war to expel Saddam from Kuwait — a gas station of a country chockablock with spoiled rich Arabs — would not have been necessary if Saddam, a tyrant first enabled by J.F.K.’s C.I.A., had not been given the wrong signals by our side. W.’s war with Saddam, the prodigal son’s effort at outdoing his father, ended up undoing Iraq and the neglected Afghanistan.

Caught in the Sunni backlash and the back draft of his predecessor’s misguided attempt to impose democracy, Obama is leery and proceeding cautiously. But what can he do? He has dispatched a few hundred advisers to Iraq to fix something that couldn’t be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade.

Some fellow Democrats are fretting that the pull of Iraq will be too strong, after Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The president has not laid out a specific end date.” Iraq, after all, is a country that seems to have a malignant magnetism for our leaders.

We now get to Mr. Cohen:

There are good people and bad leaders the world over, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians work to build bridges, but their voices are lost in the stampede of zealots schooled in hatred and cynics adept in the manipulation of fear for the consolidation of power.

I was reminded of this in recent weeks. An email from an Israeli woman, Ruth Harari, told me of how her parents arrived in what would become Israel from Ukraine and Poland in the 1920s, how they built a kibbutz, how she was educated there in “the values and principles of freedom, honoring human beings whoever they were.” Her forebears stayed in Europe, where they vanished in the Holocaust. Hardship in the Holy Land never diluted her parents’ commitment to Israel and justice, ideas indivisible to them.

“We still have values,” she wrote during the third and most deadly Gaza eruption in six years, with its almost 2,000 dead, most of them Palestinian civilians. “For that reason, I argue, it is more painful for me as an Israeli to hear and see the footage of the innocents, children especially, in Gaza, and to read about the suffering inflicted upon them not only by Israeli attacks, but by the ferocity of their leadership. We have to sit and talk. We have to live with one another.”

What do such words amount to? No more than confetti in a gale, perhaps, scattered by the force of Hamas, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the unblushing Jewish advocates of forcible removal of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and even Israel itself.

The center, it seems, cannot hold. This little war has had about it something of the Salem witch trials, bookended by murky incidents of murder or disappearance generating mass hysteria. With each war, each tweet, even, vitriol grows.

Hannah Arendt warned of the dangers of nationalism in a Jewish state; she thought it might be redoubled by dependence on the United States. I find another thought of hers more important: “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Conscience and individual courage do count, even if they appear powerless, especially if they appear powerless.

In a different context, the words of the father of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy killed in the buildup to the war, count: “Whether Jew or Arab, who would accept that his son or daughter would be kidnapped and killed?”

I talked to Andy Bachman, an American rabbi and friend. He is just back from two weeks in Israel. “I hear vile stuff,” he said. “My job is hope.” Never, he believes, has it been more critical for moderate Israelis and Palestinians to raise their voices in common cause. If Hamas is to be disarmed, as it must be, the only way in the end is to win the hearts and minds of other Palestinians through economic progress and justice.

Bachman, reflecting on the war’s moral dilemmas, cited the biblical story of Samuel. As Samuel ages, people see that his bribe-taking sons are not leadership material. They ask him to find them a king. Samuel consults God, who laments that “they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.” If the people only followed God’s law, they would not need a ruler. Samuel warns the people of the future predations of any king, but they will not be swayed. They insist “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In the end, God acquiesces.

For Bachman, the tension between living in a divine world of perfect justice and the violent human realm of imperfect choices is captured here. Zionism was just that: the desire to be “like all the nations,” a normal people with a leader — but that also means, in Bachman’s words, “making pained and sometimes horrible choices.” He said, “As a parent, I mourn so greatly the loss of innocent life. And equal to that feeling is one of horror and shame that Hamas ran a campaign knowing that would happen, making it part of their strategy.”

In Israel, Bachman works with Rebecca Bardach on a project called Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It now runs five bilingual schools with 1,100 students, children learning Hebrew and Arabic and, above all, how coexistence works. The aim is to grow to as many as 15 integrated bilingual schools over the next decade.

Like individual voices of conscience, such undertakings seem flimsy beside walls, blockades, bullets, bombs, rockets and the relentless process of separation and division that pulls Jews and Palestinians apart. They are flimsy but no less important for that. They make the stranger human. They are interceptors of fear. The most useful commodity for the merchants of war and hatred is fear.

It will take immense courage now for Israelis who wrestle with their consciences to raise their voices for a two-state peace — and just as much for Palestinians to engage in open self-criticism of disastrous choices. The next time hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets for cheap housing, they should draw a connection between that demand and the billions spent on the occupation. An Israeli zealot killed Yitzhak Rabin. He cannot be allowed to kill Rabin’s last endeavor.

And now we get to Mr. Kristof:

One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence.

In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes.

Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling — partly explaining the hostility to state expansion of Medicaid, to long-term unemployment benefits, or to raising the minimum wage to keep up with inflation.

This has been on my mind because I’ve been visiting my hometown of Yamhill, Ore., a farming community that’s a window into the national crisis facing working-class men.

I love this little town, but the news is somber — and so different from the world I now inhabit in a middle-class suburb. A neighbor here just died of a heroin overdose; a friend was beaten up last night by her boyfriend; another friend got into a fistfight with his dad; a few more young men have disappeared into the maw of prison.

One of my friends here, Rick Goff, 64, lean with a lined and weathered face and a short pigtail (maybe looking a bit like Willie Nelson), is representative of the travails of working-class America. Rick is immensely bright, and I suspect he could have been a lawyer, artist or university professor if his life had gotten off to a different start. But he grew up in a ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage, and when he was 5 years old, his mom choked on a piece of bacon, staggered out to the yard and dropped dead.

“My dad just started walking down the driveway and kept walking,” Rick remembers.

His three siblings and he were raised by a grandmother, but money was tight. The children held jobs, churned the family cow’s milk into butter, and survived on what they could hunt and fish, without much regard for laws against poaching.

Despite having a first-class mind, Rick was fidgety and bored in school. “They said I was an overactive child,” he recalls. “Now they have name for it, A.D.H.D.”

A teacher or mentor could have made a positive difference with the right effort. Instead, when Rick was in the eighth grade, the principal decided to teach him that truancy was unacceptable — by suspending him from school for six months.

“I was thinking I get to go fishing, hang out in the woods,” he says. “That’s when I kind of figured out the system didn’t work.”

In the 10th grade, Rick dropped out of school and began working in lumber mills and auto shops to make ends meet. He said his girlfriend skipped town and left him with a 2-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son to raise on his own.

Rick acknowledges his vices and accepts responsibility for plenty of mistakes: He smoked, drank too much for a time and abused drugs. He sometimes hung out with shady people, and he says he has been arrested about 30 times but never convicted of a felony. Some of his arrests were for trying to help other people, especially to protect women, by using his fists against bullies.

In that respect, Rick can actually be quite endearing. For instance, he vows that if anyone messes with my mother, he’ll kill that person.

A generation or two ago, Rick might have ended up with a stable family and in a well-paid union job, creating incentives for prudent behavior. Those jobs have evaporated, sometimes creating a vortex of hopelessness that leads to poor choices and becomes self-fulfilling.

There has been considerable progress in material standards over the decades. When I was a kid, there were still occasional neighbors living in shacks without electricity or plumbing, and that’s no longer the case. But the drug, incarceration, job and family instability problems seem worse.

Rick survives on disability (his hand was mashed in an accident) and odd jobs (some for my family). His health is frail, for he has had heart problems and kidney cancer that almost killed him two years ago.

Millions of poorly educated working-class men like him are today facing educational failure, difficulty finding good jobs, self-medication with meth or heroin, prison records that make employment more difficult, hurdles forming stable families and, finally, early death.

Obviously, some people born into poverty manage to escape, and bravo to them. That tends to be easier when the constraint is just a low income, as opposed to other pathologies such as alcoholic, drug-addicted or indifferent parents or a neighborhood dominated by gangs (I would argue that the better index of disadvantage for a child is not family income, but how often the child is read to).

Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.

In effect, we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field, and one of its metrics is educational failure. High school dropouts are five times as likely as college graduates to earn the minimum wage or less, and 16.5 million workers would benefit directly from a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Yes, these men sometimes make bad choices. But just as wealthy Americans inherit opportunity, working-class men inherit adversity. As a result, they often miss out on three pillars of middle-class life: a job, marriage and a stable family, and seeing their children succeed.

One of Rick’s biggest regrets is that his son is in prison on drug-related offenses, while a daughter is in a halfway house recovering from heroin addiction.

The son just had a daughter who was born to a woman who has three other children, fathered by three other men. The odds are already stacked against that baby girl, just as they were against Rick himself.

This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.

And last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

People who don’t know the full truth about Mike Solomonov judge him by his fried chicken at Federal Donuts, a cult favorite in this city, and by his hummus at Zahav, an Israeli restaurant here of national renown. They’re the signposts in a career that has burned bright in recent years and seems destined to burn brighter still.

But they’re not his real success. They’re not what his wife and best friends look at with so much gratitude — and so much relief. Those closest to Mike realize that his crucial achievement is staying clean. And it’s measured in the number of days in a row that he’s drug-free.

When he opened Zahav in May 2008, he was sleeping just an hour or two many nights, and the reason wasn’t work. It was crack cocaine. He smoked it compulsively. Sometimes he mixed things up and smoked — or snorted — heroin instead. There was also booze: Scotch, vodka, triple sec, whatever was within reach. His reputation was on the rise. He was on the skids.

“I was living a double life,” Mike, 35, told me. “I look back and I’m horrified.”

Until now he hasn’t gone into detail about this publicly. But with two new restaurants about to open and a PBS documentary about his culinary love affair with Israel in the works, he found himself haunted by the sense that he wasn’t being wholly honest, wasn’t owning up to how easily all of this might have slipped away, wasn’t sounding the warning and sharing the lessons that he could.

“Nobody expects somebody like me to be a recovering crackhead,” he said. “I felt I was holding back.”

So last week he told me his story, all of it. It has an added pathos right now, because the violence in Israel echoes a personal heartbreak that fed his addiction, the worst of which followed the death of his younger brother, David, in 2003, at the age of 21. He was killed by sniper fire on the border with Lebanon while he served in the Israeli army. He was just three days shy of the end of his military commitment.

The two brothers grew up partly in the United States and partly in Israel, although David spent more time there. Mike did the opposite, and went to college at the University of Vermont, although he lasted just three semesters. He partied more than he studied. To pay for all the pot he was smoking, he became a dealer.

“I was the guy who always did a little too much,” he said. And he was fine with that, at least until the night when he took a fistful of Xanax to counterbalance an excess of cocaine. He passed out and woke up in a hospital bed some 12 hours later, his stomach pumped.

For a while he straightened up. Buckled down. Learned to cook, graduating from a bakery near Tel Aviv to culinary school in Florida to work in Philadelphia. He had a job at the venerated Italian restaurant Vetri when he got the news about David. The call came as he drove a family car, a green Hyundai Accent, from Pittsburgh back to Philadelphia so that David, who was about to move to the United States, could claim it.

David hadn’t even been scheduled for duty on the day he died, but it was Yom Kippur and he’d swapped places with a soldier who wanted to go to synagogue. Mike couldn’t stop thinking about that or about his recklessness with his own life and how little sense any of this made.

“This is a horrible thing to say, but of the two of us, if one should have ended up dead at a young age, he didn’t deserve it,” he said, shaking his head.

He turned to drugs to blot out his grief, which also became the perfect excuse, the perfect cover. He was stealthy enough that his business partner, Steve Cook, didn’t catch on. Nor did his wife, Mary, whom he married in 2006.

Sometimes when he fetched supplies in the middle of a workday, he’d take a detour to buy crack and smoke it in the car: the green Hyundai meant for David.

And sometimes after Mary went to sleep at night, he’d quietly drive off to find more, and he’d cruise around the city high and drunk, returning at daybreak, he said, to “slither back into bed” before she woke up. The chirping of birds in the dawn stillness grew familiar. It was as if they were shaming and mocking him.

He grew thinner and thinner. Mary saw it, but not really. What opened her eyes was his sudden, strange illness during a vacation in Bermuda in July 2008. He was in withdrawal, because he’d gone too quickly through some heroin that he’d secretly carried with him. Back home, she consulted Steve and they confronted Mike one morning, telling him that they were taking him to rehab right then. He pleaded for a few minutes and walked into the yard.

He remembers thinking, “I could just jump the fence. I wouldn’t be the first junkie running around South Philly in my bathrobe.”

He went back inside. He did the program. Then he attended 12-step meetings, as often as every day. Steve and his wife handled the transportation, because they didn’t want him alone in that Hyundai.

“I was scared,” Steve said, noting that the restaurant Zahav had been up and running for only a few months. “We had almost $1 million that we’d signed for personally — investors, loans.” He needed Mike to be healthy.

Mary was angry. But, she said, “He needed help and support. And I remember my sister saying, ‘You don’t leave people at their darkest hour.’ ” She monitored Mike’s recovery by making him take random drug tests. After a lapse or two at the start, he passed each one, and she could see how hard he was trying.

The impulse to get high doesn’t completely vanish. It flickers back. Mike remembers that in the hours around midnight on July 23, 2011, he had the fleeting notion that he could easily sneak off and find drugs. It was a reflexive reaction to being all alone, with his wife out of the house, and the thought wasn’t squelched by the reason she was gone. She was in the hospital. She’d just given birth to the first of their two sons.

He doesn’t want to lie about these things. He wants to hold himself to full account.

In so many regards he’s lucky, he said, and one is that he’s found a better way to respond to losing his brother: through his cooking, which pays tribute to the country and the people his brother died for. The restaurant Dizengoff, officially opening on Monday, is a classic Israeli hummusiya, focusing on quick meals of hummus and small salads. Abe Fisher, which is scheduled to open early next month, will serve dishes of the Jewish diaspora, and its name is a mash-up of Jewish ancestors of his and Steve’s.

Last October Mike led a group of American chefs on a tour of Israel. They paused to cook a special meal on the 10th anniversary of David’s death. Mike made brief remarks, describing a painting by David that hung above his firstborn son’s changing table, a prompt for telling the boy about the missing man in whose memory he’d been named. Mike would remind his son, before they left the room: “Say goodbye to Uncle David.”

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

June 17, 2014

Mr. Bruni is off today.  Bobo has a question in “The Structures of Growth:”  What do you need to do to get better at something after you have gone through the early stages of making a lot of progress really quickly?  Mr. Cohen howls that we should “Take Mosul Back.”  He says the blame game misses the point, and that Iraq and Syria were rotten to the core before America’s mistakes.  In the comments (which were closed early) “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say:  “There is one constant about all of Roger Cohen’s articles proposing military action.  He never mentions that he has never worn a uniform, never been in a war, announces he’s enlisting or that his children are enlisting for this new, desparately needed, war.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “A New College Model:”  Has Arizona State found a new way to educate students? Starbucks employees may soon find out.  Here’s Bobo:

Most of us are trying to get better at something. And when we think about our future progress, we tend to imagine we will improve linearly. We’ll work hard at mastering some skill; we’ll steadily get better and better.

But, as the Canadian writer Scott H. Young points out in a recent blog post, progress in most domains is not linear. In some spheres, like learning a language or taking up running, improvement is logarithmic. You make a lot of progress when you first begin the activity, but, as you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve.

Logarithmic activities require a certain sort of mind-set, Young writes. During the early high-growth phase, when everything is coming easily, you have to make sure you maintain your disciplined habits, or else you will fall backward. Then later, during the slow-growth phase, you have to break some of your habits. To move from good to great, you have to break out of certain routines that have become calcified and are now holding you back.

For example, when Tiger Woods was first competing at golf, he had to stick to his arduous practice routine even though success seemed to come ridiculously easy. But then, when he hit a plateau, he had to reinvent his swing to reach that final tippy-top level.

In other domains, growth is exponential. In these activities, you have to work for weeks or even years at mastering the fundamentals, and you barely see any return. But then, after you have put in your 10,000 hours of effort, suddenly you develop a natural ease and your progress multiplies quickly.

Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts. Ice hockey is an exponential activity (it takes years just to skate well enough).

Many people quit exponential activities in the early phases. You’ve got to be bullheaded to work hard while getting no glory. But then when you are in the later fast-progress stage, you’ve got to be open-minded to turn your hard-earned skill into poetry. Vincent van Gogh had to spend years learning the basics of drawing, but then, when he’d achieved mastery, he had to let loose and create art.

I could think of some other growth structures. In some domains progress comes like a stairway. There’s a period of stagnation, followed by a step upward, followed by a period of stagnation, followed by another step. In other domains, progress comes like waves repetitively lapping the shore. You go over some material and the wave leaves a residue of knowledge; then you go over the same material again and the next wave leaves a bit more residue.

Yet other domains follow a valley-shaped curve. You have to go down initially before you can go up. The experience of immigrating to a new country can be like this; you have to start at the bottom as you learn a new society before you can make your way upward. Moral progress is like this, too. You have to go down and explore your own failures before you can conquer them. You have to taste humiliation before you can aspire toward excellence.

Thinking about growth structures reminds you that really successful people often have the ability to completely flip their mental dispositions. In many fields, it pays to be rigid and disciplined at first, but then flexible and playful as you get better. If you go into politics, you have to make the transition from campaigning, which is an instantly gratifying activity, to governing, which is an exponential activity, requiring experience, patience and hard-earned wisdom.

This way of thinking also makes it clear that skill acquisition is a deeply moral activity. You don’t only need knowledge about what to do; you have to train yourself to defeat your natural desires. In the fast-growth phase of a logarithmic activity, you have to fight the urge to self-celebrate and relax. In the later phase, when everyone is singing your praises, you have to fight self-satisfaction.

It does seem clear that our society celebrates fast-payoff instrumental activities, like sports and rock stardom, while undervaluing exponential activities, like being a statesman or craftsman. Kids increasingly flock to logarithmic sports, like soccer, over exponential sports, like baseball.

Finally, this focus on growth structures takes your eyes off yourself. The crucial thing is not what traits you intrinsically possess. The crucial questions are: What is the structure of your domain? Where are you now on the progress curve? How are you interacting with the structures of the field?

The crucial answers to those questions are not found in the mirror. They are found by seeing yourself from a distance as part of a landscape. That’s a more pleasing and healthier perspective in any case.

Next up is Mr. Cohen.  If he’s so desperate to take Mosul back maybe he can enlist in the Army or get the Prime Minister (Mr. Cohen lives in London) to launch an offensive…

Less than 60 miles from Mosul, where the Sunni Islamic fanatics who have overrun the city are slaughtering their enemies as if the Middle Ages never ended, a rather different scene in Iraq was recently described in a report from the Russian investment firm Renaissance Capital:

“We saw Ferraris and Bentleys being driven by students at the American University of Iraq in Suleimaniyah, and at the only five-star hotel in Erbil, the car park was filled with new BMW’s and Range Rovers. The few international restaurants in Erbil cost approximately $90 per person for a meal with a beer. The city’s shopping centers carry international brands, all of which we noticed are priced at least 40 percent higher than the international standard; and shop managers claimed inventory flies off the shelves.”

In nascent Kurdistan, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose relations with the central government in Baghdad are a stop-go affair, things are different. Even the worst mess has its winners. The Kurds, almost a century after missing out on statehood at the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, are the beneficiaries of Iraq’s mayhem. Even their relations with their Turkish nemesis have been commerce-smoothed into something approaching warmth.

Nobody should bet against an independent Kurdish state within the next decade. Syria and Iraq are in a state of implosion; Middle Eastern borders are up for grabs. Qaeda affiliates have already done their grabbing. They control wide swathes of Syria and Iraq 13 years (and trillions of dollars) after the United States went to war in Afghanistan to dismantle the jihadi state within a state of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

This is not a terrific denouement to America’s post-9/11 wars. The blame game is in full swing. Aficionados of the counterfactual are having a field day. Iraq in its agony is the perfect locus for handicappers of the hypothetical. It’s an old game. If Napoleon had had B-52s at Waterloo, things might have worked out differently.

The left blames the disaster on President Bush and the American invasion of 2003 that shattered the Iraqi state and removed its murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein. If this had not happened, there would be no fanatics from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the doorsteps of Baghdad. Wrong, says the right. President Obama is to blame for abandoning Iraq in 2011 without leaving a residual counter-terrorism force. His feckless failure to back the Syrian opposition early in the uprising was a principal cause of Syria’s collapse into a lawless haven for Islamic fanatics. If Obama had been more resolute in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would not be on the rampage.

A plague on both their houses! It’s unseemly to fight Washington’s talk-show wars over the myriad dead of the Levant.

The facts are plain enough. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 because of its weapons of mass destruction program. However Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The invasion brought the Shiite majority to power, so advancing the interests of Shiite Iran, America’s enemy. It ousted the Sunnis, upsetting the Sunni-Shiite balance in the Middle East, and infuriating America’s nominal ally, Saudi Arabia. As a result, a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict has been escalating over the past decade.

There was no Al Qaeda in Saddam’s Iraq. The United States birthed it through the invasion. It then beat Al Qaeda down, before allowing its affiliates to regroup by leaving and doing nothing about Syria’s disintegration. American and Iranian interests in Iraq are now aligned in preserving the sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, encouraging his (unlikely) outreach to the winning Kurds and the whiplashed Sunnis, and beating back the barbarians of ISIS. However, the political forces arrayed against cooperation with Iran in the Congress are powerful — and U.S. and Iranian interests part ways in Syria and over Israel. A logical approach in the Middle East is seldom a feasible approach.

Got it?

If not, do not worry. The blame game misses the point. Iraq and Syria, well before America’s hapless intervention and hapless paralysis, were rotten to the core, as ripe for dismemberment as the Ottoman Empire a century ago, sickened by the personality cults of brutal rulers, cracking at the internal lines of fracture colonial overseers chose to disregard. They were in a state of postponed decomposition. Sunnis in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, minorities both, believed (and believe) they had some irreversible right to rule. They do not.

President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS. If the jihadis cement their hold, the blowback will be felt in Europe and the United States. Such action will not resolve Iraq’s problems, or the region’s. But the alternative is far worse. It would be a betrayal of the thousands of American lives lost since 2001 and of the millions in the Middle East who view the Middle Ages as over.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

On Monday, Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, unveiled his company’s newest — and possibly most important — perquisite for its employees: a free college education. He announced this new program on a stage in The Times Center in Midtown Manhattan, alongside his partner in the new venture, Michael Crow of Arizona State University.

Starbucks has long been a trailblazer in offering company benefits; part-time employees get stock options and health insurance. Schultz has also been one of the few chief executives willing to speak out — and do something — about the need to get people back to work again. A few years ago, I wrote a column about a Starbucks program that turned donations from customers into small business loans.

What I hadn’t realized is the extent to which Arizona State is a trailblazer as well. Under Crow’s leadership, it is attempting nothing less than the reinvention of the university. If Crow’s model succeeds, it offers some real hope that higher education can become, as it once was, a place that views its mission as educating everybody, not just the world’s elite.

“In the bottom quartile of family incomes, only 9 percent of kids attain a college education,” Crow said about five minutes after I met him on Monday afternoon. “And, in the top quartile, 80 percent get a college education, regardless of academic ability.” That statistic is what he is trying to change.

Although Crow grew up in a working-class family, he spent a good chunk of his career at one of the nation’s most elite schools: Columbia University. He was the executive vice provost there before becoming president of Arizona State 12 years ago. He told me what appealed to him about Arizona State was precisely that it offered the chance to create a completely different model.

“Traveling around the country, I could see that the U.S. was having a hard time modernizing, in a sense,” he said. “There was industrial decline, and underperforming K-12. There was a need for industrial redesign.” He found himself influenced by a handful of books, including “A University for the 21st Century” by James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan. In the book, Duderstadt argued that if universities were to remain relevant, they need to be reinvented.

Or, as Crow puts it, “How would you build a public university of greater public service that would be more adaptable to the rapidly changing society? Could you do it at scale? In a way that allowed everybody to have a chance?”

His first — and, in some ways, most radical — decision was that Arizona State was going to embrace what he calls “inclusion” instead of “exclusion.” The elite universities, egged on by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, proudly talk about what a small percentage of students they accept. Indeed, it is how the culture has come to define quality in a university.

Crow went in the opposite direction: Anybody with a B average in the high school courses Arizona State deemed necessary to prepare for a college education could get in. He was also insistent that the school remain affordable. For in-state students pursuing an undergraduate degree, the “list price” at Arizona State is about $5,000 per semester, although once grants and financial aid is factored in, the average cost is $3,800 per student.

As the student body began to change — today, 50 percent of the school’s 73,000 students are coming from the lower half of the income strata — the learning had to change as well. And so it did. Arizona State developed digital tools that aided individualized learning. Of the school’s 16,000 courses, 10,000 are “tech-mediated” in some way, said Crow.

Inevitably, this led to Arizona State instituting a catalog of online courses — and online degrees — which is what Starbucks is offering its employees. The great advantage of an online course is that the student can listen to the lectures or do the work on his or her own time. It is a way of reaching students who might otherwise not be able to go to school.

Crow insists that online courses at Arizona State have the same rigor as classroom courses. “They are taught by the same faculty that teaches in our classrooms,” says Christopher Callahan, the dean of the university’s journalism school.

Crow told me that just as Schultz had been looking for a university to partner with, he had been looking for a corporation. He thinks that Arizona State has the capability to ultimately teach 100,000 students online, and that the Starbucks partnership could add as many as 15,000 new students. When I asked him where the 100,000 number came from, he said, “That is an assessment of what share of the country’s need that we can handle.”

Grandiose? Perhaps. But higher education could certainly use a little more such thinking.

Brooks, Cohen and Krugman

May 30, 2014

In “The Autocracy Challenge” Bobo gurgles that President Obama laid out his approach to dealing with aggressive autocratic rulers this week, but his vision is ill-suited for the challenge.  In the comments “craig geary” from Redlands, FL had this to say: “Once more we have a Times writer, who has never worn a uniform, never been to war, telling us more war is the solution. His party is full of the same, Viet Nam draft dodgers, National Guard avoiders, preaching perpetual war. With other peoples children. Cowards, to a man, talking tough.”  Mr. Cohen considers “Capitalism Eating Its Own Children” and tells us about a central banker who laments the market fundamentalism that breaks community and stirs mistrust.  In “Cutting Back on Carbon” Prof. Krugman says saving the planet would be a lot cheaper than you’d think.  Here’s Bobo:

It’s hard to remember, but back in the early 1990s there was a debate about how nations should emerge from Communism — the Russian way or the Chinese way. The Russians did political and economic reform together. The Chinese just did economic reform.

Reality doesn’t allow clean experiments, but the Chinese model has won in the court of public opinion. China’s success has given autocracy a legitimacy it lacked. In each of the past eight years, according to Freedom House, the number of countries that moved in an autocratic direction has outnumbered those that moved in a democratic one.

When you look at autocracies, you notice that many have undergone a similar life cycle. Autocrats may start out thinking they will be benevolent dictators. They may start out flirting with the West and talking about liberalizing reforms. But their regimes are almost always corrupt and inefficient. To stay on top, autocrats have to whip up nationalistic furies. They have to be aggressive in their regions to keep the country united on a permanent war footing. Unstable within, autocracies have to be radioactive abroad. Autocrats may start out claiming to be their country’s Deng Xiaoping, but they often end up more like Robert Mugabe.

Dealing with thuggish radioactive autocracies will probably be the great foreign policy challenge of the next decade. Aggressive autocratic rulers will challenge national borders and inflame regional rivalries. They will exacerbate ethnic tensions and gnaw at the world order. They have already made the world a more ornery place.

How will the United States respond? President Obama laid out his approach in a speech at West Point this week. He argued persuasively that the U.S. will have to do a lot more to mobilize democracies to take effective collective action against autocratic aggression. Moreover, his administration does champion democracy. On the same day Obama spoke, his ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, gave a great commencement speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government explaining why democracy promotion has to be at the core of American foreign policy.

But the president’s attitude seems to me in some ways ill-suited for the autocratic challenge. First, he might have the balance wrong between overreach and underreach. Perhaps drawing on the Iraq example, President Obama believes America’s problems have not been caused by too much restraint, but by overreach and hubris.

In the larger frame of history, this is a half-truth. In the 1920s and ’30s, for example, Americans were in a retrenching mood, like today. The result was a leaderless world, the gradual decay of the world order and eventually World War II.

As Robert Kagan shows in a brilliant essay in The New Republic, for the past 70 years, American policy makers have understood that underreach can lead to catastrophe, too. Presidents assertively tended the international garden so that small problems didn’t turn into big ones, even when core national interests were not at stake. In the 1990s, for example, President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton took military action roughly every 17 months to restrain dictators, spread democracy and preserve international norms.

This sort of forward-leaning interventionist garden-tending will be even more necessary in an age of assertive autocracies. If the U.S. restricts intervention to “core interests,” as Obama suggests, if it neglects constant garden-tending, the thugs will grab and grab and eventually there will be horrendous conflagrations. America’s assertive responses will not need to be military; they rarely will be. But they’ll need to be simple, strong acts of deterrence to preserve order. As Leon Wieseltier notes, if President Obama spoke in Kiev on his coming European trip, that alone would be an assertive gesture, like J.F.K. going to Berlin.

Second, President Obama underestimates how much the logic of force will remain central in the years ahead. It would be nice if autocrats thought in terms of international norms or according to the rational calculus of cost benefit analysis. But autocrats got where they are because they are primitives who perceive the world through the ancient calculus of power and force. What we perceive as prudence, they perceive as weakness. Absent clear and forceful counterpressure, they will cross red lines that the current or future president will have to enforce.

For most of the past 70 years, the U.S. had a two-level foreign policy. On top, American diplomats built multilateral coalitions to extend democracy. But at the bottom level, American presidents understood their responsibility as the world’s enforcer, occasionally operating according to the logic of menace and force.

If President Obama departs from that tradition and takes away that bottom level — for fear of overreach, or in a quest for normalcy, or out of an excessive belief in the limits of his own power — then he will undermine the top level that he admires. The autocrats will drag the world into an ungodly mess.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Guildhall at the heart of the City can be a lulling sort of place after a long day. The statuary and vaulted timber ceiling of the medieval great hall lead the eye to wander and the mind to muse on Britain’s strangest quirk — its centuries of continuity. Grace is said, claret is served, glasses clink and dreaminess sets in. A keynote speech from a central banker is all that is required to complete the soporific effect.

Or so one would think, until Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, lays into unfettered capitalism. “Just as any revolution eats its children,” he says, “unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself.”

All ideologies, he continues, are prone to extremes. Belief in the power of the market entered “the realm of faith” before the 2008 meltdown. Market economies became market societies. They were characterized by “light-touch regulation” and “the belief that bubbles cannot be identified.”

Carney pulls no punches. Big banks were too big to fail, operating in a “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bubble.” Benchmarks were rigged for personal gain. Equity markets blatantly favored “the technologically empowered over the retail investor.” Mistrust grew — and persists.

“Prosperity requires not just investment in economic capital, but investment in social capital,” Carney argues, having defined social capital as “the links, shared values and beliefs in a society which encourage individuals not only to take responsibility for themselves and their families but also to trust each other and work collaboratively to support each other.”

A stirring through the hall, a focusing of gazes — Carney has the attention of the chief executives, bankers and investors gathered here for a conference on “Inclusive Capitalism.” His bluntness reflects the fact that, six years after the crisis, the core problem has not gone away: The deep unease and anger in developed countries about the ways globalization and technology magnify returns for the super-rich, operating in a world of low taxation and lax regulation where short-term gain becomes a guiding principle, even as societies become more unequal, offering diminished opportunities to the young, less community and a growing sense of unfairness.

Anyone seeking the source of the anger behind populist movements in Europe and the United States (and the Piketty fever) need look no further than this. Anti-immigration, anti-Europe movements won in European elections because people feel cheated, worried about their children. As Bill Clinton noted a couple of hours before Carney’s speech, the first reaction of human beings who feel “insecure and under stress” is the urge to “hang with our own kind.” And the world’s greatest challenge is defining “the terms of our interdependence.”

There is still a tendency to think politicians must do this work of definition. But in Nobody’s World, driven by social media and global corporations, corporate leaders have more power to change things than elected officials. If short-termism prevails and the importance of social capital and community is dismissed, then anger will rise. Companies are not well served by boards that are too often, in the words of one participant, “male, stale and pale.”

Carney lays out the extent of the problem: “40 percent of recent graduates in U.S. are underemployed and youth unemployment is around 50 percent in the worst affected countries in the euro area.”

His prescription: End through strict regulation and resilience tests the scandal of too-big-to-fail, where “bankers made enormous sums” and “taxpayers picked up the tab for their failures.” Recreate fair and effective markets with real transparency and make every effort — through codes of conduct and even regulatory obligations — to instill a new integrity among traders (even if social capital cannot be contractual). Curtail compensation offering large bonuses for short-term returns; end the overvaluing of the present and the discounting of the future; ensure that “where problems of performance or risk management are pervasive,” bonuses are adjusted “for whole groups of employees.”

Above all, understand that, “The answers start from recognizing that financial capitalism is not an end in itself, but a means to promote investment, innovation, growth and prosperity. Banking is fundamentally about intermediation — connecting borrowers and savers in the real economy. In the run-up to the crisis, banking became about banks not businesses; transactions not relations; counterparties not clients.”

In other words, human beings matter. An age that has seen emergence from poverty on a massive scale in the developing world has been accompanied by the spread of a new poverty (of life and of expectations) in much of the developed world. Global convergence has occurred alongside internal divergence. Interdependence is a reality, but the way it works is skewed. Clinton noted that ants, bees, termites and humans have all survived through an unusual shared characteristic: They are cooperative forms of life. But it is precisely the loss at all levels of community, of social capital, that most threatens the world’s stability and future prosperity.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Next week the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new rules designed to limit global warming. Although we don’t know the details yet, anti-environmental groups are already predicting vast costs and economic doom. Don’t believe them. Everything we know suggests that we can achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at little cost to the economy.

Just ask the United States Chamber of Commerce.

O.K., that’s not the message the Chamber of Commerce was trying to deliver in the report it put out Wednesday. It clearly meant to convey the impression that the E.P.A.’s new rules would wreak havoc. But if you focus on the report’s content rather than its rhetoric, you discover that despite the chamber’s best efforts to spin things — as I’ll explain later, the report almost surely overstates the real cost of climate protection — the numbers are remarkably small.

Specifically, the report considers a carbon-reduction program that’s probably considerably more ambitious than we’re actually going to see, and it concludes that between now and 2030 the program would cost $50.2 billion in constant dollars per year. That’s supposed to sound like a big deal. Instead, if you know anything about the U.S. economy, it sounds like Dr. Evil intoning “one million dollars.” These days, it’s just not a lot of money.

Remember, we have a $17 trillion economy right now, and it’s going to grow over time. So what the Chamber of Commerce is actually saying is that we can take dramatic steps on climate — steps that would transform international negotiations, setting the stage for global action — while reducing our incomes by only one-fifth of 1 percent. That’s cheap!

Alternatively, consider the chamber’s estimate of costs per household: $200 per year. Since the average American household has an income of more than $70,000 a year, and that’s going to rise over time, we’re again looking at costs that amount to no more than a small fraction of 1 percent.

One more useful comparison: The Pentagon has warned that global warming and its consequences pose a significant threat to national security. (Republicans in the House responded with a legislative amendment that would forbid the military from even thinking about the issue.) Currently, we’re spending $600 billion a year on defense. Is it really extravagant to spend another 8 percent of that budget to reduce a serious threat?

And all of this is based on anti-environmentalists’ own numbers. The real costs would almost surely be smaller, for three reasons.

First, the Chamber of Commerce study assumes that economic growth, and the associated growth in emissions, will be at its historic norm of 2.5 percent a year. But we should expect slower growth in the future as baby boomers retire, making emissions targets easier to hit.

Second, in the chamber’s analysis, the bulk of the reduction in emissions comes from replacing coal with natural gas. This neglects the dramatic technological progress taking place in renewables, especially solar power, which should make cutting back on carbon even easier.

Third, the U.S. economy is still depressed — and in a depressed economy many of the supposed costs of compliance with energy regulations aren’t costs at all. In particular, building new, low-emission power plants would employ both workers and capital that would otherwise be sitting idle, and would, if anything, give the U.S. economy a boost.

You might ask why the Chamber of Commerce is so fiercely opposed to action against global warming, if the cost of action is so small. The answer, of course, is that the chamber is serving special interests, notably the coal industry — what’s good for America isn’t good for the Koch brothers, and vice versa — and also catering to the ever more powerful anti-science sentiments of the Republican Party.

Finally, let me take on the anti-environmentalists’ last line of defense — the claim that whatever we do won’t matter, because other countries, China in particular, will just keep on burning ever more coal. This gets things exactly wrong. Yes, we need an international agreement to reduce emissions, including sanctions on countries that don’t sign on. But U.S. unwillingness to act has been the biggest obstacle to such an agreement. If we start taking serious steps against global warming, the stage will be set for Europe and Japan to follow suit, and for concerted pressure on the rest of the world as well.

Now, we haven’t yet seen the details of the new climate action proposal, and a full analysis — both economic and environmental — will have to wait. We can be reasonably sure, however, that the economic costs of the proposal will be small, because that’s what the research — even research paid for by anti-environmentalists, who clearly wanted to find the opposite — tells us. Saving the planet would be remarkably cheap.

But it might cost one or two of the MOTU a buck so nothing will be done.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

April 17, 2014

In “Minimum Wage, Maximum Outrage” Mr. Blow has a question:  Even if both parties are playing politics with this issue to some degree, which side would you rather be on?  Mr. Kristof, who’s in Kiev, has decided to whale away on The Moustache of Wisdom’s little war drum.  He also has a question.  In “In Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Aid” he says Ukrainians have been bullied relentlessly by Russia. He then poses his question:  Why aren’t we doing more to stand up for them?  Gee, why aren’t Germany and France?  At least they’re on the same damn continent…  Ms. Collins, in “There’s A Moon Out Tonight,” says look on the bright side of things, people, even when doomsday is predicted and the moon is blood red.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

No one should ever endure the kind of economic humiliation that comes with working a full-time job and making a less-than-living wage.

There is dignity in all work, but that dignity grows dim when the checks are cashed and the coins are counted and still the bills rise higher than the wages.

Most people want to work. It is a basic human desire: to make a way, to provide for one’s self and one’s loved ones, to advance. It is that great hope of tomorrow, better and brighter, in which we can be happy and secure, able to sleep without hunger and wake without worry.

But it is easy to see how people can have that hope thrashed out of them, by having to wrestle with the most wrenching of questions: how to make do when you work for less than you can live on?

That is why the minimum wage debate resonates so profoundly with so many: We know what it feels like to not have enough money after you’ve busted your body with too-hard work. We know the worry in parents’ eyes as they sit around a dinner table littered with more bills than dollar bills, trying to figure out whom to pay and how to save.

These scenes play themselves out in more American households than the well-dressed men and women in the marbled halls of Congress will ever care to imagine. These are the forgotten and forsaken, the just getting by on just enough. They don’t have much money to donate to a church, let alone a political campaign, and yet they yearn just the same for someone to look out for them. They struggle to make it to the polls, sometimes on public transportation, and wait hours to vote.

Raising the minimum wage won’t erase all of the problems of the poor, but it is one component, one rooted in basic dignity and fairness, of a much fairer picture of income inequality and poverty.

Most Americans understand this. According to a Gallup poll last year, 71 percent of adults (91 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans) said they would vote for a law that would raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour on Election Day if they could.

But, as one would expect, Republicans in Congress are chafing. Some say that raising the minimum wage could hurt small businesses, though a Gallup poll in November showed that small businesses were split on increasing the minimum wage, with roughly half for and half against it. Furthermore, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, “the majority (66 percent) of low-wage workers are not employed by small businesses, but rather by large corporations with over 100 employees.”

Others dismiss the push for increasing the minimum wage, which is being advanced aggressively by Democrats, purely as a political move.

On some level, is the focus on the minimum wage a political ploy on the part of Democrats? I have no doubt. But that doesn’t drain the proposal of its merit. Much of what occurs in Washington occurs at the intersection of political advantage and earnest intentions, and it has ever been thus. Whenever one side accuses the other of playing politics, the accusation is often laced with an envy of the other’s adroitness.

So with the minimum wage, we have an issue that’s both smart politics and compassionate policy.

Politicians do things for political ends, even things designed to help real people.

And that political haymaking is going both ways. This week, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, signed a bill banning the state’s cities from “establishing mandatory minimum wages or vacation and sick-day requirements,” according to The Associated Press.

How callous is that? And it should be noted that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2012, Oklahoma’s proportion of hourly paid workers earning at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage ranked third highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” The bureau reported that 7.2 percent of the hourly paid workers in Oklahoma earned the federal minimum wage or less, compared with 4.7 percent nationally.

And things have not been moving in a positive direction. The bureau also notes that:

“From 2011 to 2012, the portion of hourly paid workers in Oklahoma who earned at or below the federal minimum wage rose from 6.8 to 7.2 percent. The percentage of workers earning less than the federal minimum rose 1.5 percentage points in 2012 to 3.9 percent, while the share earning exactly the minimum wage fell 1.0 points to 3.3 percent.”

Now, if both sides are playing politics with the minimum wage to some degree, which side would you rather be on: that of the working people, who are struggling to make a living, or that of the politicians determined to block them?

Next up we have Mr. Kristof and his little drum:

For decades, Ukrainians have been starved, oppressed and bullied by Russians, and, with Russia now inciting instability that could lead to an invasion and dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, plenty of brave Ukrainians here say they’ve had it and are ready to go bear-hunting.

If they could just equip themselves.

“Any chance you could provide some machine guns or sniper rifles?” one former protester asked me hopefully in Kiev’s Independence Square, a scorched collection of roadblocks where so many Ukrainians lost their lives toppling a corrupt ruler earlier this year.

I explained that I was out of both. The next day, when another self-styled commander asked for weapons to fight the Russian invaders, I pointed to the pistol in his belt and told him he was better prepared than I was.

He laughed ruefully, pulled it out and showed that it was a pellet gun. “It’s a child’s toy,” he said scornfully. “And we have only one of these for every 10 men.”

That’s a glimpse of the mood in Ukraine these days. People seem to feel a bit disappointed that the United States and Europe haven’t been more supportive, and they are humiliated that their own acting government hasn’t done more to confront Russian-backed militants. So, especially after a few drinks, people are ready to take down the Russian Army themselves.

“We will defeat the Russian Army, hang the Ukrainian flag over the Kremlin, and turn it into a lake,” boasted Roman Butsyk, a locomotive driver who joined the protest movement.

Usually in international affairs, there’s a good deal of gray, but what is happening in Ukraine is pretty black and white.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia warns that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. But the chaos in eastern cities is his own creation, in part by sending provocateurs across the border. It’s not clear how many of the troublemakers in the east are Russian security agents and how many are Ukrainians who want to remain in Russia’s orbit, but it’s reasonably clear that there are plenty of both. Ukrainians note that supposed locals in the pro-Russian camp sometimes are unfamiliar with local streets.

Putin has emerged as a great champion of the rights of Russian-speakers everywhere — except in the place where their rights are most endangered. That’s Russia itself.

Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has reached almost North Korean proportions: Putin shrugs at the world and embraces implausible deniability.

Ukrainians mounted their revolution because they wanted to be more like the West, so it frustrates them that the West hasn’t returned the love. Europe fears that sanctioning Russia would hurt business, and even the Obama administration has been cautious and has resisted providing military assistance (except for military meals).

The Ukrainians have a point. A bear is charging them, and we offer spaghetti?

President Obama’s concerns about provoking Putin are understandable, and I disagree with those Republicans who argue that Putin is on a rampage because of Obama’s foreign policy weaknesses. But I do think the White House can do more — with military transfers, financial aid, economic sanctions and moral support — to stand with Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Ukraine is a welcome step to show support.

So far, Putin has arguably gained from his bullying of Crimea: His standing in domestic polls has surged — his approval at home is roughly twice Obama’s — and he has outmaneuvered some local critics, leaving them appearing unpatriotic or on the side of the enemy. It’s crucial that Putin pay a price for aggression so that he doesn’t benefit from bellicosity.

“I understand the U.S. reluctance,” acknowledged Igor Grosul, who sells doormats with the face of the ousted president. “If there is a war between America and Russia, it might be the last war ever.”

Yet Grosul, who was hospitalized in the fight to overthrow the old regime, still would like to see America more engaged. As a Russian speaker himself, he is also indignant at reports that most Russian speakers are pro-Russian.

Clearly, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians genuinely want greater autonomy for their regions, and the country should grant it. But Grosul says that in his city of Mykolaiv, most people are Russian speakers who have turned against Moscow because of the seizure of Crimea and the hysterical anti-Ukraine propaganda.

When Ukrainians ask me what I think, I tell them that I admire their spirit, but that courage is, sadly, no match for a tank. They disagree.

“When we were fighting against the police, we had just wooden sticks,” said Volodymyr Kozak, who helps run a tent museum in Independence Square about the recent battles there. “We can manage against Russia as well.”

These people don’t have much, but they have heart. We should do more to back them up.

And I’m sure we’ll be greeted as liberators, with flowers strewn in the streets, just as we were in Baghdad, right?  Shit…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let’s talk about something cheerful. I nominate the apocalypse.

You may not have noticed, but we survived an end-of-the-world moment again this week when a lunar eclipse made the moon look sort of reddish. This is known as a Blood Moon, and, in certain circles, it was seen as the Start of Something Big.

“The heavens are God’s billboard,” said televangelist John Hagee, the author of the best-selling “Four Blood Moons: Something Is About to Change.” This is the same John Hagee who once theorized that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment to New Orleans for scheduling a gay pride parade. He later apologized. And moved on. To the moon.

As doomsday scenarios go, this one is not particularly original: the basic evangelical vision of trouble in the Middle East followed by the Second Coming. And red moons happen all the time. If you wanted a sign of the end of days this week, there are lots better candidates. Kathleen Sebelius for Senate? The idea that anybody believes Donald Trump will buy the Buffalo Bills? Or limes — their price is quadrupling! You can read all about that in my upcoming book, “The End of Guacamole.”

The Blood Moon predictions are going to be with us for a while because there will be four of the same lunar eclipses over the next year and a half. And Hagee’s theories have sold a heck of a lot of books on Amazon. But they lack the exciting specificity of the classic end-of-the-world prophecies. Like polar shifts (earth crust moves, triggering volcanoes, floods and eliminating all life-forms) or the Amazing Criswell, who was waiting for a black rainbow to show up and suck off all the oxygen.

Television is taking up the slack. It’s awash with doomsday stories, with more on the runway. Killer viruses, planetary power failures, nuclear war. Plus your basic Rapture. (“ ‘The Leftovers’ is the story of the people who didn’t make the cut.”) Chris Carter, the “X-Files” creator who’s offering “The After,” was apparently really moved by that Mayan-calendar-ends crisis in 2012. “There was nervousness. It was in the air. …Certainly the power of that played a part in my desire to do something about a world-changing event,” he told TV Guide.

People, do you remember being all that worried about the Mayan calendar? Or zombies? Zombies are still so darned popular. It would be nice if we were being barraged with a new series about a utopian future where everybody got along except your occasional Romulan. Yet here we are.

The feel-good side of end-of-the-world predictions is that everything seems so nice the day after. We’re still here! There’s oxygen!

Unless, of course, you’re someone like Robert Fitzpatrick, a follower of the late Harold Camping, a serial apocalypse predictor who claimed Judgment Day was going to be May 21, 2011. Fitzpatrick spent what he said was his life savings putting warning signs in the New York City subway system. (“Global Earthquake: The Greatest Ever!”) On the plus side, he did give commuters a really fine ride to work on May 22.

If you enjoy worrying about doomsday, be sure to hedge your bets. Remember Y2K and all the millennium end-of-the-world scenarios? Years ago, I worked on a project that involved a collection of all the predictions about terrible things that were going to happen in the year 2000, and I enjoyed it very much. I talked to a guy living on a mountain who was both waiting for the end and writing a movie script about it. Also, an official in a small Illinois town that had been founded on a plan to airlift refugees into space where they would rotate around until the polar shift calmed down. This was all based on the work of the town’s founder, Richard Kieninger, who was eventually kicked out amid rumors of sexual misbehavior. The rest of the community decided to just concentrate on building self-sufficient lifestyles.

So really, pretty happy ending.

And then, the pope! It was only a year ago that the College of Cardinals was meeting in the Vatican to elect a new pope, and some people were pointing out that this one was going to be the last pontiff, according to a 12th-century prediction made by St. Malachy, who also mentioned the destruction of Rome and “many tribulations” everywhere.

True, Malachy’s list was probably a forgery. But who would have predicted that Catholics would get a new pope who was obsessed with the poor and apparently totally uninterested in people’s sex lives? Nobody. Talking heads sniffed when Francis was chosen and said the cardinals “probably did not come up with the most progressive pope in the history of the world.” Actually, that would have been me.

Our moral today is that things often turn out better than we might have imagined. Look on the bright side. Even when it’s dark and the moon appears to be a rather unusual color.

Cohen and Krugman

November 15, 2013

Mr. Cohen is having a hissy fit.  In “French Muscle, American Cheese” he snarls that France sees American wavering and retreat in the Middle East, and warns of the danger of a “strategic void.”  Gee.  Maybe if they send in the French Foreign Legion…  Prof. Krugman has a question in “The Money Trap:”  Will inflation phobia tear Europe apart after the establishment of a common currency was supposed to unite the Continent?  Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Paris:

French-American relations, often a study in how close love can be to hatred, have taken an interesting turn of late. The cheese-eating surrender monkeys of France, in the phrase from “The Simpsons,” have become the world’s meat-chomping enforcement tigers. As for the United States, it has, in the French view, gone a touch camembert-soft.

The administration of President François Hollande is not known for its decisiveness on the domestic front. Vacillation accompanies economic drift. But, perhaps in compensation, it has shown a resolute streak in international affairs. From Mali to Syria and now Iran, French firmness has been the rule. Paris finds itself to the right of Washington.

This has led to differences. There is talk of the trauma of Aug. 31. On that Saturday afternoon President Hollande took a call from President Obama. A ramped-up France was in a state of readiness for the expected joint military response the next morning to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Until Obama let drop his now notorious “non” after he had opted during a walk in the garden for a different course.

France felt ill-used, having stretched to support its ally as Britain faltered, only to find itself dangling in foolish-looking vassal mode. Now, some 10 weeks later, Syria has revealed its chemical weapons arsenal and committed to giving it up. But, in the French view, the last-minute deal has also legitimized President Bashar al-Assad, put a nail in the coffin of the nonradical Syrian opposition and so set back any conceivable resolution of a devastating conflict. The French view is persuasive.

Then along came the Iran nuclear dossier, a subject on which successive French presidents — from Jacques Chirac through Nicolas Sarkozy to Hollande — have had a consistent view: The Islamic Republic wants a bomb; only a tough approach will stop it. Once again the French had the feeling of being presented by the Obama administration with a wobbly fait accompli.

For weeks before the Geneva meeting at which hopes for an accord first soared and then sank, the United States and Iran had opened a quiet two-way negotiation on a six-month interim deal. Officials close to Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, told me these bilateral discussions had produced an agreed U.S-Iranian text (with caveats) by the time the Geneva talks opened. When the French saw it they were troubled.

Their concerns focused on three areas: The heavy-water plant at Arak that the Iranians are building, where the outline agreement seemed to allow continued construction; language that appeared to concede prematurely an Iranian “right to enrich” or something close to it; and what measures exactly Iran would take to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium. Much of the Geneva meeting focused on the French determination to close these loopholes — only for the changes to prove unacceptable to Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, and his team.

The next few weeks will tell whether France improved the deal or threw it off the rails and lost it. The conviction in Paris is that the accord is still doable. “We did not feel it was smart to rush and we did not feel the original text was balanced,” one official said. “Six months in Arak is a long time. Plutonium is a different issue.”

The overall feeling in France observing U.S. actions in the Middle East is of a troubling uncertainty, a retreat that tends to leave a vacuum, a new American determination to work with a “light footprint” that can give the impression of disinterest.

In a speech this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the formation of the French Policy Planning Staff, Fabius dwelt on this perceived trend. “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest,” he said, suggesting that this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.”

He went on to say this U.S. redirection seemed likely to be “durable,” reflecting the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion.

Because nobody can take the place of the United States, this disengagement could create “major crises left to themselves,” Fabius said, and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.”

The United States, of course, is not quitting the Middle East and isolationist tendencies are easily overstated — as Fabius later conceded.

But his warnings are worth heeding. Obama spoke to Hollande this week; he expressed how “the United States deeply values its relationship with France.” The president could usefully borrow some French toughness to get a winning Iran deal.

When the cheese-eaters are in the White House it is time to worry.

OOOH, snap!  I guess it hasn’t dawned on Mr. Cohen that the French may be snorting and pawing the ground about Iran because it helps their citizens take their minds off their problems at home.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

When Greece hit the skids almost four years ago, some analysts (myself included) thought that we might be seeing the beginning of the end for the euro, Europe’s common currency. Others were more optimistic, believing that tough love — temporary aid tied to reform — would soon produce recovery. Both camps were wrong. What we actually got was a rolling crisis that never seems to reach any kind of resolution. Every time Europe seems ready to go over the edge, policy makers find a way to avoid complete disaster. But every time there are hints of true recovery, something else goes wrong.

And here we go again. Not long ago, European officials were declaring that the Continent had turned the corner, that market confidence was returning and growth was resuming. But now there’s a new source of concern, as the specter of deflation looms over much of Europe. And the debate over how to respond is turning seriously ugly.

Some background: The European Central Bank or E.C.B., Europe’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve, is supposed to keep inflation close to 2 percent. Why not zero? Several reasons, but the most important point right now is that an overall European inflation rate too close to zero would translate into actual deflation in the troubled economies of southern Europe. And deflation has nasty economic side effects, especially in countries already burdened by high debt.

So it’s a source of great concern that European inflation has started dropping far below target; over the past year, consumer prices rose only 0.7 percent, while “core” prices that exclude volatile food and energy costs rose only 0.8 percent.

Something had to be done, and last week the E.C.B. cut interest rates. As policy decisions go, this had the distinction of being both obviously appropriate and obviously inadequate: Europe’s economy clearly needs a boost, but the E.C.B.’s action will surely make, at best, a marginal difference. Still, it was a move in the right direction.

Yet the move was hugely controversial, both inside and outside the E.C.B. And the controversy took an ominous form, at least for anyone who remembers Europe’s terrible history. For arguments over European monetary policy aren’t just a battle of ideas; increasingly, they sound like a battle of nations, too.

For example, who voted against the rate cut? Both German members of the E.C.B. board, joined by the leaders of the Dutch and Austrian central banks. Who, outside the E.C.B., was harshest in criticizing the action? German economists, who made a point not just of attacking the substance of the bank’s action but of emphasizing the nationality of Mario Draghi, the bank’s president, who is Italian. The influential German economist Hans-Werner Sinn declared that Mr. Draghi was just trying to give Italy access to low-interest loans. The chief economist of the newsweekly WirtschaftsWoche called the rate cut a “diktat from a new Banca d’Italia, based in Frankfurt.”

Such insinuations are grossly unfair to Mr. Draghi, whose efforts to contain the euro crisis have been little short of heroic. I’d go so far as to say that the euro probably would have collapsed in 2011 or 2012 without his leadership. But never mind the personalities. What’s scary here is the way this is turning into the Teutons versus the Latins, with the euro — which was supposed to bring Europe together — pulling it apart instead.

What’s going on? Some of it is national stereotyping: the German public is eternally vigilant against the prospect that those lazy southern Europeans are going to make off with its hard-earned money. But there’s also a real issue here. Germans just hate inflation, but if the E.C.B. succeeds in getting average European inflation back up to around 2 percent, it will push inflation in Germany — which is booming even as other European nations suffer Depression-like levels of unemployment — substantially higher than that, maybe to 3 percent or more.

This may sound bad, but it’s how the euro is supposed to work. In fact, it’s the way it has to work. If you’re going to share a currency with other countries, sometimes you’re going to have above-average inflation. In the years before the global financial crisis, Germany had low inflation while countries like Spain had relatively high inflation. Now the rules of the game require that the roles be reversed, and the question is whether Germany is prepared to accept those rules. And the answer to that question isn’t clear.

The truly sad thing is that, as I said, the euro was supposed to bring Europe together, in ways both substantive and symbolic. It was supposed to encourage closer economic ties, even as it fostered a sense of shared identity. What we’re getting instead, however, is a climate of anger and disdain on the part of both creditors and debtors. And the end is still nowhere in sight.

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

September 15, 2013

The Pasty Little Putz may not be feeling well, and I think he may have cribbed a column from MoDo.  In “Call Me Vlad” he has produced a classic Modo-esque “what if” fever dream.  He babbles that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, savors his moment, shirtless, at Putzy’s desk, with an AK-47.  (Should that ever actually happen Wee Putzy would most likely have to change his tighty whities.)  In his comment “Kevin Rothstein” from Jarama Valley points out that “It’s not too late for Ross to enlist in our armed forces and prove how exceptional he is.”  Word.  MoDo has decided to do a mash-up of Hollywood and real life.  Remember how everyone used “24” to explain why we had to torture people?  In “My So-Called C.I.A. Life” she ‘splains to us how C.I.A. Chief John Brennan explains the heavy mantle of protecting the homeland to the “Homeland” C.I.A. chief, Mandy Patinkin.  (Just for the record, when I see America called “the homeland” it makes me ill.)  In “When Complexity Is Free” The Moustache of Wisdom  says the world of work is changing. He says if you want to see some American exceptionalism, visit a research lab.  Mr. Kristof has decided once again to defend blowing up Syrians.  In “Hearing You Out” he says Americans are asking good questions about whether we should intervene in Syria. He offers some answers.  In “What War Means” Mr. Bruni says when we talk about future interventions, we must own up to the heavy price some Americans paid in past ones.  Here’s The Putz:

When I came into my office, he was in my chair, feet up, shirt off, an AK-47 propped against the desk.

“President Putin,” I said, playing it cool. “Nice Op-Ed last week.”

He looked up from my computer. “Ah, yes. I was just checking this, how you say, ‘most-e-mailed list’ that your New York Times keeps. I see I’m still No. 1.”

“Only until someone writes a piece about Ivy League admissions, Mr. President.”

His laugh sounded like ice cracking in a Siberian spring. “Call me Vlad,” he said. “And tell me: Is it always this easy to get a rise out of you Americans? I watch your TV, I follow your elections. I thought you are used to propaganda.”

“Well, if it’s our own. But it’s different being lectured on peace and human rights by a ruler who doesn’t give a fig about either.”

“Yes, but all this whining from your politicians. This Bob Menendez saying my piece made him want to vomit — like a podrostok who cannot handle vodka. And John Boehner, I know he sometimes cries like a babushka but to whine that he was insulted by my column … does he get so offended when he watches the White House’s propaganda network, this MSNBC?”

“Actually, the White House doesn’t run …”

“And this anger about the paragraph where I questioned American exceptionalism? After reading the online comments, I concede that American people are exceptional: exceptionally easy to bait.”

“Well, you can’t blame us for being annoyed with the situation. President Obama traps himself by threatening a war that Congress wouldn’t support, you sweep in with a bogus solution he has to accept because the alternative is impotence …”

“How is the solution we have offered not a good one?”

“Will it lead to Assad giving up his chemical weapons?”

“I have no idea. But the diplomatic to-and-fro makes him unlikely to use them, which is what you wanted, no?”

“Well, the ultimate goal is to remove him from power …”

He banged his hand on my desk. “This is how it always is! You cannot stop with reasonable goal. You must have unreasonable one. Toppling the Taliban was not enough — you had to repeat our mistake and occupy Afghanistan. Saddam contained was not enough — you wanted regime change, democracy. Killing terrorists is not enough — you want the Muslim world to love you.”

“Well, there’s that exceptionalism thing …”

“Yes, yes, I admit, America really is different. Sometimes, deep in my cold, black heart, I even feel flicker of admiration for that difference …”

“Well, thanks …”

“But mostly it makes me insane. I have been dealing with American government for 13 years, and my needs have always been simple, straightforward. I just want what Russian leaders will always want: a sphere of influence, a partner to fight terrorism, stability at home, respect abroad. But your presidents, Bush and Obama — who can tell what they want? One minute they ask me for help in Afghanistan or offer some sort of ‘reset’ button; the next they push NATO to my borders and try to topple my only Middle Eastern client …”

“Well, maybe they both started out hoping that you were something other than a thug and ended up disappointed.”

He stroked the AK-47. “Maybe. But you are lucky to have me. After the 1990s, you could have had a crazy revanchist who tried to conquer his neighbors instead of just bullying them like me. Or another clown like Yeltsin, who let everything fall apart. Instead, I’ve delivered growth, stability, continuity — even our birthrate is now higher than yours!”

“O.K.,” I returned, “but your continuity is just corrupt one-party rule, and your hold on power is actually weakening. You’re relying more on demagogy, cracking down on civil society …”

“Your Obama would still give his eyeteeth for my approval ratings.”

“Touché. But in the long run, you’re a prisoner of your corrupt system. You’ll either hang on while it crumbles or step down and end up jailed by your successor.”

“I cannot let you change the subject, American columnist. Here is a message to transmit to your readers: As much fun as I had baiting them, part of my Op-Ed was sincere. I am not America’s enemy. I do not wish a new cold war. I do not wish to dominate the Middle East, whatever that means.

“No,” he went on, “all I want is an American foreign policy that sees the world as it actually is, and an American leader who can arm-wrestle at my level. Which is what you Americans should want as well, no? Maybe someday you should consider electing one.”

He rose, pecs flexing, and looked around my office. “Oh — and if I should need  post-presidential career outside of Mother Russia, I think my Op-Ed sets me up nicely to become a columnist for your New York Times, no?”

Then he grinned  —   a wolf’s grin — and showed himself out.

And Wee Putzy piddled himself again.  Here’s MoDo:

Carrie Mathison may be banished from the fictional C.I.A. on “Homeland,” but she was welcomed with open arms at the real one on Monday.

“Our field trip to Langley,” Claire Danes said wryly. “It did feel like we were in junior high school.” (She should know.)

The actress concedes that life entwining with art was a bit “awkward” in this case, given that both their narratives are under wraps. “There was one long table of C.I.A. folk and then us, directly facing each other like we were ready to rumble,” she said, laughing. “They couldn’t tell us anything about themselves, really. And we couldn’t tell them anything about our show, really. So what kind of conversation could we have?”

It got even stranger when Danes’s freshman roommate from Yale, a former operative who is now a lawyer at Langley, joined the group, dressed, as it happened, like Danes’s character.

“Pantsuit,” Danes deadpans. “You can’t go wrong.”

Alex Gansa, the co-creator and show runner of “Homeland,” called the two-hour meeting at Langley with his stars, writers and executives and a flock of C.I.A. officers “a frank and free exchange about the entertainment business and the intelligence business that revealed a lot of parallels.” He added dryly, “We both build sets. We both play roles. And we both brainstorm, about operations on their side and storylines on ours.”

Head Spook John Brennan even ushered his fictional counterpart, Mandy Patinkin, into his office. Patinkin said later that he stared at “the massive leather-bound books” on the conference table, thinking that rather than props, they dealt with “the fate of our world.”

Brennan talked about keeping America’s relentless extremist enemies at bay. (As Patinkin likes to say, when channeling his Inigo Montoya character from “The Princess Bride”: “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”)

The actor gives a gripping portrayal of Saul Berenson, the show’s moral center. (Or, given the themes of duality and duplicity, maybe the mole?) Brennan told the often-distressed father figure to the crazed savant Carrie about his own painful paternal duties meeting with the families of fallen officers.

Why did the gruff Brennan embrace Hollywood? You might think the C.I.A. would be busy with that long-delayed shipment of weapons to the Syrian rebels. But this is not only the most paranoid and insecure agency in town — as bipolar as Danes’s mesmerizing Carrie. It might also be the most image conscious.

The Company still shudders at the memory of times when some in Congress have questioned whether the agency should be shuttered or gutted — a fear reflected in the debut of the third season of “Homeland,” airing on Sept. 29, depicting Senate hearings after a terrorist car bomb explosion at Langley has wiped out the top echelon of C.I.A. officials and ripped apart Carrie and Brody, our favorite deranged, doomed lovers — Romeo and Juliet crossed with Bonnie and Clyde. (“Hurt people hurt people,” as Patinkin likes to say, quoting his wife.)

So the C.I.A. decided to risk any possible opprobrium from New York Congressman Peter King, who launched an inquiry, leading to an inspector general investigation, to see if the agency had overshared confidential information with the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow.

A glamorous premiere and reception at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Monday night hosted by Showtime and its innovative president of entertainment, David Nevins, attracted a gaggle of current agency staffers as well as Michael Hayden, the former C.I.A. director, and Michael Morell, the former acting C.I.A. director. Jose Rodriguez, the ex-head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service who gave the order to destroy the agency’s torture videotapes, was there, schmoozing.

“He chills my blood,” confided Gansa. He says the show has consultants who are “still active intelligence officers and a lot of retired intelligence officers.”

The Emmy-winning Danes revealed that she gets her “plasticine, rubbery face” from her dad. “My dad has no cartilage in his ears,” she said. “I love mushing his face around.”

While Carrie may be “transgressive” and “deeply flawed,” Danes says, “she’s a little bit of a superhero” who screws up but “ends up saving the day.”

The agency prefers P.R. about sometimes haywire yet dedicated fictional characters to fumbling real ones. Carrie and Saul — who get a lot more Congressional oversight in the new season than the C.I.A. gets in real life — actually boost the agency’s brand.

The C.I.A. would rather talk about nefarious programs, like targeted killings, than rehash blunders: Missing the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Osama’s 9/11 plot; failing to figure out there were no W.M.D. in Iraq and feeling flummoxed over the Arab spring.

Danes mused about their C.I.A. group hug: “Maybe it’s this strange idea that your achievements are never going to be celebrated publicly while your failures are going to be exposed. There must be some urge to have their victories on positive display even in a fictional context.”

So now we know what the next “24” is going to be when TPTB start conflating fiction with reality.  Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Niskayuna, NY:

It’s easy to be depressed about America these days. We’ve got messes aplenty abroad and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is totally paralyzed. Indeed, the G.O.P.-led House has become a small-minded, parochial place, where collaboration is considered treason, where science is considered a matter of opinion, where immigration is considered a threat, where every solution is a suboptimal compromise enacted at midnight and where every day we see proof of the theory that America is a country that was “designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots.”

Fortunately, there is another, still “exceptional,” American reality out there. (I am talking to you, Putin.)

It’s best found at the research centers of any global American company. These centers are places where scientists and engineers from dozens of nationalities are using collaboration and crowd-sourcing to push out the boundaries of medical, manufacturing and material sciences, where possibilities seem infinite, where optimal is the norm and where every day begins by people asking: “What world are we living in, and how do we thrive in that world?” As opposed to: “Here is my crazy ideology, and the world will have to bend to it because I’ve got a donor in Vegas who will fund it and a gerrymandered district back home that will endorse it.”

Just to get a jolt of that optimism, and a chance to focus on what we should be talking about, I asked General Electric for a tour of its huge research lab here in Niskayuna, north of Albany. I wanted to see what new technologies, and therefore business models — and therefore jobs — it might be spawning that public policy, and education policy, might enhance. I have no idea whether or how G.E. will profit from any of these breakthroughs, but I saw the outlines there of three radically new business trends that the United States should want to dominate.

The first derives from a phrase tossed off in passing by Luana Iorio, who oversees G.E.’s research on three-dimensional printing: “Complexity is free,” she told me. That is actually a very big statement.

In the old days, explained Iorio, when G.E. wanted to build a jet engine part, a designer would have to design the product, then G.E. would have to build the machine tools to make a prototype of that part, which could take up to a year, and then it would manufacture the part and test it, with each test iteration taking a few months. The whole process, said Iorio, often took “two years from when you first had the idea for some of our complex components.”

Today, said Iorio, engineers using three-dimensional, computer-aided design software now design the part on a computer screen. Then they transmit it to a 3-D printer, which is filled with a fine metal powder and a laser device that literally builds or “prints,” the piece out of the metal powder before your eyes, to the exact specifications. Then, you immediately test it — four, five, six times in a day — and when it is just right you have your new part. To be sure, some complex parts require more time, but this is the future. That’s what she means by complexity is free.

“The feedback loop is so short now,” explained Iorio, that “in a couple days you can have a concept, the design of the part, you get it made, you get it back and test whether it is valid” and “within a week you have it produced. … It is getting us both better performance and speed.”

In the past, performance worked against speed: the more tests you did to get that optimal performance, the longer it took. When complexity is free, the design-to-test-to-refine-to-manufacture process for some components is being reduced from two years to a week.

There is a parallel revolution in innovation. When G.E. is looking to invent a new product, it first assembles its own best engineers from India, China, Israel and the U.S. But now it is also supplementing them by running “contests” to stimulate the best minds anywhere to participate in G.E.’s innovations.

Example: There are parts of an aircraft engine — hangers, brackets, etc. — that are not key to the engine, but they keep it attached and add weight, which means higher fuel costs. So G.E. recently took one bracket — described the conditions under which it worked and the particular function it performed — and posted it online under the “The G.E. Engine Bracket Challenge.” The company offered a reward to anyone in the world who could design that component with less weight, using 3-D printing.

“We advertised it in June,” said Iorio. Within weeks, “we got 697 entries from all over the world” from “companies, individuals, graduate students and designers.” G.E.’s engineers culled out the top 10, and they are now being tested to determine which is the lightest that conforms to G.E.’s specs and can be built on its printers. I saw one prototype that was 80 percent lighter than the older version. The winning prize pool is $20,000, spread out across 8 finalists, with awards ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 each. A majority of entries came from people outside the aviation industry.

Lastly, we are on the cusp of what G.E. calls “the Industrial Internet” or the “Internet of Things” — meaning that every major part of a G.E. jet engine, locomotive or turbine is now equipped with online sensors that constantly measure and broadcast every aspect of performance. Computers capture all this big data and use it to improve everything from the flight path to energy efficiency.

“We used to do monitoring and diagnostics,” said Mark Little, the director of G.E. global research: “We had sensors on a gas turbine. If something happened in your system, we could say: ‘You have an overtemperature on the backend, and here is how to fix it.’ And now we are using all this data to do prognostics. We are reading the signals and telling you something that will happen. You can proactively respond to it, and it affects reliability and productivity.” With all this data, G.E. is developing new service businesses that offer not just to manage an airline’s or railroad’s engines, but how fast all its planes or trains go, how flight and train schedules are coordinated and even how its equipment is parked to get optimal performance and energy efficiency.

With this diffusion of sensors, says Beth Comstock, G.E.’s chief marketing officer, a company can assemble data so much more accurately to “observe performance, predict performance and change performance” so there is “no unplanned downtime.” It can make an airline or railroad or power plant so much more “sustainable,” in both senses of that word.

Watch this space, even if Washington doesn’t: When everything and everyone becomes connected, and complexity is free and innovation is both dirt-cheap and can come from anywhere, the world of work changes.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof, telling us why we should rain down hell on the Syrians:

Columny is often a kind of dodge ball, in which we avoid counterarguments and bluster past contrary views. So, since I’ve obviously offended many readers by supporting missile strikes on Syria if it doesn’t give up chemical weapons, let me try to confront directly your objections.

Our schools are failing. Head Start is being cut back. Our roads and bridges need repairs. And you want to pour billions of dollars into blowing up Syria? What a misuse of resources!

That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq: For the cost of a single soldier in Afghanistan for a year, we could have built 20 schools. But Syria seems different.

A missile strike on Syrian military targets would result in no supplemental budget, so money would come from the existing military pot. In any case, the cost of 100 missiles would be about $70 million — far less than the $1 billion annual rate that we’re now spending on humanitarian aid for Syrians displaced by worsening war and by gas attacks.

If a $70 million strike deters further gas attacks and reduces the ability of President Bashar al-Assad to bomb civilians, that might actually save us money in humanitarian spending. All this is uncertain, but the bottom line is that the financial cost of a strike isn’t a reason to acquiesce in mass murder in Syria.

So you want to reduce Syrian suffering by bombing Syrians? Seriously?

Syrians worry about American missiles going astray, but they prefer that risk to being endlessly bombed and gassed with impunity by the regime. That’s why it’s Syrians, led by the Syrian government in exile, who are pleading for American airstrikes.

“These people are being bombed every day anyway by their own government,” Amal Hanano, a Syrian-American woman who uses that pseudonym for security reasons, told me in a Skype interview. “People want the Syrian air force destroyed.”

“This is the complete opposite of Iraq,” she added.

I’ve seen that video of a rebel eating a prisoner’s heart. It’s not just Syria’s rulers who are monsters, but also the opposition.

That seems to be a false equivalency. Sure, some of the rebels are vile, but human rights monitors find far more atrocities committed by government forces.

Likewise, Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias have gained strength because they receive funding and weapons from Gulf countries, while, until recently, we provided no arms to moderate rebels.

“If we see an Assad fighter plane overhead and there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll hit it, we don’t strike,” a secular rebel told the independent Web site Syria Deeply. “We can’t afford the ammunition. The Islamist brigades will take a shot at anything. They have more than enough supplies.”

We get involved in these messes, and we always regret it. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam.

Or look at Rwanda: President Clinton says one of his biggest regrets is not getting involved and stopping that genocide in 1994. In that case, Western forces evacuated a dog from the French Embassy, but left behind the Rwandan staff to be slaughtered. That wasn’t “restraint.” That was passivity and myopia, and it was wrong.

Conversely, in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mali, Ivory Coast, there’s general agreement that the West was right to intervene militarily to avert mass atrocities. The point is that either side can cherry pick examples of successes or failures, and there are also some that fall in-between. But, over all, I’d say that there are more successful humanitarian interventions than failures.

So Assad presides over the killing of 100,000 people, and we sit on our hands. Then the regime releases sarin, and we bomb? Isn’t the message to tyrants that when you slaughter your citizens, just don’t offend our sensibilities by using gas?

Yes, and that troubles me. We should have stood up to the butchery in Syria earlier — not to mention the killings in Darfur and elsewhere.

That said, chemical weapons are special because they are so indiscriminate, with the Aug. 21 sarin attack perhaps the most lethal evening in the entire Syrian war. And while there is plenty of hypocrisy and inconsistency in the air, it’s better to inconsistently confront one cause of suffering than to consistently acquiesce in them all.

Get a life! You’re a broken record on Syria, and no one agrees with you.

I’m passionate on this because there’s a crucial principle at stake about the need to stand up to genocide or mass atrocities where it is feasible.

I understand that Syria is a hard case, with uncertain consequences. But if we are broadly retreating from the principle of humanitarian intervention to avert mass atrocities because of compassion fatigue in a tumultuous and ungrateful world, then we’re landing on the wrong side of history, and some day we will look back in shame.

Finally we get to Mr. Bruni:

In the feverish debate about a strike against Syria, there was a phrase that rankled, a shorthand that shortchanged the potential consequences and costs of military engagement.

“Boots on the ground.” It’s what the Obama administration told us that we needn’t worry about. It’s what lawmakers and pundits said that voters could never abide.

No “boots on the ground.” Definitely not “boots on the ground.” It was as if we were talking about footwear: rest assured, folks, wingtips and Birkenstocks are out of the question. But we were talking about lives, about American servicemen and servicewomen, the kind who were dispatched for dubious reasons to Iraq and less dubious ones to Afghanistan, some of whom didn’t come back, some of whom will never be the same.

We’re not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstractions, not just “boots on the ground” but the shopworn observation, divorced from any detail, that Americans are “tired of war,” as if it’s a wearying chore, something that fatigues a country rather than something that rips families and communities apart, sucking their loved ones in and spitting them back out in coffins, on respirators, with missing pieces, with scrambled minds.

As last week ended, the possibility of bombing Syria seemed to recede. But before that happened, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were promising that any military action we might take would be limited to the air and would be at once a definitive deterrent and “unbelievably small,” in Kerry’s words. That paradoxical notion spoke volumes about the administration’s confused and confusing approach.

And that assurance underscored a different, unspoken reality: that to strike a blow is to light a fuse. You just don’t know. You can’t predict the moment or the shape of the explosion, and you can’t guess the size of the temptation to follow it up with just one more maneuver, one additional push. My fellow Americans, we’ve gone this far. We must seal the deal by going a little farther still.

And that’s why we should have been weighing, and should still weigh, some numbers in addition to those cited by the president in his address to the nation last Tuesday night. He mentioned the galling statistic that more than 100,000 people had been killed in the last two years of civil war in Syria. More than 1,000 of them, he said, had perished in the gas attack that prompted our current debate about whether to hit certain Syrian targets.

Here are some other relevant figures. Our country sent more than two million men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 6,500 of them are dead. Tens of thousands were physically injured, including some 1,500 amputees. Iraq and Afghanistan were minefields, literally and metaphorically, rife with improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s. They were easy places to lose a limb.

Of the two-million-plus Americans who spent time there, “studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes David Finkel in his beautiful and heartbreaking new book, “Thank You for Your Service,” which was excerpted in The New Yorker recently and will be published next month. “Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.”

Pause here for a few seconds. Take that in. Half a million Americans carry around a darkness they didn’t used to, because when our country went to war, they, unlike most of us, actually had to go.

“How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place?” Finkel asks in his book. That’s an essential question, not just in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan but in relation to our current crossroads and all that we need to take into consideration when deliberating war.

There’s the financial strain of military engagement. There’s the wrath of nations that disapprove of it and the possible repercussion from terrorists. With Syria, each of these has been discussed.

But there’s also a worst-case scenario of a point, down the line, when things get messier than we ever meant them to and when there’s a call for something more than aerial bombardment, for the presence — and the sacrifice — of American servicemen and servicewomen. And “boots on the ground” isn’t adequate acknowledgment of this.

“Thank You for Your Service” is. Together with its masterful prequel, “The Good Soldiers,” it measures the wages of the war in Iraq — the wages of war, period — as well as anything I’ve read.

For “The Good Soldiers,” Finkel embedded himself so deep in a battalion that he could evoke the blood, sweat and dread of the men around him. For “Thank You for Your Service,” he followed some of those men home, and got inside their therapy sessions, their homes, their heads. He chronicled all the pills they were taking to try to medicate themselves back into some semblance of normalcy. He chronicled the silences they fell into because they weren’t sure what to say.

He atones for our scant attention by paying meticulous heed. And he reminds us that it’s not just the warriors who suffer; it’s the family members who muddle on without them or who struggle to put them back together.

One of the people he follows closely in the book is a widow, Amanda Doster, whose friends, he writes, “began to lose patience with her inability to stop being so relentlessly heartbroken.” When she packs up the house that she and her dead husband shared, the very last thing she grabs, from a counter, is the wooden box with his ashes, and when she puts it in the car, she “buckles him in,” as if it’s not too late to try to protect him.

I mention Finkel and his books not just because they’re so gorgeously written, but because they fill in crucial gaps for the many Americans who have opinions about Syria but no firsthand experience of war.

The way that we can best thank our good soldiers for their service is to keep in mind, whenever contemplating the next military engagement, the ravages of the last one. To remember that there are spouses passionately loved, parents sorely needed, sons and daughters fiercely cherished in all of those pairs of boots.

Keller and Krugman

September 9, 2013

Keller is back, and he’s got a question.  In “Our New Isolationism” he asks it:  How does a president sell foreign involvement to a gun-shy public?  Apparently he thinks that if you oppose raining down hell on the Syrians you’re an isolationist.  Prof. Krugman, in “The Wonk Gap,” says what the G.O.P. doesn’t know can hurt us.  It’s not just that they don’t know, Paul, it’s that they refuse to learn or consider anything different.  Here’s Keller:

The United States has just spent thousands of American lives in a distant land for a victory that now seems hollow, if indeed it can be called a victory at all. Our own country, moreover, is emerging from a recession, dispirited and self-absorbed, worried about the fragility of the recovery and the state of our democracy. Idealism is in short supply. So, as another far-off war worsens, Americans are loath to take sides, even against a merciless dictator, even to the extent of sending weapons. The voices opposed to getting involved range from the pacifist left to the populist right. The president, fearful that foreign conflict will undermine his domestic agenda, vacillates.

This is the United States in 1940. Sound a little familiar?

I’ve been reading two engrossing new histories of that time — “Those Angry Days” by Lynne Olson and “1940” by Susan Dunn — both focused on the ferocious and now largely forgotten resistance Franklin D. Roosevelt had to navigate in order to stand with our allies against Hitler.

Of course, 2013 is not 1940. The Middle East is not Europe. President Obama is not F.D.R. But America is again in a deep isolationist mood. As a wary Congress returns from its summer recess to debate Syria, as President Obama prepares to address the nation, it is instructive to throw the two periods up on the screen and examine them for lessons. How does a president sell foreign engagement to a public that wants none of it?

The cliché of the season is that Americans are war-weary from our long slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is true, but not the whole story. To be sure, nothing has done more to discredit an activist foreign policy than the blind missionary arrogance of the Bush administration. But the isolationist temper is not just about the legacy of Iraq. Economic troubles and political dysfunction have contributed to a loss of confidence. Add to the mix a surge of xenophobia, with its calls for higher fences and big-brotherly attention to the danger within. (These anxieties also helped give rise to the expanding surveillance state, just as nativism in that earlier period gave license to J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive eavesdropping.)

Isolationism is strong in the Tea Party, where mistrust of executive power is profound and where being able to see Russia from your front yard counts as mastery of international affairs. But sophisticated readers of The New York Times are not immune, or so it seems from the comments that arrive when I write in defense of a more assertive foreign policy. (In recent columns I’ve advocated calibrated intervention to shift the balance in Syria’s civil war and using foreign aid to encourage democracy in Egypt.) Not our problems, many readers tell me.

Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home).

“We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury,” proclaimed Representative Alan Grayson, a progressive Florida Democrat, reciting favorite isolationist excuses for doing nothing. “Our own needs in America are great, and they come first.”

At the margins, at least, isolationists suspect that our foreign policy is being manipulated by outside forces. In 1940, as Olson’s book documents, anti-interventionists deplored the cunning British “plutocrats” and “imperialists,” who had lured us into the blood bath of World War I and now wanted to goad us into another one. In 2013, it is supposedly the Israelis duping us into fighting their battles.

Many pro-Israel and Jewish groups last week endorsed an attack on Syria, but only after agonizing about a likely backlash. And, sure enough, the first comment posted on The Washington Post version of this story was, “So how many Americans will die for Israel this time around?” This is tame stuff compared with 1940, when isolationism was shot through with shockingly overt anti-Semitism, not least in the rhetoric of the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Both Lynne Olson and Susan Dunn, in interviews, were wary of pushing the analogy too far. The Middle East, they point out, is far murkier, far less familiar.

“In 1940 everything was black and white — there was no gray,” Dunn told me. “On one side, Adolf Hitler and ruthless, barbaric warfare; on the other side, democracy, humanism, morality and world civilization itself.” Yes, at least so it seems in hindsight, but the choice was not so clear in 1940. Both books offer copious examples of serious, thoughtful people who had real doubts about whether Hitler was a threat worth fighting: cabinet members and generals, newspaper publishers and business leaders. At Yale, Dunn reports, an antiwar student movement that included such future luminaries as Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver drafted a petition demanding “that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”

Olson told me she was startled to hear Secretary of State John Kerry inveighing against “armchair isolationism” last week in his testimony on Syria. “I think to be skeptical now does not mean you’re an isolationist,” said Olson, who is herself skeptical about taking sides in Syria. “It’s become a dirty word.”

Fair enough. But can we dial down the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism and conduct a serious discussion of our interests and our alternatives in Syria and the tumultuous region around it?

The event that ultimately swept the earlier isolationists off the board was, of course, Pearl Harbor. But even before the Japanese attack the public reluctance was gradually giving way, allowing the delivery of destroyers to the British, the Lend-Lease program, a precautionary weapons buildup and the beginning of military conscription.

One factor that moved public opinion toward intervention was the brazenness of Hitler’s menace; Americans who had never given a thought to the Sudetenland were stunned to see Nazis parading into Paris.

Another was a robust debate across the country that ultimately transcended partisanship and prejudice.

Most historians and popular memory credit Roosevelt’s leadership for the country’s change of heart, but Olson points out that for much of that period Roosevelt was — to borrow a contemporary phrase — leading from behind. He campaigned in 1936 on a pledge to “shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars” and to seek to “isolate ourselves completely from war.” It was a vow he renewed repeatedly as Hitler conquered country after country: there would be no American boots on the ground.

Olson argues that while Roosevelt resolved early to send aid to Britain, it is not at all clear that he would have taken America into the war if it had not been forced upon him by Pearl Harbor. But by December 1941, she writes, “the American people had been thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of their country’s entry into the conflict and were far less opposed to the idea of going to war than conventional wisdom has it.”

“Obviously we got into it because of Pearl Harbor, but that debate made a crucial difference,” Olson told me. “And I think that is what’s called for now.”

Congress in recent years has not won much respect as an arena of policy debate, but it was heartening last week to hear leaders of both parties moving a little beyond petty obstructionism and bitter partisanship and inviting a serious discussion.

I hope that Congress can elicit from the president this week a clear and candid statement of America’s vital interests in Syria, and a strategy that looks beyond the moment. I hope the president can persuade Congress that the U.S. still has an important role to play in the world, and that sometimes you have to put some spine in your diplomacy. And I hope Americans will listen with an open mind.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

On Saturday, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming delivered the weekly Republican address. He ignored Syria, presumably because his party is deeply conflicted on the issue. (For the record, so am I.) Instead, he demanded repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “The health care law,” he declared, “has proven to be unpopular, unworkable and unaffordable,” and he predicted “sticker shock” in the months ahead.

So, another week, another denunciation of Obamacare. Who cares? But Mr. Barrasso’s remarks were actually interesting, although not in the way he intended. You see, all the recent news on health costs has been good. So Mr. Barrasso is predicting sticker shock precisely when serious fears of such a shock are fading fast. Why would he do that?

Well, one likely answer is that he hasn’t heard any of the good news. Think about it: Who would tell him?

My guess, in other words, was that Mr. Barrasso was inadvertently illustrating the widening “wonk gap” — the G.O.P.’s near-complete lack of expertise on anything substantive. Health care is the most prominent example, but the dumbing down extends across the spectrum, from budget issues to national security to poll analysis. Remember, Mitt Romney and much of his party went into Election Day expecting victory.

About health reform: Mr. Barrasso was wrong about everything, even the “unpopular” bit, as I’ll explain in a minute. Mainly, however, he was completely missing the story on affordability.

For the truth is that the good news on costs just keeps coming in. There has been a striking slowdown in overall health costs since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, with many experts giving the law at least partial credit. And we now have a good idea what insurance premiums will be once the law goes fully into effect; a comprehensive survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that on average premiums will be significantly lower than those predicted by the Congressional Budget Office when the law was passed.

But do Republican politicians know any of this? Not if they’re listening to conservative “experts,” who have been offering a steady stream of misinformation. All those claims about sticker shock, for example, come from obviously misleading comparisons. For example, supposed experts compare average insurance rates under the new system, which will cover everyone, with the rates currently paid by a handful of young, healthy people for bare-bones insurance. And they conveniently ignore the subsidies many Americans will receive.

At the same time, in an echo of the Romney camp’s polling fantasies, other conservative “experts” are creating false impressions about public opinion. Just after Kaiser released a poll showing a strong majority — 57 percent — opposed to the idea of defunding health reform, the Heritage Foundation put out a poster claiming that 57 percent of Americans want reform defunded. Did the experts at Heritage simply read the numbers upside down? No, they claimed, they were referring to some other poll. Whatever really happened, the practical effect was to delude the right-wing faithful.

And the point is that episodes like this have become the rule, not the exception, on the right. How many Republicans know, for example, that government employment has declined, not risen, under President Obama? Certainly Senator Rand Paul was incredulous when I pointed this out to him on TV last fall. On the contrary, he insisted, “the size of growth of government is enormous under President Obama” — which was completely untrue but was presumably what his sources had told him, knowing that it was what he wanted to hear.

For that, surely, is what the wonk gap is all about. Political conservatism and serious policy analysis can coexist, and there was a time when they did. Back in the 1980s, after all, health experts at Heritage made a good-faith effort to devise a plan for universal health coverage — and what they came up with was the system now known as Obamacare.

But that was then. Modern conservatism has become a sort of cult, very much given to conspiracy theorizing when confronted with inconvenient facts. Liberal policies were supposed to cause hyperinflation, so low measured inflation must reflect statistical fraud; the threat of climate change implies the need for public action, so global warming must be a gigantic scientific hoax. Oh, and Mitt Romney would have won if only he had been a real conservative.

It’s all kind of funny, in a way. Unfortunately, however, this runaway cult controls the House, which gives it immense destructive power — the power, for example, to wreak havoc on the economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And it’s disturbing to realize that this power rests in the hands of men who, thanks to the wonk gap, quite literally have no idea what they’re doing.