Archive for the ‘Nocera’ Category

Brooks and Nocera

August 25, 2015

Bobo’s gone off into pop-psych land again.  In “The Big Decisions” he gurgles that the  most important decisions in life should be based not on what we think we want, but on what or whom we admire.  In the comments “J Murphy” from Chicago had this to say:  “David Brooks speculates about having the chance to become a vampire. Immediately I think, what a strange wish. Considering myself a progressive, a liberal, it has never occurred to me that I might want to be a vampire. A vampire only takes, never gives. Vampires look for victims, not partners. Vampires want to live forever, since they don’t know how to enjoy the moment, the art, the sport, the love, the humanity. Vampirism is about control and fear and manipulation. Vampires operate in the dark, fear the light of day, and never reveal themselves for who or what they really are.  To paraphrase Bill Maher, not all Republicans are vampires, but if you’re a vampire looking for a party….”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Man Who Got China Right:”  How did a famed short-seller see troubles in China’s markets that no one else did?  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?

In her book “Transformative Experience,” L. A. Paul, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says life is filled with decisions that are a bit like this. Life is filled with forks in the road in which you end up changing who you are and what you want.

People who have a child suddenly become different. Joining the military is another transformational experience. So are marrying, changing careers, immigrating, switching religions.

In each of these cases the current you is trying to make an important decision, without having the chance to know what it will feel like to be the future you.

Paul’s point is that we’re fundamentally ignorant about many of the biggest choices of our lives and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”

The decision to have a child is the purest version of this choice. On average, people who have a child suffer a loss of reported well-being. They’re more exhausted and report lower life satisfaction. And yet few parents can imagine going back and being their old pre-parental selves. Parents are like self-fulfilled vampires. Their rich new lives would have seemed incomprehensible to their old childless selves.

So how do you make transformational decisions? You have to ask the right questions, Paul argues. Don’t ask, Will I like parenting? You can’t know. Instead, acknowledge that you, like all people, are born with an intense desire to know. Ask, Do I have a profound desire to discover what it would be like to be this new me, to experience this new mode of living?

As she puts it, “The best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.”

Live life as a series of revelations.

Personally, I think Paul’s description of the problem is ingenious but her solution is incomplete. Would you really trust yourself to raise and nurture a child simply on the basis of self-revelation? Curiosity is too thin, relativistic and ephemeral.

I’d say to really make these decisions well you need to step outside the modern conception of ourselves as cognitive creatures who are most sophisticated when we rely on rationality.

The most reliable decision-making guides are more “primitive.” We’re historical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, and there’s often a lot of wisdom in following those life scripts. We’re social creatures. Often we undertake big transformational challenges not because it fulfills our desires, but because it is good for our kind.

We’re mystical creatures. Often when people make a transformational choice they feel it less as a choice and more as a calling. They feel there was something that destined them to be with this spouse or in that vocation.

Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?

Our moral intuitions are more durable than our desires, based on a universal standard of right and wrong. The person who shoots for virtue will more reliably be happy with her new self, and will at least have a nice quality to help her cope with whatever comes.

Which brings us to the core social point. These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”

Now that we’ve survived that, here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the fall of 2009, Jim Chanos began to ask questions about the Chinese economy. What sparked his curiosity was the realization that commodity producers had been largely unaffected by the financial crisis; indeed, they had recorded big profits even as other sectors found themselves reeling in the aftermath of the crisis.

When he looked into why, he discovered that the critical factor was China’s voracious appetite for commodities: The Chinese, who had largely sidestepped the financial crisis themselves, were buying 40 percent of all copper exports; 50 percent of the available iron ore; and eye-popping quantities of just about everything else. That insight soon led Chanos to make an audacious call: China was in the midst of an unsustainable credit bubble.

Perhaps you remember Jim Chanos. The founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund that specializes in short-selling, Chanos was the first person to figure out, some 15 years ago, that Enron was a house of cards.

He shorted Enron stock — meaning that he would profit if the stock fell, rather than rose — and shared his suspicions with others, including my friend Bethany McLean, who wrote a story for Fortune that marked the beginning of the end for Enron. That call not only made Chanos a small fortune; it also made him famous.

Chanos and his crew at Kynikos don’t make big “macro” bets on economies; their style is more “micro”: looking at the fundamentals of individual companies or sectors. And so it was with China. “I’ll never forget the day in 2009 when my real estate guy was giving me a presentation and he said that China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, half residential and half commercial,” Chanos told me the other day.

“I said, ‘You must mean 5.6 billion square feet.’ ”

The man replied that he hadn’t misspoken; it really was 5.6 billion square meters, which amounted to over 60 billion square feet.

For Chanos, that is when the light bulb went on. The fast-growing Chinese economy was being sustained not just by its export prowess, but by a property bubble propelled by mountains of debt, and encouraged by the government as part of an infrastructure spending strategy designed to keep the economy humming. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China’s debt load today is an unfathomable $28 trillion.)

Chanos soon went public with his thesis, giving interviews to CNBC andCharlie Rose, and making a speech at Oxford University. He told Rose that property speculation in China was rampant, and that because so much of the economy depended on construction — in most cases building properties that had no chance of generating enough income to pay down the debt — China was on “the treadmill to hell.”

He also pointed out that much of the construction was for high-end condos that cost over $100,000, yet the average Chinese household made less than $10,000 a year.

Can you guess how the financial establishment, convinced that the Chinese juggernaut was unstoppable, reacted to Chanos’s contrarian thesis? It scoffed.

“I find it interesting that people who couldn’t spell China 10 years ago are now experts on China,” the well-known investor Jim Rogers told The New York Times. He added, “China is not in a bubble.”

The conventional view was that the Chinese economy would continue to grow at a rapid pace, and that Chinese officials, unencumbered by the messiness of democracy, could make quick adjustments if the economy started to slip.

Chanos was undeterred. “It reminded me of 1989, when everybody said that we should emulate the Japanese model,” he told me. “They used to say, ‘They can get stuff done and we can’t’ ” — just as the supposed experts were now saying about China.

As it turns out, China’s economy began to slow right around the time Chanos first made his call. No matter: Most China experts remained bullish. Chanos, meanwhile, was shorting the stocks of a number of companies that depended on the Chinese market. And he was regularly sending out emails when he came upon articles that seemed to confirm his thesis: stories about newly constructed ghost cities and troubled banks and debt-laden state-owned enterprises.

These days, with the markets in free-fall, it certainly looks like Chanos has been vindicated. China’s not the only reason the stock market has been so volatile, but it’s the most important one. China’s economy is faltering, its stock market is collapsing, and the ham-handed efforts by government officials to prop up both have mainly had the effect of disabusing anyone who still thinks the government can revive the economy with the snap of its fingers. This loss of confidence in China and its leaders has spooked stock markets around the world.

The moral of today’s story is a simple one. Listen to the skeptics and the contrarians. You dismiss them at your peril.

Nocera and Bruni

August 22, 2015

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Way:”  Is the company’s culture one of a kind, or a sign of the workplace of the future?  In “Gay and Marked for Death” Mr. Bruni says it’s  time for enlightened countries to address a human-rights chasm.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

The best thing about Jeff Bezos, the founder, chairman, president and chief executive of Amazon, is that he doesn’t give a hoot what anybody else thinks. The worst thing about Jeff Bezos is that he doesn’t give a hoot what anybody else thinks.

Practically from the moment Amazon went public in 1997, Wall Street has pleaded with Bezos to generate more profits. He has ignored those pleas, and has plowed potential profits back into the company. Bezos believes that if Amazon puts the needs of its customers first — and no company is more maniacally focused on customers — the stock will take care of itself. That’s exactly what has happened. That is the good side of Bezos’s indifference to the opinion of others.

The bad side is the way he and his company treat employees. In 2011, the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call published an eye-opening series documenting how Amazon treated the workers at its warehouses. The newspaper reported that workers “were pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster until they were terminated, they quit or they got injured.”

The most shocking revelation was that the warehouses lacked air-conditioning, and that during heat waves, the company “arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside” to revive workers who were overcome by the heat. “I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” said one worker. (After the exposé, Amazon installed air-conditioning in its warehouses.)

Last weekend, a lengthy front-page story in The New York Times examined how Amazon treats its Seattle-based white-collar employees. Although they have air-conditioning — and make good money, including stock options — the white-collar workers also appear to be pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster.

In the cutthroat culture described by The Times’s Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, a certain percentage of workers are culled every year. It’s an enormously adversarial place. Employees who face difficult life moments, such as dealing with a serious illness, are offered not empathy and time off but rebukes that they are not focused enough on work. A normal workweek is 80 to 85 hours, in an unrelenting pressure-cooker atmosphere.

Until last weekend, Bezos was unapologetic about the Darwinian work culture he created. “It’s not easy to work here,” he wrote in an early letter to shareholders.

According to “The Everything Store,” a fine history of Amazon by Brad Stone of Bloomberg Businessweek, Bezos liked to say that he didn’t want the company to become “a country club” where people went “to retire.” His point of reference was Seattle’s other tech behemoth, Microsoft, which devolved from a ruthless predator to a sluggish bureaucracy. That is exactly what Bezos doesn’t want to happen to Amazon. He wants it to always have the feel of a start-up, where the work pace is frantic and the pressure intense.

And you know something? Give him his due: It has worked remarkably well.

It’s worth remembering that Amazon is a first-generation Internet company; its peers, including Yahoo and AOL, are a shell of their former selves, even as Amazon has become ever-more important and powerful. Some of Bezos’s tenets — such as the importance of openly disagreeing, rather than smoothing things over — seem admirable. Everybody at Amazon is highly competent; the company doesn’t tolerate deadwood.

Even when Bezos sent around an email last weekend about the Times story, he didn’t exactly apologize. He said that he didn’t recognize the Amazon The Times wrote about, and that some of the incidents were so callous they should have been reported to the human resources department. But he didn’t say they weren’t true. That’s because they are true.

The real issue Amazon’s work culture raises — for blue- and white-collar employees alike — is: How disposable are people?Now

A previous generation of Americans could count on a social compact; if you stuck loyally by a company, it would stick by you, providing you with a good job and a decent retirement. Long ago, loyalty fell by the wayside, and longtime employees learned that their loyalty meant nothing when companies “downsized.”

Amazon — and, to be sure, any number of other companies as well — has taken this idea to its logical extreme: Bring people in, shape them in the Amazon style of confrontation and workaholism, and cast them aside when they have outlived their usefulness.

For a data-driven executive like Bezos, this kind of culture is appealing, because it maximizes the amount of work a company can wring from fundamentally fungible human beings. The question Amazon’s culture raises is whether it is an outlier — or whether it represents the future of the workplace.

Of course, Bezos didn’t have to build Amazon the way he did. He could have created a culture that valued employees and treated them well. But that would have required him to care about what somebody else thought. Fat chance.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

As he tried to concentrate on his final college exams, he couldn’t erase the terrifying images in his head, an endless replay of a video he’d seen. It showed two men being killed — their necks noosed, their bodies dragged through the streets and set on fire.

They had burned, he told me, because they were gay.

Just like him.

Islamic extremism was sweeping through Iraq, and terror coursed through his veins. It became unbearable when, in mid-2014, the Islamic State seized control of the city where he lived. He fled, traveling furtively across Iraq for nearly a month, looking for a point of exit, finally finding one and boarding a flight to a city in the Middle East where he wouldn’t be in danger.

“The greatest moment of my life was stepping on that plane,” said the man, in his mid-20s, who asked that I not use his name or any identifying details, lest harm come to family members back in Iraq. “I was able to breathe again. I hadn’t been breathing.”

On Monday, he will tell his story at a special United Nations Security Council meeting on L.G.B.T. rights. American officials involved in it arranged for me to talk with him in advance by phone.

Although Monday’s discussion isn’t a formal one that Security Council members are required to attend, it’s nonetheless the first time that the council has held a meeting of any kind that’s dedicated to the persecution of L.G.B.T. people, according to Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

And it’s an example, she told me, of a determined push by the United States and other countries to integrate L.G.B.T. rights into all discussions of human rights by international bodies like the U.N.

“We’re trying to get it into the DNA so that when you’re talking about minorities or vulnerable groups, you would always have L.G.B.T. people included,” Power said.

There has been a commendable acceleration of that effort since September 2011, when Barack Obama, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, unsettled many in the audience by declaring: “We must stand up for the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.” Power, who was present for those remarks, said that she was near enough to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, to hear him mutter: “My God.”

There have also been enormous victories for L.G.B.T. people in nations as different as Nepal and Malta over the last few years. This year alone, a popular referendum legalized same-sex marriage in Ireland and a Supreme Court decision did so in the United States.

But, Power noted, “Unfortunately, internationally, those trends are not being paralleled in very large swaths of the world.” This divide is becoming ever starker, creating new diplomatic tensions, challenges and responsibilities for countries like the United States.

I can’t recall any foreign trip by a president that prompted as much discussion of gay rights as Obama’s to Kenya, where homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Obama confronted that harsh reality head-on.

“The state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” he said at a news conference with the Kenyan president, going on to add: “The idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong. Full stop.”

Our own country can’t wholly congratulate itself. Federal legislation to outlaw employment discrimination based on sexual orientation has languished for many years.

But American officials were among those who pushed back successfully earlier this year when Russia fought to overturn a policy to grant benefits to the same-sex spouses of U.N. employees.

“L.G.B.T. rights have become one of the most controversial dimensions — one of the most controversial tests — of the universality of human rights,” noted Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. She, too, will speak at the meeting on Monday.

She shared with me her group’s timeline of killings of gay men that the Islamic State has publicized, sometimes with gruesome photos. It’s a bloodcurdling document, recounting 30 executions for sodomy, though the commission is careful to stress that it cannot authenticate each incident and that the count is almost certainly not comprehensive.

Many men were reportedly thrown off roofs. Others were stoned. One was stoned after the fall from a roof didn’t kill him — to finish the job.

The Iraqi refugee I interviewed told me that on social media earlier this year, he saw images of a rooftop execution and learned later that the victim — unrecognizable because he was blindfolded and shown mostly from behind — was a friend of his who hadn’t left Iraq.

The Security Council meeting, which the United States is co-hosting with Chile, will focus on the Islamic State’s brutality against gays as a way of getting countries who might not be sensitive to the plight of gays, but who have profound concerns about the Islamic State, to pay attention.

Even so, there’s no telling whether such Security Council members as Chad, Angola, Nigeria, Russia and China will send high-level representatives or any representatives at all. The meeting is also open to countries that aren’t on the council, but it’s closed to the public and members of the news media.

Power said that it’s vital that the Islamic State’s treatment of gays not be omitted from discussions of its atrocities against other vulnerable groups.

And that’s partly because the terror felt by gays in areas controlled by the Islamic State is an extreme form of their victimization in far too many other places. It’s a summons to action for enlightened countries that could open their arms wider to L.G.B.T. refugees.

They need to recognize gay people like Subhi Nahas, 28, who will also speak at the meeting.

A little over three years ago he was still living in Syria. His town was taken over by the Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda. It announced that it would cleanse the town of people who had engaged in sodomy, he said. Men suspected of being gay were rounded up.

He hid in his home.

After a few months he escaped to an L.G.B.T. safe house in Lebanon. He’s now in San Francisco, where he works for the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and struggles to make sense of the barbarism in Syria and why gay people should be special targets of it.

“If I did not get out, I’d be dead by now,” he told me. Knowing that, he said: “Even here, in the safest place I can think of, I still sometimes don’t feel safe.”

Cohen and Nocera

August 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Gunga Din Mr. Cohen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It banned snus.

Nocera, solo

August 15, 2015

In “Bank of America Stiffs Shareholders” Mr. Nocera says that for  a while, bank officials accepted a binding resolution forced upon them. Then the board acted on its own, until the shareholders revolted.  Here he is:

The year 2009 was rough for the Bank of America and its chairman and chief executive, Ken Lewis. On Jan. 1, the bank closed its $50 billion purchase of Merrill Lynch, a deal Lewis had hastily negotiated the previous September, as the financial world appeared close to collapse.

Just weeks later, it all came a cropper, after Bank of America revealed, shockingly, that its new unit had lost more than $15 billion during the fourth quarter of 2008. That bank had to ask the government to backstop $118 billion in Merrill’s toxic assets, and to provide it $20 billion in additional capital. The stock dropped below $7 a share from over $33.

Furious shareholders sued. But they also did something else: Led by the Service Employees International Union and Finger Interests, a Houston hedge fund, shareholders offered a binding resolution at the annual meeting calling for Lewis to step down from his role as board chairman. The idea was that having separate people serve as C.E.O. and chairman would provide additional board oversight.

The resolution narrowly passed. Several participants have since told me that they believe it’s the only example of shareholders passing a binding resolution over a board’s objection.

Fast forward to last October. Without question, Bank of America has come a long way since those dark days. Under Brian Moynihan, who has been the chief executive — but not the chairman! — since 2010, the company has “reduced leverage, rebuilt its capital and simplified its business,” according to Jonathan Finger, comanaging partner of Finger Interests, which remains a shareholder. But the bank has also had trouble passing the Federal Reserve’s “stress tests,” had a $4 billion accounting error in 2014, and its stock has underperformed its banking industry peers.

Thus for all its improvement, the evidence suggests that the bank still needs the kind of rigorous oversight that an independent board — with an independent chairman — is supposed to provide. Yet, in October, without informing shareholders, the board decided to remove the provision in its bylaws splitting the roles, and anoint Moynihan chairman as well as C.E.O.

When they discovered what had happened, shareholders and corporate governance experts were, once again, outraged. “What hubris!” exclaimed Finger. Institutional Shareholder Services, an influential proxy advisory firm, urged shareholders to vote against the members of the board’s governance committee.

Barraged by shareholder criticism, the board announced just before its annual meeting that it would set up a special meeting to allow shareholders to vote on whether to give the board, as the bank put it, the “flexibility” to split or combine the roles, as it sees fit.

The most vocal critic of the board’s move has been Mike Mayo, an outspoken bank analyst at CLSA. He was especially scornful of a Securities and Exchange Commission filing the bank made late last month in support of the board’s move. It touted Moynihan’s “unparalleled depth of understanding,” and as proof, pointed to the $11.7 billion Bank of America earned “in the three quarters ending June 30, 2015.” (There was no mention of the $4 billion accounting error.)

“The gushing is like a teen magazine,” Mayo said. “This is supposed to be a regulatory filing.” In addition, he complained that using three quarters of a year as a benchmark was an example of the bank’s “cherry-picking data to make itself look good. It does that all the time,” he said. Mayo’s conclusion was that the document itself proved that Bank of America needed more board oversight, not less. Handing the chairman’s role to the chief executive was an example of the board “rolling over” for Moynihan instead of holding his feet to the fire.

I should note that Bank of America’s relationship with Mayo is contentious; it essentially believes he has been consistently wrong in his nonstop criticism of the bank. (He is one of the only analysts who has a “sell” recommendation on the stock, for instance.)

It also says that its decision to remove the bylaws provision was prompted by necessity; last October its chairman needed to resign quickly, and Moynihan, in the board’s opinion, was the best candidate to fill the role. In failing to inform shareholders, the board misread the situation, the bank acknowledges. It is now trying to rectify its error with the special meeting, set for Sept. 22.

To my mind, the core issue is not whether the bank is well or poorly run, or whether Mayo is right or wrong about the stock. It is the contempt the Bank of America board showed for its shareholders in quietly amending the bylaw — a contempt too often shown by boards that are supposed to protect shareholders, not defy them.

What the bank’s board did last October is not the biggest scandal ever; I know that. Instead, it’s the kind of small, corrosive scandal that too often marks the behavior of the modern company board.

Nocera, solo

August 11, 2015

Mr. Nocera addresses the “N.F.L.’s Bogus Settlement for Brain-Damaged Former Players” and says that a deal to resolve a lawsuit by retired athletes wouldn’t have helped Junior Seau or others with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  Here he is:

Thanks to the ham-handedness of the National Football League’s Hall of Fame, the inane “deflategate” scandal, which has been the dominant N.F.L. headline this off-season, was pushed to the sidelines this weekend and replaced by a genuinely important issue facing the country’s dominant sports league and its players. That issue is the serious cognitive impairment that appears to affect so many former professional football players.

The embodiment of that impairment was Junior Seau, the perennial All-Pro linebacker who was inducted, posthumously, into the Hall of Fame on Saturday. Three years ago, Seau committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He was 43 years old and had been retired from pro football for only three years.

His brain became part of a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, which concluded that he had a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. This neurodegenerative disease, which scientists believe can cause depression, anger, loss of impulse control and poor decision-making, among other things, has been found in the brains of many deceased N.F.L. players. Scientists like those at Boston University’s CTE Center, who are studying the condition, believe that repeated hits to the head can cause C.T.E.

Because the Hall of Fame passed a rule in 2010 that forbids relatives of deceased inductees to speak at the annual induction ceremony — gee, I wonder why? — Seau’s daughter, Sydney, was barred from making an eloquent speech she had prepared about her father. (In a compromise, she was “interviewed” on stage during the ceremony, where she was ultimately able to to give a short version of it.)

Although Sydney Seau didn’t mention her father’s C.T.E. in her remarks, she didn’t have to; reporters covering the controversy did it for her. C.T.E. was also at the heart of a legal battle between the N.F.L. and former players, who claimed in a class-action lawsuit that “the N.F.L. held itself out as the guardian and authority on the issue of player safety,” yet failed to properly investigate, warn of and revise league rules to minimize the risk of concussions.

In April, Judge Anita Brody of Federal District Court approved a settlementof the lawsuit. Although the settlement could put an estimated $1 billion or so in the hands of former players who are suffering from dementia and other brain diseases — money that many of them desperately need — the deal has been controversial. Some 200 players have opted out and hope to bring their own lawsuits against the N.F.L. Lawyers for other former players are appealing the settlement, arguing that it doesn’t do nearly enough for players with damaged brains.

And you know what? They’re right. The Junior Seau-Hall of Fame imbroglio prompted me to take a closer look at the settlement. One of the things I learned was that if Junior Seau were alive today, he would more than likely not be eligible for compensation: Although he obviously had C.T.E., his symptoms of erratic behavior and depression aren’t covered by the settlement.

The settlement will help former players who have dementia and Alzheimer’s get compensation, though the older they are, and the fewer years they played in the league, the less money they will get. But those with C.T.E., which seems to be the primary way playing football damages the brain? Not so much. The settlement, to be blunt, is a travesty.

In her lengthy decision approving the settlement, Judge Brody defended this aspect of the deal by saying that retired players “cannot be compensated for C.T.E. in life because no diagnostic or clinical profile of C.T.E. exists, and the symptoms of the disease, if any, are unknown.”

But Robert Stern, one of the scientists at the Boston University center, told me that he expected a test to be developed within a decade that will be able to diagnose C.T.E. in living people. As for symptoms, the real problem is that plenty of people suffer from lost impulse control and depression without having C.T.E. Even so, the primary symptoms the settlement will reward financially are those that suggest cognitive impairment, rather than the behavioral and mood symptoms of C.T.E.

“At a minimum,” said Stern, “former players whose behavior changes in ways that suggest C.T.E. should have full evaluations paid for by the settlement. And treatment would be nice, too.”

It’s hard not to view the settlement as the cynical effort by the N.F.L. to contain its potential C.T.E. liability; indeed, once the settlement is final, it will be nearly impossible for players — past, present and future — to be compensated if they are found to have the disease. Even the plaintiffs’ expert has said that only 17 percent of the roughly 21,000 former players who have become part of the class will ever see any money.

Oh, and did I mention that the N.F.L. has agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ lawyers over $112 million? It’s not the nation’s dominant sports league for nothing.

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

August 4, 2015

Bobo, in “Donald Trump’s Allure: Ego as Ideology,” carefully explains to us that Mr. Trump’s appeal fits today’s core political undercurrents: alienation, economic uncertainty and a craving for extremely confident leadership.  All the comments are wonderful, but here’s “Sally” from Switzerland:  “Donald Trump merely proves that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Why be surprised, the Republicans have been courting them long enough, and now there are so many of them that they direct the show.”  Mr. Cohen says “The Migrant Crisis in Calais Exposes a Europe Without Ideas.”  He says piecemeal small-mindedness, in 28 national iterations, has been the name of the game.  In “Obama’s Flexible Fix to Climate Change” Mr. Nocera says the president takes a successful 1990 approach to a 2015 environmental problem.  Now here’s Bobo:

When America is growing and happy, the country is sort of like a sprinter’s track. As Robert H. Wiebe put it in his classic book “The Segmented Society,” when things were going well the diverse country comprised “countless isolated lanes where Americans, singly or in groups, dashed like rows of racers toward their goals.”

In times of scarcity and alienation, it’s more like bumper cars. Different groups feel their lanes are blocked, so they start crashing into one another. The cultural elites start feuding with the financial elites. The lower middle class starts feuding with the poor.

A few decades ago the sociologist Jonathan Rieder studied what was then the white working-class neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn. People there were hostile both to their poorer black neighbors, who they felt threatened their community, and to the Manhattan elites, who they felt sold them out from above.

We are now living in a time of economic anxiety and political alienation. Just three in 10 Americans believe that their views are represented in Washington, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Confidence in public institutions like schools, banks and churches is near historic lows, according to Gallup. Only 29 percent of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to Rasmussen.

This climate makes it hard for the establishment candidates who normally dominate our politics. Jeb Bush is swimming upstream. Hillary Clinton may win through sheer determination, but she’s not a natural fit for this moment. A career establishment figure like Joe Biden doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a wonderful man and a great public servant, but he should not run for president this year, for the sake of his long-term reputation.

On the other hand, bumper-car politicians thrive. Bernie Sanders is swimming with the tide. He’s a conviction politician comfortable with class conflict. Many people on the left have a generalized, vague hunger for fundamental systemic change or at least the atmospherics of radical change.

The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.

Trump’s populism is pretty standard. He appeals to people who, as Walter Lippmann once put it, “feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row. … He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. … [But] these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. … In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern.”

When Trump is striking populist chords, he appeals to people who experience this invisibility. He appeals to members of the alienated middle class (like those folks in Canarsie) who believe that neither the rich nor the poor have to play by the same rules they do. He appeals to people who are resentful of immigrants who get what they, allegedly, don’t deserve.

But Trump’s support base is weird. It skews slightly more secular and less educated than the average Republican, but he doesn’t draw from any distinctive blocs. Unlike past populisms he’s not especially rural or urban, ethnic based or class based. He draws people as individuals, not groups.

Brooks and Nocera

July 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Gunga Din:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks and Nocera

July 7, 2015

In “The Courage of Small Things” Bobo informs us that a Rwandan genocide survivor’s story reminds us that simple narratives of good and evil, tribulation and triumph rarely capture the way life really is.  In the comments “Paul” from Nevada had this to say:  “Once again I do not get his point. A great story, but one with an unresolved ending. Guess we get Disney moment on Oprah. Flip to Springer for the unhappy endings. Interesting how Brooks always finds the ones who went to Yale. Guess the stories of just being a survivor don’t make the grade.”  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Good Jobs Strategy:”  Can companies offer both low prices and good jobs? He says a management professor finds they can.  Here’s Bobo:

I thought I knew the basic life story of my friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was 6 — though she didn’t understand it — the genocide began and her world started shrinking. Her father stopped going to work after dark. Her family ate dinner with the lights off.

To escape the mass murder, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away — not toward anything, just away.

They crossed the Akanyaru River (Clemantine thought the dead bodies floating in it were just sleeping) and into Burundi. Living off fruit, all her toenails fell out. She spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.

Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. One day, they barely survived a six-hour boat ride across Lake Tanganyika fleeing into Tanzania. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, were almost perfectly designed to give a sense that life is arbitrary.

In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.

In the middle of the 2006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.

Clemantine’s story, as I knew it then, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives — with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.

But Clemantine and Elizabeth Weil just wrote a more detailed version of her story for the online magazine Matter, and the reality is not so neat. For one thing, Clemantine never really reconciled with her family. After the “Oprah” taping they returned to Claire’s apartment. “My father kept smiling, like someone he mistrusted was taking pictures of him. Claire remained catatonic; I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real. I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones that had replaced me and Claire. I fell asleep crying.” The rest of the family flew back home to Africa the following Monday.

At every stop along the way, the pat narrative of Clemantine’s life is complexified by the gritty, mottled nature of human relationships. The refugee worker who married Claire and fathered her children turned out to be more a burden than a savior. The sisters’ psyches were not unscathed. “Claire made a hard, subconscious calculus: She could survive, and maybe enable me to survive, too, but only if she cast off emotional responsibility, only if she refused to take on how anything or anybody felt.”

Clemantine struggled to reconcile her old life with this one. A teacher she had at the Hotchkiss School gave a class a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain on a sinking boat. Do you toss overboard the old passenger or the young one? Clemantine lost it: “Do you want to know what that’s really like? This is an abstract question to you?”

At Yale, she couldn’t understand her own behavior. “Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?”

Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.

We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.

When she was a young girl, Clemantine displayed the large courage to endure genocide. In this essay she displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma; the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the tenacity to seek coherence after arbitrary cruelty; the ability to create tenacious bonds that have some give to them, to allow for the mistakes others make; the unwillingness to settle for the simple, fake story; and the capacity to look at life in all its ugly complexity.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

At the Aspen Ideas Festival — an annual summer gabfest that presents all sorts of interesting ideas, from the improbable to the important — one of the big themes this year was jobs. How will America close the skills gap? Where will the good middle-class jobs of the future come from? I heard pleas for infrastructure spending as a job strategy, and creating jobs by unleashing our energy resources. There were speakers who believed that innovation would bring good jobs, and speakers who feared that some of those innovations — in robotics, for instance — would destroy good jobs.

And then there was Zeynep Ton.

A 40-year-old adjunct associate professor at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., Ton brought one of the most radical, and yet one of the most sensible, ideas to Aspen this year. Her big idea is that companies that provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work, can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.

As Ton explained to me last week in Aspen — and as she has written in a book she published last year titled “The Good Jobs Strategy” — her thesis comes out of research she did early in her academic career on supply chain management in the retail industry, focused especially on inventory management. What she and her fellow researchers discovered is that while most companies were very good at getting products from, say, China to their stores, it was a different story once the merchandise arrived. Sometimes a product stayed in the back room instead of making it to a shelf where a customer could buy it. Or it was in the wrong place. Special in-store promotions weren’t being executed a surprisingly high percentage of the time. She saw this pattern in company after company.

As she took a closer look, Ton says, she realized that the problem was that these companies viewed their employees “as a cost that they tried to minimize.” Workers were not just poorly paid, but poorly trained. They often didn’t know their schedule until the last moment. Morale was low and turnover was high. Customer service was largely nonexistent.

Yet when she asked executives at these companies why they put up with this pattern, she was told that the only way they could guarantee low prices was to operate with employees who were paid as little as possible, because labor was such a big part of their overhead. The problems that resulted were an unavoidable by-product of a low-price business model.

Unconvinced that this was the only approach, Ton decided to search for retail companies — the same kind of companies that needed low prices to succeed — that did things differently. Sure enough, she found some.

The two companies she talks about most frequently in this regard are a Spanish grocery chain called Mercadona and QuikTrip, a Tulsa, Okla.-based chain of convenience store/gas stations that competes with the likes of the 7-Eleven chain.

What first struck her about Mercadona is that the annual turnover was an almost unheard-of 4 percent. Why do employees stay? “They get decent salaries, four weeks of training that costs the company $5,000, stable schedules … and the opportunity to thrive in front of their customers every day,” Ton said in a speech she forwarded to me. The grocery business is low margin, where every penny counts. If Mercadona couldn’t keep prices low with this strategy, it would have abandoned it long ago.

QuikTrip, an $11 billion company with 722 stores, is a prime example of what Ton means by “human-centered operations strategies.” Paying employees middle-class wages allows the company to get the most out of them. Employees are cross-trained so they can do different jobs. They can solve problems by themselves. They make merchandising decisions for their own stores. The ultimate result of the higher wages QuikTrip pays is that costs everywhere else in the operation go down. At QuikTrip, says Ton, products don’t remain in the back room, and in-store promotions always take place, as they’re supposed to.

Ton’s interest in the good jobs strategy is more than academic now; she has become a proselytizer, trying to spread the word that every company would be better served by this approach. “The assumed trade-off between low prices and good jobs is a fallacy,” she says. As we worry about where middle-class jobs are going to come from, Ton’s is a message that needs to be heard not just in Aspen but all across America.

Brooks and Nocera

June 16, 2015

Bobo gives us a classic example of concern trolling in “The Democratic Tea Party.”  He gurgles that if  it stands, Democrats’ rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will go down as a mistake with extensive and long-lasting repercussions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston has this to say:  “When David Brooks comes riding in on a white horse to save the world it’s probably best to take a close look at the horse, because it’s usually of the Trojan variety.”  Mr. Nocera, in “How to Grade a Teacher,” says there are better ways to evaluate teachers than test scores alone.  Here’s Bobo:

Last week, the Congressional Democrats defeated the underpinnings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Let’s count up the things these Democrats will have done if this policy stands.

Impoverish the world’s poor. There’s an argument over what trade agreements do to workers in the nation’s rich countries, but there is no question they have a positive impact on people in the poorer ones.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, probably didn’t affect the American economy too much. But the Mexican economy has taken off. With more opportunities, Mexican workers feel less need to sneak into the U.S. As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, a regime that was anti-American has turned into one that is pro-American.

In Asia, the American-led open trade era has created the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. The Pacific trade deal would lift the living standards of the poorest Asians, especially the 90 million people of Vietnam.

As Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, wrote in his Marginal Revolution blog: “Do you get that progressives? Poorest country = biggest gainer. Isn’t that what we are looking for?”

Damage the American economy. According to a survey by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, 83 percent of the nation’s leading economists believe that trade deals have been good for most Americans. That’s not quite the level of consensus on man-made global warming, but it is close.

That’s because free trade is not a zero-sum game. The global poor benefit the most, but most people in rich countries benefit, too. As Jason Furman, the chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors pointed out in a speech at the Brookings Institution, since World War II, reductions in U.S. tariffs have contributed an additional 7.3 percent to American incomes.

Trade treaties have led to significant growth in American manufacturing exports. According to Furman, export-intensive industries pay workers up to 18 percent more than nonexport-intensive ones. Rising imports also give American consumers access to a wider range of inexpensive products, leading to huge standard of living increases for those down the income scale.The authoritative study on the Pacific trade deal, by Peter Petri, Michael Plummer and Fan Zhai, suggests it would raise U.S. incomes by 0.4 percent per year by 2025.

Stifle future innovation. Democrats point out that some workers have been hurt by trade deals. And that’s true. Most manufacturing job losses have been caused by technological improvements.

But those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The best way forward is to increase the number of high-quality jobs in the service sector. The Pacific trade deal would help. The treaty is not mostly about reducing tariffs on goods. That work has mostly been done. It’s mostly about establishing rules for a postindustrial global economy, rules having to do with intellectual property, investment, antitrust and environmental protection. Service-sector industries like these are where America is strongest, where the opportunities for innovation are the most exciting and where wages are already 20 percent higher than in manufacturing.

Imperil world peace. The Pacific region will either be organized by American rules or Chinese rules. By voting against the trade deal, Democrats went a long way toward guaranteeing that Chinese rules will dominate.

As various people have noted, the Democratic vote last week was a miniversion of the effort to destroy the League of Nations after World War I. It damaged an institution that might head off future conflict.

The arguments Democrats use against the deal are small and inadequate. Some Democrats are suspicious because it was negotiated in secret. (They seem to have no trouble with the Iranian nuclear treaty, which is also negotiated in secret.)

Others worry that the treaty would allow corporations to sue governments. But these procedures are already in place, and as research from the Center for Strategic and Internatioanl Studies has demonstrated, the concerns are vastly overblown. They mostly protect companies from authoritarian governments who seek to expropriate their property.

In reality, the opposition to the trade pact is part of a long tradition of populist reaction. When economic stress rises, there is a strong temptation to pull inward. The Republican Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global diplomatic arrangements. The Democrats’ version of the Tea Partiers are suspicious of all global economic arrangements.

It would be nice if Hillary Clinton emerged and defended the treaty, which she helped organize.

Rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership will hurt economies from the U.S. to Japan to Vietnam. It will send yet another signal that America can no longer be counted on as the world’s leading nation.

If Bobo’s for it, then thinking people must be against it.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

This is the second column I’ve written about Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. Ball believes the training that teachers get while they are in school needs to be drastically improved. Last year, I wrote about her effort to develop a professional training curriculum that would allow beginning teachers to be far better grounded in their craft than they are now.

Recently, I learned about another effort she has led, which I also think deserves wider attention. It tackles one of the most divisive topics in K-12 education: how to evaluate teachers so that the best can be rewarded and the worst fired.

In New York — a state where the issue has been especially contentious — Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year pushed through legislation that calls for student test scores to count for as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, up from the current 20 percent. The teachers’ unions were incensed, believing that test scores are a simplistic and unfair means of assessing teachers. So were many parents, who joined a boycott movement that resulted in an estimated 165,000 students opting out of this year’s standardized tests.

A teacher evaluation system “is only good if the teachers respect it and trust it,” says Vicki Phillips, a director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers are convinced that evaluation systems that overly rely on test scores are punitive, which the political rhetoric often underscores. For instance, Cuomo’s stated reason for changing the state’s teacher evaluation was that some 96 percent of teachers got top gradesunder the old process. He scoffed at those results as “baloney.” That’s hardly going to get teachers to buy into your new evaluation system.

Which brings me back to Michigan. In 2011, the State Legislature there changed the tenure law, making it easier to fire incompetent teachers. But it also set up the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, which was charged with coming up with its first-ever statewide evaluation system. Ball was named chairwoman of the council. Two years later, it came back with its recommendations.

The first thing I noticed about the council’s recommendations is that they completely avoid the divisive political language that has alienated teachers. Instead of casting teacher evaluation as primarily being about getting rid of bad teachers, they put the emphasis on teacher improvement. An evaluation system that stresses improvement instead of punishment has a much better chance of being embraced by teachers.

Such an emphasis isn’t just good politics. It’s also an important way to help make schools better. “Very few teachers can’t improve,” Ball told me recently. And most teachers want to improve — but have no means of getting useful feedback. The council’s idea was that the evaluations could be used not just to rid the system of incompetent teachers — though it would certainly do that — but also to give all the other teachers critical feedback. It also envisions transforming professional development, which is now mostly a wasteland, into a mechanism to put that feedback into practice.

There are two fundamental pieces to the Michigan council’s plan. The first piece is teacher observation. In most schools, it’s the principal who observes the teacher, often haphazardly, and rates him or her based on personal biases, which may or may not be sound. Ball and her colleagues would instead rely on observers who have been trained in using certain tools that have been proved effective. These observations would be the basis for the teacher’s feedback — feedback meant to encourage and help, rather than threaten.

The second piece is what the council calls evaluating “student growth.” Here the point would be not to measure student achievement in absolute terms — Does Johnny read at a fourth-grade level? — but rather to measure whether Johnny had made a year’s worth of improvement from the level he was reading at when he was in the third grade. This would be a more accurate representation of the difference the teacher made, and would take into account the wide range of learning levels teachers often have to contend with.

Some of this growth evaluation would undoubtedly be done through tests. But not all of it, or even most of it. “You have to look at objectives for students for the year and see if they made progress,” says Ball. There are ways to do that that don’t require standardized testing.

I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t. Legislation that embodied the work of the council failed to pass the Michigan Legislature in the last session. More recently, the chairman of a related Senate committee, Phil Pavlov, has essentially tossed the council’s work aside in favor of “local control.”

That is Michigan’s loss. But perhaps other states and school districts can look at the work of the Michigan council and learn from it. In which case, it could still be America’s gain.

Nocera and Collins

June 13, 2015

Mr. Nocera has a question in “Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Audition:”  After union-busting in his home state, what would he do if he became president?  [shudder] The mind boggles.  Ms. Collins also has a question in “Guns in Your Face:”  How would you react if the man in front of you in the Starbucks line had a gun dangling from his shoulder?  Me?  I’d get the fck out of there.  (Starbucks coffee sucks anyway…)  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Anticipating a Republican presidential bid by Scott Walker, the two-term governor of Wisconsin, both The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Monthly recently published lengthy articles about him. (The Times feature, which is in the magazine this weekend, was published online Friday.) Both articles focus on Walker’s successful battles with labor. As they should: If he runs for president, his record of union-busting will be at the very center of his campaign.

Walker’s first labor fight came in 2011, when he pushed through a bill that stripped the state’s public employee unions (firefighters and police officers excepted) of most of their collective-bargaining rights. It also forced the unions to make higher pension and health care contributions. There was a huge outcry, with union members and activists storming the Statehouse, and Democratic legislators fleeing the capital to prevent a quorum. But Walker not only got the bill passed, he then survived a recall election spearheaded by the labor unions. The fight over Act 10 — as the law was called — is the focus of The Washington Monthly article, written by Donald F. Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Having crippled the public sector unions, Walker more recently put the hurt on the state’s private-sector unions, signing legislation that made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, meaning that unions could not force employees to join a union or to pay dues. That bill became law in March; it is the focus of Dan Kaufman’s article in The Times Magazine.

As the two magazine articles make clear, there was no pressing need for either law. At the time he proposed Act 10, Walker claimed that busting the public employees’ unions was necessary because Wisconsin was facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit, and that the deficit couldn’t be closed, as he told Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday,” “with the current collective bargaining laws in the state.”

But as Kettl points out, that was simply not true. Although there are plenty of states with woefully underfunded pensions, Wisconsin isn’t one of them. And while Walker claims to have saved the state $3 billion during his first term as a result of Act 10, he almost surely could have gotten the same givebacks by bargaining for them, as other states, such as Rhode Island, have done.

To put it another way, Walker busted the public employee unions not because he had to but because he could.

Similarly, there was no deep desire on the part of the business community to have Wisconsin become a right-to-work state, even though it would most likely bring about lower labor costs. Kaufman quotes a leader of the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition, who told him that “right-to-work is going to compromise my quality, my competitiveness.” That’s because the unions have long served to screen workers and keep them up to date on new technologies.

No, what motivated Walker, clearly, was politics. Unions, which have long been traditional Democratic allies, have been in steep decline — except for public employee unions, which now make up just under half of all union workers. By crippling them, Kettl told me, “Walker is trying to put a stake in the heart of a strong piece of Democratic support that has long been a thorn in the side of the Republicans.”

The fact that Wisconsin has historically been strongly pro-union — indeed, the largest public services employee union, AFSCME, was founded in Madison in 1932 — only makes Walker’s triumphs that much more impressive to his fellow Republicans. This is something Walker will undoubtedly highlight if he runs for president. As he put it in his 2013 book, “Unintimidated,” “If we can do it in Wisconsin, we can do it anywhere — even in our nation’s capital.”

As for the right-to-work law, Kaufman points out that Wisconsin’s law was “a virtual copy of a 1995 model bill promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council” — A.L.E.C. — whose conservative backers include Charles and David Koch.

The Koch brothers are staunchly anti-union, of course, and they have supported Walker in both of his gubernatorial races. Their oil baron father, in fact, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of right-to-work legislation, helping to get it passed in Kansas in 1958. They have said they will spend some $900 million on the 2016 elections. At an April fund-raiser, according to The Times, David Koch is reported to have said that Walker would be the Republican nominee. As Kaufman nicely puts it, passing Act 10 was his “audition” for potential big money backers like the Kochs.

Both articles conclude by pondering what Walker would do if he became president. But to read the two articles is to know the answer: If union-busting gets him to the White House, why would he stop there?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Life in America requires a lot of advance preparation. For instance, when you’re getting ready for a plane trip you imagine what you’ll do if a problem arises — flight delay, long lines at security. But I bet you haven’t considered the best way to react if the man in front of you on the airport escalator has a gun dangling from his shoulder.

That very thing happened recently in Atlanta, when a Georgia resident named Jim Cooley came strutting through the airport lobby with a loaded assault rifle.

Cooley — who was taping the whole encounter and posted it on YouTube — corrected the police officer who stopped him. (“It’s not an automatic! It’s a semi-automatic!”) Then he declined to respond when she asked if he had a permit. (“Am I being detained? … If you’re detaining me then I’m going to have to file a lawsuit.”) And, in the end, he walked away in triumph.

We’ve moved from the right to bear arms to the right to flaunt arms.

While the airport setting gives the incident a particular flair, this kind of thing has been happening quite a bit. In Michigan, the City of Grand Rapids has been in a legal battle with a man who took umbrage when police stopped him while he was walking down a residential street on a Sunday morning wearing camouflage, with a pistol strapped to his leg and singing “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.”

Very few states have flat-out rules against openly carrying guns in public. It’s just something that never came up. “It’s not a practical thing to do,” said Laura Cutilletta of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. But it turns out that anyone with the legal right to carry a concealed weapon — which, in some states, doesn’t even require a permit — generally also has the legal right to walk into a McDonald’s with a gun sticking out of his waistband.

The open display of weaponry freaks out average citizens, especially the ones with children. It outrages police. At one point, even the National Rifle Association said the open carry demonstrations were “downright weird.” But the organization quickly backtracked, apologized, blamed the post on an errant staffer, and averred that “our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

You’d think that lawmakers would move quickly to make it illegal, but with a few exceptions, there’s more enabling going on than anything else. After a Kalamazoo man walked into the public library’s summer reading party for children with a 9-millimeter gun strapped to his waist, worried officials asked the State Legislature to add libraries to a very small list of gun-free zones. The Legislature did nothing.

“Look, I got a gun!” yelled a man who walked into a park where kids were playing baseball in — yes! — Georgia. “There’s nothing you can do about it.” The police, who were summoned, determined he was absolutely right.

The Georgia State Legislature passed a law a few years back that made it legal for citizens to take their guns into the airport. At the time, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue was expressing concern about giving his wife the option of toting a pistol when she was “walking from one of those parking lots to pick up a grandchild or something like that.” He did not mention middle-age guys toting semiautomatic assault rifles past the check-in counter. But here we are.

In Texas, where open carry had been banned since the post-Civil War era, protesters staged demonstrations all around the state, toting their guns to family restaurants and storming the State Capitol, where they confronted one unsympathetic lawmaker in his office. In response, the Legislature enabled House members to install panic buttons in their offices, and then legalized open carry for Texans with gun permits.

Some commentators have attributed the whole open-carry phenomenon to white American men trying to work out their insecurities. We’ve got to stop blaming white men for everything. Really, they’ve contributed a lot to the country. Still, you can’t help but notice that there’s a certain demographic consistency to the people who are making a scene over their right to display arms.

It wasn’t always that way. California passed its first ban on open carry in the 1960s in response to the Black Panther Party. “The Legislature was debating an open-carry law when 30 Black Panthers showed up at the Statehouse with their guns,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of law at U.C.L.A. and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”

“The same day Gov. Ronald Reagan made a speech, saying there’s no reason why a law-abiding person should be carrying a gun on the street.”

Maybe the way to turn this debate around would bring new recruits into the gun rights movement. “If open-carry advocates today were Marxist-leaning black radicals,” said Winkler, “we might have a very different situation.”

Exactly.


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