Friedman, solo

March 25, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Look Before Leaping:”  What’s at stake in the nuclear deal with Iran?

I can think of many good reasons to go ahead with the nuclear deal with Iran, and I can think of just as many reasons not to. So, if you’re confused, let me see if I can confuse you even more.

The proposed deal to lift sanctions on Iran — in return for curbs on its bomb-making capabilities so that it would take at least a year for Tehran to make a weapon — has to be judged in its own right. I will be looking closely at the quality of the verification regime and the specificity of what happens if Iran cheats. But the deal also has to be judged in terms of how it fits with wider American strategic goals in the region, because a U.S.-Iran deal would be an earthquake that touches every corner of the Middle East. Not enough attention is being paid to the regional implications — particularly what happens if we strengthen Iran at a time when large parts of the Sunni Arab world are in meltdown.

The Obama team’s best argument for doing this deal with Iran is that, in time, it could be “transformational.” That is, the ending of sanctions could open Iran to the world and bring in enough fresh air — Iran has been deliberately isolated since 1979 by its ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard Corps — to gradually move Iran from being a revolutionary state to a normal one, and one less inclined to threaten Israel. If one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of its regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.

The challenge to this argument, explains Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, is that while the Obama team wants to believe this deal could be “transformational,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, “sees it as transactional” — Iran plugs its nose, does the deal, regains its strength and doubles-down on its longstanding revolutionary principles. But, then again, you never know. What starts out as transactional can end up being transformational in ways that no one can prevent or predict.

A second argument is that Iran is a real country and civilization, with competitive (if restricted) elections, educated women and a powerful military. Patching up the U.S.-Iran relationship could enable America to better manage and balance the Sunni Arab Taliban in Afghanistan, and counterbalance the Sunni jihadists, like those in the Islamic State, or ISIS, now controlling chunks of Iraq and Syria. The United States has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia, ever since Iran’s 1979 revolution, and while the Saudi ruling family and elites are aligned with America, there is a Saudi Wahhabi hard core that has funded the spread of the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic, anti-women form of Islam that has changed the character of Arab Islam and helped to foster mutations like ISIS. There were no Iranians involved in 9/11.

Then again, it was Iranian agents who made the most lethal improvised explosives in Iraq that killed many American troops there. And it was Iran that encouraged its Iraqi Shiite allies to reject any extended U.S. military presence in Iraq and to also overplay their hand in stripping power from Iraqi Sunnis, which is what helped to produce the ISIS counterreaction.

“In the fight against ISIS, Iran is both the arsonist and the fire brigade,” added Sadjadpour. To Saudi Arabia, he added, the rise of ISIS is attributable to the repression of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq by Iran and its Shiite clients. To Tehran, the rise of ISIS is attributable to the financial and ideological support of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

And they are both right, which is why America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shiite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.

Then again, if this nuclear deal with Iran is finalized, and sanctions lifted, much more Iranian oil will hit the global market, suppressing prices and benefiting global consumers. Then again, Iran would have billions of dollars more to spend on cyberwarfare, long-range ballistic missiles and projecting power across the Arab world, where its proxies already dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana.

But, given the disarray in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, do we really care if Iran tries to play policeman there and is embroiled in endless struggles with Sunni militias?  For 10 years, it was America that was overstretched across Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it will be Iran’s turn. I feel terrible for the people who have to live in these places, and we certainly should use American air power to help prevent the chaos from spreading to islands of decency like Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan in Iraq. But managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem we should own. We’ve amply proved that we don’t know how.

So before you make up your mind on the Iran deal, ask how it affects Israel, the country most threatened by Iran. But also ask how it fits into a wider U.S. strategy aimed at quelling tensions in the Middle East with the least U.S. involvement necessary and the lowest oil prices possible.

I’m sure it will all sort itself out in just one more FU.  And by the way, Tommy, FU.

Krugman’s blog, 3/23/15

March 24, 2015

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “The Loneliness of the Not-Crazy Conservative:”

A few minutes before class, and I’m thinking about the plight of not-crazy conservatives. I have macroeconomics in mind at the moment, but it’s not a unique issue.

If you think about policy in general, it involves two kinds of decisions: values and models, or what you want and what you believe. There aren’t totally independent, but people should be able to make a distinction. And in that space there is room for legitimate argument. You can, for example, want a strong welfare state that does a lot of redistribution, or not; meanwhile, there is a range of defensible views about, say, the effectiveness of monetary policy or the incentive effects of taxes.

But not all views about how the world works are defensible. And here’s the thing: in modern US politics, trying to side with people who want a smaller welfare state means siding with people who insist on believing things that aren’t true. Think of it as a matrix:

There have been people on the left who make claims about how the economy works that are radically at odds with the evidence — but it’s hard to find such people in America these days, and they certainly have no influence on the Democratic Party. On the other side, there are “reformicons” who try to more or less talk sense about the economy (more or less because market monetarism has big problems); but they are a tiny group of intellectuals with little influence on a Republican Party that gets its economics from Art Laffer and Ayn Rand.

The reformicons like to imagine that one day they’ll win over the party that reflects their values, and in the long run maybe that will happen. But for now, and my guess is for decades to come, they have no political home — unless they wake up and realize that they aren’t actually Republicans in the modern sense.

The second post yesterday was “Charlatans, Cranks, and Cooling:”

Branko Milanovic notes Lee Kwan Yew’s explanation of the success of Singapore and other Asian economies; partly Confucian culture, partly air conditioning. If you’ve ever tried to walk around Singapore, you know whereof he speaks.

The same factor plays a major role in explaining differential US regional growth, and thereby hangs a tale.

The rise of the US sunbelt can be understood largely as a response to the emergence of widespread air conditioning, which made places that are warm in the winter attractive despite humid, muggy summers. It’s a gradual, long-drawn-out response, because location decisions have a lot of inertia; few people would choose de novo to live in the old industrial towns of upstate New York, but the existing housing stock and the fact that people have family and social networks prevent quick abandonment. So to this day temperature is a good predictor of state population growth. I’ve taken the NOAA data and divided states into three groups by average temperature: Group I is colder than Rhode Island, Group III warmer than California:

Who’s in Group III? The full list:

Oklahoma
Arizona
Arkansas
South Carolina
Alabama
Mississippi
Georgia
Texas
Louisiana
Florida

These are places where summer would be really oppressive without air conditioning. (Actually, I find it oppressive with — in Texas, in particular, indoor spaces are freezing. But that’s another story.)

Now, these states have several things in common besides high temperatures. They’re all very conservative. And all of them that were states before the Civil War were slave states. These commonalities are, of course, all interrelated. Hot states had slaves because they were suitable for planation agriculture; and today’s red states are, pretty much, the slave states of 150 years ago.

Now, all of this raises some interesting problems for the assessment of economic policy. Because they’re politically conservative, hot states tend to have low minimum wages and low taxes on rich people. And someone who is careless, cynical, or both, could easily take the faster growth of these states as evidence that conservative economic policies work. That is, charlatans and cranks can, all too easily, end up claiming credit for economic and demographic trends that are actually the result of air conditioning.

Well, FSM knows that Georgia and South Carolina (states I’m familiar with) are chock full of cranks, charlatans, and lunatics.  Which is not cool at all…

Brooks and Cohen

March 24, 2015

In “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” Bobo says we have to understand the many ugly faces of anti-Semitism if we are to effectively stand against it.  Hmmm…  I don’t really recall him writing such a column about effectively standing against racism, and he may be conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.  Mr. Cohen, in “Can-Do Lee Kwan Yew,” says the 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist.  Just don’t spit on the sidewalk…  Here’s Bobo:

Anti-Semitism is rising around the world. So the question becomes: What can we do to fight it? Do education campaigns work, or marches or conferences?

There are three major strains of anti-Semitism circulating, different in kind and virulence, and requiring different responses.

In the Middle East, anti-Semitism has the feel of a deranged theoretical system for making sense of a world gone astray. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t just oppose Israel. He has called it the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region.” He has said its leaders “look like beasts and cannot be called human.”

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran reinstated a conference of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. Two of Iran’s prominent former nuclear negotiators apparently attended. In Egypt, the top military staff attended a lecture on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The region is still rife with the usual conspiracy theories — that the Jews were behind 9/11, drink the blood of non-Jews, spray pesticides across Egyptian lands.

This sort of anti-Semitism thrives where there aren’t that many Jews. The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining. This is a form of derangement, a flight from reality even in otherwise sophisticated people.

This form of anti-Semitism cannot be reasoned away because it doesn’t exist on the level of reason. It can only be confronted with deterrence and force, at the level of fear. The challenge for Israel is to respond to extremism without being extreme. The enemy’s rabidity can be used to justify cruelty, even in cases where restraint would be wiser. Israeli leaders try to walk this line, trying to use hard power, without becoming a mirror of the foe, sometimes well, sometimes not.

In Europe, anti-Semitism looks like a response to alienation. It’s particularly high where unemployment is rampant. Roughly half of all Spaniards and Greeks express unfavorable opinions about Jews. The plague of violence is fueled by young Islamic men with no respect and no place to go.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has an essay, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” He reports on a blizzard of incidents: a Jewish school principal who watched a Frenchman of Algerian descent pin his 8-year-old daughter down in the schoolyard and execute her; a Swedish rabbi who has been the target of roughly 150 anti-Semitic attacks; French kids who were terrified in school because of the “Dirty Jew!” and “I want to kill all of you!” chants in the hallway; the Danish imam who urged worshipers in a Berlin mosque to kill the Jews, “Count them and kill them to the very last one.”

Thousands of Jews a year are just fleeing Europe. But the best response is quarantine and confrontation. European governments can demonstrate solidarity with their Jewish citizens by providing security, cracking down — broken-windows style — on even the smallest assaults. Meanwhile, brave and decent people can take a page from Gandhi and stage campaigns of confrontational nonviolence: marches, sit-ins and protests in the very neighborhoods where anti-Semitism breeds. Expose the evil of the perpetrators. Disturb the consciences of the good people in these communities who tolerate them. Confrontational nonviolence is the historically proven method to isolate and delegitimize social evil.

The United States is also seeing a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. But this country remains an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place. America’s problem is the number of people who can’t fathom what anti-Semitism is or who think Jews are being paranoid or excessively playing the victim.

On college campuses, many young people have been raised in a climate of moral relativism and have no experience with those with virulent evil beliefs. They sometimes assume that if Israel is hated, then it must be because of its cruel and colonial policies in the West Bank.

In the Obama administration, there are people who know that the Iranians are anti-Semitic, but they don’t know what to do with that fact and put this mental derangement on a distant shelf. They negotiate with the Iranian leaders, as if anti-Semitism was some odd quirk, instead of what it is, a core element of their mental architecture.

There are others who see anti-Semitism as another form of bigotry. But these are different evils. Most bigotry is an assertion of inferiority and speaks the language of oppression. Anti-Semitism is an assertion of impurity and speaks the language of extermination. Anti-Semitism’s logical endpoint is violence.

Groups fighting anti-Semitism sponsor educational campaigns and do a lot of consciousness-raising. I doubt these things do anything to reduce active anti-Semitism. But they can help non-anti-Semites understand the different forms of the cancer in our midst. That’s a start.

Now here’s Mr. Cohen’s encomium, writing from Ho Chi Minh City:

The Vietnamese, like many Asians, flock to Singapore to shop. They hit those cool, fragrant malls on Orchard Road. A few among the affluent go there to see a dentist or a doctor or have a baby. They are drawn, also, by something less tangible, the sense of prosperity and purring efficiency, as if by some miracle the Alpine order and cleanliness of Switzerland had been conjured up in the Tropics. They exhale, freed from the raucous agitation of modern Asian life, and are rocked in a Singaporean cradle of convenience where, it seems, nothing can go wrong.

You don’t have to like Singapore to admire it. Once you begin to admire it, of course, you may discover in yourself a sneaking affection. The achievement of Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding father, who died Monday at the age of 91, is immense. The 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist.

The measure of that achievement is that the ingredients of disaster abounded in Singapore, a country that is “not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” as Lee said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. “We don’t have the ingredients of a nation,” he noted, “the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.” Instead, it had a combustible ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Chinese, Malays and Indians gathered in a city-state of no natural resources.

Yet Lee made it work, where many nations with far more of those attributes of nationhood — Argentina prominent among them — failed, and where, from the Balkans to the Middle East, sectarian differences have proved insurmountable and often the catalyst of war and national unraveling.

The fact that the elements for cataclysm exist does not mean that cataclysm is inevitable. Lee demonstrated this in an age where the general cacophony, and the need to manage and spin every political minute, makes statesmanship ever more elusive. The determining factor is leadership. What defines leadership above all is conviction, discipline in the pursuit of a goal, adaptability in the interest of the general good, and far-sightedness.

Lee’s only religion was pragmatism, of which religion (as generally understood) is the enemy, because, to some adherents, it offers revealed truths that are fact-resistant. Any ideology that abhors facts is problematic. (If you believe land is yours because it was deeded to you in the Bible, for example, but other people live there and have for centuries, you have an issue pregnant with violence.) Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work? It was the criterion of a forward-looking man for whom history was instructive but not imprisoning. He abhorred victimhood (an excuse for sloppy thinking and nationalist delusion) and corruption. He prized opportunity, meritocracy, the work ethic of the immigrant and education.

Western democracy was not for him. It was too volatile for a nation that had to be forged and then fast-forwarded to prosperity. He was authoritarian, harsh when necessary. Free speech and political opposition were generally suppressed; the only liberalism was of the economic variety. Lee tapped into an Asian and Confucian inclination to place the communal good above individual rights; he also cowed Singaporeans into fear. Overall, it worked. Singapore became a booming commercial and banking center. Prosperity elided differences, even if the yawning gap between rich and poor is a growing issue, as throughout the world.

There is no single model for all humankind, even if there is a universal aspiration for freedom and the means to enjoy it. Technological hyperconnectedness does not produce political consensus. Pragmatism also involves accepting this, weighing the good against the bad (while standing against the heinous) and exercising patience.

The Singaporean miracle became an Asian reference. If Asia has been pragmatic about conflict — notably in the handling of tensions between India and China — it owes much to Lee. China’s model — authoritarian, free-market, economically open but politically closed — was plainly influenced by Lee’s Singapore. Narendra Modi’s push to clean up India has led to talk of an Indian Lee Kuan Yew. One measure of Lee’s greatness is that, as Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Tommy Koh, put it to me in an email, the strong institutions he planted ensure that “his passing will have no negative impact on the future of Singapore.”

How much more demanding of open political systems will prosperous Asians be? We will see, but I would not bet on rapid change. Desirability does not equal necessity, at least not yet. Lee made one other big Asian contribution: He valued American power, believed in its stabilizing regional influence. He was not an American declinist, once telling the political scientist Joseph Nye that China could draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people, but the United States could draw on the world’s seven billion people and recombine them in a diverse culture that exudes creativity in a way that ethnic Han nationalism cannot.

In this, too, Lee was right.

Krugman’s blog, 3/21/15 and 3/22/15

March 23, 2015

There were two posts on Saturday and one yesterday.  The first post on Saturday was “A Tough Business:”

The glamorous lifeThe glamorous life

Here’s a writeup of the panel that brought me to SXSW. As you might expect, the Butler brothers from Arcade Fire are really well-spoken and interesting; basically, I’m pretty sure they could do my job, whereas there’s no way I could do theirs.

There was also an interesting discussion with Tatiana Simonian of Nielsen about the role of data-driven decisions by record companies. She and I agreed that while the data on what audiences are drawn to are highly imperfect, the gut feelings of executives are often worse, so that on balance the data make for better music. My parallel is with the news business; the most-emailed list is a deeply flawed metric, but still a very useful corrective to the inside-baseball instincts of long-time newspaper people.

I was glad to have direct confirmation of what I said, drawing on work by Marie Connolly and Alan Krueger: for the artists, it has always been about live performance, not record royalties. Yes, there have been a few exceptions — the Beatles, Michael Jackson — but it’s the norm. One questioner from the audience raised doubts, but Will Butler silenced them, telling us that AF makes about as much from one European festival as it does in all royalties from a record.

And boy, is music a tough life. I took the picture above on my phone. It’s Alvvays, who released their first album to critical acclaim, totally filled their venues at SXSW (this was my second try — the first time I couldn’t get in). And there they are, crawling around on the stage trying to get their cables plugged into the right places.

I think about how easy I had it — my very first teaching job paid the equivalent of about $60,000 in today’s dollars — and am deeply thankful that so many wonderful talents love music enough to stick it out and enrich our lives.

Saturday’s second post was “Democratic Booms:”

Everyone in the Republican Party knows that Reagan presided over an economy that has never been equalled, before or since. When I was on TV with Rand Paul, he confidently declared

When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan …

Of course, it’s not true:

There was an even bigger job boom under Clinton than under Reagan, and Obama has now presided over three years of fairly rapid job growth, with the most recent year the fastest since the 90s.

But does this say anything about the presidents in question? Both the Reagan expansion and the Clinton expansion had much more to do with Federal Reserve policy than anything coming from the White House, and Obama’s macroeconomic policy has been hamstrung by GOP opposition almost from the beginning. There are presidents, and sometimes there are job booms when they are president, but the booms aren’t their doing.

But it is nonetheless the case that those Democratic booms vindicate liberal beliefs, while the Reagan boom does not, in any way, validate conservative ideology? Why? Because conservatives insisted that the Clinton and Obama booms were impossible.

I’m old enough to remember the cries of doom when Clinton pushed through an increase in top tax rates. If you were reading the WSJ editorial page, or Forbes, or listening to Newt Gingrich, you knew that it was time to sell all your stocks and wait for the depression.

And Obama, of course, was bringing on hyperinflationary collapse with his health reform and tax hikes at the top.

Needless to say, none of it happened; what the Democratic booms show is that you can strengthen the safety net and raise taxes on the wealthy without causing economic disaster.

But didn’t liberals make similar predictions of Reaganite disaster? Actually, no. As I’ve pointed out in the past, what happened under Reagan — tight money brought on a severe recession, but the economy recovered once money was loosened again, and the intervening period of slack brought inflation down — was exactly what the textbooks predicted.

If politics made any sense, Democrats would be celebrating Clinton in the way Republicans celebrate the blessed Ronald, and they’d be hailing Obama as Saint Bill’s second coming. Meanwhile Republicans would be fairly diffident about a pretty good job but not all that exceptional expansion that was mainly Paul Volcker’s doing, and was a long time ago.

Yesterday’s post was “Mid-Atlantic Currencies:”

This economy has its own currency:

This economy does not:

You got a problem with that?

The really amazing thing is that Iceland has been very well served by its independent currency, which spared it the immense cost of internal devaluation. I am not calling for creation of a Mercer County currency, although if it ever happens, I suggest naming it either the Plumdollar or the Evanovich. But it’s an interesting exercise in optimum currency area theory to ask why.

Blow and Krugman

March 23, 2015

In “Gov. Jindal’s Implosion” Mr. Blow says Louisiana’s governor has made a mess of his state and wrecked his reputation in the process.  But he’s still hoping to climb into the 2016 Clown Car…  Prof. Krugman, in “This Snookered Isle,” says a misleading fixation on budget deficits has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

What happened to Bobby Jindal?

He was the next wave of Republican. He was young and smart — a Rhodes scholar. He was the son of immigrants and the first Indian-American governor in this country’s history.

He had even bounced back from his disastrous rebuttal to President Obama’s first State of the Union address. (Personally, I thought that his claim of having participated in an exorcism performed on his friend in college would have been more of an issue than it was, but that was just me.)

Jindal had all the right rhetoric.

He told Cal Thomas of Shreveport’s The Times: “As Republicans we don’t need to obsess about our opponents, we don’t need to define ourselves in opposition to our opponents. Let [Democrats] look backward; we need to look forward.”

In 2013, he demanded that the G.O.P. “stop being the stupid party.”

Jindal was the brainy Moses coming to deliver his people from the bondage of inanity. But that was then.

Now, Jindal has gone from being one of the most popular governors in the country to one of the least popular.

In the latest CNN/ORC poll of Republicans and independents who lean Republican, only 1 percent said that he was the candidate they would most likely support for the Republican nomination. Even “none/no one” got 6 percent.

And in a desperate attempt at relevancy — and press — he has lately been sliding further into Islamic hysteria.

In January, he caused a controversy by claiming that parts of Europe were “no-go zones” because of Muslim extremists. Jindal said that there were cities “where non-Muslims simply don’t go in,” like Birmingham in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron said in response: “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fools’ Day. This guy is clearly a complete idiot.”

That hasn’t stopped Jindal. Last week on Fox News, he set about defending his statement that America “shouldn’t tolerate those who want to come and try to impose some variant, or some version, of Shariah law.” But he went so far as to say of prospective immigrants:

“In America we want people who want to be Americans. We want people who want to come here. We don’t say, ‘You have to adopt our creed, or any particular creed,’ but we do say, ‘If you come here, you need to believe in American exceptionalism.’ ”

What? Where is that written? I can’t find this “need to believe in American exceptionalism” anywhere in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Isn’t American exceptionalism itself a creed?

The smart-on-paper Jindal increasingly comes across as nuttier than a piece of praline.

On Friday, Robert Mann, a columnist at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, called for Jindal’s resignation, citing all of the problems in the state that the governor isn’t focusing on as he tries to gin up a greater national profile:

“We have some of the nation’s highest poverty and worst health outcomes and you’ve done little to address them. Baton Rouge, your hometown, has the nation’s second-highest H.I.V. rate (New Orleans is fourth), but you’ve done nothing to address that crisis. What you have done is hollow out higher education and inject needless confusion and rancor into the state’s elementary and secondary education system. Meanwhile, the state’s health care system is a fractured, dysfunctional mess under your privatization schemes. Now, you’ve outsourced the state’s tax policy to Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.”

Louisiana’s fiscal picture is dire. As Politico reported in February:

“Jindal is preparing a budget to close a $1.6 billion shortfall in Louisiana, a particularly daunting task after the $400 million in additional money he had to scare up to fill a budget gap for the current year. The president of Louisiana State University said earlier this month that the state’s flagship school is preparing for a 40 percent cut in its operating budget next year.”

In fact, The Times-Picayune reported in January that “Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration said Louisiana’s colleges and universities should be prepared to sustain anywhere from $200 million to $300 million in cuts during the 2015-16 school year.”

But in February, Jindal strained credulity, claiming, “The total higher education budget, including means of total finance — is actually a little bit, just slightly, higher than when I took office.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog quickly smacked that down, awarding Jindal three Pinocchios.

Jindal has made a mess of Louisiana and wrecked his reputation in the process. His odds of becoming president of the United States have shrunk to nil.

Sometimes what looks good on paper is a disaster in practice.

I just can’t resist…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “In the new world order, Jindal deals with poverty by creating more of it. He deals with racism by fomenting Islamic hysteria. He deals with health care by privatizing it into dysfunction. He deals with education by shutting it down. In short, he’s a mainstream Republican. On what grounds would they reject him for national office? I can easily imagine him joining the marquee of dim bulbs casting a shadow in the next Republican primary.”

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

The 2016 election is still 19 mind-numbing, soul-killing months away. There is, however, another important election in just six weeks, as Britain goes to the polls. And many of the same issues are on the table.

Unfortunately, economic discourse in Britain is dominated by a misleading fixation on budget deficits. Worse, this bogus narrative has infected supposedly objective reporting; media organizations routinely present as fact propositions that are contentious if not just plain wrong.

Needless to say, Britain isn’t the only place where things like this happen. A few years ago, at the height of our own deficit fetishism, the American news media showed some of the same vices. Allegedly factual articles would declare that debt fears were driving up interest rates with zero evidence to support such claims. Reporters would drop all pretense of neutrality and cheer on proposals for entitlement cuts.

In the United States, however, we seem to have gotten past that. Britain hasn’t.

The narrative I’m talking about goes like this: In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.

Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University has dubbed this narrative “mediamacro.” As his coinage suggests, this is what you hear all the time on TV and read in British newspapers, presented not as the view of one side of the political debate but as simple fact.

Yet none of it is true.

Was the Labour government that ruled Britain before the crisis profligate? Nobody thought so at the time. In 2007, government debt as a percentage of G.D.P. was close to its lowest level in a century (and well below the level in the United States), while the budget deficit was quite small. The only way to make those numbers look bad is to claim that the British economy in 2007 was operating far above capacity, inflating tax receipts. But if that had been true, Britain should have been experiencing high inflation, which it wasn’t.

Still, wasn’t Britain at risk of a Greek-style crisis, in which investors could lose confidence in its bonds and send interest rates soaring? There’s no reason to think so. Unlike Greece, Britain has retained its own currency and borrows in that currency — and no country fitting this description has experienced that kind of crisis. Consider the case of Japan, which has far bigger debt and deficits than Britain ever did yet can currently borrow long-term at an interest rate of just 0.32 percent.

Which brings me to claims that austerity has been vindicated. Yes, British interest rates have stayed low. So have almost everyone else’s. For example, French borrowing costs are at their lowest level in history. Even debt-crisis countries like Italy and Spain can borrow at lower rates than Britain pays.

What about growth? When the current British government came to power in 2010, it imposed harsh austerity — and the British economy, which had been recovering from the 2008 slump, soon began slumping again. In response, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government backed off, putting plans for further austerity on hold (but without admitting that it was doing any such thing). And growth resumed.

If this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop.

Given all this, you might wonder how mediamacro gained such a hold on British discourse. Don’t blame economists. As Mr. Wren-Lewis points out, very few British academics (as opposed to economists employed by the financial industry) accept the proposition that austerity has been vindicated. This media orthodoxy has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.

Still, you can say the same of Bowles-Simpsonism in the United States, and we know how that doctrine temporarily came to hold so much sway. It was all about posturing, about influential people believing that pontificating about the need to make sacrifices — or, actually, for other people to make sacrifices — is how you sound wise and serious. Hence the preference for a narrative prioritizing tough talk about deficits, not hard thinking about job creation.

As I said, in the United States we have mainly gotten past that, for a variety of reasons — among them, I suspect, the rise of analytical journalism, in places like The Times’s The Upshot. But Britain hasn’t; an election that should be about real problems will, all too likely, be dominated by mediamacro fantasies.

Krugman’s blog, 3/20/15

March 21, 2015

There were three posts yesterday.  The first was “Why Is British Economic Discourse So Bad?”:

What would Alan Simpson say?
What would Alan Simpson say?

Still at SXSW, which accounts for lack of blog posts — I mean, seize the day and all that. Not much action this morning, except a discussion with Snoop Dogg, which I’m not going to; but whenever I think about Mr. Dogg, I think about Alan Simpson. Which brings me to the subject of this post.

BowlesSimpsonism — obsession with the deficit as the key economic problem, despite incredibly low borrowing costs by historical standards (and the inability of the Eek! Greece! crowd to come up with any plausible story about how a Greek-style crisis can happen to a country with debts in its own currency) — has been fading fast from the U.S. political scene. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we have a rational macroeconomic discourse, with charlatans and cranks completely dominating half the political spectrum, but our Very Serious People have moved on, and may even feel a bit chastened.

As Simon Wren-Lewis has been documenting, however, British discourse seems stuck where ours was in 2011. Britain’s VSPs, very much including the news media, take it as axiomatic that the deficit is the dominant issue; terrible growth over the past 5 years (only slightly redeemed by an acceleration at the end of the period) and low productivity don’t seem to rate at all.

Yet objectively the deficit should have faded even more as an issue in Britain than it has in the US. Here are IMF estimates of the two countries’ structural (i.e., full employment) budget balances:


International Monetary Fund

You can see a couple of things here. One is that the acceleration of British growth, far from vindicating austerity, came just when there was a pause in austerity, a slowdown in the pace of tightening. As I’ve said in the past, if you have been repeatedly hitting yourself in the head with a baseball bat, you’ll feel much better when you stop; this doesn’t mean that hitting yourself in the head was a good idea.

The other thing you can see is that Britain has even less reason than the US to worry about deficits right now. So why the difference in VSP beliefs?

I’m actually not sure. One possibility is that the very harshness of US partisanship makes the ulterior motives of austerians harder to ignore. Another is that greater involvement of US academics in public debate has given the broadly Keynesian consensus of the profession — and yes, it is a consensus — greater traction.

Anyway, the sad result is that Britain is going into an election with bad, foolish economics not simply getting a hearing, but being presented by the news media as obvious, unchallengeable truth.

The second post yesterday was “The Age of Frozen Certainties:”

The Times has an interesting headline here: Richard Fisher, Often Wrong but Seldom Boring, Leaves the Fed. Because entertainment value is what we want from central bankers, right? I mean, Janet Yellen is such a drag — she just keeps being right about the economy, and that gets old really fast, you know?

OK, never mind. What is remarkable is Fisher’s complete confidence in his own wisdom despite an awesome track record of error. What’s even more remarkable is that his unshaken certainty is the norm among inflationistas and anti-Keynesians in general. So wrong for so long — and the other side has been right, again and again — yet not a hint of self-doubt.

If you want a contrast, consider the stagflation of the 1970s. Anti-Keynesians are triumphant, and cite it to this day as the ultimate empirical argument; and while Keynesians did rally, they took a lot of the critique (too much, in fact) on board.

And here’s the thing: the era of stagflation, at maximum, lasted from November 1973, when the first oil-shock recession began, to November 1982, when expansionary monetary policy worked exactly the way IS-LM analysis said it should. Long before those 9 years were up, we had proclamations that everything demand-side had been refuted by evidence.

Compare and contrast recent events. The Fed dropped rates to zero in December 2008. Since then we have seen a 400 percent expansion in the monetary base with no inflation acceleration; record peacetime deficits with record-low interest rates; huge economic contraction in countries that imposed austerity policies. All predictable and predicted by Keynesians, and utterly at odds with rival doctrines. And the resulting intellectual movement was … zero.

And the work week ended with music, as usual.  Here’s “Friday Night Music: SOAK”:

I saw a lot of great stuff at SWSX — San Fermin, Alvvays, Courtney Barnett, and more. Also ate and drank too much to make up despite some lovely long runs along the river.

But I have to choose one. She’s 18; I don’t think she’d have been allowed in that bar if she weren’t performing. But amazing — and I very much doubt I’ll get this close again:

Here’s one of the songs:

 

Collins, flying solo

March 21, 2015

Mr. Nocera is off today, so Ms. Collins has the place to herself.  She asks some questions in “A Woman’s Place Is on the $20:”  If Andrew Jackson were replaced on the $20 bill with a woman, who should it be? Eleanor Roosevelt? Sojourner Truth? Make your nominations heard!  Here she is:

You may have heard that there’s a movement afoot to kick Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman. Finally, we’ve got a current event that’s not depressing.

The only woman who has ever shown up on American paper currency — not counting Lady Liberty — is Martha Washington, who starred on an 1886 silver certificate. The fact that it was Martha adds insult to injury. She was an excellent first lady, but her exceptional fame is tied to the ancient idea that the greatest women were simply the ones married to the greatest men. (An alternative theory was that the greatest women were the mothers of the greatest men, and George Washington’s mother was equally celebrated, even though her son found her extremely irritating.)

Now, a website called “Women on 20s” has posted biographies of 15 notable women in American history and invited visitors to vote for a female face to put in Jackson’s place. The goal is to get the job done by the anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.

“Oh, my gosh! We’re just going crazy here,” said Susan Ades Stone, who has been running the project along with Barbara Ortiz Howard, a New York businesswoman. Things do sound satisfyingly hectic. The vote total recently passed 100,000; the overstressed website has gotten balky; and Stone, a journalist, has been on the phone so incessantly her husband has temporarily left home.

Amazing this idea hasn’t come up sooner. “Australians have a man on one side of each note and a woman on the other,” said Matthew Wittmann of the American Numismatic Society. “It’s pretty remarkable we can’t find a woman for any denomination.”

The U.S. Treasury hasn’t changed the faces on the bills since 1929, when Andrew Jackson elbowed out Grover Cleveland on the $20. Why, you may be asking yourself, did they pick Jackson? And why was Grover Cleveland there to begin with? Nobody seems to know.

Among the bills that are circulating now, the featured faces are all founding fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin) plus Jackson, Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, who graces the $50 bill. “Women on 20s” picked Jackson to depose mainly because of his horrific history with Native Americans, although there’s also the rather blissful note that Jackson disapproved of paper currency.

The nominees for replacements were chosen from a list of 100 women by jurists who were asked to consider both achievement and obstacles overcome. That tends to weigh the choices toward political warriors — like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger — rather than artists or athletes.

Recently The Times’s Room for Debate let experts name their favorites. Gloria Steinem picked Sojourner Truth, the escaped slave turned abolitionist orator. “I’m not sure Sojourner Truth would want to be on the $20 bill, but I would like her to be better known — by any means necessary,” she said.

Actually, I’d sort of love to see Gloria Steinem on a $20 bill, but you aren’t eligible to star on American currency until you’re dead. Also, she has mixed feelings about how much of an honor it is to appear on money. “For a while I thought we should just put the Koch brothers on and be done with it,” she said over the phone Friday.

But this isn’t the New Hampshire primary. It’s more like a national post-graduate course in women’s history. One of the best parts about the “Women on 20s” process is that it gives you a chance to complain about people who aren’t in the final 15. Matthew Wittmann thinks Amelia Earhart might be a good contender. Steinem wanted a Native American, or in her words, “a woman who was here before all those bonkers, hierarchical, monotheistic, Europeans arrived.”

The Native American issue looms large when it comes to replacing Jackson, who sent the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears. Lately, Stone said, she and Howard have decided that when they announce their three top vote-getters and ask people to pick a winner, they’re going to add a fourth option: Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. (“People felt it would be poetic justice.”)

If I could add a nominee it might be Angelina Grimke, the great abolitionist orator. Or Sybil Ludington, who rode through New York one night in 1777 warning her countrymen the British were coming. (Just like Paul Revere, except Sybil was 16, and rode twice as far.) Or Margaret Brent, who used her business acumen to save the colony of Maryland from being destroyed by mercenary soldiers in 1647.

Or maybe Elizabeth Jennings, the black New Yorker who sued the trolley company that tossed her off a whites-only car in 1854 — a court action that led to the desegregation of mass transit in the city 100 years before Rosa Parks.

But then, of course, you don’t want to pass up Rosa Parks. There are thousands of possibilities. Nominate among yourselves.

Brooks and Krugman

March 20, 2015

In “The Zero-Sum Moment” Bobo gurgles that we are living through a global era characterized by doubt and fear; it may be the single biggest driver of politics, from Israel to Europe to here at home.  Cripes…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston (who really should have Bobo’s job) had this to say:  “At a time when Republicans are merely signing letters that undermine our faith in democracy, David Brooks is writing one. Its message is one of fear, of suspicion, of arming ourselves, barring the door and drawing the wagons into a circle. It’s practically the clinical definition of the conservative pathology. If there is any doubt, it concludes by conflating F.D.R. and Reagan in a near black hole of false equivalence, comparing the man who stood against the social and economic destroyers with the man who paved the way for their return.  … Conservatives are slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, and Brooks is in the delivery room, pacing like a nervous father.”  Prof. Krugman takes a look at “Trillion Dollar Fraudsters” and says the modern Republican Party’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics.  Here, FSM help us all, is Bobo:

National elections take place within a specific global moment. In the 1990s, there was a presumption that we were living in an age of rapid progress. Democracy was spreading. Tyranny was receding. Asia was booming. The European Union was building. Conflict in the Middle East was lessening. The world was cumulatively heading toward greater pluralism, individualism, prosperity and freedom.

Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating.

In this climate, the tone and focus of politics change. Politics is less about win-win situations and more about zero-sum situations. It is less about reforms that will improve all lives and more about unadorned struggles for power. Who will control the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria? Will Iran get the bomb? Will the White House or Congress grab power over treaties and immigration policy?

At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel. The pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is staging a comeback in France. Putin is in his element.

Barack Obama started out as a hope-and-change idealist, but he has had to toughen to fit the times. Angela Merkel is the paradigmatic leader of the age: shrewd, unemotional, nonidealistic, austere and interested in power. As the former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told George Packer of The New Yorker: “If you cross her you end up dead. … There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”

In these moments, right-leaning parties tend to do well and have a stronger story to tell on national security. They speak the language of nationalism and cultural cohesion. People who are economically insecure (and more likely to lean left) drop out of the political process.

Both parties, though, change shape to fit the zero-sum contours of the moment. Progressives emphasize compassion less and redistribution more. Conservatives emphasize entrepreneurial dynamism less and the threat of government elites more. Electorates get a little uglier when faith in progress declines. Voters across the spectrum get more cynical and distrustful. They are quicker to perceive threats from The Other.

For example, anti-Semitism is a good barometer of a worsening public mood. According to the Pew Research Center, acts of hostility toward Jews are now rampant in 39 percent of countries, up from 26 percent in 2007. The U.K. Community Security Trust registered 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2014, more than double the number from the previous year.

It’s rare to have major realignments at a moment like this. Everybody is hunkered down and risk averse. Voters in this battened-down frame of mind are willing to elect familiar faces (better the devil you know). The Israeli, American and European electorates have been remarkably stable over the past decade. In Israel, for example, the overall vote that went to right-wing parties was stable from this election to last; it’s just that the Likud Party grabbed a big share of the nationalist electorate.

Still, you do see some shifts. Extreme parties rise, especially the ones that repel supposed interlopers and oppose elite global projects. We’re seeing that across the globe with the Tea Party, UKIP in Britain, National Front on the right in France and Syriza on the left in Greece.

Extreme parties rarely take power, but they do influence politics because mainstream politicians have to co-opt them. Mainstream politicians have to fight two-front wars: the official one against their ideological opponents and the unofficial one to silence, co-opt and crush the extremists on their own side.

This is what Netanyahu did in Israel. He didn’t literally renounce the idea of a two-state solution forevermore. He just said that it would be too dangerous in the near term as long as Islamist-style radicalism is on the march. (A defensible proposition.) Still, these comments and the ones on Israeli Arabs were blatant panders. He took Knesset seats away from parties to his right by becoming more like them.

These conditions will influence the 2016 American election, too. I’d guess that the cultural moment favors Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who have records of confrontation, over Jeb Bush, who hasn’t won election in this era and has a softer mien. I’d also say they strengthen Hillary Clinton. She has a Merkel-like toughness and may actually benefit from the familiar-face phenomenon.

In general, the power of the cultural moment shapes the candidates. But occasionally there is a leader who can turn a negative popular mood into a positive one. F.D.R. and Reagan did this. But you have to be very, very good.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

You might be tempted to shrug this off, since these budgets will not, in fact, become law. Or you might say that this is what all politicians do. But it isn’t. The modern G.O.P.’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics. And that’s telling us something important about what has happened to half of our political spectrum.

So, about those budgets: both claim drastic reductions in federal spending. Some of those spending reductions are specified: There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.

Meanwhile, both budgets call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes that pay for the insurance subsidies. That’s $1 trillion of revenue. Yet both claim to have no effect on tax receipts; somehow, the federal government is supposed to make up for the lost Obamacare revenue. How, exactly? We are, again, given no hint.

And there’s more: The budgets also claim large reductions in spending on other programs. How would these be achieved? You know the answer.

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

O.K., I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

So, no, outrageous fiscal mendacity is neither historically normal nor bipartisan. It’s a modern Republican thing. And the question we should ask is why.

One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue, but they’re afraid that the public won’t find such claims credible. So magic asterisks are really stand-ins for their belief in the magic of supply-side economics, a belief that remains intact even though proponents in that doctrine have been wrong about everything for decades.

But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation. Think about what these budgets would do if you ignore the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements. What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.

But this is, of course, not a policy direction the public would support if it were clearly explained. So the budgets must be sold as courageous efforts to eliminate deficits and pay down debt — which means that they must include trillions in imaginary, unexplained savings.

Does this mean that all those politicians declaiming about the evils of budget deficits and their determination to end the scourge of debt were never sincere? Yes, it does.

Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry.

Krugman’s blog, 3/18/15

March 19, 2015

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “No Business Like Show Business (Personal):”

A light Texas breakfast
A light Texas breakfast

I’m at SXSW; saw my first couple of sets last night. And right away I had a demonstration of why you want to see live performances.

I’ve been following San Fermin for a while, and they had a slot from 10 to 10:40 — which was nearly sabotaged by technical problems. The electricians kept coming on and off stage, while the band waited and waited — I don’t know what the problem was. Time drifted away — it was 10:10, then 10:20, the audience was growing restive, and I felt terrible for the performers, who seemed to be losing their chance to perform.

Then, finally, it was a go — and it was a totally explosive set, which left the band winded and disheveled, and had the audience roaring with enthusiasm.

What a great experience.

Yesterday’s second post was “Modern and Postmodern Recessions:”

As I mentioned yesterday, Romer and Romer have a new paper questioning the claim that recoveries are always slow after financial crises — and certainly slow recovery isn’t inevitable.

But I do think it’s important to realize that this dispute doesn’t invalidate a related point, namely, that the kind of recovery you can expect from a recession depends on the sources of that recession. Way back — before Lehman fell! — I argued that there was a distinction between modern and postmodern recessions. Pre-Great Moderation, recessions were brought on by the Fed, which raised rates to reduce inflation, then loosened the reins, producing a V-shaped recovery. Post-Great Moderation, with inflation low and stable, booms were allowed to run their course, so that recessions came from private-sector overreach — and the Fed had a much harder time engineering recovery. This was especially true after 2007, when we hit the zero sort-of lower bound.

You can see the difference clearly in a simple chart of interest rates and core inflation:

The recessions of 69-70, 73-5, and 81-82 were responses to inflation and the high rates the Fed imposed to fight it; the economy bounced back when the Fed was done. The recessions of 90-91, 2001, and 2007-9 were completely different.

And every time you hear someone claim that Obama failed because he didn’t have a Reaganesque business cycle, consider the comparison of monetary policy:

The Reagan recession involved a housing slump caused by the Fed, with a lot of pent-up demand that surged once the Fed had cut rates by 1000, that’s right, 1000 basis points. The Great Recession involved a housing slump that followed the mother of all bubbles, with a resulting overhang of both houses and debt — and interest rates could only fall a limited distance before hitting zero.

This doesn’t mean that a sustained slump was inevitable; we could have had a strong, sustained fiscal response. But that was prevented by the same people who now blame Obama for the delayed recovery.

Blow, Friedman, Kristof and Collins

March 19, 2015

In “Stop Playing the ‘Race Card’ Card” Mr. Blow says people who claim that certain accusations of racism are exaggerated seek to do what they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.  The Moustache of Wisdom has another question in “Bibi Will Make History:”  How is the rest of the world going to react to an Israeli government that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected?  By cutting off aid would be a start…  In “Deadliest Country For Kids” Mr. Kristof says oil and diamonds give Angola a wealth that is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, yet it has the highest rate of under-5 child mortality in the world.  Ms. Collins says “Oh, No! It’s a New Senate Low!”  But she says there is good news to share, too. The House has been on a roll, if you overlook some a terrible budget proposal and assaults on hapless poor people.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

So, Starbucks’ chief executive, Howard Schultz, wants us to serve the country coffee and a race dialogue.

This week Schultz announced that the chain’s baristas would have the option to write the words “race together” on cups of coffee and engage customers in a racial dialogue.

The suspicion and ridicule of this idea has been swift and broad. It has been mocked as impractical, hypocritical and even opportunistic.

Kate Taylor wrote in Entrepreneur Magazine:

“Tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing aspects of Race Together haven’t helped in establishing a strong base for employees to build on. Starbucks’ press photos for the event appear to feature only white employees. The press release on Race Together bizarrely leads with the subheading ‘It began with one voice,’ painting Howard Schultz as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race — something others, especially people of color, haven’t exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries.”

And yet, I would like to assume that the motive is noble even if something about it feels a shade off. Wanting to do something — even this — has to have a greater moral currency than resigning oneself to doing nothing.

So, in that spirit, let me start this portion of the conversation with this: Let’s all agree to strike the phrase “playing the race card” from all future conversation.

I was reminded of how toxic this term is in an interview, published this week, that former Vice President Dick Cheney did with Playboy magazine.

The interviewer asked:

“At different points, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have suggested that racism is a factor in criticism of them. Is there any truth in that?”

Cheney responded:

“I think they’re playing the race card, in my view. Certainly we haven’t given up — nor should we give up — the right to criticize an administration and public officials. To say that we criticize, or that I criticize, Barack Obama or Eric Holder because of race, I just think it’s obviously not true. My view of it is the criticism is merited because of performance — or lack of performance, because of incompetence. It hasn’t got anything to do with race.”

Before we dissect the use of “playing the race card here,” let’s deal with the questioner and the answer more broadly. They both trade in racial absolutes, which is a mistake and diverts from honest dialogue.

In January of 2014, President Obama told The New Yorker:

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” But he continued, “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

Furthermore, he explained:

“You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans.”

Attorney General Holder for his part told ABC News in July:

“You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver.”

Neither man was dealing in absolutes, but in nuance. The deliberate use of “some” people in both cases blunts the kind of retort that Cheney delivers. And there is empirical evidence that “some” people is correct here. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 2008 when Obama was running for office, 19 percent of respondents said they didn’t think most people they knew would vote for a black presidential candidate and 6 percent said that they wouldn’t vote for one themselves.

Cheney’s attempt at blanket absolution from what was not a blanket accusation holds no weight.

But now, back to that detestable phrase, “playing the race card.”

I have a particular revulsion for this phrase because of all that it implies: that people often invoke race as a cynical ploy to curry favor, or sympathy, and to cast aspersions on the character of others.

Maybe there are some people who do this, but I have never known a single person to admit to it or be proven to have done it.

Sure, living in a society still replete with racial bias can make one hypersensitive, to the point of seeing it even when it isn’t there. But this to me isn’t evidence of malicious intent, but rather the manifestation of chronic injury.

Furthermore, there are surely still people like the ones Booker T. Washington described:

“There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

But those who can realize a profit pale in comparison to the vast majorities of regular people trying to get by. To confuse the two is a deliberate deception.

It is one thing to debate the presence of racial motive in a circumstance, but it is quite another to suggest that people who suspect a racial component are exploiting some mythological, vaunted position and prerogative of aggrieved groups or exerting the exclusionary authority of the dominant group.

And furthermore, what other forms of discrimination are so routinely diminished and delegitimized in this way — cast as a game, a tactic or a stratagem?

The truth is that the people who accuse others — without a shred of evidence — of “playing the race card,” claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card. It is a privileged attempt at dismissal.

They seek to do the very thing they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.

Now, about that coffee…

Next up we have TMOW:

Well, it’s pretty clear now: Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a major figure in Israeli history — not because he’s heading to become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, but because he’s heading to be the most impactful. Having won the Israeli elections — in part by declaring that he will never permit a two state-solution between Israelis and Palestinians — it means Netanyahu will be the father of the one-state solution. And the one-state solution means that Israel will become, in time, either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy.

Yes, sir, Bibi is going to make history. And the leader in the world who is most happy that Netanyahu ran on — and won on — a one-state solution is the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Oh, my goodness. They must have been doing high-fives and “Allahu akbars” all night in the ruling circles of Tehran when they saw how low Bibi sank to win. What better way to isolate Israel globally and deflect attention from Iran’s behavior?

The biggest losers in all of this, besides all the Israelis who did not vote for Netanyahu, are American Jews and non-Jews who support Israel. What Bibi did to win this election was move the Likud Party from a center-right party to a far-right one. The additional votes he got were all grabbed from the other far-right parties — not from the center. When the official government of Israel is a far-right party that rejects a two-state solution and employs anti-Arab dog whistles to get elected, it will split the basic unity of the American Jewish community on Israel. How many American Jews want to defend a one-state solution in Washington or on their college campuses? Is Aipac, the Israel lobby, now going to push for a one-state solution on Capitol Hill? How many Democrats and Republicans would endorse that?

Warning: Real trouble ahead.

You cannot win that dirty and just walk away like nothing happened. In the days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu was asked by the Israeli news site, NRG, if it was true that a Palestinian state would never be formed on his watch as prime minister, Netanyahu replied, “Indeed,” adding: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel.”

This makes null and void his speech in June 2009 at Bar Ilan University, where Netanyahu had laid out a different “vision of peace,” saying: “In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” Provided the Palestinian state recognizes Israel’s Jewish character and accepts demilitarization, he added, “We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”

Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state — and that one state will either be a Jewish democracy that systematically denies the voting rights of about one-third of its people or it will be a democracy and systematically erodes the Jewish character of Israel.

Just look at the numbers: In 2014, the estimated Palestinian Arab population of the West Bank was 2.72 million, with roughly 40 percent under the age of 14. There are already 1.7 million Israeli Arabs citizens — who assembled all their parties together in the latest election onto one list and came in third. Together, the West Bankers and Israeli Arabs constitute 4.4 million people. There are 6.2 million Israeli Jews. According to statistics from the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish population of Israel grew by 1.7 percent over the past year, and the Arab population grew by 2.2 percent.

If there is only one state, Israel cannot be Jewish and permit West Bank Palestinians to exercise any voting rights alongside Israeli Arabs. But if Israel is one state and wants to be democratic, how does it continue depriving West Bankers of the vote — when you can be sure they will make it their No. 1 demand.

I doubt, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu gave any of this much thought when he tossed the two-state solution out the window of his campaign bus in a successful 11th-hour grab for far-right voters. To be sure, he could disavow his two-state disavowal tomorrow. It would not surprise me. He is that cynical. But, if he doesn’t — if the official platform of his new government is that there is no more two-state solution — it will produce both a hostile global reaction and, in time, a Palestinian move in the West Bank for voting rights in Israel, combined with an attempt to put Israel in the docket in the International Criminal Court. How far is the Obama administration going to go in defending Israel after it officially rejects a two-state solution? I don’t know. But we’ll be in a new world.

No one on the planet will enjoy watching Israel and America caught on the horns of this dilemma more than the clerical regime in Tehran. It is a godsend for them. Iran’s unstated position is that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem must be perpetuated forever. Because few things serve Iran’s interests more than having radical Jewish settlers in a never-ending grinding conflict with Palestinians — and the more bloodshed and squashing of any two-state diplomatic options the better. Because, in that conflict, the Palestinians are almost always depicted as the underdogs and the Israelis as the bullies trying to deprive them of basic rights.

From Iran’s point of view, it makes fantastic TV on Al Jazeera, and all the European networks; it undermines Israel’s legitimacy with the young generation on college campuses around the globe; and it keeps the whole world much more focused on Israeli civil rights abuses against Palestinians rather than the massive civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime against its own people.

It is stunning how much Bibi’s actions serve Tehran’s strategic interests.

And that is why I am certain that Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be a historic, very impactful prime minister in Jewish history. I just hope that — somehow — a Jewish democratic Israel survives his tenure.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Lubango, Angola:

This is a country laden with oil, diamonds, Porsche-driving millionaires and toddlers starving to death. New Unicef figures show this well-off but corrupt African nation is ranked No. 1 in the world in the rate at which children die before the age of five.

“Child mortality” is a sterile phrase, but what it means here is wizened, malnourished children with twig limbs, discolored hair and peeling skin. Here in Lubango in southern Angola, I stepped into a clinic and found a mother carrying a small child who seemed near death. He was unconscious, his eyes rolling, his skin cold and his breathing labored, so I led the mom to the overburdened nurses.

Just then, 20 feet away, a different mother began screaming. Her malnourished son, José, had just died.

Westerners sometimes think that people in poor countries become accustomed to loss, their hearts calloused and their pain numbed. No one watching that mother beside her dead child could think that — and such wailing is the background chorus in Angola. One child in six in this country will die by the age of five.

That’s only the tip of the suffering. Because of widespread malnutrition, more than one-quarter of Angolan children are physically stunted. Women have a 1-in-35 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth.

In a Lubango hospital, I met a 7-year-old boy, Longuti, fighting for his life with cerebral malaria. He weighed 35 pounds.

His mother, Hilaria Elias, who had already lost two of her four children, didn’t know that mosquitoes cause malaria. When Longuti first became sick, she took him to a clinic, but it lacked any medicine and didn’t do a malaria test. Now Longuti is so sick that doctors say that even if he survives, he has suffered neurological damage and may have trouble walking and speaking again.

Yet kids like Longuti who are seen by a doctor are the lucky ones. Only about 40 percent to 50 percent of Angola’s population has access to the health care system, says Dr. Samson Agbo, a Unicef pediatrics expert.

Angola is a nation of infuriating contradictions. Oil and diamonds give it a wealth that is rare in sub-Saharan Africa, and you see the riches in jewelry shops, Champagnes and $10,000-a-month one-bedroom apartments in the capital, Luanda.

Under the corrupt and autocratic president, José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled for 35 years, billions of dollars flow to a small elite — as kids starve.

President dos Santos, whose nation’s oil gives him warm, strong ties to the United States and Europe, hires a public relations firm to promote his rule, but he doesn’t take the simplest steps to help his people. Some of the poorest countries, such as Mauritania and Burkina Faso, fortify flour with micronutrients — one of the cheapest ways possible to save lives — yet dos Santos hasn’t tried that. He invests roughly three times as much on defense and security as on health.

“Children die because there is no medicine,” lamented Alfred Nambua, a village chief in a thatch-roof village on a rutted dirt road near the northern city of Malanje. The village has no school, no latrine, no bed nets. The only drinking water is a contaminated creek an hour’s hike away.

“Now there’s nothing,” said Nambua, 73, adding that life was better before independence in 1975.

“In the colonial period, when I was sick, they were afraid I would die and gave me good care,” he said, and he pretended to shiver in imitation of malaria. “Now when I’m sick, no one cares if I die.”

Statisticians say that Angola’s child mortality is, in fact, declining — but achingly slowly.

“Death in this country is normal,” said Dr. Bimjimba Norberto, who runs a clinic in a slum outside the capital. A few doors down, a funeral was beginning for Denize Angweta, a 10-month-old baby who had just died of malaria.

“If I lived in another country, I could still be playing with my daughter,” Denize’s father, Armondo Matuba, said bitterly.

It may get worse. With falling oil prices, the government has proposed a one-third cut in the health budget this year.

I’ve often criticized Western countries for not being more generous with aid. Yet it’s equally important to hold developing countries accountable.

It’s difficult to see why Western countries should continue to donate to Angola and thus let rich Angolans off the hook as they drive Porsches.

There are many ways for a leader to kill his people, and although dos Santos isn’t committing genocide he is presiding over the systematic looting of his state and neglect of his people. As a result, 150,000 Angolan children die annually. Let’s hold dos Santos accountable and recognize that extreme corruption and negligence can be something close to a mass atrocity.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

The United States Senate is worse than ever.

I know this is hard for you to believe, people. But, really, this week was a new bottom. The Senate found itself unable to pass a bill aiding victims of human trafficking, a practice so terrible that it is one of the few subjects on which members of Congress find it fairly easy to work in bipartisan amity.

“This has got to get done for me to continue having faith in this institution,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who’s particularly concerned about sexual exploitation of Native American women. She has always struck me as one of the more cheerful members of the Senate, so this seems like a bad sign.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed twelve bills against human trafficking already this year.

Wow, the House is doing great! If you overlook the introduction of a budget that features terrible math and many assaults on hapless poor people, the lower chamber has been on a roll lately. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, rescued the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and now they’re working out a plan to avoid the next fiscal cliff, which involves keeping Medicare running.

Plus, this week, the Republican majority got rid of disgraced Representative Aaron Schock, who decorated his office as if it was a scene from “Downton Abbey.” In the wake of questions about his mileage reimbursement requests, Schock announced his resignation. Since he had never successfully sponsored any legislation in his six-year congressional career, his greatest legacy may be a reminder that members of the House of Representatives should avoid brightening the workplace with vases of pheasant feathers.

So the House is working on a new fiscal-cliff plan, passed 12 human trafficking bills and subtracted Aaron Schock. Maybe it’s going to become the center of bipartisan cooperation the nation has been waiting for!

O.K., probably not. Anyway, it’s been doing better than the Senate.

At the beginning of the month, the Senate was working on its own anti-trafficking bill, sponsored by Republican John Cornyn of Texas, with several Democratic co-sponsors. The idea was to fine sexual predators and give the money to groups that help sex-trafficking victims.

Sounded promising. The Senate Judiciary Committee had easily approved Cornyn’s bill earlier this year. Then before it reached the floor, someone discovered that it had acquired a clause forbidding the use of the money to provide victims with access to abortions.

“They’re putting poison pills in their own bills!” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a phone interview.

Before we discuss how badly the Republicans behaved, we need to take time out to note that none of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seem to have noticed that somewhere along the line, this change had been inserted in the bill. (One senator acknowledged that an aide knew, but never shared the information.)

It was easy to miss, the Democrats contended, being very oblique and supertiny. “Out of a 112-page bill, there is this one sentence,” complained Democrat Dick Durbin.

I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that missing a change in important legislation is excusable only if the Senate Judiciary Committee is suffering from a shortage of lawyers.

No one seemed clear on how the new language got there in the first place, but abortion restriction is not something you casually toss into a bill that you want to pass with support from both parties. It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.

Cornyn argued that it made no difference whatsoever because there were plenty of exemptions that would allow any sexually exploited trafficking victim to qualify for an abortion anyway. That was a good point, except for the part where you wondered why he was so insistent that this allegedly meaningless language be preserved at all costs.

“My wish is that we hadn’t junked that bill up with abortion politics,” said Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican who has to run for re-election next year in Illinois. Many Republicans agreed with him, but in public they dug in their heels. In retaliation, the Democrats brought all progress to a halt with a filibuster.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thought he was going to show how to make the Senate work, was irate, and said there would be no vote on Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general nominee, until Democrats gave in.

Possible theme for the session: “Republicans who can’t lead meet Democrats who can’t read.”

Lynch did get some support from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who penned a letter urging Republicans to get behind her. When Giuliani is the most sensible voice in the room, there’s not much farther down to go, unless they start bringing in pheasant feathers.


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