Archive

November 28th, 2015

The discipline of gratitude

    Thanksgiving is about gratitude, which is a disposition, a virtue and a way of thinking all at once.

     We often trivialize gratitude as little more than a passing feeling that gets expressed on greeting cards or in quick thank-you notes (although I'd make a strong case for thank-you notes, which I do not write enough of). We tend to cite courage, honor, compassion, truthfulness, loyalty and a long list of other attributes as being far more important in the panoply of admirable moral traits.

    It can also be argued that gratitude is a privilege of those who have their health, enriching personal and family relationships, wealth, and the opportunity to live in peaceful and prosperous nations or neighborhoods.

    But this is precisely where things get complicated, and why gratitude is a form of discipline. Often those with hard lives and little wealth express enormous gratitude for what they do have, sometimes simply for life itself. Perhaps those with the least best understand Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's famous aphorism: "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."

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November 27th

What Ever Happened To The Home Of The Brave?

    So here's my question: What ever happened to the land of the free and the home of the brave? A gang of French citizens resident in Belgium commits a terrorist atrocity in Paris, and it's somehow President Obama's fault.

    Americans didn't used to freak out this way. The Paris attacks appear to have thrown much of the nation into the kind of panic we haven't seen since ... well, since the great Ebola crisis of 2014, when many of the same people were bleating like goats and predicting a deadly epidemic that would kill us all in our beds.

    That was Obama's fault too, remember? By failing to block nonexistent direct airline flights to Liberia, he'd left the U.S. vulnerable to contagion. Or something.

    Because the whole world is a TV show, and the president of the United States is in charge of the script. Unless the president is named Bush, of course, in which case it's somebody else's fault.

    Probably the French, actually. Remember "Freedom Fries"?

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Want to get richer? Then take in more refugees

    As political debates about Syrian refugees rage on both sides of the Atlantic, initial assessments of their economic impact on receiving countries are coming in: The influx is good for growth.

    A new Bloomberg survey of economists predicts that Germany, the biggest recipient of Syrian asylum seekers in the Western world, will get a 0.2 percent boost to its economic output next year if it takes in 800,000 refugees in 2015; that would be 12.5 percent of Germany's expected 2016 growth. The estimate is in line with the European Union's most recent economic forecasts, which predict increases of 0.21 percent for the gross domestic product of the EU as a whole in 2016, and 0.26 in 2016.

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Sex and drugs on the road to jihad

    There is a paradox to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. As it claimed responsibility for them, Islamic State said they were meant as a strike against European depravity. Yet the perpetrators of the attack were apparently no puritans.

    The Islamic State message called Paris "the capital of prostitution and obscenity" and the rock concert at the Bataclan, where most of the victims died, a "profligate prostitution party" for "hundreds of apostates." That's standard rhetoric for the group, which has been known to execute people for smoking, drinking or homosexuality. It's supposed to have a low tolerance of vice, though slavery and rape are tolerated, encouraged, if the victim is an infidel.

    Yet after the Paris attacks, witnesses reported seeing one of the top suspects -- Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was later killed by French police -- sitting outside his apartment drinking and smoking pot with his friends. He was apparently known on his street as someone who liked to hang out.

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Putin's waging war on far too many fronts

    Has Vladimir Putin finally overreached?

    The Russian president is confronting several simultaneous crises. Over the weekend, Ukrainian activists blew up high-voltage transmission towers and cut off electricity supplies to Russian-held Crimea. In St. Petersburg, his home city, on Tuesday a column of 600 heavy trucks was crawling toward the city government building to protest tolls on Russian roads (a son of a close Putin friend has a financial interest in the system). And on the Turkey-Syria border, the Turkish air force downed a Russian bomber.

    After annexing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, stamping out domestic opposition, deploying his military to Syria, Putin hasn't responded to the latest outrages.

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'President Trump?' Get used to it

    President Donald Trump? Surely I jest? I wish.

    The billionaire presidential candidate has been riding atop the Republican primary polls for four months. He constantly defies the conventional rules of political etiquette. He reveals no more than a passing interest in facts. Yet the more he is criticized, the more he seems like Godzilla to grow bigger and stronger.

    Trump's disinterest in facts came into full bloom after the Paris terrorist attacks. He famously reignited an old and roundly debunked Internet conspiracy theory that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the World Trade Center's collapse in 2001.

    New Jersey officials and journalists -- including the authors of a paragraph that Trump cited -- have found no basis in fact for his assertion.

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No girls allowed? The Boy Scouts have a case

    What are the legal prospects for the California girls who want to join the Boy Scouts of America? Five girls, ages 10 to 13, have asked the local council to be admitted as full-fledged Boy Scouts. Should they eventually take their case to court, they won't be able to rely on Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions, because Congress wrote in an exemption for the Boy Scouts. Structurally, the exemption resembles the one that Congress gave Major League Baseball from antitrust laws: It doesn't really have a principled basis, but reflects some combination of tradition and lobbying power.

    The girls could instead try to use state anti- discrimination laws to demand membership. The Boy Scouts would, however, have a response. They could claim that they're committed to the exclusion of girls as a matter of their core definition, and therefore invoke their constitutional right to associate in a discriminatory fashion.

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NATO confronts Russian base on Turkey's border

    When Turkey shot down a Russian jet Tuesday, NATO was facing its worst fear: a direct confrontation with the Russian military. The problem on NATO's southern border is much bigger than this one incident; the new Russian base near Turkey presents a larger strategic challenge for the alliance that if ignored could lead to ongoing clashes.

    Two days ago, Petr Pavel, the chairman of the NATO military committee and top military adviser to NATO's secretary general, warned me about the long-term implications of the new Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria. The Czech general did not know then that the Russian presence in Syria would cause an international crisis so soon. But he already knew that NATO needed to figure out a comprehensive policy to push back against Russia's new base.

    Pavel said that the base is not just intended to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

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Leaving the justice out of wealth redistribution

    I'd like to explain how most modern economists think about wealth redistribution. If you discuss welfare, taxes or inequality with an economist, you're bound to run into a concept called the equity-efficiency tradeoff. It's the idea that there's a fundamental tradeoff between the size of the economic pie and the equal distribution of said pie.

    Suppose you're a really rich person. You have $50 billion in wealth, though it fluctuates day to day depending on the financial markets. But even if the markets take a tumble, you will still have enough to buy almost anything you want -- mansions, private jets, super yachts. You can afford to give hundreds of millions to political causes, universities or charities each year without putting a noticeable dent in your net worth.

    Now suppose some hacker comes and steals $10,000 out of one of your brokerage accounts. Unless you have a very careful accountant, you probably won't even notice the theft. The difference it would make in your purchasing power would be negligible. The loss would be no larger than what you probably suffer a hundred times a day from the random movements of the markets.

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Even the first Thanksgiving was political

    Thanksgiving is a political holiday. It honors and mythologizes the comity -- based on a formal treaty - - between two peoples who needed what the other had to offer at a particular point in time.

    Delighted not to be starving, the Puritans of what is now Massachusetts feasted for three days in 1621, and entertained the local Wampanoags as their guests. Neither group was "American" in any recognizable sense, because no such thing existed. What brought them together was not shared identity but shared interests: Trade. Protection from common enemies. Mutually valued exchanges of technology and skills.

    Having sized up a hostile physical and political environment, from rocky soil to angry neighbors, the settlers found the Wampanoags worth cultivating, and opted to give the Indians a seat at the table.

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