Archive

December 1st

The United States of Contradictions

    With election year a month away, American politics is caught up in tensions, ironies, and a certain amount of sheer madness.

    On the one hand: The U.S. economy is a marvel, driven forward by technological innovation, the promises of Big Data and Advanced Manufacturing, a relative independence in energy supply, and a population younger than most other wealthy nations.

     On the other hand: Wages have been stagnating since the turn of the millennium, inequalities are widening, college is out of reach for many, suicide rates among white middle-aged working-class people are rising and, in a recent PRRI poll, 72 percent of Americans said "the economy is still in a recession."

     On the one hand: Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and have, at best, a very narrow path to an Electoral College majority next year. The rising groups in the American electorate -- Latinos, Asian-Americans and young people -- are hostile to the party, a problem its presidential front-runner is making worse with his unapologetic xenophobia.

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November 28th

Bush 41's lesson for the next president

    The news in Jon Meacham's biography of George H.W. Bush involved Bush 41's dyspeptic views of Bush 43's senior advisers -- "iron-ass" Dick Cheney, "arrogant" Don Rumsfeld -- and his not-so-veiled criticism of his son's conduct of foreign policy.

    The message of Meacham's book has received less attention but is more important: that governing with civility is not only possible but conducive to achievement; that flexibility is not a sign of ideological or personal weakness but an essential element of a successful presidency.

    "Americans unhappy with the reflexively polarized politics of the first decades of the 21st century will find the presidency of George H.W. Bush refreshing, even quaint," Meacham writes. "He embraced compromise as a necessary element of public life, engaged his political foes in the passage of important legislation, and was willing to break with the base of his own party in order to do what he thought was right, whatever the price. Quaint, yes. But it happened in America, only a quarter of a century ago."

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Ted Cruz sees a path forward

    While other 2016 Republican presidential candidates fret and fume over the front-running campaigns of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas lies in wait for their eventual meltdown. He has been offending neither of them in the hope inheriting their intimidating support among nativist, evangelical, tea party and other anti-establishment voters.

    Former or current high officeholders like Jeb Bush, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have taken turns trying to puncture the populist balloons of Trump and Carson, while Cruz functions as the conspicuous political scavenger in the race.

    Early on, the Texas lone ranger led the public praise of Trump, embracing or remaining silent toward the bulk of Trump's rants against immigrants, including the embattled Syrian refugees flooding over Western European borders.

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Two debates and two different worlds

    Political junkies felt like they were in heaven. This month afforded a rare opportunity to see all 15 viable candidates for president strut their stuff in two encounters: the GOP debate from Milwaukee on November 10; and the Democratic line-up from Des Moines on November 14. They were not only good political theatre, you could not ask for a greater contrast between the two major parties.

    Indeed, while there were occasional disagreements among candidates of both parties on the issues -- Marco Rubio v. Rand Paul on defense spending, for example; or Bernie Sanders v. Hillary Clinton on campaign contributions -- they were nothing compared to the vast difference between how Democrats or Republicans would address the same issues.

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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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