Friday, June 15, 2012

What I Read Today - Friday June 15, 2012

From: The New York Times

What Republicans Think

By DAVID BROOKS


Democrats frequently ask me why the Republicans have become so extreme. As they describe the situation, they usually fall back on some sort of illness metaphor. Republicans have a mania. President Obama has said that Republicans have a “fever” that he hopes will break if he is re-elected.

I guess I’d say Republicans don’t have an illness; they have a viewpoint. Let me describe it this way: In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower reconciled Republicans to the 20th-century welfare state. Between Ike and George W. Bush, Republican leaders basically accepted that model. Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but, in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats.

But many Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes. Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called “Our Age of Anxiety”:

“We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all — that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared. ... We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.”

To Republican eyes, the first phase of that collapse is playing out right now in Greece, Spain and Italy — cosseted economies, unmanageable debt, rising unemployment, falling living standards.

America’s economic stagnation is just more gradual. In the decades after World War II, the U.S. economy grew by well over 3 percent a year, on average. But, since then, it has failed to keep pace with changing realities. The average growth was a paltry 1.7 percent annually between 2000 and 2009. It averaged 0.6 percent growth between 2009 and 2011. Wages have failed to keep up with productivity. Family net worth is back at the same level it was at 20 years ago.

In America as in Europe, Republicans argue, the welfare state is failing to provide either security or dynamism. The safety net is so expensive it won’t be there for future generations. Meanwhile, the current model shifts resources away from the innovative sectors of the economy and into the bloated state-supported ones, like health care and education. Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle.

The welfare model favors security over risk, comfort over effort, stability over innovation. Money that could go to schools and innovation must now go to pensions and health care. This model, which once offered insurance from the disasters inherent in capitalism, has now become a giant machine for redistributing money from the future to the elderly.

This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing.

Mitt Romney hasn’t put it this way. He wants to keep the focus on President Obama. But this worldview is implied in his (extremely vague) proposals. He would structurally reform the health care system, moving toward a more market-based system. He would simplify the tax code. He would reverse 30 years of education policy, decentralizing power and increasing parental choice. The intention is the same, to create a model that will spark an efficiency explosion, laying the groundwork for an economic revival.

Democrats have had trouble grasping the Republican diagnosis because they don’t have the same sense that the current model is collapsing around them. In his speech in Cleveland on Thursday, President Obama offered an entirely different account of where we are. In the Obama version, the welfare-state model was serving America well until it was distorted a decade ago by a Republican Party intent on serving the rich and shortchanging the middle class.

In his speech, Obama didn’t vow to reform the current governing model but to rebalance it. The rich would pay a little more and everyone else would get a little more. He’d “double down” on clean energy, revive the Grand Bargain from last summer’s budget talks, invest in infrastructure, job training and basic research.

Obama championed targeted subsidies and tax credits. Republicans, meanwhile, envision comprehensive systemic change. The G.O.P. vision is of an entirely different magnitude: replace the tax code, replace the health care system and transform entitlements.

This is what this election is about: Is the 20th-century model obsolete, or does it just need rebalancing? Is Obama oblivious to this historical moment or are Republicans overly radical, risky and impractical?

Republicans and Democrats have different perceptions about how much change is needed. I suspect the likely collapse of the European project will profoundly influence which perception the country buys this November.

Friday, June 8, 2012

What I Read Today - Friday June 8, 2012

From: The New York Times

June 7, 2012


The Moral Diet

By DAVID BROOKS

In the 1970s, the gift shop at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was an informal affair. It was staffed by about 300 mostly elderly volunteers, and there were cash drawers instead of registers. The problem was that of the shop’s $400,000 in annual revenue, somebody was stealing $150,000.

Dan Weiss, the gift shop manager at the time who is now the president of Lafayette College, investigated. He discovered that there wasn’t one big embezzler. Bunches of people were stealing. Dozens of elderly art lovers were each pilfering a little.

That’s one of the themes of Dan Ariely’s new book “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.” Nearly everybody cheats, but usually only a little. Ariely and his colleagues gave thousands of people 20 number problems. When they tackled the problems and handed in the answer sheet, people got an average of four correct responses. When they tackled the problems, shredded their answers sheets and self-reported the scores, they told the researches they got six correct responses. They cheated a little, but not a lot.

That’s because most of us think we are pretty wonderful. We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity. Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.

Ariely, who is one of the most creative social scientists on the planet, invented other tests to illustrate this phenomenon. He put cans of Coke and plates with dollar bills in the kitchens of college dorms. People walked away with the Cokes, but not the dollar bills, which would have felt more like stealing.

He had one blind colleague and one sighted colleague take taxi rides. The drivers cheated the sighted colleague by taking long routes much more often than they cheated the blind one, even though she would have been easier to mislead. They would have felt guilty cheating a blind woman.

Ariely points out that we are driven by morality much more than standard economic models allow. But I was struck by what you might call the Good Person Construct and the moral calculus it implies. For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.

The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.

Obviously, though, there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently: I was honest with that blind passenger because I’m a wonderful person. I cheated the sighted one because she probably has too much money anyway.

The key job in the Good Person Construct is to manage your rationalizations and self-deceptions to keep them from getting egregious. Ariely suggests you reset your moral gauge from time to time. Your moral standards will gradually slip as you become more and more comfortable with your own rationalizations. So step back. Break your patterns and begin anew. This is what Yom Kippur and confessionals are for.

Next time you feel tempted by something, recite the Ten Commandments. A small triggering nudge at the moment of temptation, Ariely argues, is more effective than an epic sermon meant to permanently transform your whole soul.

I’d add that you really shouldn’t shoot for goodness, which is so vague and forgiving. You should shoot for rectitude. We’re mostly unqualified to judge our own moral performances, so attach yourself to some exterior or social standards.

Ariely is doing social science experiments and trying to measure behavior. But I thought his book was an outstanding encapsulation of the good-hearted and easygoing moral climate of the age. A final thought occurred to me. As we go about doing our Good Person moral calculations, it might be worth asking: Is this good enough? Is this life of minor transgressions refreshingly realistic, given our natures, or is it settling for mediocrity?