There's been much talk recently about the record-shattering $4.3 million paid on Thursday for Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhein II. Via Ezra Klein, Florence Waters takes a crack at explaining why it was worth it:

It could be a long time before a photograph comes along that will top Gursky’s print. This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable — I should say unforgettable — contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.

But it is more than that. For all its apparent simplicity, the photograph is a statement of dedication to its craft. The late 1980s, when Gursky shot to attention, was a time when photography was first entering gallery spaces, and photographs were taking their place alongside paintings. Photography “as art”, at the time, was still brave and new, and the simplicity of this image shows a great deal of confidence in its effectiveness and potential for creating atmospheric, hyper-real scenarios that in turn teach us to see — and read — the world around us anew. The scale, attention to colour and form of his photography can be read as a deliberate challenge to painting's status as a higher art form. On top of that, Gursky’s images are extraordinary technical accomplishments, which take months to set up in advance, and require a lot of digital doctoring to get just right.

Well, OK. This is the kind of art-speak that drives me crazy, but I simply don't have an eye for art or enough background to allow me to make a judgment. So I'll just keep my trap shut on the merits of the thing.

But I do have another question. If this photograph was bought purely because the buyer thinks it will rise in value, then fine. Maybe it will. But if it was purchased because, as Waters says, it was groundbreaking enough to be worth $4.3 million, I have to wonder if any piece of artwork so contemporary can legitimately be considered so groundbreaking. Rhein II was created in 1999, which makes it barely a decade old. Plenty of other artwork that new or newer has sold for as much or more. But should it? Isn't there still some merit in allowing a bit of time to pass before we declare pieces of art so exceptional?

I guess that's antediluvian thinking. After all, if Gursky is today's Jackson Pollock, then there's no time to waste. Waiting even 20 or 30 years would mean missing out on the next Jackson Pollock. Hell, waiting two or three years might be long enough. And yet, something about this still seems out of kilter. Any comments from art lovers?

Tyler Cowen writes this weekend that he's temperamentally attached to the traditionalist vision of hard work leading to great wealth. But, he admits, that vision is "showing some wear and tear," which is why the Occupy Wall Street movement is attracting so much support.

Tyler notes three specific problems with this vision: It doesn't distinguish between wealth gained from real production (Model Ts, iPods) and wealth gained from lucrative but socially worthless activity (creating subprime CDOs); it's been undermined by bellicose conservatives who insist on risibly pro-rich policies even when there's no evidence they work; and it's not clear that this vision actually motivates a real-life dedication to responsibility and hard work as much as it used to.

Tyler's first two points are ones that are frequent subjects on this blog. But his third point rings true too, and not just because there's been a steady change in perception, though it's that too. It's the fact that hard work pays off very, very differently for different classes of people these days.

Take me. When I graduated from college and joined the business world, it was clear that hard work could earn me a lot of money. It would mean promotions, it would mean job offers from other companies, it would mean stock options, and more. And it did. I was a tech writer first, then a product manager, then a director of marketing, then a VP of marketing, and finally a divisional manager. My income multiplied nearly 10x over the course of 15 years, and it would have multiplied more if I'd had the ambition to stay where I was and keep moving up the ladder. (Instead I moved into the lucrative world of political blogging.)

But if you work in, say, an Amazon fulfillment warehouse, what does hard work get you? Not nothing, certainly. You probably get to keep your job, for starters. You might get small but steady raises. You might even rise into a supervisory position. Compared to a clock puncher, maybe you'll make 30 or 40 percent more. If you're really lucky, half again as much. And that's it. With rare exceptions, that's about the best you can hope for.

This has always been true, but it's even more true now than in the past. College graduates—the kind who write op-eds and blog posts about the virtue of hard work—are sincere in their promotion of an ethic of work. And they aren't wrong. But they do overrate how much difference it makes for most people. Especially in an era where working- and middle-class wages have been stagnant for over a decade, the rest of the workforce just isn't buying the Horatio Alger story anymore: Working hard barely even gets them a small annual raise these days, let alone the chance for significantly higher wages. So it only barely seems worth it. That's why I suspect Tyler is wrong to say this:

In the future, complaints about income inequality are likely to grow and conservatives and libertarians won’t have all the answers. Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores—of discipline and hard work—because they bolster one's chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.

It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.

Upper-middle-class parents may well yearn for this. But then, they already do, in deed if not in word. For everyone else, increasing income inequality will likely have just the opposite effect. As those Horatio Alger tales seem increasingly fanciful, and as dreams of even modest wealth become ever more obviously out of reach to the average person, it's going to get harder and harder to keep up the pretense that discipline and hard work are really the key to great wealth for anyone not in the upper middle class to begin with.

There's no easy answer to this. The world is going to keep getting more complex, and the rewards to education and skills are going to keep increasing. But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. Maintaining the conviction that hard work matters is obviously important. But we live in a media-saturated age where making every kid read "A Message to Garcia" is nowhere near enough to accomplish that. The reality of the world is simply too hard to camouflage, which means that if we want working- and middle-class high school grads to believe in the vision of hard work and wealth, real life has to match the vision at least tolerably well. This in turn means reducing the amount of absurdly undeserved wealth that goes to casino operators on Wall Street. Ditto for the wildly disproportionate salaries paid to CEOs. It means that even if most middle-class workers are never going to become rich, they should at least see their wages rise steadily through their lifetimes. It means that politicians have to stop handing out massive goodies to the rich for no good reason, and they have to stop insisting that these goodies be paid for by raiding the "unaffordable" benefits of the middle class.

None of this is easy. But the truth is that it's increasingly impossible to sell people transparently self-promoting fairy tales that plainly don't reflect how the real world works. If you want them to believe that hard work and discipline are important, then hard work and discipline have to really be important. Not just modestly helpful. Not mere drops compared to the obviously undeserved piles of so many of the superrich. If we want people to believe, we have to believe too. We have to believe that America should be a country where everyone prospers, not just the cognitive elite and the super lucky. Until we all believe this—until conservatives believe this—the notions of responsibility and discipline that conservatives talk about so much are probably going to continue fading. In recent decades they've simply dedicated too much of their lives and too much of their energy to patent unfairness to be surprised any longer that belief in being fairly rewarded is on the wane.

That's the lesson of Occupy Wall Street.

My Friday column on the way that corporations lobby for complex regulations because that makes them easier to evade drew a couple of interesting conservative responses. First up is National Review's Veronique de Rugy, who agrees that corporations do indeed engage in this behavior:

Obviously, this flies in the face of complaints about complexity and uncertainty brought about by the regulatory regime. But we often forget the other side of this equation. The fact that these companies manage to get what they want from regulators also flies in the face of the notion of independent regulatory agencies. It takes two to tango: Some regulators are more than happy to grant exemptions and special rules to given companies that will benefit from the resulting complexity.

Unfortunately, Drum seems to think that this means we shouldn’t take talk about regulatory complexity seriously.

No no no! It's true that I think this problem gets demagogued too often: when you live in a big, complex society — 21st century America, for example — you're inevitably going to have some fairly complex rules. That's just reality, and hauling out a huge stack of agency regs in a wheelbarrow or griping about how many pages Obamacare uses up is silliness. If you think a proposed reg has unnecessary complexity, you should be able to point to the actual complexity you oppose and propose a substitute that's simpler but still accomplishes a similar end. If all you want to do is eliminate regulations en masse, then you're just engaged in special pleading for the interests of the business community.  

That said, the law shouldn't always pander to the complexity of corporate life. If Wall Street creates financial instruments so complex and opaque that no one knows what's inside them, that's no reason to take seriously complaints that blunt regulations will wipe out Wall Street's ability to do this. If a simple rule prevents things from getting too complex, that's a double win.

More broadly, de Rugy and other conservatives are right that regulatory capture is a big problem. My beef with them is that this usually becomes little more than an all-purpose excuse to insist that the corporations hardly need to be regulated at all. I take it to mean something quite different: (a) market capitalism needs effective rules to work well, and we should always try to keep those rules as simple as possible (but no simpler!); (b) we should do our best to set up regulatory structures that are institutionally independent from the sectors they regulate; and (c) we have to accept that nothing is either perfect or permanent. Regulatory capture will always be with us, institutional independence will always erode over time, and both unceasing vigilance and periodic pruning are always going to be necessary.

Tim Carney and Rand Simberg bring up a different issue: the fact that regulatory complexity specifically benefits giant corporations. "This is why it's hard to reform ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations]," tweets Simberg. "Boeing et al view it as barrier to entry. They can afford legal staff to deal with ITAR rules. Startups can't." Carney elaborates:

Drum gets very interesting when he comments: "Complex rules, conversely, are the meat and drink of $500-per-hour lawyers and whiz kid engineers. If the rules are complicated enough, smart lawyers can always find ways around them. And American corporations employ lots of smart lawyers...."

If you're anything like me, right now you're seeing the distinction that Drum is missing, and thus the real reason you sometimes find corporations loving regulatory complexity. Here's the distinction: Some businesses are bigger than others. Some businesses can afford to hire as their lobbyists the very staffers who wrote the bill whose implementation is now being hammered out. Some businesses can afford to hire $500-an-hour lawyers to navigate the rules.

Some businesses cannot.

So, if you're a big business, even if you don't like a law, you can be confident that you'll survive it better than your smaller competitors will. And that's one reason why the biggest businesses often favor regulation in the first place while smaller guys oppose it. I call it "The Overhead Smash."

Agreed! This shouldn't be overstated, since many regulations specifically exempt small businesses. But not all of them do, and unquestionably this creates barriers that small businesses sometimes just can't deal with. It's a real problem, but again, conservatives too often use it as an all-purpose cudgel to oppose all regulation, and that's where I get off the bus. However, I'd get back on if this was a real conversation about how to write sensible regulations that do what we want them to do and can be reasonably followed even by smallish businesses.

Unfortunately, I think that conversation is basically nonexistent these days. Most conservatives simply don't want to talk about it, preferring instead to mindlessly demonize all regulation using whatever criticism comes most easily to hand. Liberals of a certain stripe are more open to different regulatory approaches, but not all of them. Some are every bit as captive to big business interests as conservatives, while others are happy to throw as much sand in the gears as they can possibly get away with. There are lots of places where this creates pathological gridlock, and one of them is the intersection of environmental regs and infrastructure development. I don't have any specific recommendations in this area, but I can't be the only person on the left who thinks that it's just flatly too hard to build stuff in America these days. I don't want to cripple environmental regs, but they should be clear enough and reasonable enough that even large projects can go forward with a reasonable amount of overview and something less than Jarndyce v. Jarndyce levels of legal obstruction.

If we lived in a non-insane political environment, this is the kind of thing that I think could produce a fair amount of common ground between conservatives and liberals. Liberals aren't going to buy into libertarian notions that every regulation is a taking, but many of them are open to the idea that land use regulations are too frequently oppressive and damaging to urbanist growth agendas. Likewise, conservatives might not like intrusive and arguably ineffective business regs like Sarbanes-Oxley, but if they genuinely want to avoid bank bailouts in the future they should be open to the idea that market discipline isn't adequate on its own, but needs to be supplemented with simple and blunt rules that truly force banks to operate in less systemically risky ways. We're not going to reach Kumbaya land or anything, but there really ought to be ways to reach genuine compromises on some of these regulatory fronts.

Unfortunately, like the economist who assumes a can opener, this assumes a non-insane political environment. It's not at all clear if or when we're going to have one of those again. Until then, we can only dream.

Last night I posted the tail end of the Republican debate:

PELLEY: How do you prevent the European crisis from becoming a problem on Wall Street?

PERRY: Well, the French and the Germans have the economic forewithal to deal with this. They have the economy. When you think about the Euro and when it was established, it was done to be a competitor to the American dollar. They knew what they were doing. And now they find themselves with their overspending and-- and-- the sovereign debt being built up. And-- 

How, I asked, was Perry planning to finish this up when he got cut off? I believe that Rudy2Shoes is our winner:

"And now they find themselves with their overspending and-- and-- the sovereign debt being built up. And--"

....and then they, you know like Greece and Belljam and, oh, what's that other one, you know, umm, Oh yeah-- Bolivia, I had to kinda look at my diamond-studded Bulova watch a little there to remember that one...., but anyway, getting back to the Euro I just think, well, you know how they left Norway or Sweeden off of the map on the coin and that, well, just sorta made the whole Scandoid Peninsula look just like a big limp penis, so how are you gonna prop up that, that um, currency-- you see what I'm sayin? There just ain't no confidence in the euro bein' able to perform you see because even if you stimulate it there is a risk involved if it stays stimulated for more than 4 hours or somethin' like that, I ain't no ecommonist or nothin, but what has to hap... oooh, ooh, wait a minute..... ENERGY DEPARTMENT!! That's that other agency I would cut, yes indeed-- I bet ya'll thought i'd never think of that didn't ya? Yeah, Energy Department has to go right along with, um, um... oh the Tennessee Valley Authority and um, um oh let me look at my notes here.... oh can't seem to, um.. ah shucks that other agency--, you know the one, that one that is shaped like a boot....um... oh damn-- it's right on the tip of my tongue....

Congratulations, Rudy! Your reward is the admiration of your peers.

There are all sorts of reasons that people like me, who are basically sympathetic to Israel but have never been hardcore partisans, have slowly felt our sympathies wane over time. A lot of the reasons are obvious, but some are a bit less so. The rise of fundamentalism is one of those less obvious ones, as this LA Times piece about the effect of haredim on women in Israel spells out:

Ultra-Orthodox leaders [...] insist that it is the secular and the liberal religious communities that are seeking to impose modern values and prevent the ultra-Orthodox, also known as haredim, from practicing a stricter form of Judaism. Those traditional values typically include restrictions on television and the Internet, modest dress codes and segregation of the sexes, which haredi leaders say is needed to protect women from sexual exploitation and men from temptation.

"Women walk down the street as though they are at the beach," said Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim, a spokesman and leader for an umbrella group of ultra-Orthodox factions....The conflict is gaining intensity, he said, because of the rising influence and numbers of the haredi community, once a small, scattered minority that today numbers 1 million, about 15% of the population.

....As their political power grows, they are demanding more accommodation for their way of life, Pappenheim said. "We used to be a small minority fighting for survival," he said. "Now we are a huge minority. As the saying goes, with food comes more appetite."

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike Muslim culture in the Middle East, especially its more conservative strains. Among them are its widespread embrace of sexism, theocracy, and intolerance. Watching Israel, once a beacon of modernism, slowly but steadily succumb to a similar set of pathologies is one of the more depressing sights in the world today.

Simon Kuper talks to writer Michael Lewis and Oakland GM Billy Beane about the Moneyball phenomenon and how Lewis discovered it:

The Oakland A’s baseball team were routinely beating teams with several times their budget. Clearly they must be doing something clever. The pre-eminent business writer of our times came to visit. The A’s’ general manager [...] cautiously told Lewis how the A’s were using new statistics to find good players ignored by other clubs....Beane was increasingly letting his twentysomething Harvard-educated statistician Paul DePodesta choose players on his laptop.

....“Moneyball” is [] a phenomenon, which after changing baseball is now sweeping almost all ballgames, from British soccer to Australian rules football. And it’s a phenomenon that reaches beyond sport. With hindsight, what Lewis captures in his book—the triumph of the highly educated over the lesser educated—is exactly what happened in the American economy.

....A year after the book appeared, the Boston Red Sox, with the 30-year-old Yale graduate Theo Epstein as general manager, won the world series of 2004 using Moneyball methods. In 2007 the Red Sox won again. Other teams began hiring Epsteins and Beanes rather than clubbable ex-players. Last season only three of 30 GMs in the major leagues had played professional baseball, none of them very successfully. Beane has ended up restricting job opportunities in baseball for people from backgrounds like Beane’s....The New York Yankees recently hired 21 statisticians, Beane marvels.

All us college graduate types shouldn't get too smug, though. Those highly educated folks Kuper talks about are now mere front ends for Siri and Watson and their spawn, and soon they'll no longer be needed. But all those grizzled old scouts who were put out of work by the Moneyball revolution? They no longer evaluate talent, we're told, but are still needed "for their soft skills." Before long, that's the only thing any of us will be needed for.

Did you miss the Republican foreign policy debate tonight? So did I, sort of. I spent about a third of the time watching the Stanford-Oregon game, about a third of the time following my Twitter stream — which was far more entertaining than the actual debate — and about a third of the time actually listening to the debate itself. So my insights are limited.

A couple of random notes. Virtually the entire debate was focused on national security: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East. Pakistan was mentioned constantly, and virtually every candidate took the opportunity to demonstrate that they knew the phrase "Haqqani network." However, not a single one of them mentioned the word "India," without which any discussion of Pakistan's motivations is completely worthless. Maybe next time.

Moderators Scott Pelley and Major Garrett did a weak job in general and a terrible job on Europe. Which is to say that in a 90-minute debate taking place while Europe is practically melting down as we speak, they didn't mention Europe once until the last two minutes. They managed to ask Jon Huntsman one question about Europe and Rick Perry half of a question. Nice work, guys.

Herman Cain almost charmingly demonstrated that he simply knows nothing about the outside world, and Rick Perry beat expectations by not imploding spectacularly again. All of the candidates insisted that they'd take a completely different approach to Iran than Barack Obama, but then proposed doing almost exactly what Obama is doing. For the most part, though, as Dan Drezner says, the candidates kept the crazy bottled up fairly well. But not always. Fred Kaplan's review of the crazy is here. Below are my favorite moments from the debate, both good (Huntsman and Paul on torture) and bad (just about everything else). Consider this the Cliff Notes version of the debate.

Michele Bachmann predicts "worldwide nuclear war" against Israel:

This is a very dangerous time. If you look at Iran and if you look at Pakistan and if you look at the links with Syria — because Iran is working through proxies like Syria, through Hezbollah, through Hamas — it seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel. And if there's anything that we know, President Obama has been more than willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street, but he hasn’t been willing to stand with Israel. Israel looks at President Obama and they do not see a friend.

Herman Cain demonstrates that he knows nothing about Pakistan:

You have said about foreign policy, "America needs to be clear about who its friends are and who its foes are." So this evening, sir, Pakistan, friend or foe?

We don't know. Because Pakistan is where Osama bin Laden was found and eliminated. Secondly, Pakistanis have a conversation with President Karzai from Afghanistan and President Karzai has said that if the United States gets into a dispute with Pakistan, then Afghanistan's going to side with Pakistan. There is a lot of clarity missing, like Speaker Gingrich says, in this whole region. And they are all interrelated. So there isn't a clear answer as to whether or not Pakistan is a friend or foe. That relationship must be reevaluated.

Rick Perry echoes Sarah Palin's explanation of her military experience:

For ten years, I have been the commander in chief of over 20,000-plus individuals in the State of Texas as we've dealt with a host of either natural disasters or having deployments into the combat zone. So, if there's someone on this stage who has had that hands-on commander in chief experience, it is me, as the governor of the State of Texas.

Herman Cain contradicts himself on torture within 30 seconds:

I believe that following the procedures that have been established by our military, I do not agree with torture, period. However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.

In the last campaign, Republican nominee John McCain and Barack Obama agreed that [waterboarding] was torture and should not be allowed legally and that the Army Field Manual should be the methodology used to interrogate enemy combatants. Do you agree with that or do you disagree, sir?

I agree that it was an enhanced interrogation technique....I don't see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.

Ron Paul opposes torture:

Well, waterboarding is torture. It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral. And it's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence. Why would you accept the position of torturing 100 people because you know one person might have information? And that's what you do when you accept the principle of torture. I think it's uncivilized and has no practical advantages and is really un-American to accept on principle that we will torture people that we capture.

Jon Huntsman opposes torture too:

We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights, and open markets, when we torture. We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries. And we lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for them.

Huntsman schools Romney on how to deal with China:

Romney: Well number one, on day one, it's acknowledging something which everyone knows, they're a currency manipulator. And on that basis, we also go before the WTO and bring an action against them as a currency manipulator. And that allows us to apply, selectively, tariffs where we believe they are stealing our intellectual property, hacking into our computers, or artificially lowering their prices and killing American jobs.

Huntsman: The reality's a little different as it usually is when you're on the ground. And I've tried to figure this out for 30 years of my career. First of all, I don't think, Mitt, you can take China to the WTO on currency-related issues. Second, I don't know that this country needs a trade war with China. Who does it hurt? Our small businesses in South Carolina, our exporters, our agriculture producers.

[Ed. note: Huntsman is right about the WTO.]

Rick Perry unleashes his war whoop, saying he will by God use torture until the day he dies, but he will never ever call it torture:

Let me just address Congressman Paul. Congressman, I respect that you wore the uniform of our country. But in 1972, I volunteered to serve the United States Air Force. And the idea that we have our young men and women in combat today, where there are people who would kill them in a heartbeat, under any circumstance, use any technique that they can, for us not to have the ability to try to extract information from them, to save our young people's lives, is a travesty. [VOICE RISES] This is war. That's what happens in war. And I am for using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young American lives. And I will be for it until I die.

Michele Bachmann suggests we adopt China's social safety net:

What would I cut? I think, really, what I would want to do is be able to go back and take a look at Lyndon Baines Johnson's The Great Society. The Great Society has not worked, and it's put us into the modern welfare state. If you look at China, they don't have food stamps. If you look at China, they save for their own retirement security. They don't have pay FICA. They don't have the modern welfare state. And China's growing. And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with The Great Society, and they'd be gone.

Rick Perry demonstrates that he only barely knows what the euro is:

How do you prevent the European crisis from become a problem on Wall Street?

The French and the Germans have the economic forewithal to deal with this. They have the economy. When you think about the Euro and when it was established, it was done to be a competitor to the American dollar. They knew what they were doing. And now they find themselves with their overspending and-- and-- the sovereign debt being built up. And--

And that's a wrap! Time ran out at that point, so we'll never know just what painfully ignorant point Perry was about to make. Lucky guy.

The Republican foreign policy debate tonight focused almost exclusively on terrorism and the Middle East/Central Asia region. At the very, very end, with the clock ticking down, Scott Pelley finally asked about our biggest trading partner, the European Union. Rick Perry got the nod:

PELLEY: How do you prevent the European crisis from becoming a problem on Wall Street?

PERRY: Well, the French and the Germans have the economic forewithal to deal with this. They have the economy. When you think about the Euro and when it was established, it was done to be a competitor to the American dollar. They knew what they were doing. And now they find themselves with their overspending and-- and-- the sovereign debt being built up. And--

And what?!? How was Perry going to wind this up when he was saved by the bell and Pelley cut him off? He obviously had no clue what to say about any of this and was about to wander off into free association land. All we can say is that at some point during what passes for debate prep in the Perry camp, someone mentioned the term "sovereign debt" and Perry was going to try to make some point about it. But what? In comments, please finish up Perry's remarks for him. You have 30 seconds.

Hmmm. What should I watch tonight? Stanford vs. Oregon or Republican Debate XVII: Global Armageddon? Tough choice. But I'll make a prediction anyway. Steve Benen asks:

Will Rick Perry joke about forgetting his talking points?

Answer: Yes he will. But he'll choke and screw up the punchline. And Stanford wins by a touchdown.

Paul Krugman admits that it's impossible to know if President Obama could have gotten a bigger stimulus bill through Congress than he did in 2009. But he still has a question:

One thing I wish apologists for the inadequate stimulus would acknowledge is that Obama and his officials never, at any point, suggested or conceded that they were settling for less than the economy probably needed. Instead, they always described themselves as being bold and forceful, applying the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force to the economic crisis—even as they knew full well that friendly economists were tearing their hair out over the failure to do remotely enough.

Fine. I acknowledge it. But I'm pretty sure I know why this happened. Here it is:

Because this is the way that every political administration in human history has acted.

Obviously I'm exaggerating for effect. There are always exceptions, and I could even name a few off the top of my head. FDR routinely lauded the accomplishments of his administration but, because he considered the New Deal a multiyear package of measures, also routinely described these accomplishments as good starts, not finished products. "This law," he said when he signed the Social Security Act, "represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete."

But this is very much the exception, not the rule. Generally speaking, there's just no mileage in politicians playing down their own accomplishments, and they know it. When they win passage of a bill, it's a landmark in human history, it's the product of thousands of people working together for the common good, it's going to usher in a bright new future for all Americans. Etc. After all, if a president won't brag on his own accomplishments, who will? And if voters aren't regularly reminded of what a great job they've done, who's going to vote for them?

In fact, this dynamic is probably even stronger now than usual, thanks to the scorched-earth era of partisanship we're going through these days. When the opposition isn't satisfied with merely opposing, but routinely froths at the mouth about your agenda clocking in just shy of the collected works of Satan, the only way to keep from being drowned out is to play up the gloriousness of your own accomplishments. It's not pretty, but it's reality.

So that's that. But here's a question right back at Krugman. Like him, I think the stimulus was too small, housing policy was inadequate, and banks were treated too gingerly. But even with all that granted, the way to judge a political leader isn't by the standards of perfection, but by the standards of what human beings working in a messy political environment can accomplish. So here's what I want to know: How did Obama perform compared to his peers? By "peer," I mean the leader of a reasonably large country fighting the global economic mess. Here's the basic list:

  • USA: Barack Obama
  • Germany: Angela Merkel
  • France: Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Italy: Silvio Berlusconi
  • UK: Gordon Brown/David Cameron
  • China: Hu Jintao
  • Japan: Taro Aso/Yukio Hatoyama/Naoto Kan/Yoshihiko Noda

You can add or subtract to this list as you see fit, but I'm deliberately excluding small countries that simply don't have much of a leadership role, as well as developing countries that didn't get hit very hard by the Great Recession. So where would you put Obama on this list? I'd have a hard time putting him further down than #2, and frankly, I think you can even make a case for him being at #1. And if that's the case, then our problem isn't so much with Obama per se, it's with the current state of the art in human collective action.

But maybe I'm being too kind. Anyone want to take a crack at making the case for putting Obama lower on this list?