Italy: Drowning not Wading

by Andrew Stuttaford

In a post the other day, I mentioned how Greece was (yet again) sliding towards another crisis in its relationship with its creditors.

This was despite the euro zone crisis being, you know, over.

I concluded that post in this way:

And then there’s Italy….

In a lengthy piece for the London School of Economics, Roberto Orsi takes a look at the situation there and doesn’t like what he sees.

It’s all worth reading, but here are some extracts:

Italy’s economy is not going to grow much faster than 1% per year in the foreseeable future in the best possible scenario. This comes after roughly twenty years of stagnation-depression. If Italy can only record a 0.9% growth in 2016, a year when numerous external circumstances were massively in its favour (a weak euro, ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing from the ECB [European Central Bank], low oil prices, growing trade partners), what will happen when this exceptional alignment of propitious planets dissolves?

A series of financial cracks have started to appear: not only the well-known story of MPS bank, but the banking sector in general is under pressure, with numerous institutions facing serious trouble. Unicredit, the largest bank in Italy, has closed 2016 with a loss of €8 billion, and it is now trying to raise an unprecedented €13 billion in new capital. Furthermore, it emerged recently that INPS, the largest state-owned pension fund and one of the largest in Europe, runs a deficit of over €12 billion/year and during 2016 has crossed the boundary into negative equity.

Italy has a debt/GDP ratio of well over 130%. With an economy which cannot grow in real terms, it can only reduce its debt burden by means of inflation. However, on the one hand the ECB has to keep inflation within limits in the interest of the Eurozone at large, and on the other higher inflation would push interests in the Italian debt higher, with a heavier interest burden which Italy cannot afford (if not financially, then certainly in political terms). After 2011-2012, when it became clear that markets were pushing Italy towards insolvency, the ECB has engineered a protection net to prop-up the national debt, thereby gaining time. However, this came as a consequence of a political agreement within the EU, according to which Italy received (indirect, but massive) financial aid in exchange for deep reforms of its economic system: from labour market laws to pensions, from spending cuts to governance changes. The German/EU idea was that Italy could be put back on the tracks of economic-financial sustainability through those reforms, which were even listed in all detail in a famous letter from the ECB in summer 2011.

After more than five years and three governments (Monti, Letta, Renzi) in which the technocrats of the economic ministries and the Bank of Italy have played an important role, it is clear that Italy is fundamentally unable to reform itself and therefore it will not regain the aforementioned economic and financial sustainability. In all frankness, the German/EU plan was hyper-optimistic at best, bordering on delusion…

Against this backdrop, the question for the EU is whether it will accept to prop-up the finances of Italy and Greece almost unconditionally in the future. In other words, whether the Eurozone will become a veritable and practically irreversible transfer union, where money is channelled, directly or indirectly (the latter is already happening), from sounder fiscal systems to cover the deficits of Rome and Athens….The European partners may accept to do so, out of political, geopolitical, or even humanitarian considerations. Indeed given that Italy and Greece will probably never be back on a sustainable track, the only real alternative to a transfer union is them leaving the Eurozone. This would entail a further, massive political blow to the European project, as well as a wave of acute financial instability (Italy’s national debt is well above the €2.2 trillion mark)…

On the other hand, however, instituting a transfer union would go against the EU treaties (arguably, although that may somehow be circumvented by creative jurisprudential interpretation), the constitutions of numerous member states, particularly Germany, the will of many in the EU elite, and certainly of electorates.

For my part, I suspect that quite a few in the EU elite would welcome a transfer union: ‘Ever closer union’ means what it says.  How voters in the better-run EU states would react—if they are given a say—to the prospect of subsidizing the eurozone’s  poorer countries indefinitely might be a different matter, however.  And, yes, thanks to the continuing effect of the vampire currency on its weaker members, it would be indefinitely.

Orsi:

At a deeper level, the Eurozone and the EU in general is rapidly turning into the opposite of what it was supposed to be at its inception a quarter of century ago. From a club of advanced economies and well-run states governed by the principles of Ordnungspolitik, fiscal integrity, and market oriented competition, it has turned into a redistribution system which accepts the failure of modernisation for vast areas of the continent, accommodates clientelistic if not kleptocratic elites in the South, and openly accepts economic parasitism, until the exhaustion of the relatively few, still productive economic centres in the North.

As was always reasonably likely to be the case for the euro zone, at least, and as (if not in quite such dramatic terms) Germany’s Chancellor Kohl, the statesman who effectively greenlighted the euro, was warned before the currency’s birth.

Orsi:

The question of the transfer union is a real and quite imminent crossroads for the EU. If the EU gives up on its core idea of modernisation, the euro-project can kick the can for another generation or so, at the price of being held together almost exclusively by negative forces, namely the fears of a complete break-up and the unwillingness to face its costs, and accepting the defection of several smaller economies in the North. Otherwise, no transfer union will mean the break-up of the Eurozone: initially involving Italy and Greece, with an extremely uncertain future for both countries, and almost certainly the successive disintegration of the rest (France’s trajectory is in the long-run unsustainable, too).

We shall see. My guess is that those running the euro zone will indeed choose to kick the can even further down the road, and I’d be surprised (particularly in the present geopolitical climate) if any of those smaller Northern countries will be prepared to abandon this voyage of the damned.  

America’s Misnamed Mad Dog

by Jay Nordlinger

The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, flew to Iraq. And he talked with reporters about the idea of seizing Iraq’s oil.

President Trump, the day after he was sworn in, said this at the CIA: “We don’t win anymore. The old expression ‘To the victor belong the spoils’ — you remember. I always used to say, ‘Keep the oil.’” The president then told the assemblage, “Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is — should have kept the oil.”

In Iraq today, Mattis said, “I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, have generally paid for our gas and oil all along, and I’m sure that we will continue to do that in the future.”

That is such a simple statement. Hardly worthy of making the news. Hardly worthy of repeating in a blogpost like this one. A humdrum statement. But those simple words — we “have generally paid for our gas and oil” — stood out to me. They are sort of stirring. Which is strange.

In this first month of the new presidency, Mattis has stood out as a beacon of reason, composure, and normalcy. (A word from Harding, in the ’20 campaign!) When I was a kid, I sometimes heard that military guys shouldn’t be let near civilian control. But Mattis, along with the DHS secretary, John Kelly, helps put the lie to that.

Ike did all right too, in the White House.

Good for Donald Trump for appointing Mattis and Kelly, along with (Thank Heaven For) Betsy and others. And may we Americans continue to pay for our gas and oil — at low prices. And produce the bejesus out of them.

How You Helped Pay for America’s Opioid Addiction Crisis

by Jim Geraghty

From the first Morning Jolt of the week:

How You Helped Pay for America’s Opioid Addiction Crisis

A stunning detail from Nicholas Eberstadt’s opus in Commentary, revealing how the national opioid addiction crisis was largely fueled by Medicaid:

How did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program. Here is how it works (we are with Quinones in Portsmouth, Ohio):

[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. Among those who receive Medicaid cards are people on state welfare or on a federal disability program known as SSI. . . . If you could get a prescription from a willing doctor—and Portsmouth had plenty of them—Medicaid health-insurance cards paid for that prescription every month. For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street.

In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning.

You may now wish to ask: What share of prime-working-age men these days are enrolled in Medicaid? According to the Census Bureau’s SIPP survey (Survey of Income and Program Participation), as of 2013, over one-fifth (21 percent) of all civilian men between 25 and 55 years of age were Medicaid beneficiaries. For prime-age people not in the labor force, the share was over half (53 percent). And for un-working Anglos (non-Hispanic white men not in the labor force) of prime working age, the share enrolled in Medicaid was 48 percent.

By the way: Of the entire un-working prime-age male Anglo population in 2013, nearly three-fifths (57 percent) were reportedly collecting disability benefits from one or more government disability program in 2013. Disability checks and means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do. The rise of these programs has coincided with the death of work for larger and larger numbers of American men not yet of retirement age. We cannot say that these programs caused the death of work for millions upon millions of younger men: What is incontrovertible, however, is that they have financed it—just as Medicaid inadvertently helped finance America’s immense and increasing appetite for opioids in our new century.

We did this to ourselves – or more specifically, generous federal health care spending programs, who had the best intentions about helping the poor and disabled, worked with reckless doctors to finance life-destroying addictions from coast to coast. No terrorist group could have hit Americans this hard.

The good news is that states are belatedly taking steps to address this:

States such as New York, Rhode Island, and Maine adopted new limits on the number of pills that doctors can prescribe, and West Virginia will, starting next year, require prior authorization from the state’s Medicaid program for opioid painkiller prescriptions. In the 2016 fiscal year, 22 states either adopted or toughened their prescription size limits, and 18 did so with prior authorization.

As mentioned in my profile of West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey last week, the WV AG office has targeted pharmaceutical companies, contending they provided massive quantities of painkillers to small-town pharmacies and doctors, and obtained $47 million in settlements that will go to drug-abuse prevention and treatment programs. 

In January, Morrissey’s office won a fight to sue McKesson Corp., the nation’s largest wholesale drug distributor, in state court, contending the company failed to develop an adequate system to identify suspicious drug orders. The company shipped more than 100 million doses of painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone to West Virginia —a state with fewer than 2 million people — in a five-year period.

His office isn’t just pursuing high-dollar settlements from the biggest fish, either. In December, he filed suit against Larry’s Drive-In Pharmacy in Madison, W.Va., alleging the pharmacy failed to identify suspicious prescriptions. The pharmacy dispensed nearly 10 million doses of prescription painkillers over eleven years — in a county of fewer than 25,000 people.

There aren’t a lot of cases where conservatives will instinctively root for lawyers against pharmaceutical companies, who are often unfairly demonized and rarely given enough credit for developing life-saving drugs. But if a company has profited from the jaw-dropping explosion of painkiller use and abuse, it seems fair to ask them to kick in for solving a problem they helped create, even if it wasn’t deliberate.

Whatever Happened to Democratic Capitalism?

by Peter Augustine Lawler

Let me join Yuval here at the Corner and many others in remembering Michael Novak as a singularly generous and charitable man, an influential, eloquent, and prolific author, and devoted Catholic and a loyal American. One of kind in many good ways.

When thinking about Michael, I also remember what a huge distance we are from the spirit of 1980s, the spirit of confidence in democratic capitalism.

Then, conservatives were confident that our capitalism would defeat their socialism or communism.

Not only is capitalism more productive, it, contrary to the claims of the Marxists, consistently improves the lot of the ordinary person. It’s effects aren’t so much egalitarian as democratic. Most everyone benefits.

Most important, a free economy is the basis for every other form of freedom. That means the Marxists (and, for that matter, Catholic reactionaries and many libertarian economists) are wrong about how comprehensive the category ”capitalism” is. It doesn’t devalue all of human life, reducing everything and everyone to nothing but resources to be exploited. “Democratic capitalism” isn’t an oxymoron. Neither is “capitalist Christian.” 

The example of America shows that economic freedom can be perfectly compatible with the flourishing of the family, the church, and patriotic citizenship — not to mention a vigorous democratic political life under the constraints of a written Constitution.

Communism was defeated! The socialist brand has lost most of its loveliness. And American theorists got so full of themselves in the Nineties that they even believed that the victory of our form of democratic capitalism was “the end of History.” A better way of life, it was said, could no longer even be reasonably imagined. All that remained was the work of perfecting the details and purging the deviant evildoers who still remained. And doomed currents of thought that were so clearly on the wrong side of History.

Well, what went wrong? Why has democratic capitalism lost its spirit? 

Let me conclude for now with an observation in the new book by my buddy Tyler Cowen: All the evidence we’ve seen lately reminds us that History isn’t linear. Instead,  iit once again seems cyclical. That means history doesn’t have sides either right or wrong.

All the evidence lately isn’t all the evidence simply. Christianity itself depends on progress based on unprecedented and unexpected events.  Simply cyclical is too pagan to be true. Semi-cyclical? That means our nostalgia has to be selective. And maybe–with some help from the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity–democratic capitalism or liberal democracy can be spirited once again.

Baltic Boy Makes Good

by Jay Nordlinger

Last fall, I traveled to two of the three Baltic states: Latvia and Estonia. I was there to report on NATO, Russia, and all that. When I arrived in Riga, the Latvian capital, practically the first words I heard were “Kristaps Porzingis.” I told them I had traveled from New York, and I heard, instantly, “Kristaps Porzingis.”

He is a New York Knick. I live in New York, and love basketball, but I am a die-hard Detroit Piston, being from Michigan. I follow the Pistons, practically to the exclusion of other teams. I had never heard of Porzingis.

But he is possibly the most famous person in Latvia. (He is famous in New York as well.)

I mention him because he is in the news tonight. He won the NBA Skills Challenge, a side event to the All-Star game. The Skills Challenge is a test of ball-handling, passing, and shooting. And Kristaps Porzingis is King (at least of that).

I imagine that Riga will be rocking this weekend, or at least buzzing, and that goes for the rest of the Latvian nation, too. We don’t pronounce “Porzingis” the way they do. But, increasingly, we know who he is.

What Is a Conservative?

by Jay Nordlinger

C-PAC is sort of like the conservative Super Bowl, and one of its star speakers this year will be Milo Yiannopoulos. There are many things to say about him. I’ll say just one. First, you need to know about “cuckservative.”

Buckle your seatbelt. 

“Cuckservative” is a term that the “alt-Right” uses to describe a normal conservative (for lack of a better phrase). “Cuck” comes from “cuckold.” The idea is, white conservative men enjoy seeing their wives have sexual relations with dark-skinned men, for the purpose of making the country at large darker.

Last year, the conservative journalist Ben Shapiro and his wife had a child. Ben sent out a tweet that said, “With infinite gratitude to God, we’re overjoyed to welcome to the world our new baby boy, who arrived at 10:30 this morning.”

Ben got the usual torrent of Nazi tweets, wishing his new baby and the rest of the family to the gas chambers. There were tweets showing the Shapiro family as lampshades. And so on.

Yiannopoulos wrote a tweet of his own. It said, “Prayers to Ben who had to see his kid come out half-black. And already taller than he is!” Accompanying this tweet was a comical picture of a black baby.

From where I sit, conservatives are going through something of an identity crisis. Who are we? What should our movement be? There is a lot of repulsive stuff out there, traveling under the name “conservative.” We can cough politely and look away. Or stare it square in the face.

I’m for staring, and forswearing.

N.B. It has been reported — by Breitbart and other outlets — that Milo Yiannopoulos will be the keynote speaker at C-PAC. But the organizers of the conference say this is not true. This post has been edited to reflect that. It originally said that Yiannopoulos would be the keynoter.

Leaving California with a Light Heart

by Wesley J. Smith

After more than 67 years as a Californian–since my birth–I have moved to the Commonwealth of Virginia, following my wife to DC after she obtained a prime journalism gig in the nation’s capital.

Once I would have left California with a heavy heart. Not now, for reasons I explain more fully at First Things:

Today, radical governance is the rule at both the state and big city levels. The California Republican party self-destructed, allowing the Jacobin wing of the Democrat party to take absolute control.

How skewed to the left have the state’s politics become? Due to a voter-approved initiative that has the two highest primary vote-getters appearing on the general election ballot regardless of party, some November races for major state offices are contests between a leftwing Democrat and a radical Democrat.

“San Francisco values,” once something of a national joke, drive contemporary California politics with a whip hand. Indeed, until the Los Angeles–area congressman was recently appointed Attorney General, San Francisco politicians controlled every important statewide office…

San Francisco’s predominance drives public policy into ever more extreme liberalism. With the election of President Donald Trump, “Calexit” activists plot to put a proposal on the 2018 ballot in support of constitutional secession. A recent poll found that a whopping one-third of Californians want to secede—and this before the campaign has gained major steam.

I describe how California no longer solves problems effectively. A new eastern span of the Bay Bridge took more than two decades to complete, and a few years later, rust and corrosion are already calling into question its safety.

Then, there is the tragedy of the Central Valley, sacrificed on the altar of environmentalism and coastal elite indifference –so powerfully and repeatedly described by Victor Davis Hanson on these pages and elsewhere.

I conclude my lament:

So, I leave behind the mess with a light heart, glad to have escaped before the economic and cultural collapse I fear will result from the public-employee pension crisis or another tech bust (not to mention the “Big Ones” that are overdue on the San Andreas and Hayward faults, which could do to Los Angeles or San Francisco what a Vesuvius eruption would do to Naples).

I am sure many contented Californians would say, “Don’t slam the door as you leave.” I get that.

And, to be sure, the state is never beyond hope. California’s intrinsic creative dynamism remains…But that is going to take reasonableness and common sense. In the current radicalized California, both virtues seem as exhausted as the gold nuggets once mined to such good fortune from California’s foothill streams.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love California. But sad to say, I am glad to be a new Virginian.

Following Up On The Foreign Emoluments Clause and Gerrymandering

by Dan McLaughlin

I hope you all subscribe to National Review; alongside a ton of great content by other writers, in the past two issues, I’ve covered why it’s a myth that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is mostly the work of partisan gerrymandering, and why the Trump Organization’s business creates ethical conflict problems – but not ones that should violate the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, so long as its business is confined to ordinary arms-length commerce. 

Writing on a deadline, however, means you sometimes get additional support for your thesis after you’ve gone to print. That’s the case now for both pieces.

In the gerrymander article, I cited, among others. the work of University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen with computer-simulated district-drawing exercises that test how much of the Republican advantage in legislative districts is gerrymandering and how much is simply the broader geographic distribution of Republican voters compared to highly concentrated urbanized Democrats. Well, Chen is at it again, in a recent article with Dartmouth quantitative social scientist David Cottrell that applies a similar methodology with more recent data:

We find that among states controlled by Republicans, about five Republican seats are gained through gerrymandering. And among states controlled by Democrats, about three Republican seats are lost by Gerrymandering. Moreover, Democrats gain about 1.75 seats from states subject to preclearance [under the Voting Rights Act]. This suggests that the Republican seat gain from Republican controlled states is counterbalanced by the seat loss in Democratic controlled and preclearance states…in states where gerrymandering does have a significant effect on congressional elections, the effect is relatively small. For example, other than in California [where it benefits Democrats], the partisan gain from gerrymandering amounts to no more than a fraction of a seat in any given state. While the total number of seats gained by Republicans is greater than the total number of seats gained by Democrats, the net effect of gerrymandering in Congress is only marginal. In fact, we find that Republicans are expected to net no more than one additional seat as result of it.

One interesting finding: while Chen and Cottrell find that the overall effect is minimal, they do find that preclearance under the Voting Rights Act creates seats for Democrats that would not exist under a race-neutral district-drawing process (different from the conventional wisdom that race-conscious gerrymandering actually benefits Republicans by clustering African-American voters in racial-enclave districts):

The preclearance states act to bolster Democratic representation, swapping Republican seats for Democrats. Without these pre-clearance states, Republicans would experience a slightly larger bias in aggregate seat share in Congress.

On the Foreign Emoluments Clause, I noted two competing views of what “emoluments” a federal officer (arguably including President Trump) may not receive from foreign government sources.  Norm Eisen, Richard Painter and Laurence Tribe advocate a broad view of “emoluments” to cover any sort of commerce between any foreign sovereign entity and the Trump Organization, a view so broad that it would hold President Obama to have violated the Foreign Emoluments Clause every time a foreign public library bought a copy of Dreams of My Father. That view is being currently pushed in litigation by CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), the organization headed by Eisen and Painter. By contrast, University of Iowa Law Professor Andy Grewal marshalled historical evidence (mainly from the 19th century) showing that the traditional understanding of “emoluments” was limited to salary and other financial benefits attached to the holding of an office, and did not cover outside private business interests.

Grewal’s view receives significant additional support from a new originalist analysis by retired University of Montana Law Professor Robert Natelson, author of The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant. Prof. Natelson focuses entirely on historical evidence preceding the ratification of the Constitution by the last of the original thirteen states in 1790, including (1) the linguistic prorgress of the Foreign Emoluments Clause and the other two emoluments clauses through the Constitutional Convention, (2) the background language of the Maryland Constitution of 1776, which also contained an antecedent to the Clause, and (3) a historical overview of the Anglo-American reform movement from which the three emoluments clauses arose – a movement that emphasized reducing the cost of government, yet also advocated the recruitment into government of men with significant outside business interests. Among other things, Prof. Natelson examines how the Eisen/Painter/Tribe reading of “emoluments” in the Compensation Clause (which bars the president from receiving emoluments besides his salary from the states or the federal government) would have eliminated Virginia tobacco planters like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison from ever being considered for the presidency, given the nature of state involvement in the tobacco business at the time. He concludes:

Consider the consequences of barring any U.S. employee from receiving the benefits of business dealings with a foreign government without congressional consent. Doing so would have rendered it unconstitutional for almost any government employee to purchase the debt securities of foreign governments. It would have barred anyone from selling goods abroad where they might be purchased by a foreign government. It would have prevented an official from purchasing land from an Indian tribe if that tribe were recognized as a foreign nation. It would have discouraged public service by imposing crippling burdens on people involved in foreign commerce (and who necessarily engaged in transactions with foreign governments), such as the Confederation Secretary of Finance, Robert Morris. Such an interpretation would have repelled some of the very people the Constitution-makers wanted to attract to government service.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once pointed out that a page of history can be worth a volume of logic, so let us move away from legal logic-chopping and counter-factuals to some actual history. The Constitution’s emoluments provisions arose out of a reform movement that addressed benefits payable by reason of government employment. Measures enacted during that reform movement, including the Constitution’s emolument provisions, were the products of careful balancing of competing values. The foreign emoluments clause of the Articles had been construed narrowly. Known cases of real abuse had included (1) Charles II’s secret acceptance of cash from Louis XIV in transactions related to the Treaty of Dover (a “present”), (2) the practice of customs officials extracting fees from foreign governments for harbor services (“Emoluments”), and (3) the practice of governments granting “Offices” or “Titles” to show appreciation to foreign officials. All these abuses involved items received by reason of office. I know of no historical incidents that would have induced the founders to apply a construction that included honest business transactions…

Who Are We?

by Victor Davis Hanson

The entire notion of identity politics — of appearance and tribe being essential rather than incidental to our characters — is coming under new reexamination in the post-Obama era. In this regard, there is a fascinating new documentary on race, identity, and the state by the filmmaker Eli Steele (son of Shelby Steele) on the paradoxes and contradictions of the Kafkaesque race industry. What started with his son’s being denied enrollment at the local school for dad Eli’s unwillingness to check off the proper ethnic boxes (for the tribally obsessed, his son is African-American, Native American, Mexican American and Jewish) culminated in a wonderful documentary, I Am, or How Jack Became Black. It is a fascinating (and disturbing) exploration of the contemporary subordination of the individual to careerist bureaucracies and anti-humanist orthodoxies.

Michael the Kind

by Yuval Levin

Well-deserved tributes are pouring forth for Michael Novak, who died yesterday at the age of 83. It’s frankly hard to know where to begin in praising him.
 
His scholarship and writing—he was the author of more than four dozen books—evinced an extraordinary combination of depth and range, though it is likely his most lasting work will be his 1982 classic The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. In offering a moral case for the market economy that also grasped its moral limits and risks, Novak reached back to the roots of modern economic thought and helped recover not only the moral philosophy of Adam Smith but also its much deeper foundations. The immense influence of that book is easy to overlook now, but it really launched a revival of the non-libertarian, anti-utopian moral case for capitalism, and it is the reason why that kind of case to this day is still most frequently articulated in the vocabulary of Catholic social teaching, even by us non-Catholics. The legacy of that book alone, let alone of his scholarship more broadly, would be enough to mark Novak as a giant.
 
But for those who had the privilege to know him (and I knew him far less well than some around here), it was Michael’s generosity of spirit and sheer kindness that really marked him out. He would go absurdly far out of his way to offer a kind word, especially to a younger person or a student. In any gathering, he would instinctively plant himself next to the person who seemed most out of place or anxious and start a conversation aimed at putting that person at ease. In a formal discussion, he would wait for some consensus to take shape and then speak up for whoever seemed forgotten by the group’s agreement. This generous compassion never seemed forced. It was natural to him, which made it all the more impressive.
 
Books are important, and arguments matter, but Novak’s lavish kindness is what I thought of when I heard the sad news of his passing yesterday, and what so often distinguished him. Our country was lucky to have him.

 

The President and Russia

by Andrew Stuttaford

President-elect Steinmeier that is: Did you think I meant someone else?

Just under a week ago, Germany’s parliamentary assembly elected Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the country’s new president. Steinmeier is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the left-hand side of Angela Merkel’s governing coalition. He will take office next month. Until recently, Steinmeier, who is also a former German vice-chancellor, served as the country’s foreign minister.

Merkel’s coalition decided to back Steinmeier for the presidency late last year. He was, she said, an “outstanding candidate”.

Here (via the Daily Telegraph) is something that this “outstanding candidate” had to say last year.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke out against recent Nato military exercises in Poland and the Baltics, describing them as “sabre-rattling”.

“The one thing we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation with loud sabre-rattling and warmongering,” the minister told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

“Anyone who thinks a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is wrong,” he said in excerpts released ahead of a longer interview to be published on Sunday.

“We would be well advised not to provide a pretext to renew an old confrontation.”

The reference to the tank parade was to the participation of some US combat vehicles in an Estonian independence day parade in Narva, an overwhelmingly ethnic Russian city in eastern Estonia which lies just across a river from Russia itself.

The Daily Telegraph:

Mr Steinmeier was speaking after Nato staged its largest war game in eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War earlier this month. Some 31,000 troops, including 1,000 from the UK, took part in Operation Anaconda, a 10-day exercise simulating a Russian attack on Poland.

Mr Steinmeier’s mention of “sabre-rattling” was a clear reference to Operation Saber Strike, another exercise currently under way in the Baltic states.

Operation Saber Strike is an annual US army-led exercise held since 2010. This year it is much larger than previously and will involve some 10,000 troops from 13 countries, including the UK…

Nato officials have been clear that the exercises are intended as a deterrent against Russian agression, and to reassure members along its eastern flank.

Three years previously Russia’s Zapad-13 (“West 13”) exercise had been on a rather larger scale.

The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss explained:

Though initially billed as a counterterrorism operation targeting “illegal armed groups,” Zapad-13 was very clearly aimed at fighting conventional armies on European soil. Which ones? Stephen Blank of the Jamestown Foundation has noted that the “simulated ‘terrorists’ were apparently Balts intent on mounting operations in Belarus against that government and on behalf of their supposedly oppressed ethnic kinsmen.” (Moscow propaganda usually has it that independent Baltic states with pro-European and pro-American bents are the modern-day embodiment of Nazi regimes insufficiently grateful for their “liberation” and occupation by the Red Army.)

An estimated 70,000 soldiers took part in Zapad-13, three times the number given in advance to NATO by the Russian government, although this year, contrary to reports in the Polish press, Russia did not simulate a nuclear strike on Warsaw, as it has in the past. Seventy thousand troops, however, imply quite lot of “terrorists” in need of vanquishing by land, air or sea. Included in the order of battle were a Belarusian amphibious landing force, Russian paratroopers and Spetsnaz (special forces), and 10,000 paramilitary troops from Russia’s Interior Ministry as well as unmanned aerial vehicles for targeting and damage assessment.

Interestingly Steinmeier supports a gentler line on Russian sanctions than does Merkel.

Reuters, reporting last June:

The European Union should gradually phase out sanctions imposed against Russia over the Ukraine crisis if there is substantial progress in the peace process, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted on Sunday as saying.

His comments reflect divisions within Germany’s ruling right-left coalition over policy toward Russia. Steinmeier’s Social Democrats (SPD) back a more conciliatory stance toward Moscow than Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc.

Merkel has repeatedly said that sanctions imposed against Russia can only be lifted once the peace agreement to end the conflict in Ukraine is fully implemented, not only partially.

Shortly after Steinmeier was selected as the coalition’s presidential candidate, Peter Korzun wrote an approving piece for the (ahem) Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation. Here’s an extract:

 Russia and Germany have been going through hard times in their relationship but Mr. Steinmeier has made a significant contribution to prevent it from sliding to the lowest ebb. The would-be president boasts good working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Personal chemistry and is a very important factor for improvement of relations.

In 2008, Steinmeier initiated the concept for a German-Russian partnership for modernization. He often visits Russia to supervise the pet project. The foreign minister is an honorary doctor of Ural Federal University, where he is a frequent visitor.

So there we are.

It’s perhaps just as well that Germany’s presidency is largely ceremonial.

The same cannot be said for the role of German foreign minister.

Here (via Reuters) is Sigmar Gabriel, Steinmeier’s successor (and another member of the SPD), speaking in Munich today:

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Germany remained committed to reaching the NATO target, but that it would be hard to boost its defense budget quickly by the 25 billion euros ($26.5 billion) that would be required. Germany now spends about 1.2 percent of gross domestic product on the military.

The NATO spending target is 2 percent of GDP.

Angela Merkel has been Germany’s chancellor since 2005. 

Reuters:

[Gabriel] called for a broader approach that also addressed security risks such as climate change, and said Germany should get credit for the 30 to 40 billion euros it is spending to integrate over a million refugees, many of whom were displaced as a result of failed military interventions of the past.

I’ll just let that stand there. 

Rolling Back Regulation

by Michael R. Strain

Amid everything going on in Washington, President Trump signed legislation last week. As reported by The Hill on Thursday afternoon:

President Trump on Thursday signed legislation ending a key Obama administration coal mining rule.

The bill quashes the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation to protect waterways from coal mining waste that officials finalized in December.

The legislation is the second Trump has signed into law ending an Obama-era environmental regulation. On Tuesday, he signed a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution undoing a financial disclosure requirement for energy companies.

Both the mining and financial disclosure bills are the tip of a GOP push to undo a slate of regulations instituted in the closing days of the Obama administration. The House has passed several CRA resolutions, and the Senate has so far sent three of them to President Trump for his signature.

Regulators finalized the stream protection rule in December, but they spent most of Obama’s tenure writing it.

The rule is among the most controversial environment regulations the former administration put together. The coal mining industry said it would be costly to implement and lead to job losses across the sector, which is already suffering from a market-driven downturn in demand for its product.

Speaker Ryan released a statement on the repeal of the stream protection rule, which you can read here.

The rule was repealed under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which looks to play an important role in deregulating the economy during the early period of the Trump administration. Speaker Ryan’s website explains:

Enacted in 1996 as part of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the CRA requires federal agencies who implement a major rule or regulation to submit it to Congress to review the substance and impact.

A “major” rule is defined by the CRA as one that has resulted in or is likely to result in (1) an annual impact of $100 million or more on the economy; (2) a major increase in costs or prices for consumers, industries, government agencies, or geographic regions; or (3) significant adverse effects on competition between U.S. businesses and foreign businesses.

So these regulations are big. And often harmful. They’re the kind of rules that start out as fine print in Washington, and end up forcing small businesses to raise their costs, eliminate jobs, and ultimately close their doors.

The speaker’s press release states that the repeal of the stream protection rule “is just the beginning.”

Let’s hope so.

Europe: A Warning from a Friend

by Jay Nordlinger

Toward the end of my latest Q&A, I make an observation about Jean-François Revel: One of the reasons he wrote his books was to wake people up — to warn them, before it was too late. I believe there is something of that about James Kirchick’s new book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.

Kirchick is my guest on this Q&A. We go from one European country to another: France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, the Baltics. Does Ukraine qualify? Oh, my gosh: That is a “fighting question,” to coin a phrase (I believe).

So, our discussion includes Le Pen (the whole family), the “Freedom” party in Austria, Orbán in Hungary, and, of course, Vladimir Putin, the “pope” of the new nationalist-authoritarian global movement.

Recently, Putin and Orbán huddled in Budapest, after which Orbán said, “We all sense — it’s in the air — that the world is in the process of a substantial realignment.” That is what Kirchick is talking about.

Kirchick may be wrong that a dark age is shadowing Europe. He may be right. But I recommend that he be heard out. Also, he reminds us that America has enemies, which do not include a free press.

Ten Things that Caught My Eye Today (Feb 17, 2017)

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

1. Stone sculptures smashed by Isil in ancient city of Palmyra restored to former glory by Italian experts

2. Tom Farr: What Trump Can Do to Secure Religious Freedom

3. Andrew Walther in Morning Consult: Christian Genocide Victims Deserve Support and Priority.

4. Mary Eberstadt: How Protests Against Donald Trump Reveal a Class Divide

5. Matthew Hennessey in First Things: “God has a way of reaching out and grabbing you. His handwriting is all over us.”

6. Ed Mechmann: Factions, parties, and partisanship … have no place in the Church. 

7. Peter Jesserer Smith: Pro-woman, Pro-life: Toward holistic care

8. Micheal Flaherty (former NR intern) and the Epiphany Story Lab.

9. From the ongoing City of God Twitter seminar Thursday night:

10. My evening view in the Northeast Friday night: 

 

PLUS: If you’re in D.C. that day, come to one or two events on Monday, February 27 co-sponsored with the National Review Institute on doctor-prescribed suicide.

One with Heritage at 3.

One with the Catholic Information Center at 6.

A 2015 Q&A with Barronelle Stutzman, who received a bad ruling for religious-freedom in Oregon yesterday. 

On engaging on social media in these times.

On a book on the transformative possibilities of the liturgical calendar

Another on everlasting love.

 

Michael Novak, R.I.P. – Three of Many NRO Flashbacks

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

As you’ve heard, Michael Novak died today, at home, after days of being surrounded by family. According to his sister, whenever he could speak in recent days, he would say: “God loves you and you must love one another, that is all that matters. God bless you all.”

Some things from the NRO archives:

Advice, via his daughter, Jana: “Prepare every day as if you’re going to live forever; but live every day as if you’re going to die tomorrow.” 

From an interview in 2011:

The transitoriness of life has often struck my heart and mind, everything around us reminds us of it — a rose pressed in an old Bible, fires from a log leaping into nothingness. The play, of course, is on Hopkins’s line that all nature is a Heraclitean fire: All is change, all is vanishing, flashing forth the glory of God.

And from another I did with him in 2001:

I have observed how often Great Awakenings actually occur in American life; it is never wise to bet against America. In this country, great changes (for ill as for good) occur swiftly.

When I was a young man, abortion was regarded as shameful, a great evil, a crime. After not more than a decade of public agitation on the part of a relatively small group, by about 1968, elite opinion shifted rapidly. After a massive public-relations campaign from most of the “better” classes, about half the American public (men especially) came to support abortion “rights.” What had shortly before been a great WRONG became a moral good (or at least a permissible deed) and a human “RIGHT.” Abortion is not, of course, a right; no one can have a right to destroy another. But as Woody Allen says, “What the heart wants, the heart wants.” I saw evil become “good” in fewer than 20 years. A short time for so massively important a switch.

The point is, in America great changes can occur quickly, even in matters of the greatest moment. They can change quickly for the good, too.

The tides that run in the human soul are very deep and sometimes very strong, but only God knows the hours of their ebbing and their rising. “God bless America” — grace — may have far more to do with it than we know. You should fight as if victory is certain. If the issue does not go well, if all efforts fail — then proceed “with a firm reliance on divine Providence,” as our Declaration commends. Both approaches strengthen one’s courage to continue.

More to come.

What You’re Doing March 16

by Jack Fowler

Let me give you but one highlight: You’ll be in Washington, D.C., attending the National Review Institute “2017 Ideas Summit,” and after an afternoon of panels featuring and presentation by wise conservatives — so far those who will be on hand include Rick Brookhiser, Ed Conard, Charles C.W. Cooke, Arizona governor Doug Ducey, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, Veronique de Rugy, Kristie de Peña, David French, Mollie Hemingway, Mark Krikorian, Andrew Klavan, Larry Kudlow, Dr. Charles Krauthammer, Michael Lind, Kathryn Jean Lopez, Rich Lowry, Heather Mac Donald, Andrew C. McCarthy, Jay Nordlinger, John O’Sullivan, Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, J. D. Vance, Kevin D. Williamson, and many more — you will take your seat at the Inaugural Whittaker Chambers Award Dinner, honoring British MEP Daniel Hannan for his leadership in the long and difficult and victorious “Brexit” battle.

Be there to discuss our movement’s opportunities and paths to success. A great event awaits. Get complete information here. See you on the 16th!

RIP Michael Novak

by Jack Fowler

Our dear friend and the former religion editor of National Review died today, aged 83, after a battle with cancer. There will be a symposium on this happy warrior and apostle of belief and faith and the morality of markets forthcoming on NRO. In the meanwhile, George Weigel has a reflection on the homepage, and the Washington Post has published a worthwhile obituary, as has Catholic University, where Michael ended a long and wonderful career as a professor and theologian. His smile and words kind and smart touched many millions of lives. I love that Michael’s Facebook profile picture was taken at one of the most wonderful moments ever on an NR Cruise: He was sitting, beaming, with his wife Karen (quite ill, she would pass away weeks later), daughter Jana, and son Rich. It was taken at the Basilica of St. John the Divine in Ephesus. Moments before, an aggressive guy selling weird tchotchke barged into the Novak scrum, trying to hawk bogus ancient coins and somewhat perverse statues. I needed to go to Confession after what I yelled. The entrepreneur left them in peace. Which is where Michael now rests, with Karen. Oremus.

Michael Novak, R I P

by Ramesh Ponnuru

The great Catholic writer has died.

Novak is best known for making the moral case for a free-market economy and for being one of the original “neoconservatives” who crossed from left to right. His books include The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, and (with his daughter Jana Novak) Tell Me Why.

Novak was a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a fellow) for 32 years. Its president, Arthur Brooks, writes about Novak here. Novak was also a frequent contributor to National Review. I can attest from personal experience to his kindness and generosity toward younger writers.

May he rest in peace.

Betsy DeVos Downplays the Power of the Education Department

by Paul Crookston

This morning the news site Axios published a write-up of an interview with Betsy DeVos, in which she laid out what she wishes she had said differently during her confirmation hearing. In addition, she touched on a much more important topic: the role of the federal government in the area of education. DeVos reiterated her commitment to limiting the role of her own department. She should stick to this.

DeVos was asked if the federal government has a role in education at all, and she said, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but . . . I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.” In both downplaying the department’s importance and deferring to Congress, she signaled that she will buck the trend of education secretaries trusting in the beneficent power of the administrative state.

DeVos went on to say that she considers the appropriate federal role in education as being limited to the matter of equal access. She named desegregation and ensuring that women have sports teams as legitimate objectives, but said that right now she does not see areas in urgent need of federal intervention.

Clearly, DeVos is trying to lower the temperature of the debate. She will be touring schools with the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, a union boss who used DeVos’s nomination to call her “an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system.” And she has refused to engage in name-calling, even after a union-organized protest led to her being shouted and refused entry to a school.

It would be all-too-typical of Washington, D.C., for a reformer to ascend to the top position within the Education Department and begin compromising her principles on the federal role in education — especially when she is under President Trump, who has touted executive-branch power. Thus far, the signs that DeVos is sending are welcome.

An Education Department Appointment that Would Really Make the Left Blow a Gasket

by George Leef

The Left blew up over the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education because she is opposes the near monopoly that “progressives” have over K–12. But DeVos has no experience with or much background in higher education and that’s why it would be great to have someone as undersecretary who has such background and takes a contrarian view when it comes to federal higher-education policy. The proper role for the federal government in higher education is none at all, but if we can’t get there, let’s at least minimize the damage it does. One scholar who perfectly fits that bill is Professor Richard Vedder. In this Martin Center article, Jane Shaw makes the case for him.

Vedder has done a lot of work on the economics of higher education and sees that government intervention here has the same sort of malign effects as it does everywhere else. It has made higher education higher in cost and lower in value. His 2004 book Going Broke by Degree was a trailblazer in the field of higher-education criticism. Vedder also served on the Spellings Commission, acting as the only true free-market advocate. And his small think tank, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, has turned out numerous useful studies and papers that challenge the conventional wisdom about college education in America.

Betsy DeVos will need a steady hand on higher-education issues and there is simply no one better equipped for that role than Richard Vedder.

In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Vedder had a sharp op-ed piece on the way to lower the high cost of college by changing our absurd system of student aid. I hope DeVos read it and thought, “Maybe he ought to work for me.”