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Tags: Politics

Only One Side in American Politics Is Ready for Guilt-by-Association Accusations



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From the last Morning Jolt before Christmas:

Only One Side in American Politics Is Ready for Guilt-by-Association Accusations

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

New York congressman Charlie Rangel refused to believe protesters in his own city chanted support for cop-killers, prompting an incredulous CNN host to prove the Democratic lawmaker wrong.

Rangel appeared Monday with CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield to discuss the killing of two NYPD officers on Saturday. The congressman said that he felt there was a need to discuss the problems faced by New York and its police, but that the past couple days were not, in light of the officers’ deaths, the time to talk about them.

“But it is the time, congressman,” Banfield said. “There are people who are marching through the streets calling for dead cops in New York.”

“They are not, they are not,” Rangel said dismissively.

Banfield cut to video that showed protesters chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!”

Rangel tried to backtrack, saying the protesters’ behavior is “not acceptable” and speculating that those chanting must be mentally ill. “We should condemn it,” he said, “but we shouldn’t just concentrate on that.”

Let’s assume that Rangel genuinely had not seen or heard the video of protesters using that particular chant. His obliviousness says something about his news diet, as plenty of media sources have shown the video and discussed the significance. (The term “dead cops” gets 208,000 hits in a Google News search.) Odds are good you’ve seen it or read about it more than once in the past few days. For a lot of folks on the right, that video and that chant define the recent protests. Whatever debate there may be about militarization of police forces, the circumstances when officers use deadly force, and whether police training is sufficient, some portion of protesters appear driven not by a desire for justice but by an anarchic wholesale rejection of the police’s authority and violent animosity against the forces of law and order.

But note how confident Rangel was that the claim couldn’t be true, and that the protesters couldn’t possibly have chanted such a repugnant slogan. It’s a moral impossibility to him. Whatever he had seen of the protests, the idea of their anger at the police turning into a call for violence against the police is simply unthinkable to him, until he’s confronted with video evidence otherwise.

Do you remember seeing a picture of a banner at an anti-war protest saying “We support our troops when they shoot their officers”? If you were reading conservative blogs or alternative media back in the Iraq War days, I’ll bet you saw it. In our world, it was a big deal. It revealed a conservative’s worst suspicions about the anti-war Left, that they didn’t really support the troops at all, and that they yearned to see American soldiers shooting other American soldiers.

This bit of knee-jerk denial always stuck with me:

Appearing on the program with her was talk-show host Michael Graham, who mentioned a controversial sign displayed by war protesters at a March 15 rally in San Francisco. The sign — which made the cover of this month’s Whistleblower Magazine — stated: “We support our troops when they shoot their officers.”

Garofalo responded by calling into question whether the sign in fact existed and had been part of the event.

“That one guy that had that one sign — that you’ll probably beat into the ground,” she said. “You’re going to use it over and over whether it actually existed or not. That’s what all you right-wing radio hosts do. You make s— up all the time.”

When you’re a conservative, you know that any time there’s a nut job claiming to act in the name of a cause you support — from opposing government overreach to opposition to abortion — you’ll have that figure thrown at you for the rest of time. Never mind that you’re the kind of law-abiding citizen who always uses turn signals and doesn’t remove the mattress tag; the very fact that you disagree with a liberal is a signal that you’re a dangerous extremist at heart. Liberals clearly are unprepared for this, and thus are stunned when they face the guilt-by-association charge that their rhetoric denouncing big corporations, the military, police, and so on could fuel the fires of violent anti–World Bank protests, violent Occupy protests, and so on.

The Daily Beast tries to identify the perpetrators:

Evidence from photos, videos, social-media posts and interviews suggest that a group — the New York chapter of the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, or TMOC — might have been involved. There is no definitive proof that TMOC led the call for dead cops, but there is a web of circumstantial ties with the group at its center.

TMOC’s own social-media posts put them near the scene of the cry for police blood. Some of the slogans used that night — including “arms up, shoot back!” — are the same as the ones used by TMOC. And recently the group admitted that some of its members were arrested for allegedly assaulting police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge, just hours after the “dead cops” chant was recorded.

The bedrock of TMOC’s politics, judged by their social-media output, is hatred for police and endorsement of violence against them. The group seems to blend “black bloc” anarchist street violence with social-media campaigns. Keeping their organizing online, members can plan and incite without coming out from behind their digital masks until they hit the streets. (The group did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Tags: Politics , Charlie Rangel

Concluding Un-Huxleyan Postscript and the Difference between This Town and Other Town



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The voice of my friend on the other side of the phone was clearly exasperated. In a very apologetic tone he tells me that if we were doing this three years ago it would have been completed with no trouble, but events have made something as simple as signing up for health care a ridiculously heroic endeavor.

My friend was a health insurance agent, and we were at the tail end of an eighteen-month journey trying to get me and my family of four a sane health-care insurance policy. When we started, both my friend and I were of the same skeptical mind regarding the prospects of the soon to unfold first phase of the Affordable Care Act. He, because as an insurance agent, he was already seeing the confusion that it was unleashing from within the health-insurance industry; me, because I am a manufacturing and process engineer and my experience has been that actual cost–benefit efficiencies in any process are never improved by micro-managing from the top, but more often are seriously degraded. As it happened, events proved our skepticism right.

So I had opted instead to take a serious hair cut with COBRA and wait it out until things settled down in the industry. Eighteen months later, with COBRA ending, I was forced to enter the post apocalyptic world of our national health insurance industry, an adventure that would have me and my friend spending days on California’s insurance exchange website, days more on private insurance providers websites, and an especially enjoyable two hours I spent on the phone in a death spiral of customer service handoffs. By accident one of those handoffs put me in contact with a department deeper inside the health insurance beast and which sounded like I was calling the IT equivalent of a battleship that was taking in water,

I’m sorry. All of IT is working on the website trying to fix the problem. There’s no one left to support customer service.

What I didn’t realize so many months ago when my friend and I began this process was that as a result of the Twittersphere, I was going to have words with a former member of the regime that ushered in this new healthcare revolution. And by words I mean a three tweet exchange.

In the same week that my friend and I were attempting to conclude our epic endeavor, I had just posted a blog article titled “Politics in the Age of Soma: How We Became the United States of Aldous Huxley.” In what would prove later to be an ironic twist, it was a follow-up to my critical assessment of the Obama administration, “Barack Obama and the Difference Between Attaining Office and Attaining Power.” In that article I discussed how the political environment that allowed Obama to win re-election has become dangerously selective for personalities least disposed to acknowledge and deal with the world as it is. Politics in the Age of Soma was intended to explain why that political environment exists, because our culture has ceased to be influenced by typographic literacy but rather by an appetite for amusement, and our politics has naturally come to reflect that disposition.

When I got off the phone with my insurance agent friend I had a few moments to see how Politics in the Age of Soma was doing on Twitter. To my pleasant surprise Mark Leibovich, the author of the book This Town, which I rely on extensively in the article, re-tweeted the link. This seemed to have sent the article into the D.C. political culture because it was then re-re-tweeted by one Jon Lovett, whose resume includes standup comedian, speech writer for three years for the Obama administration followed by a stint as creator of the TV show 1600 Penn, a sit com about a dysfunctional family in the White House.

No. The irony was not lost on me.

“He did read the article, didn’t he?” I thought to myself.  An article, the subject of which is quite literally about the deleterious effects of TV and amusement on the quality of our public discourse and ends quoting Neil Postman from his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

What is one to make of a former denizen of Mark Leibovich’s This Town recommending an article that seems to call special jaundiced attention to his own craft? Partly out of curiosity, and partly out of aggravation toward Mr. Lovett’s former boss for making my last few weeks miserable, I tweeted Mr. Lovett directly.

Um, thanks for the retweet, but a Comic/Speech Writer for the Obama admin is sort of exhibit A of the problem.

Mr. Lovett was kind enough to favorite the tweet and respond about ten minutes later.

I assure you that the vast majority of speeches I wrote were not entertaining in the slightest.

If Twitter has become our generation’s salon of the networked world, Mr. Lovett’s tweet had whatever the Twitter equivalent is of a powdered wig and a snuff box: charming, self-deprecating, and artful in its ironic evasion.

It brought to mind a quote cited by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll of Salon writing on the culturally corrosive effects of irony. The passage is from  the late author David Foster Wallace.

Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.

The quote didn’t just come to mind because of Mr. Lovett’s Tweet. But because of the, I think not coincidental, quality it bears to the habits of the town he worked in, including that of his former boss.

Whenever he [Obama] lapsed into shtick, a behavioral category that incorporated much of what politicians do in public, it was with an implicit nod to the game transpiring. He was playacting, in other words, and he wanted you to know that he knew it. [Mark Leibovich, This Town]

This kind of irony, the knowing winking and nodding while engaging in political kitsch, appears to be the coin of the realm in This Town the purpose of which seems to be not just to obscure but also to psychically absolve a culture whose high self opinion must needs take refuge from the taint of the sausage coming out of D.C. Irony, it seems, is the lipstick to the Beltway pig.

In Ashyby and Carroll’s worthwhile article, they explore the unfortunate descent of irony in cultural usage, from a potent tool of sixties dissent, it gradually became co-opted by pop culture and has now become a kind of default of hipster wannabe’s, late night TV kitsch, and a tribal tic intended to communicate sophistication without the sophistication.

Irony was becomin a protective carapace . . . a defense mechanism against the possibility of seeming naïve.

I would add it is also one more endowment given to our culture compliments of the medium which was the subject of my previous post, and has particularly flourished in our political class. But unfortunately, as the last couple weeks of my healthcare adventure has demonstrated, irony doesn’t make for good policy.

My response to Mr. Lovett’s tweet lacked his art. It is bad Twitter etiquette, it seems, to respond to charming self deprecation with full throated sarcasm, at least not without first engaging in some form of mutually diverting foreplay. I made the classic blunder of those who live outside This Town of attempting to cut to the chase.

But in my defense, we in Other Town are in a difficult position. We are the recipients, for better or worse, of the product of This Town. Our lives are directly affected by the horse trading, sausage making, sell-your-mother-to-move-up-the-political-food-chain, culture that has given us the Frankenstein’s Monster of public policies. Whereas whatever means remains that keeps This Town accountable to Other Town has deteriorated before the reality distortion field of media and the culture it has cultivated which has served to protect its own. This is why Mr. Leibovich’s book has provided such a service to those of us in Other Town who have read it and thought about its implications.

I assume Mr. Lovett recommended my article because he recognized something true in it, and this is good. But I also interpret his artful evasion as the sort of self-insulating tic of a culture that resists, and will continue to resist, its logical implication.

This does not mean, however, that the rest of us need to be so constrained.  For those readers who have somehow wandered innocently onto this blog post and yet remain unmoved, please, buy and read Mark Leibovich’s book This Town and then return to this post. If you are still unmoved, reread Mark Leibovich’s book, but this time take very careful notes, because you may have a fabulous future awaiting you as a wannabe denizen of our glittering Versailles on the Potomac.

For the remaining readers, I’ll just leave you with the following words from someone who, it will become clear, was neither a stand-up comedian, speech writer, nor political consultant:

It’s time to put away childish things.

Update: Mr. Lovett kindly responded to me directly regarding my post stating that the tweet I refer to above was posted strictly to avoid an argument on Twitter, and that he will attempt to respond to my comments when he is able. Feel free to keep this in mind as you consider the above. I thanked Mr. Lovett and told him that I look forward to his response.

 

Tags: Politics

Politics in the Age of Soma: How We Became the United States of Aldous Huxley



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The decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Three fourths into Mark Leibovich’s unflattering expose of beltway Washington culture, This Town, the reader is treated to a scene that distills to an essence our absurd political situation. The event was the spectacular opening of a new movie, not in Los Angeles or New York but in the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which was attended by a mélange of politico-entertainment celebrity from Tom Hanks to Mika Brzezinski. The film was a political dramedy about an underdog presidential candidate who in his desperation chose a colorful and folksy politician from a far away state as his choice for vice president, only to realize that said politician was far more than anyone had bargained for. Partisan hilarity ensues. The candidate, of course was John McCain, and the movie was HBO’s adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s account of the 2008 presidential election, Game Change.  

The primary source for most of the inside dirt on the McCain campaign was the campaign manager, Steve Schmidt. By serving as a primary source of the book and the movie, and delivering some of the juicier incriminating facts about the comic inadequacies of VP candidate Sarah Palin, for whom he was the foremost advocate before dishing the dirt on her, Schmidt managed to parlay what objectively should have been a career-ending political catastrophe into a lucrative career as a member of the pundit class serving his product on MSNBC, Meet the Press, and on the speakers circuit, and ultimately landing a job as vice chairman of public affairs at one of the world’s biggest public-relations outfits.

Mark Leibovich ends his account of the event with this comment concerning the benighted demonstrators who met the film’s opening.

Outside the Newseum, a small group of protesters – Palin loyalists – were handing out white and yellow fliers … They reiterated the former Alaska governor’s oft-quoted charge that Game Change was based on a “false narrative”. Whether it was or not, much of Washington ceased being about true narratives long ago, anyway. It is about virtual reality: the video game in which we are all characters and try to be a player.

A unifying theme in Leibovich’s account of today’s Washington is the ubiquity of status anxiety as defined, not by merit or quality of service, but celebrity, or more specifically entertainment. Washington, D.C., is inhabited by a peculiar species of social climber that is haunted by the aspiration to be significant enough to be portrayed on the screen, and having achieved that status, by the other burning question, “who will play me?” In the case of Mr. Schmidt it was Woody Harrelson.

I’ve written elsewhere how Leibovich identifies Bill Clinton’s 1990s as the pivotal moment of convergence between the culture of politics, entertainment, and money marking the genesis of our present-day governing culture wherein the main pre-occupation is not governing, but alternate reality. But to be fair to the 42nd president, the Washington, D.C., of today was at least a half-century in the making.

It is difficult to say exactly when politicians began to put themselves forward, intentionally, as sources of amusement. In the 1950’s, Senator Everett Dirksen appeared as a guest on “What’s My Line?” When he was running for office, John F. Kennedy allowed the television cameras of Ed Murrow’s “Person to Person” invade his home. When he was not running for office, Richard Nixon appeared a few seconds on “Laugh-In” … By the 1970’s, the public had started to become accustomed to the notion that political figures were to be taken as part of the world of show business. In the 1980’s came the deluge. Vice-presidential candidate William Miller did a commercial for American Express. So did the star of the Watergate Hearings, Senator Sam Ervin. Former President Gerald Ford joined the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for brief roles on “Dynasty”…. Although it may go too far to say that the politician-as-celebrity has, by itself, made political parties irrelevant, there is certainly a conspicuous correlation between the rise of the former and the decline of the later.

This passage was taken from a book originally published in 1985 by Neil Postman titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” In it Postman offers us a cultural analysis of how we, in effect, got to Leibovich’s This Town by going all the way back to the middle 19th century and the beginning of what he describes as a turn from an America informed by a culture of the written word to one whose collective psyche would be altered from hours spent gazing passively into the dull blue glow of the stupid box. A particular virtue of Postman’s account is that it offers a criticism from a point of view just before things crystallized in the 90s and well before historic memory was sanitized by the cultural victors who reside in Hollywood, K Street, and academia.

According to Postman, it was Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, who seems to have gotten America’s future right.

What Huxley teaches is that in an age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.

Taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan, Postman argues that the technological medium by which we now receive our world contains within it tacit assumptions about that world which are ideological in substance and the influences of which are very deep and go undetected by an unreflective cultural audience.

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. 

Postman describes political discourse in the age of television as an exercise in suppressing ideas to accommodate the requirements of visual interest, where political figures do battle with good looks and empathy, and where the perceptive will recognize the early manifestations of what would flourish into the Washington Mark Leibovich describes as essentially one giant backstage green room to a nationally televised soap opera. Only now this is one soap opera where everyone can join, because with the addition of social networking, we can all enroll into the political cosplay of Left versus Right.

At the very heart of Leibovich’s book is a chapter titled “How it Works.” “It,” in this case, appears to refer to a person: Kurt Bardella, or perhaps more to the point, the type of person of which Mr. Bardella is a representative, a recent class of Washington insider politico inspired not so much by history but its televised counterpart.

What Kurt believed in most deeply was the Hollywood version of Washington, the city at its most titillating and televised. Kurt was of the generation of neo-political junkies whose passions were ignited not by an inspirational candidate or officeholder like Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan but operatives on TV, fictional (Josh Lyman) or real (James Carville). They were the players in a thrilling game. He wanted in.

Leibovich spends a chapter on the impulsive young staffer who at the time was Darrel Issa’s press secretary, drawing connections between what he characterizes as an immature political adrenaline junky and the larger community of D.C. politics of which his subject is but a representative. But it took a decade for a young Bardella, inspired by the antics of a Josh Lyman on Aaron Sorkin’s TV show The West Wing to grind his way into the inner circles of congressional hearings. The last decade has seen technology optimize the efficiency of this evangelizing process as it has become transformed from spectator sport to role-playing game. The social network has displaced the far more circumscribed institutions of polemics of the past, like the spin room, or perhaps more accurately dissolved the walls so that the world may take part in the reality distorting sport.

In Dan Balz’s account of the infamous first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost half of the narrative is Balz’s record of what transpired on Twitter.

On Twitter, Chuck Todd of NBC said, “An old Clinton trick by Romney, using real people stories to make his point.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted, “Romney did better on the subject of Obama’s anniversary than Obama did on the subject of Obama’s anniversary.” . . . A tweeter dubbed @LOLGOP sent out a comparable message: “I think Mitt Romney had his first Frappuccino tonight,” . . . In the Obama war room, Stephanie Cutter could see what was happening. The debate was being lost in the opening fifteen minutes because of a medium that had not even played a role in the campaign four years earlier.

When the Obama team re-grouped for the next debate among their strategies was to orchestrate a Twitter barrage of positive tweets by supporters to pre-empt a similar catastrophe. Dan Balz quotes David Plouffe from the Obama team.

“One of our goals for the second debate was within the first ten minutes to have you guys on Twitter saying, ‘Okay, Obama is better, he’s back.’ We need the press corps to say you’re off to a good start.”

So it is that through the magic of social networking the public can now participate in the reality-distorting arts that was once the sole purview of professional flacks.

At the center of Neil Postman’s argument about the corrosive effects of amusement on public discourse was the precipitous collapse in quality it has produced in the content of national public debate. It’s doubtful for instance that you will hear from a participant in any televised debate today a statement like the following:

My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms. (Stephen Douglas – Ottawa,Ill., 1858)

Or,

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half. (Abraham Lincoln – Freeport, Ill., 1858)

Writing in the 1980s, Postman’s examples of the comparatively vacuous political discourse of his day seem quaint compared to the 2012 debates of which the highlights included Big Bird, and who didn’t build what.

What distinguishes the quality of discourse of the past from the present is what Postman describes as “the Typographic Mind” which over a century ago dominated the American culture.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph.     

And yet, less fully examined in Postman’s critique is why the culture turned away from typographical culture. When Postman imputes to television the root cause of that turn he argues that it is by virtue of the potent immediacy of image and words.  But, as history suggests, it would be more accurate to say that television simply revealed a predisposition that was always potentially there in human nature as the gladiatorial games and the vulgar theatre did in previous cultures. Most problematic is Postman’s identification of technical literacy as the sole critical missing piece in our present culture which betrays a modernist tendency going back at least to John Dewey that would portray reading as a technical activity of which the sole benefit is the noetic skill that it cultivates divorced, it seems, from any higher cultural purpose.

The problem is that the America of the 18th and 19th centuries was uniquely literate because it was the product of a culture that viewed literacy as essential to something no less than salvation itself, scriptural revelation. In contrast, at the beginning of the 20th century, the new schools of education led by John Dewey sought to sever curricula from such higher purposes in its focus on education as strictly training in skills, thus paving the way for anything to fill the spiritual void. The subsequent century has revealed the logical consequence of a society that, unanchored to its cultural endowment, has been left to appetite to decide the question of how to invest its free-time and energies. Television, and now the internet, has simply filled that void and the quality of our ideas, our politics and our intellectual discourse have been debased accordingly.

What Leibovich and Postman unintentionally reveal in our politics and our culture is the vindication of the Straussian criticism of the larger modernist project, that in our desire to conquer nature by means of techne’ alone, we

. . . no longer distinguish between the wise or right and the foolish or wrong use of power… for social science and psychology, however perfected, being sciences, can only bring about a still further increase of man’s power; they will enable men to manipulate man still better than ever before; they will as little teach a man how to use his power over man or non-man as physics or chemistry do. (Leo Strauss, The City and Man)

Dewey’s modern theories of education were simply the vehicle that brought this to our culture by way of the classroom, television and the internet screen are simply filling out the implications of that project. The problem of course is how to remediate a century of bad cultural choices, especially since, as Postman notes, Huxleyan decomposition is particularly hard to mobilize against.  

An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan one. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

The challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that, as I explored previously, politics has become the new vehicle for so many to fill their lives with what amounts to a false sense of dramatic import. On one side we have the amusements of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on the other the Organize for Americas of the world.  

“Who will take arms against a sea of amusements?” Postman asks. Indeed, how to take up such arms against a world and a medium that is militant in its embrace of the digital opiate that is our Soma?

Tags: Politics

The McDonnells and Our Increasingly Insane Political Class



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From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

The McDonnells and Our Increasingly Insane Political Class

Ladies and gentlemen, I suspect you’ll understand that my kind words for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell rank among my biggest professional regrets.

This is for several reasons, but preeminently, it appears the governor and his wife turned themselves into walking infomercials for the dietary supplements produced by one of the governor’s top donors. And they may very well have behaved in a manner you and I would consider… not quite sane:

A day earlier, a onetime aide testified that after then-governor McDonnell endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2012, McDonnell’s wife sought out the candidate at a news media session in South Carolina to promote the dietary supplement.

Phil Cox, Robert McDonnell’s chief political adviser at the time, said that he put a stop to that plan but that Maureen McDonnell went on to talk up the supplement to Romney’s wife on a campaign bus. He said she told Ann Romney that the anti­-inflammatory supplement could “potentially cure MS.”

While Ann Romney, who has multiple sclerosis, listened politely, Cox said, he feared the episode would reflect poorly on his boss, who at the time was considered a possible Romney running mate.

“I was horrified,” Cox testified. “I thought it was a train wreck.”

How do you do that? How do you go up to a woman with multiple sclerosis and tell her that a dietary supplement produced by one of your top donors might cure her disease?

Are people crazy when they get into politics, or does the process of politics drive them crazy?

Every profession has their share of people who are “crazy”, and your garden variety of eccentricity and odd behavior is in the eye of the beholder. (In the first Blackford Oakes novel, Saving the Queen, a character declares, “Other people’s rituals always seem strange.”) But doesn’t it feel like, with increasing regularity, we hear about behavior on the part of elected officials that might get them steered to a psychiatric clinic, or at least counseling?

Yes, politics always had its share of Jim Traficants and Jesse Venturas. Some would toss Marion Barry into that mix, although I’m not sure mere poor impulse control and disregard for the law necessarily meet the threshold of “crazy” we’re examining. Jim Bunning’s behavior in his later years, perhaps. Mike Gravel’s campaign ad.

Perhaps Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s belief that Neil Armstrong planted a flag on Mars qualifies, or her assertion that “Today, we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South, exchanging and working.” Or perhaps Rep. Hank Johnson expressing a fear during a hearing that the island of Guam could “tip over and capsize” if too many military personnel were stationed there.

How do we explain the behavior of, say, Anthony Weiner? Or David Wu?

“It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the challenge of our rival…”

I suppose politics requires a person to be particularly good at two sometimes challenging tasks: 1) being particularly charming and appealing to immensely wealthy people, so charming and appealing that they’re willing to write checks to your campaign and 2) being appealing to the electorate at large.

There’s undoubtedly stress, fear of defeat, desperation, a widening gulf between the private self and the public face held up for approval. Does this, at some point, wear down one’s mental health? Is shamelessness such a prerequisite for running for office that candidates and their spouses lose a sense of what’s abnormal human behavior? Or is political ambition by itself a bit of abnormal human behavior?

Tags: Bob McDonnell , Politics

Beyond Politics, America Enjoys an Era of Amazing Innovation



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From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

Is America Depressed?

Okay, so America’s seen some bad news lately. The economy stinks, and no one is confident. Mediocre economic numbers are greeted as a triumph. Obamacare’s a mess. The federal government is one cluster-you-know-what of venality and incompetence after another. The Millennials seem spoiled, self-absorbed and incapable of achieving in the modern workplace. Trouble is brewing from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq to Libya to the South China Sea to the Korean peninsula. Our allies are unnerved, our enemies acting bolder.

There’s a particular gloom among a lot of conservatives lately, too: The country has more takers than makers. Everybody’s addicted to “Uncle Sugar.” Too many Establishment Republicans just want to replace the Democrats’ crony capitalism with their own crony capitalism. Our popular culture makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like Mayberry. Time to start putting our savings into gold and shopping for real estate in Belize.

We can’t let our perspective of our fellow Americans get defined by every idiot on Twitter or the comments section. We’ve always had idiots. We’ve always had loud idiots. The good folks working hard, taking care of their families, and living the American dream don’t spend a lot of time arguing on the Internet.

This is still a country packed to the gills with innovative, driven, hard-working, ingenious, generous, kind-hearted folk of every race, creed, and color.

Don’t believe me? Here are some bits of good news you may have missed:

Faith in the future is returning; we’re making more new Americans – a.k.a. “babies” – again.

The newest child birth rate numbers have just been released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the report indicates that there were 4,736 more births in 2013 than there were the year before, which shows an increase that America hasn’t seen in five years.

We’re doing this while reducing teen pregnancy, births, and abortions:

In examining birth and health certificates from 2010 (the most recent data available), Guttmacher Institute found that approximately 6 percent of teenagers (57.4 pregnancies per 1,000 teenage girls) became pregnant—the lowest rate in 30 years and down from its peak of 51 percent in 1991. Between 2008 and 2010 alone, there was a 15-percent drop.

At 34.4 births per 1,000 teenage women, the birthrate was down 44 percent from its peak rate of 61.8 in 1991. The abortion rate is down too: In 2010, there were 14.7 abortions per 1,000 teenagers, which is the lowest it’s been since the procedure was legalized.

According to the CDC, the numbers are going in the right direction for life expectancy, heart disease, and cancer death rate:

Americans are living longer than ever. According to the report, in 2010, life expectancy at birth for the total population was 78.7 years — 76.2 years for men and 81.0 years for women. Between 2000 and 2010, life expectancy at birth increased 2.1 years for men and 1.7 years for women. The gap in life expectancy between men and women narrowed from 5.2 years in 2000 to 4.8 years in 2010.

The report also notes a 30% decline between 2000 and 2010 in the age-adjusted heart disease death rate, from 257.6 to 179.1 deaths per 100,000 population. But in 2010, heart disease was still the most lethal disease in the US, with 24% of all deaths, the report says.

The age-adjusted cancer death rate decreased 13% between 2000 and 2010, from 199.6 to 172.8 deaths per 100,000 population. Still, in 2010, 23% of all deaths in the US were from cancer, close behind heart disease. In 2012, 18.1% of adults aged 18 and over were current cigarette smokers, down from 23.2% in 2000.

The Mayo Clinic just scored “complete remission” of a form of previously-untreatable cancer using an engineered measles virus in a human being. Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute recently announced that adult stem cells from bone marrow tissue can specifically target and kill brain tumors.

The hunt for a cure for AIDS continues, but treatments have become effective and widespread in ways that were simply unimaginable a generation ago. It is a much less deadly disease:   “The age-adjusted HIV death rate has dropped by 85% since its peak, including by 14% between 2009 and 2010.” There are indications that some people can be “functionally cured” of HIV.  There are other beautiful anecdotes: A Vancouver, Canada hospital repurposed its AIDS ward because the number of cases dwindled so rapidly.

The scale of the U.S. energy boom is jaw-dropping: “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of new jobs in the oil and gas industry (technically a part of mining) increased by roughly 270,000 between 2003 and 2012. This is an increase of about 92% compared with a 3% increase in all jobs during the same period. The BLS reports that the U.S. average annual wage (which excludes employer-paid benefits) in the oil and gas industry was about $107,200 during 2012, the latest full year available. That’s more than double the average of $49,300 for all workers.”

We’re on the dawn of the era of private spaceflight: “SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are building new manned spacecraft with the goal of restoring U.S. human spaceflight capability by 2017.”

Yes, it’s a dangerous world. But our men and women in uniform, the companies that supply them, and the researchers that equip them regularly produce breakthroughs that sound like science fiction. The Pentagon is developing a hypersonic missile that can hit anywhere in the world in 30 minutes.  They’re developing brain chips to treat PTSD. There’s some mysterious plane – allegedly a stealth transport  — flying over Texas. University researchers may be on the verge of developing functional invisibility. And, as Kevin Williamson notes, brainwave-driven exoskeletons may help the paralyzed rise and walk.

As David Plotz lays out, there has never been more news published than there is today; web sites of media organizations from the New York Times to Fox News publish literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of new items a day. Sure, you can say a lot of it’s crap. A lot of anything is crap. But the barrier to entry in the news world is obliterated. We’re no longer in an era where the number of pages and column-inches in the New York Times, and the time limits of the nightly news, set the limits for what the public sees and reads. Despite the commencement mobs and the political-correctness enforcers, this is a golden age for free speech.

In fact, things are going so well in the apolitical or non-political aspects of American life… all that talk about a second American Century may not just be happy talk or tired campaign rhetoric. We just have to get our government to work better – and in many circumstances, do less, and get out of the way! – and our best days may indeed be ahead of us.

So cheer up, conservatives!

Tags: Technology , Innovation , Politics

The Inescapable Measuring Stick of Appearances



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From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

The Inescapable Measuring Stick of Appearances

The good folks at the Heritage Foundation had a particularly interesting Blogger Briefing Tuesday, discussing the “Vanity Factor” in modern politics. A lot of the discussion revolved around candidate appearances, and how many voters are gained or lost as a result of a candidate’s appearance in this era of celebrity politics.

Panelist S. E. Cupp noted that Mitt Romney’s looks actually worked against him — he looked like “the guy they cast to play the president in a movie, and looked plastic and inauthentic.” Panelist Keli Goff observed that there’s a window of attractiveness for political candidates, and that being too handsome or too pretty undermined their credibility — and that according to research, a female candidate whose attractiveness is remarked upon in press coverage almost always subsequently suffers in the polls.

Very few of us have the appearance we wish we had, and as a result, we often say we wished we lived in a society where others wouldn’t judge us on our appearance. But the flip side is that almost all of us judge other people based upon their appearance, consciously and subconsciously, for good and for ill. (Women are probably judged on their appearance more harshly, and of course, almost every Internet comment section consists of people viciously mocking the imperfections of people who are probably more attractive than they.) A lot of people believe that they have “good instincts” about judging others, and I can’t help but wonder how much of that is fueled by assessing their aesthetics.

People infer a lot about you, based upon your:

·      Tattoos. (Check out the comments on this Corner post discussing tattoos.)

·      Weight.

·      Facial hair.

·      Glasses. What’s the first thing a girl does in movie’s ugly-duckling-into-swan cliché? She removes her glasses and lets down her hair…

·      Hairstyle. Or lack of hair.

·      Height.

·      Complexion.

·      Accent.

·      Clothes.

·      Smoking.

I asked the panelists why we have this fairly rigid standard for appearances in politics, but less so in other areas of life. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Richard Branson aren’t necessarily classically handsome, but they’re all variously widely respected and in many circles admired. They are (in Jobs’s case, were) entrusted with multimillion-dollar companies or in the case of Buffett, billion-dollar companies. Sure, some CEOs look like Ken Dolls, but clearly in the private sector, you can rise to the top without looking just right. The women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are all professional-looking and pleasant, but few are movie-star gorgeous or glamorous.

Cupp pointed out that a political figure is seen as a representation of the region or state that they serve, and thus is meant to put that place’s best foot forward. People know their congressman, senator, or governor will be representing them on the national stage, and thus they want their face in Washington to be a slightly better-looking version of themselves. People don’t feel that same sense of identification to a company.

Heritage’s Genevieve Wood pointed out that as much as some particularly high-profile or charismatic CEOs have become identified with their companies, the company’s product is still what most people associate with that company. When people hear “Apple,” they’re more likely to think of iPhones than Steve Jobs, and he was a particularly famous CEO.

For a politician, the product is government. And that explains quite a bit, when you think about it. To most of us, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is an accelerating tsunami of humiliation, a live-action cross between a John Candy comedy, a cartoon, and Behind the Music special about an out-of-control addiction. But up in Toronto, he’s still polling fairly well — 43 percent approval rating, and never below 40 percent despite admitting to smoking crack cocaine. He remains competitive in all of the hypothetical reelection campaign match-ups and will face the voters in October.

Ford’s defying political gravity in part because a lot of people think that despite the crack-smoking, he’s been a pretty good mayor. (“I’ll take, ‘Sentences I Never Thought I Would Write’ for 500, Alex.”) He eliminated a personal vehicle registration tax, reduced spending, privatized garbage collection in one neighborhood, reduced city staff through buyouts, and has added more city workers to the legal classification that denies their ability to strike (paramedics and city transit workers).

Exhibit B would be President Bill Clinton’s poll numbers during the Lewinsky scandal.

There may be a lesson in this, suggesting that voters may be more substance-based, and less appearance-based, than the media and consultants would suggest.

Tags: Politics , Media

Exposing the Shameful in a Shameless Political Culture



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The Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt features cheery news for Scott Brown in New Hampshire, how a statement can shift from inspiring to trite when applied to modern politics, what the White House petitions can tell us about America, and . . . 

The Frustration of Exposing the Shameful in a Shameless Political Culture

The good folks at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity are having a conference today and Friday. After having gatherings of usually right-of-center and government-watchdog bloggers and writers from all across the country in locales such as Scottsdale, Arizona and Charlotte, North Carolina, the Franklin Center is gathering us all . . . in Alexandria, Virginia. So much for getting away from this winter cold. Seriously, if they held this conference any closer, they would be in my living room.

We get together at these gatherings to figure out how to be better and more effective at what we do, and I suspect one topic we’ll be grappling with is what to do when you’ve got what you’re convinced is a terrific story, some mind-boggling expose of waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement within our government at any level . . . and the public yawns. The Franklin Center was founded in part to fill the gap left by disappearing local coverage of state capitols, and their mission in a nutshell is to uncover, investigate, and expose shameful behavior in government. Unfortunately, they’re trying to do this in an increasingly shameless political culture.

There’s an outdated complaint that the Right has too many commentators and columnists and not enough reporters. Perhaps that was once true, but the ranks of those doing original reporting have expanded greatly once you add up everybody at NR/NRO, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Free Beacon, Townhall, Reason, James O’Keefe’s videos, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and a host of others I’m forgetting. We’re getting better at amplification and linking and promoting and tweeting each others’ work.

But for some reason, there are a lot of days when it feels like we’re not quite there in terms of actual real-world impact. I know everybody’s had at least one story that they feel was like nitroglycerin, and should have made a big, lasting impact, that just hit the web or print pages and … pppppht. Nothing. The world reads it, shakes their head and goes tsk-tsk, and goes on. We have a surplus of things to be outraged about and a dearth of attention and energy to focus upon it, and the public’s attention span seems to be shrinking every year. Obamacare’s messes, ludicrous contracts, Benghazi, embarrassing wastes of money, embarrassing wastes of space in Congress . . . they all just pile up without much of a consequence.

At one of our last gatherings, we noted how quickly everyone was able to turn a Post reporter’s dismissal of the horrific abortionist/ghoul Kermit Gosnell as a “local crime story” into a rallying cry; the media was dragged, kicking and screaming, into covering Gosnell nationally. We scrappy little Pajamahedeen can really get a story out to a wider audience when we’re all pulling in the same direction. Of course, it’s tough to get us all pulling in the same direction, and it’s got to be organic.

The Left has Journo-List; we have our mailing lists where a grassroots activist will dismiss all congressional staffers as useless selfish parasites sucking on the public teat . . . the congressional staffers for conservative lawmakers will take offense at the comment and call the activist an ill-informed rabble-rouser, and before we know it, it’s turned into a flame war. It’s fascinating to see how often the liberals describe the “right-wing noise machine” as a well-oiled, engine-revving, unified, self-reinforcing, powerful megaphone, a drone clone army, snapping to attention and coordinating its messages, activism and actions for maximum effectiveness.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I’m not a member of an organized political movement; I’m a conservative.

Rereading the fine print on my invitation from Franklin, I see I’m supposed to come to this meeting with some solutions to these problems. Drat.

Like I said, our efforts as individual writers, reporters, bloggers, activists, and other politically active types have to grow organically; they can’t be directed on high. I can’t make somebody else care about a topic, issue, controversy that they don’t, and vice versa. There are few forms of criticism more tiresome than “Why are you writing about X? Why aren’t you writing about Y?” as if the world weren’t large enough for both.

Having said all that . . . maybe it’s time we on the Right stopped getting sucked into every penny-ante pie-throwing fight over every mook who comes along and says something stupid, controversial, or incendiary on cable news or Twitter.

Tags: Politics , Journalism , Franklin Center

We’re Divided Because One Half of Us Won’t Leave the Other Half Alone.



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Also in today’s Jolt:

Did Glenn Beck ‘Tear the Country Apart’? Did Anybody?

You won’t believe who’s accusing Glenn Beck, formerly of Fox News and currently running The Blaze, of “helping tear the country apart”!

Well, maybe you will believe, but I’m not sure you’ll agree:

Later in the segment, [Megyn] Kelly asked Beck to reflect on his time as a TV host at Fox News. His answer may surprise some people.

Though he remembers the job being a lot of fun, Beck also revealed that he has some regrets about the way he handled himself on the air.

“I remember it as an awful lot of fun and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language,” he said. “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart.”

First, has the country been “torn apart”?

I think you can set the bar for “torn apart” pretty high, considering how we’ve had an actual civil war in this country. We’ve had unsuccessful secession movements pretty regularly. Mansfield University geography professor Andrew Shears built a map to depict what the country would look like if every local secession movement had succeeded, a country of 124 states:

If Beck really means America is deeply politically divided, indeed, it is, but I’m not so sure our divisions would look that much better or different if Glenn Beck had remained a wacky “Morning Zoo” radio DJ his entire life. I’m glad Beck developed his interest and passion for politics, and developed The Blaze; he and his folks have been kind enough to have me on several times, including on Election Night 2012. Beck articulated a viewpoint, and built a devoted following, but he didn’t create the division in this country, he just reflected it.

We’re a divided country because we have 317 million people, and at least two major strands of thought and philosophy about the role of the government.

It’s a broad generalization, but we have red states and blue states. Ideally, we would have let each part of the country live the way it wants, as long as its laws didn’t violate the Constitution. You want high taxes and generous public benefits? Go ahead and have them; we’ll see if your voters vote with their feet. Let Illinois be Illinois, and let South Carolina be South Carolina.

Last fall I took a trip to Seattle, Washington, and the surrounding area. It seemed like every menu, store display, and sign emphasized that the offered products were entirely organic, biodegradable, free range, pesticide-free, fair trade, cruelty-free, and every other environmentally conscious label you can imagine. (The television show Portlandia did a pretty funny sketch about the ever-increasing, ever-more-specific variety of recycling bins, with separate bins for the coffee cup, the coffee-cup lid, the coffee-cup sleeve, and the coffee-cup stirrer; there’s a separate bin if the lid has lipstick on it.) Maybe it’s just a natural consequence that when you have Mount Rainier and Puget Sound outside your window, you become a crunchy tree-hugging environmentalist. If that’s the way they want to live up there, that’s fine. The food was mostly excellent. Let the Seattle-ites elect a Socialist to their city council. Let Sea-Tac try a $15/hour minimum wage and see if the airport Starbucks starts charging 20 bucks for a small latte.

As long as other parts of the country are allowed to pursue their own paths, that’s fine.

But a big part of the problem is that we have an administration in Washington that is determined to stomp out the state policies it doesn’t like. The president doesn’t want there to be any right-to-work states. His Department of Justice is doing everything possible to obstruct Louisiana’s school-choice laws. They’re fighting state voter-ID laws in court, insisting that it violates the Constitution, even though the Supreme Court ruled, 6 to 3, that requiring the showing of an ID does not represent an undue burden on voters.

This you-must-comply attitude can be found in the states as well, of course. Hell, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to drive pro-lifers, Second Amendment supporters, and what he labels “anti-gay” out of his state. Mayors decree that they won’t allow Chick-fil-A in their cities because of the opinions of the owners. In Oregon, state officials decreed that a baker must make a wedding cake for a gay wedding; the state decrees you are not permitted to turn down a work request that you believe violates your conscience or religious beliefs.

The country would be “torn apart” less if we were allowed to address more of our public-policy problems on a local or state basis. But anti-federalism is in the cellular structure of liberalism. All of their solutions are “universal,” “comprehensive,” or “sweeping.” Everything must be changed at once, for everyone, with no exceptions. Perhaps it’s a good approach for some other species, but not human beings.

That’s not Glenn Beck’s fault.

Tags: Glenn Beck , Politics , Federalism , Barack Obama

The ‘New American Center’ Actually Looks Pretty Right



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Also from today’s Morning Jolt, a new poll that helps explain why we’re seeing Democrats running on issues that basically don’t exist, such as a Republican effort to ban contraception, an effort to ban mothers from divorcing their husbands, or a “war on women”:

That New American Center, Looking Pretty Conservative

Esquire unveiled new polling, identifying, analyzing, and dissecting “the new American center” a few weeks ago. I had a chance to study their article on a couple of long plane rides recently.

I know what you’re thinking: Here’s another group of folks on the left insisting that they’re the new center.

Nope. It turns out the “New Center” Esquire spotlighted is pretty darn conservative, particularly on a lot of those hot-button issues where the overwhelming media narrative is that we’re a bunch of backward Neanderthals who should just die already so that hipster kid who’s still living with his parents can take over.

Esquire’s survey found:

  • 57 percent of folks in “the Center” support ending affirmative action in hiring decisions and college admissions. Only 19 percent oppose it.

  • 54 percent oppose a path to citizenship for those who have come to the country illegally. Only 32 percent support it. What’s all this pressure to get the House to take up the Senate bill?

  • 75 percent support requiring photo ID to cast a vote. Only 15 percent oppose.

  • Even abortion! The survey found 38 percent of “the center” support abortion for any reason . . . but only within the first three months of pregnancy, which would represent a giant step in the pro-life direction from our current laws. Another 29 percent support abortion only in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother — indicating that two-thirds of “the center” would support abortion laws significantly stricter than they are today. Most media coverage suggests the opposite, obviously. Only 12 percent believe a woman should be able to get an abortion for any reason at any point in her pregnancy.

  • Given only two options, 78 percent said the bigger problem for the United States is people aren’t accountable for their decisions and actions. Only 22 percent said that the bigger problem was “people aren’t compassionate toward one another.”

  • Finally, 77 percent support amending the Constitution requiring the federal government to balance its budget every year. Only 11 percent oppose. This is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory but is challenging in practice. For starters, we would need to make up the $670 billion current deficit in either spending cuts or tax hikes, and the public would loathe either of those options. (Some day, a Democratic president and Democratic Congress would use that constitutional amendment to justify gargantuan tax hikes.) A little deficit spending isn’t such a bad thing, but you have to keep it and your overall debt in proportion to your annual gross domestic product. Having said that, Republicans would be fools if they didn’t loudly embrace such a popular idea.

In light of this, it appears the public’s shift to the left has been vastly overstated. And perhaps we now see why Democrats emphasize birth control and Big Bird and other seemingly silly and frivolous issues, and use them to define Republicans. Democrats dare not get too close to the above issues, or else they’ll get burned.

Tags: Polling , Abortion , Politics , Ideology

The Politics of Adoption



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After my husband and I adopted our daughter Naomi, we were thrust into the world of “adoption politics.”

I’d figured adoption was universally considered to be wonderful, like chocolate cake, rainbows, or a heavy snowfall that keeps everyone home from work and school. Who could be against helping orphans?

Apparently, this isn’t quite the case.  For liberals, adoption is just great . . . unless white conservative Christians are doing it.

Tags: adoption , Politics , race

Public Health and Public Trust



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Congratulations to Texas and the Aggies on becoming the home of a new federally backed center for emergency vaccines. The $91 million project, a joint effort by Texas A&M University, the federal government, and GlaxoSmithKline, will be responsible for the development and manufacture of vaccines during pandemics and other emergencies. Governor Rick Perry is of course very excited about this: The project will mean as many as 7,000 new jobs in Texas, and billions in expenditures, largely from out-of-state private and public sources.

Is this good news or not?

There are two ways of looking at this. Government spending is rarely welcomed here at Exchequer, and that $91 million is another $91 million we’re down in the hole. And while Texas and the Perry administration deserve great credit for making the state remarkably attractive to a variety of enterprises and investors, it is no secret that Texas is not above sweetening the pot for potential investors, that its methods for doing so are not immune from politics, or that the state’s leaders have a talent for keeping federal money pouring into the state for sometimes questionable projects. Practically every state and a large number of cities have economic-development funds similar to Texas’s; my impression is that Perry & Co. are no more impure than any other state administration when it comes to goosing the free(ish) market with tax dollars — they’re just a little bit better at it.

On the other hand, when government spends money, it should spend money on public goods. “Public good” is a term with a fixed meaning in economics, and it is not synonymous with “stuff that is good for the public” or “stuff the public likes.” Most of what the federal government spends money on (entitlements) is clearly not within the category of public goods, while a few things (missile defense, border patrol) clearly are. Some things, such as the federal highway system, are in a grey area, and might be considered public or non-public goods, depending on your interpretation.

Some public-health measures, such as mosquito-eradication programs in malarial areas, are clearly within the definition of public good, and it seems to me that things like the Centers for Disease Control and the  Aggies’ new pandemic-vaccine center are, too. And at the risk of sounding like a home-state cheerleader for Texas, if that $91 million center performs as advertised, then that is a relatively small price to pay for a measure of insurance against otherwise unmanageable, unforeseeable infectious epidemics, which are on my list of underrated threats. And that $91 million is not only a good investment in the event of a sudden epidemic; it is a good investment even if such an event never comes to pass, for the same reason that accident insurance is a good investment even if you never get in a wreck: Risk mitigation is inherently valuable, even if the trauma you are insuring yourself against never materializes.

But that all points to the unending challenge of trying to get government to behave: Even if  we concede that such a center is a good investment and well within the purview of federal action, we still have to worry about a great many variables: Will the project be managed effectively and efficiently? Will Glaxo’s lobbying arm turn it into yet another opening on the corporate-welfare trough? Will the project overgrow its original mandate through the inevitable mission creep associated with such undertakings? Is it a better use of resources than all the others to which we might have dedicated those funds?

Amity Shlaes’s much-admired new book on Calvin Coolidge deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it, not least because her Silent Cal is not merely a prudent and admirable figure but an inspiring one: President Coolidge, hunched over the federal accounts with his budget generals, is not just a penny-pinching puritan (though the world could do with a good deal many more penny-pinching puritans): He is a man expending every effort to ensure that Americans enjoy a government that is reliable and honest, a worthy steward of the wealth with which it has been entrusted. Self-government works well only when the people trust their institutions.

Progressives often complain that the contemporary Right is increasingly anti-government in both its rhetoric and its policy preferences; some moderate Republican types, such as David Frum, echo that criticism. But one possible reason that conservatives have arrived at a greater distrust of the government is that the government has become less trustworthy. The self-dealing and the friends-and-family appropriations that we now regard as business as usual in Washington may be entirely legal, but they are nonetheless wrong — not just ill-advised but immoral — and it is not surprising that Americans’ trust in public institutions (and many private institutions, such as Wall Street firms) is pretty low. This is a critical problem for a self-governing republic. Even when it comes to such core governmental functions as national defense and law enforcement, it is difficult to believe that all (or even most) of every $1 appropriated to the relevant agencies is used for the purpose intended.

It leaves us with a kind of double suspicion: We suspect that the federal government will often invest our resources in doing things that are none of its business, and we also suspect that it will manage to do a great deal wrong even when it is performing tasks that are appropriate to it. Progressives believe that our politics would be less toxic if conservatives were not so hostile to the public sector; conservatives believe that our politics would be less toxic if the public sector were less deserving of our hostility.

While Texas likes to boast of its economic performance in recent years, it has also made some important advances in the intangible area of public trust, for instance by making detailed information about government outlays easily available to the public. The state’s controller, Susan Combs, is something of a crusader when it comes to openness and transparency in government. And while the libertarian tendency is currently on the ascent among Republicans, rolling back government is only one part of the conservative agenda: Making sure that government operates with a sufficient probity and thrift is an important part, too, especially for conservatives who seek an active role in government. We’d like a smaller government, sure, but we also would like a government we can trust. That is something that has to be put to the test every day, whether there is $1 at stake or $91 million.

 Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May. 

Tags: Politics

The Pope and American Political Cynicism



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One brief note about the Pope’s resignation: Those of us who dwell in the political world are so conditioned to look for the “true” reasons behind sudden resignations that some among us almost instinctively dismiss the entirely plausible explanation given — that an 85-year-old man felt that the duties were too much for his slowly deteriorating physical and mental condition.

So many politicians have offered the “I’m resigning to spend more time with my familyexplanation, so implausibly or so freshly after a defeat or setback, or amid the whiff of scandal, that it’s just instinctively dismissed by the Washington crowd. Of course, every once in a while, a political figure really does want to retire, and really does want to stop making the work-life balance sacrifices that their job requires.

Of course, we’ll still get at least one Dan Brown knockoff novel over this.

Tags: Benedict XVI , Politics

‘Borking,’ From Extraordinary to Mainstream and Routine



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Posting will be light today, as once again I’m off to Dallas to tape an appearance with Glenn Beck and the good folks down at The Blaze.

Today’s Jolt looks at the Benghazi fallout and Boehner’s “Plan B,” but also looks at the late Robert Bork — and how his nomination marked a turning point in our modern political discourse:

Robert Bork, RIP

I think it was Roger Kimball who first broke the news of Robert Bork’s passing.

Judge Robert H. Bork, one of the the greatest jurists this country has ever produced, died early this morning from heart complications in a Virginia hospital near his home. He was 85.

Bork’s celebrity was only partly conferred upon him by brilliant legal work and his service as solicitor general and then acting attorney general in the tumultuous Watergate years of the Nixon administration. (Andrew McCarthy wrote an excellent summary of Judge Bork’s work in The New Criterion a few years ago: “Robert H. Bork on Law and Life.”) But by far the most important fuel for fame was the riveting, not to say obscene, attack upon his candidacy for the Supreme Court in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan.

The vicious campaign waged against Judge Bork set a new low—possibly never exceeded—in the exhibition of unbridled leftist venom, indeed hate. Reporters combed through the Borks trash hoping to find compromising tidbits; they inspected his movie rentals, and were disgusted to find the films of John Wayne liberally represented. So hysterical was the campaign against Judge Bork that a new transitive verb entered our political vocabulary: “To Bork,” scruple at nothing in order to discredit and defeat a political figure. Monsieur Guillotine gave his name to that means of execution; “progressives,” those leftists haters of America who have so disfigured our national life since the 1960s, gave us the this new form of character assassination. The so-called “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy, surely one of the most despicable men ever to hold high public office in the United States (yes, that’s saying something), stood on the Senate floor and emitted a serious of calumnious lies designed not simply to prevent Judge Bork from being appointed to the Supreme Court but to soil his character irretrievably.

William Jacobson once summarized:

Borking is the complete politicization of the judicial nomination process, in which bad motives are imputed to purely legal positions. So if a judicial nominee believes that a particular issue is beyond the reach of the federal judiciary and properly for the political process, that nominee will have the worst motives imputed to him or her, including an imputed desire for bad results. Thus, taking the position that there is no federal constitutional right for [insert claimed right here] allows people like Ted Kennedy to claim that the nominee wants [insert horrific result here].

This tendency to treat judicial restraint as inherently negative, and to insist that the judiciary take on a super-political role, is why borking works so much better against conservatives.

He cited Joe Nocera, a rare liberal voice who is willing to honestly discuss his own side’s moral failings, and who correctly identified the turning point that Bork’s treatment presented:

The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one . . .

The character assassination began the day Bork was nominated, when Ted Kennedy gave a fiery speech describing “Robert Bork’s America” as a place “in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters,” and so on. It continued until the day the nomination was voted down; one ad, for instance, claimed, absurdly, that Bork wanted to give “women workers the choice between sterilization and their job.”

Conservatives were stunned by the relentlessness — and the essential unfairness — of the attacks. But the truth is that many of the liberals fighting the nomination also knew they were unfair. That same Advocacy Institute memo noted that, “Like it or not, Bork falls (perhaps barely) at the borderline of respectability.” It didn’t matter. He had to be portrayed “as an extreme ideological activist.” The ends were used to justify some truly despicable means.

And that gets us to where we are today, where an unwillingness to assent to a liberal’s unspecified legislative agenda is cited as ipso facto evidence that you support the mass murder of children, as Drew M. showcases. No wonder most Americans don’t pay attention to politics. They think it’s an insane asylum of the obnoxious, self-righteous, hateful and unhinged.

E. M. Zanotti, once a law student of Bork’s, offers a glimpse of the man the cameras never got to see:

Like most modern geniuses, he also had his quirks, which being a professor in a school of barely 300 will bring to light rather quickly. Robert Bork had a morning ritual, on days his wife Mary Ellen (or Saint Mary Ellen, as everyone came to know her, because she really is one of the nicest and most tolerant women alive) stayed in DC, was to walk down the hall from his office with a cigarette in one hand and a frosted doughnut in the other. Occasionally, he sported trucker hats with his suit. Not like the kind you buy in gas stations, but the kind of Ashton Kutcher-style trucker hats that have the mesh in back, like the kind you get for free when you buy your first John Deere tractor for mowing the back 40. And one time, at a picnic to celebrate the law school’s Fifth Anniversary, Robert Bork noticed a pile of fried chicken I assume that he figured his wife wouldn’t let him have. So he opened the sewn-shut pockets of his suit jacket and stuffed wads of greasy drumsticks inside. For later. Or at least until Mary Ellen noticed the grease stains near his waistline.

Looks like that fried chicken didn’t keep him from reaching 85. RIP, Judge Bork.

Tags: Politics , Robert Bork

The Economic-Policy Debate: Not Rational, but Ritual



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One thing that is missing from the debate about economic policy is the critical ingredient of humility. Humility isn’t critical for moral reasons, although humility is a virtue, and we would like our politicians to be more virtuous. Instead, humility is a practical good in the economic-policy debate, because if the effects of economic policies were decisive and predictable, then there would never be a recession or non-trivial unemployment. But there are recessions and widespread unemployment, which means either that politicians’ ability to manage the economy is much more limited than our political rhetoric suggests (more likely) or that incumbents are intentionally enacting bad policies that they know will produce recessions and unemployment (less likely).

Politicians have obvious incentives to pretend that they have more knowledge and power than they do. Nearly as much damage is done by the priesthood of professional economists and journalists, who for their own narrow interests also exaggerate what politics can achieve, be those interests professional or political or some combination of the two (assuming they can be distinguished).

This lack of humility produces headlines and sound bites like this one on Sunday from The Atlantic: “Tax Cuts Don’t Lead to Economic Growth, a New 65-Year Study Finds.” The piece itself, by business editor Derek Thompson, isn’t terrible, and one has to assume that, like most writers, he probably isn’t responsible for his headlines. But the headlines dominate political discourse, which is by its democratic nature shallow.

In fact, correlating tax-rate changes to growth rates is very close to being meaningless. That’s because the relevant comparison isn’t between observed growth rates under various tax regimes but between observed growth rates and the growth rates that we would have observed under different tax regimes. That more meaningful comparison has the academically and journalistically undesirable quality of being unknowable. Social scientists frequently measure the wrong factor because it is measurable, when the right factor is not.

Further, the effects of tax changes probably are not immediate in the vast majority of cases. If our theory is that changes in the tax code change incentives for consumers, workers, investors, and firms, then you have a great number of factors that are going to have effects that become manifest over very different time intervals. If you eliminate the sales tax on computers for one month, then you might expect a spike in month-over-month sales for one month, and that is fairly easy to estimate. If you change capital-gains-tax rates, research-and-development credits, capital-investment-write-off rules, etc., then you have a whole different range of temporal variables, since developing a better artificial hip and building a factory to produce that improved artificial hip are very different enterprises, requiring different time commitments. In an economy as complex as ours, such factors probably are not predictable even in principle.

Which is why even very smart people, such as Atlantic writers, produce maddening paragraphs, such as this one from Mr. Thompson: “Well into the 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was above 90%. Today it’s 35%. But both real GDP and real per capita GDP were growing more than twice as fast in the 1950s as in the 2000s. At the same time, the average tax rate paid by the top tenth of a percent fell from about 50% to 25% in the last 60 years, while their share of income increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% before the recession.”

All of that is trivially true. The tax code in 2012 is different from the tax code in 1955. Lots of other things are different, too: Japan emerged from the postwar rubble to become a major economic power and then went into gentle decline during the subsequent years, the ruins of Europe were rebuilt, a European monetary union was created and then began coming unglued, Germany was reunited, the Soviet Union was disunited, China began to liberalize its economy, a globalized information economy emerged with India and South Korea winning significant places in it, the Internet became a critical economic reality, the population of the planet more than doubled, worldwide markets were integrated, standardized containerization revolutionized shipping, smallpox was eradicated, life expectancies grew in many parts of the world, U.S. birth rates declined . . . and so on. Telling us that tax rates were X in the 1950s and Y in 2012, while growth was A in the 1950s and B today, tells us something approximating nothing.

It certainly doesn’t tell us “Tax Cuts Don’t Lead to Economic Growth.” Try turning it around: What might the sentence “Tax cuts lead to economic growth” even mean? Maybe: “Tax cuts, independent of all other variables, consistently and predictably lead to economic growth”? I very much doubt that anybody who is not a political speechwriter or talking head would argue such a thing. How about: “In some well-defined circumstances, tax reductions may contribute to higher levels of economic growth than probably would have been observed had higher rates prevailed”? Here we have the opposite problem: Does anybody not believe that? Between the data and the headline falls the Shadow.

After 40,000 years of civilization, we very clever creatures still cannot predict the weather with any reliable degree of detailed accuracy more than about a week out. (But some of us still pray for rain.) Scientists who have spent their lifetimes working on extraordinarily specialized problems routinely are baffled by new and unexpected developments. (But some of us still believe the universe is turtles all the way down.) Our highest-paid stock-pickers routinely are outperformed by darts thrown at a board, by kindergartners, and by monkeys. (But some of us still believe in the sure thing.) On and on it goes: Executives reliably make disastrously bad decisions about their own businesses, and most entrepreneurs fail.

In spite of the massive piles of evidence surrounding them, politicians routinely tell us that if we will merely give them the power to do X, then Y surely will follow. The Obama administration predicted that if the stimulus and other policies were enacted, then unemployment would decline to 5.2 percent. (It isn’t 5.2 percent.) Mitt Romney says that if we enact his agenda, the result will be 4 percent growth. Personally, I think that politicians should be goosed with a Taser every time they use the word “percent” in a future-tense sentence. But to be more charitable, let’s instead conclude that such projections should be viewed skeptically.

Unhappily, many economists desire to play kingmaker and therefore lend the prestige of their discipline to the wishful thinking of politics, where arguments are oversimplified to a point that is indistinguishable from dishonesty. They are aided in this by journalists who provide a bridge from the rigorous world of academic research to the standards-free world of political discourse. The result is something like a fairy tale or just-so story. That voters choose to accept such fanciful promises is another piece of evidence that our politics is not rational but ritual.

Tags: Politics , Taxes

Mr. Watts, Mr. Gingrich, and Mr. Deficit



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Newt Gingrich has received the endorsement of J. C. Watts, a former member of Oklahoma’s delegation to the House and an influential conservative even after nearly a decade in political retirement. The endorsement speaks well of Gingrich.

Among other things, Watts had this to say:

When you consider where we are today, and you think about the good old days — of balanced budgets, entitlement reform, and paying down our national debt, getting tax relief — as a Republican majority, Newt Gingrich was the speaker. We haven’t seen things like that in the last thirteen years.

No, we sure haven’t. I am pleased that Watts put the balanced budget at the center of his case for Gingrich (even though the budget was not really balanced, once you account for the debt held by the so-called trust funds associated with Social Security and Medicare — it still was a good start).

But I wonder if Watts has considered all the implications of his argument. As speaker, Newt Gingrich superintended a real reduction in federal spending as a share of GDP: It was 21 percent in 1994, and down to 18.2 percent by 2000. That is, in my view, his most praiseworthy legislative accomplishment. But, as I argue in the current edition of National Review, the notional surpluses of the Gingrich era were the result of a double-barreled approach to fiscal balance, built in part on two significant tax increases. Gingrich et al. opposed those tax increases, but did not rescind them.

In 2000, the year of our largest notional surplus, tax collections hit nearly 21 percent of GDP. In 2011, they’ll be about 14.4 percent of GDP, according to the Congressional Budget Office, only about 70 percent of their 2000 level.

Economic conditions and tax policy are of course quite different in 2011 from what they were in 2000. Consider the longer-term picture: From 1994 to 2000, taxes averaged 19.2 percent of GDP, hitting a high of 20.6 percent in 2000. Even accounting for the surpluses, we ran a net deficit during that period, with the average annual deficit at 0.3 percent of GDP. In contrast, 2000–11 tax collections averaged 16.8 percent, a difference of 2.4 percent compared with the Gingrich era. The average deficit from 2000–11 was 4.2 percent of GDP. Put another way, the difference in tax collections during those two periods was 2.4 percent, and the difference in deficits was 3.9 percent. Spending increased during the post-Gingrich era, and increased radically in recent years: From 1994–2000, spending averaged 19.6 percent of GDP; from 2000–11, spending has averaged 20.8 percent of GDP. That’s a significant difference, but not an earth-shaking one. On the other hand, consider that from 2009–11, spending has averaged a much larger 24.7 percent of GDP, a level that would be sustainable at no level of tax collections in American history, including the years of World War II. 

As a share of GDP, Americans paid higher taxes in the Gingrich years than they pay now — significantly higher. Likewise, government spending as a share of GDP was substantially lower. So, my fancy new economic theory goes like this: higher taxes + lower spending = smaller deficits. Democrats might recall that the 1990s were not a time of Dickensian austerity or a national policy of Social Darwinism; Republicans ought to remember that the 1990s, despite the higher taxes, did not result in the Swedenification of America. For comparison, consider that the average tax level of the Reagan years was 18.2 percent of GDP, closer to the Gingrich years than to the present.

A balanced budget is the result of tax policies and spending policies. If Watts is calling for a return to the taxing-spending balance of Gingrich’s speakership, he is calling for a significant tax increase, which puts him at odds with the man he just endorsed. Practically speaking, anybody who is calling for a balanced budget who has not proposed something on the order of $1.5 trillion in annual spending cuts is calling for a tax increase. That does not mean that he is calling for a tax increase of the sort that Barack Obama and his congressional allies wish to see implemented. But it does mean that he is calling for a tax increase of some sort.

Gingrich, of course, is not calling for a tax increase, but for a very large tax cut. Which is to say, he wishes to return to the attractive fiscal outcomes of the 1990s without returning to the policies that produced them. This does not seem very sensible to me.

It bears repeating — daily — that taxing and spending is in the main the outcome of decisions made in Congress, not in the White House, which is why it makes sense to write about the Gingrich surpluses, rather than the Clinton surpluses. And which is why an intelligent Republican presidential candidate might want to begin his fiscal agenda with this guiding principle: “I shall be joined at the hip with Paul Ryan.”

A final thought: Those Gingrich supporters who dismiss Jon Huntsman on the grounds that he served as an ambassador under the Obama administration should take to heart this 2008 Associated Press report:

J. C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman who once was part of the Republican House leadership, said he is thinking of voting for Obama. Watts said he is still a Republican, but he criticizes his party for neglecting the black community. Black Republicans, he said, have to concede that while they might not agree with Democrats on issues, at least that party reaches out to them.

“And Obama highlights that even more,” Watts said, adding that he expects Obama to take on issues such as poverty and urban policy. “Republicans often seem indifferent to those things.”

Now, who wants to call J. C. Watts a RINO? Anybody?

Tags: Fiscal Armageddon , Politics

Newt’s Right: Put the Kids To Work



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From Williamson’s Political Dictionary, Vol. 1: newt, [noot; nyoot] v., to put one’s foot in it while putting one’s finger on it.

The usual half-wits (and quarter-wits, and hemidemisemi-wits) are having a great deal of fun with Newt Gingrich’s characterization of child-labor laws as “truly stupid,” a comment that launched a thousand Dickensian exaggerations. Never mind that Newt Gingrich was undeniably correct, even if he does have a knack for saying the right thing in a way that makes it sound wrong.

The former speaker is working from the radical notion that if we lower barriers to work-force participation then we might reasonably expect to see higher levels of work-force participation, and that if we erect barriers to work-force participation, we might reasonably expect  to see less of it.

Here are a few truths that rarely are spoken: About half of Americans will not really benefit from a four-year college education, and we should not waste the time and resources to put them through four (or five, or six) years of undergraduate work at a satellite campus of Mediocre U. And let us not overlook the fact that one of the most precious resources being wasted is the time, energy, and money of millions of 18-to-24-year-old Americans who could be making better use of their youth. The evolution of the bachelor’s degree into a general professional license has resulted in the massive misallocation of human capital (and financial capital) that mostly serves the economic interests of a very narrow and parochial special-interest group: college faculty, staff, and administrators, a reliably overpaid and underworked population of sinecure-clingers insulated from economic realities by our baroque education-funding system and protected by such medieval institutions as tenure.

Gingrich was right to say that the real value of a first job isn’t the money one earns but the lessons one learns: how to show up on time, how to be honest, how to be dependable, how to take direction, how to separate one’s personal life from one’s professional obligations, etc. Having fewer 16-year-olds working as part-time janitors does not mean that you will have proportionally more of them fine-tuning their Harvard admission essays. Having more 16-year-olds working as part-time janitors does not mean that we will have proportionally fewer rocket scientists and Ezra Pound scholars down the road. Most of our young people aren’t headed down that route.

One of the most dangerous and destructive tendencies in American public life is the upper class’s habit of generalizing its own desires, tastes, approaches, and interests onto the body politic at large. Thus did (for example) Governor Reagan help transmit the Hollywood elite’s culture of at-will divorce to the middle and lower classes. Unlike the rich and famous, the women and children of the middle and lower classes are not protected by vast amounts of money and social capital, and therefore were poorly positioned to endure the havoc that no-fault divorce wrought upon American family life, a development from which the nation probably never will recover. (Oops.) Our elites seem to be imagination-challenged, and they can never quite realize that other people are making their life choices while consulting a very different menu of options. This class blindness is the source of Karl Rove’s sputtering horror at the idea of his children “picking tomatoes.” It is also the source of Barack Obama’s managerial liberalism, which implicitly holds that if the poor ignorant wretches in the non-elite classes would only make the same life decisions as Barack and Michelle Obama, then they would get (roughly) the same outcomes. But that is not the case.

There is a relatively small minority of high-IQ Americans who form what Charles Murray famously called the “cognitive elite.” There is a larger group, but still a relatively small one, of very driven people who are attracted to a particular occupation early in life — those people who always knew that they were going to become doctors, truck drivers, teachers, boxers, newspapermen, farmers, automobile mechanics, what have you, and take the necessary steps to do so early in life. But there is a relatively large group of young people who are of average or below-average IQ, have no particular skills, and no clear path set for them early in life. Early work experiences are critical for people in this group, both because they instill necessary habits and provide necessary experience, and because having a variety of early work experiences provides a richer range of options. The more work experiences one has early in life, the more likely one is to encounter an occupation that matches one’s talents and interests.

In the course of doing a little reporting on long-term unemployment in New York (see “Keeping Blacks Poor,” National Review, February 2010), I learned some depressing stuff:

There’s not much other work to be had in the Bronx, where unemployment is currently at about 13.1 percent. Much of the Bronx is young and black or young and Hispanic. Nationally, the unemployment rate among blacks rose to 16.2 percent in the year-end numbers, while the rate for whites fell to 9.0 percent. For black youths, the numbers are startling: 50 percent for 16–19-year-olds, 26 percent for 20–24-year-olds. A study from the Community Service Society of New York puts actual work-force participation among black men 16–65 years of age in New York City at about 50 percent, and the number for young black men nationwide is just 40 percent.  Never mind the jobless recovery: For a great many black Americans, it’s been a jobless eternity, in good times and in bad. Why? 

One of the factors that stood out in my interviews was lack of early work experience. These perennially unemployed thirtysomethings hadn’t lost jobs at factories or been the victims of outsourcing: They had never had a real job of any kind. In many cases, many of the men in their families and circles of acquaintance had never had a long-term job of any kind, either:

At 35 years old, C has never held a job. His friends, acquaintances, known associates (C is a little foggy on whether he’s on probation or parole, but he’s got some known associates): no jobs, never really had them. His father? Do not ask C about his father. In fact, the only people C can think of who have jobs are women: His mother worked, the mother of his children works. He did know a woman who was dating a taxi driver once. C says he would like to work but is more of an independent businessman. He describes the informal work he has done as “this and that.”

There are always economic tradeoffs, of course. But the alternative to work for a lot of teen-agers is not lacrosse or volunteering on the Obama campaign or putting in a couple extra hours of study for the SAT. If you want to say that as a general rule we’d prefer to keep teen-agers away from work during the school year because we want to emphasize academic achievement, fine: But you should have the intellectual honesty to admit that you are simply elevating the interests of one group of young people over those of another. It’s a lot like the minimum wage: You may think that putting a floor on wages is worth the tradeoff of higher unemployment for low-skilled workers and permanent unemployment for the least-skilled workers, but you’re still making a trade. (And maybe you’re not the person best situated to judge the economic interests of people you’ve never met and about whom you know nothing?)

Gingrich’s suggestion that young people be employed doing manual labor at the institutions charged with educating them is characteristically insightful and bold — meaning that he’s already walking it back a little bit, because All The Right People are aghast that somebody, somewhere, may not be dreaming of seeing the leaves turn in Princeton.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

Tags: Politics , Unemployment

Night and Day



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I am pleased that Republicans put up Rep. Paul Ryan as the alternative to Barack Obama’s “investment” happy-talk last night. Love the Ryan Roadmap or hate it, Ryan has had the guts to talk realistically about some really hard issues, including putting out proposals for entitlement reform that lend themselves to easy demagoguery by the likes of Chuck Schumer, who has been in Congress for more than a decade without taking one single baby step toward balancing the budget or addressing the entitlement crisis. The Republicans could have put up some unthreatening diversity candidate to babble about inane generalities; instead, they put up a white guy from Wisconsin who wants to go hammer-and-tongs after the hardest problem facing our nation today. That’s a rare bit of political courage from a party usually short on it.

As for the president’s speech: As always, I’m neither an economist nor an investment adviser, but I’d say the outlook for little green pieces of paper produced by the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving does not look so hot. Obama seems awfully impressed by the fact that the for-profit police state based in Beijing makes solar panels. He’s not quite New York Times op-ed page in his enthusiasm for China’s central-planning “investment” model, but he’s getting there.

I liked the fact that the great American Demosthenes stumbled over that story about the Chilean rescue company, saying that volunteers sometimes worked “three- or four-hour days.” Three- or four-hour days? What about coffee breaks? Are these government workers? (He corrected himself: He meant three or four days straight.)

Executive summary: Despair.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

Tags: Barack Obama , Debt , Deficits , Despair , Paul Ryan , Politics

The OPEC Bailout Is Not Happening



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Good news for Generic Republican, who already has established himself as a legitimate contender for the White House in 2012: OPEC is not bailing us out. The oil cartel is making it known that it is cool with $100 oil and will not act unless prices move significantly higher and stay there. Oil, like most commodities, has been rising steadily as governments around the world keep their printing presses running to dump new money into the global economy.

Oil producers have a real good to sell, one with intrinsic value. They do not want to be paid in devalued currencies. Neither do producers selling precious metals, fertilizer, farm products, etc., which is one reason why wholesale food prices are going zoom, zoom, zoom.

Oil at $100 and unemployment ~10 percent is bad news for Obama’s re-election hopes, of course. (It should go without saying that it is bad for America, too, and that I do not wish for economic suffering to be visited upon my fellow citizens in order to hamper the Obama administration.)  But you know what’s even worse than $100 oil? $150 oil, which the CEO of Gulf says would not surprise him. There will be tremendous political pressure put on OPEC and the other producers if that happens. But why would OPEC want to bail us out? What is in it for them? Devalued U.S. dollars? If the Obama administration will not get behind a solid dollar for sound economic reasons, maybe narrow political self-interest will be enough.

We spend a lot of time thinking about our competition with China in producing goods and services; but it is equally important, probably more important, that we compete with the Chinese and the other rising economies as consumers of goods and services. The United States is still the big boss in terms of global energy demand, but small, steady changes elsewhere are making it a new game. The energy autarkists who like to rave about the evils of “Arab oil” (never mind that the biggest part of our oil imports are Canadian and Mexican) fail to appreciate that with every passing month it matters a little bit less to the Arab world whether we buy their oil or don’t. Clout has a shelf life, and money talks. What is our money saying, vis-à-vis oil, food, metals, etc.? I think it’s saying “Help me!” in that tiny, terrifying little voice at the end of the original The Fly.

Back to Obama: I’m starting to think that we despairing deficit hawks have to be more politically engaged. I’ve operated for the past several years under the theory that when it comes to the big, macro debt-and-deficit issues, it does not much matter who holds political power: I did not see much evidence that a Republican Congress or a Democratic Congress was going to act before the market acts, forcing fiscal discipline on the United States by jacking up borrowing costs. Yes, there are differences, but the differences between the parties is very small compared with the difference between either of the parties and what reality requires.

But I am starting to reconsider that. The Republican party still is not serious about the fiscal issues, but there is an element within the party that is, and it needs to be encouraged and empowered. Somebody has a chance to own this issue. Who will?

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.

Tags: Anemic Fiat Dollars , Inflation , Politics

DeMint To Oppose Tax Deal



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Jim DeMint will work against the Obama-GOP tax deal, on excellent principled grounds: It contains unfunded spending and it increases uncertainty by leaving tax rates temporary. This is what serious fiscal leadership looks like: There is not much political juice for DeMint in opposing the tax plan — socialist Bernie  Sanders is threatening a filibuster, too — but he is serious about the deficit.

Tags: Debt , Deficits , Despair , Politics , Taxes

A Consumer-Driven Tax Deal



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There is much that I do not like about the new bipartisan deal on tax rates. One of those things is the extension of unemployment-benefit spending without compensatory cuts elsewhere in the budget. I think unemployment insurance is one of the better social safety-net programs, but that $56 billion still has to come from somewhere. There’s a $161 million NEA budget, the $600 million a year that ethanol subsidies put in the pockets of BP alone, $16.5 billion in 2010 earmarks . . . that failed $50 billion foreclosure-prevention program would have just about covered it. It’s not like there are no cuts to be made.

What is worse is this: It is yet another product of consumer-driven economic policy, premised on the mistaken belief that robust consumer spending, which is alleged to (but does not) account for 70 percent of the nation’s economy, is the key to recovery. Buying stuff does not make you rich; making stuff makes you rich. Investing in the capacity to make stuff and provide needed services makes you rich. What does the tax deal do for people who want to save and invest their money in productive enterprises that create real wealth and real jobs? Not much.

The payroll-tax holiday will probably mean that the average American family goes out to dinner once a month more often: If a guy earning $50,000 gets a temporary income boost of $84 a month for two years, that is walking-around money. If you want to put some cash in Americans’ pockets, better to give them the whole $2,000 at once — they might use it for something more useful, like paying off a credit card (or catching up on a late mortgage payment or two). They might even pop it in an investment account, which would be an excellent use of the money. Dribbling it out means it will get dribbled away, which is counterproductive.

Nobody is launching a new business or hiring a full-time employee on a temporary 2-point payroll-tax cut. What about the people who are in a position to make large investments and create new enterprises? If anything, this deal makes their lives even more complicated: It uglies up the fiscal picture, further complicates the tax code, and necessitates another tax fight in 2012. Which is to say, it increases uncertainty. As Edmund Andrews and Jim Tankersley put it over at National Journal:

Those who place high importance on being able to plan ahead—corporations planning billion-dollar capital investments or individuals deciding how much of their income to save or spend—still don’t know what to expect two years down the road.

Precisely.

There is room in politics for these kinds of piecemeal, go-along-get-along deals — I advocate them on spending cuts, for example: A nearly perfect scenario would see Republicans trading $1 in cuts reducing spending on things that they like for $1 in cuts to spending Democrats favor — lather, rinse, repeat, 1.4 trillion times or so. But there is a deeper problem that is not getting addressed: All of this effort to pump up consumer spending is the crystal meth of economic policy, a collection of short-term feel-good measures that serve mostly to camouflage deeper problems in the economy. We are directing our efforts at spending — at the depletion of savings and capital — rather than measure to encourage the accumulation of savings and capital, which is to say, at investment. Real investment only comes from real savings — forgoing present consumption for future gains — but that takes a deeper policy game and a time horizon longer than two years.

Meaning, do not expect this to do a lot of good. I have my differences with the supply-siders on some specifics, but  they are correct on a crucial insight: You treat investment poorly and subsidize consumption, you get less investment, more consumption.

– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, to be published in January.

Tags: Debt , Deficits , Despair , General Shenanigans , Politics , Taxes

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