• One bridge to nowhere is an embarrassment; a thousand bridges to nowhere are a “fiscal stimulus.”
• “It’s a lot easier to get into these situations than it is to get out of them,” says Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit about his ailing bank’s real-estate portfolio. Taxpayers are no doubt feeling the same way about the ongoing federal operation to prop up the banking system with their money, a project now $45 billion deeper into the hole with aid to Citigroup. Citigroup is politically connected: Robert Rubin, Treasury secretary under Clinton and a mentor both to current Treasury boss Henry Paulson and to Obama Treasury nominee Timothy Geithner, serves on the board. And while Citigroup shareholders have been racked — their investments have lost 80 percent of their value this year — Citigroup’s management inexplicably survives, the financial equivalent of those hardy post-nuclear cockroaches of Cold War lore. This is surely not the right outcome, and Messrs. Pandit and Rubin, among others, should be gotten out of their situations post haste. Meanwhile, HSBC, the London-based bank, wants to acquire the best of Citigroup’s assets. Better them than us.
• Barack Obama’s reported selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state shows a few things about him. He trusts in the power of his office to keep the upper hand, and in the power of his cool to handle any agita (cf. George W. Bush and Colin Powell, Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson). He is a lonely politician; the inner circle he has acquired in his short and parochial career is limited to a handful of academics and Chicagoans, some of them radical, crooked, or crazy. To staff his administration he must reach out more than the average president-elect. Hillary Clinton’s acceptance in turn suggests a few things about her. Despite a good record of pothole-filling as a senator, she cared little for the office or the state she represented. At the first choice between Rome, New York, and Rome, Italy, she chose the latter. She has spent her life serving a man, her husband. Perhaps it will be a relief to serve a man who is a little more tightly wrapped.
• This is change we can believe in, or at least respect: Barack Obama wants to keep Bob Gates as secretary of defense. Gates has been the thoughtful, impressive steward of late-second-term Bush defense policy. He has overseen the surge in Iraq and the beginnings of a buildup in Afghanistan. If he’s not a down-the-line hawk (he has advocated talks with Iran), neither is he a dove (a proponent of missile defense and a tough, realistic line on Russia). Alas, he’s expected to serve only briefly in the Obama administration, after which “change” will surely mean a less capable defense secretary.
• Mark Halperin, journalistic bigfoot at Time, comes clean on the media love that dare not speak its name: “It’s the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq War. It was extreme bias — extreme pro-Obama coverage.” Halperin, speaking post-election, communicates particular dismay at the fact that his colleagues in ink-stained wretchery ignored untruths spread by the Obama campaign in Spanish-language advertising, and at the New York Times’s vicious degradation of Cindy McCain. The media’s fact-spinning is of course familiar and detestable, but what’s worse are the un-facts: Governor Palin never really said, “I can see Russia from my house” (contra John Ridley of NPR among others), just as Dan Quayle never earnestly hoped to use his Latin in Latin America (contra Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and Time). John Ashcroft terrified of calico cats and naked statues? Nope, but those stories continue to make the rounds. Once the media have cast the role, there is no changing it, and Obama has been cast as the Secular Savior, Cindy McCain as Cruella De Vil, and Governor Palin as Dan Quayle (the media’s Dan Quayle, not the real one) in drag. Will Rogers famously said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” He knew less than he thought.
• We predicted Obama’s election would harken a return to September 10 counterterrorism, and his naming of Eric Holder to be attorney general does not dispel that fear. But Holder’s conventionally liberal policy views are not the only disturbing thing about his nomination. As the Clinton administration’s last deputy attorney general, Holder was a key participant in one of the most disgraceful episodes in the Justice Department’s history: the pardon of Marc Rich, the mega-fraudster and international fugitive. Nor was that the half of it. Over vigorous opposition from prosecutors and the FBI, Holder signed off in 1999 on commutations for 16 unrepentant FALN terrorists who had not even applied for clemency (a prerequisite under DOJ rules) but whose release was thought to improve then–Senate candidate Hillary Clinton’s appeal to New York’s Puerto Ricans. Holder also supported commutations for two Weather Underground terrorists. His AG nomination confirms that two years of Democratic posturing over the “politicization” of the Justice Department were just that, posturing.
• By naming Greg Craig as White House counsel, Obama has gotten himself a skillful lawyer — Craig led Bill Clinton’s impeachment defense. He has also hired a veteran anti-anti-Communist. As a student at Yale, Craig was an outspoken protester against the Vietnam War. In Washington, he helped Ted Kennedy organize hearings to defame the Contras as they struggled against Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime in the 1980s. In 2000, Craig represented the father of Elián González, the refugee boy whom the Clinton administration was determined to send back to Cuba at gunpoint, even though his mother had died trying to get him to the United States. Technically, left-wing activists paid Craig’s attorney fees, but he was for all intents and purposes a lawyer in the service of Fidel Castro. With the press, Craig has aimed to portray himself as an idealist. He’s been closer to a dupe.
• Republicans made few changes to their leadership in Congress. The biggest came in the House, where Roy Blunt stepped down as the party whip and Eric Cantor, a younger congressman closer to conservative activists, replaced him. The House Republican leader, John Boehner, has sounded appropriately under-awed by Obama’s alleged mandate to move the country left. (As has Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.) Boehner has also proposed an economic plan that combines pro-growth tax cuts with populist touches such as an increase in the child tax credit. There, in embryo, is the Republican task over the next two years: resisting much of Obama’s agenda and presenting sound, popular alternatives to it.
• Senate Democrats voted, by a wide margin, to strip erring brother Joe Lieberman of his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, a wrist slap, but left him chairman of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. So the Connecticut Democrat and John McCain supporter keeps a plum assignment and his place in the Democratic caucus. Liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas announced himself “done with” Harry Reid, Democratic majority leader, as a result. Is he also done with Barack Obama, who blessed the deal? Obama’s magnanimity is a signal of his confidence, and perhaps also of his independence from the netroots that helped nominate him. He intends to call his own tune; anything left-wing that he does will be at his own initiative, not the Kossacks’.
• The race between John Dingell and Henry Waxman for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was a proxy war between congressional Democrats who want to protect manufacturing jobs from the onslaught of environmental regulations and those who wish to go green without regard to the economic implications. The greens triumphed as California’s Waxman, a liberal ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, unseated Michigan’s Dingell, who has been his party’s senior member on the panel for 28 years. Waxman is a dogged investigator driven by passionate partisanship. He will make global warming a top legislative priority on one of the most influential committees in the House. His victory is an early signal that House Democrats are eager to move leftward. Dingell was no free-market capitalist, but it won’t be long before business leaders realize how much they miss him.
• Weep not for Alaska senator Ted Stevens, who lost his reelection race after being convicted of making false statements about accepting gifts from an oilfield-services company. Stevens is the longest-serving Republican senator in history, and he used that seniority to become one of Washington’s worst pork-barrel spenders. His farewell tributes on the Senate floor have been something of a spectacle. Larry Craig, himself departing office, offered an emotional tribute to “Uncle Ted,” recounting his wonder at discovering that the airport in Anchorage was named after Stevens (in Alaska, it is hard to find a major infrastructure project that’s not). The increasingly befuddled Robert Byrd, 91, interrupted Stevens’s tribute speeches with loud cries of “That’s right!” and “Amen!” — an argument for age limits if not term limits. Against this backdrop, it’s worth noting that the much-maligned Sarah Palin was among the first to criticize Stevens for his involvement with VECO, the aforementioned company, whose two top executives have pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators. Palin’s career so far has been marked by opposition to the type of corrupt politician that Stevens best represents.
•In her role as governor of Alaska, Palin pardoned a turkey at a farm outside Wasilla before Thanksgiving. But during the Q&A afterwards, TV cameras caught some of the unpardoned turkeys behind her, having their blood drained out. Gross, sniggered reporters, like second-graders, while the animal huggers tut-tutted like Victorian schoolmarms. For Palin the campaign is unending. Her fan base does her no service, though, by counterattacking in the name of realism (Where do roasters come from?) or populism (These are the jobs Harvard grads won’t do). Palin will never again be just the governor of our emptiest state. She is a star, with the eyes of the world on her. Like Ronald Reagan, she knows how to hit her mark. But she needs people, as Reagan had, to take care of her visuals.
• What does it take to get fired from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services? We now know that using your position for openly political purposes, and in the process violating the privacy of your perceived political enemies, is not enough. We’re referring to Helen Jones-Kelley, the director of the department in question, who has been suspended for a month without pay for accessing the confidential records of Joseph “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, the Ohioan who became an instant celebrity after confronting Obama about taxes. The moment John McCain praised Joe the Plumber, Jones-Kelley and her staff went to work, searching their confidential databases for dirt on Wurzelbacher. When asked about her actions, Jones-Kelley explained that such searches were routine when someone unknown bursts onto the public scene. Turns out that wasn’t true. And then, when state officials investigated, they found that Jones-Kelley had also used her official e-mail account to raise money for Obama. In spite of all that, Democratic governor Ted Strickland declined to fire her, leaving Republicans dumbfounded. “It’s obvious she has lied to me and the governor and the media as to why these checks were done,” one GOP lawmaker told the Columbus Dispatch. “Prior directors never did such things and said they would fire anybody who did.” So why is this case any different?
• No person or institution should enter into a public controversy expecting to escape criticism — even unfair and dishonest criticism. But the jihad currently being waged against Mormons is unconscionable. In a Denver suburb, a Book of Mormon was set on fire and dropped on the doorstep of a Mormon temple, presumably as a statement about the church’s support of Proposition 8 in California, an initiative that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Envelopes full of suspicious white powder were sent to church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Blacklists of pro-8 Mormon donors have been compiled. Mormons are routinely being denounced as hateful and bigoted. None of this is even remotely justifiable. The Mormon church has not been particularly strident in its opposition to same-sex marriage, nor is it alone among churches whose leaders supported the ballot measure and encouraged followers to do likewise. Throughout, Mormons acted within their rights, in honest pursuit of what they believe to be good. Gay-rights activists have every right to criticize this. But they hurt their cause by fantasizing Mormon conspiracies roughly equivalent to the tales Saudi clerics tell about Jews. The vitriol has been tolerated in polite society only because anti-Mormon bigotry is pervasive — and it is this, not the church’s role in the Prop 8 debate, that is truly shameful.
• The Obamas announced that they will send their daughters, Malia and Sasha, to Sidwell Friends, the 125-year-old Quaker-run school. It was an inclusive, egalitarian gesture — so many offspring of the elite go or have gone there: Joe Biden’s granddaughters, Mark Penn’s children, Chelsea Clinton, Albert Gore III, Tricia Nixon. Presidents must be concerned for their children’s security and privacy, and Sidwell Friends is used to addressing these concerns. Yet Amy Carter managed to go to public schools when she lived in the White House. Is it too much to ask that Democrats, beholden to teachers’ unions, show some confidence in the handiwork of their supporters? Or do they know something they will not admit
• There is talk of a new New Deal in the air, and even a new Works Progress Administration, with President-elect Obama promising to “put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels.” Just one small point here, Mr. President-elect. Congress stipulated in 1937 that all WPA programs would be closed to aliens, even those legally resident. If Congress were to legislate a similar stipulation for your public-works program, would you sign that stipulation into law? Or will your program of road-building and school-modernizing turn out to be just another lot of jobs that Americans won’t do?
• Pro-choicers respect the sanctity of individual conscience — except, that is, when the conscience in question belongs to a medical worker who wishes not to participate in abortion. The Bush administration has proposed regulations to protect such conscientious objectors, and liberaldom, including President-elect Obama, is vowing to erase such protections. Conservatives should fight to keep them. The Supreme Court may block our protecting unborn children from the lethally coercive act of abortion, but it has never ruled that people must be conscripted into taking part in it.
• Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, greeted Barack Obama’s election by calling him a “house negro.” Zawahiri’s online video also took swipes at Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and included decades-old footage of Malcolm X carrying on in a similar vein about civil-rights leaders he disliked. The racism of the Arab world, in stinking flower in Sudan, fits well with the Islamist worldview. More noteworthy is Zawahiri’s use of American anti-Americanism. Islamism is a reactionary ideology that dreams of restoring a fabled caliphate. But it is also a modern radical movement, influenced by fascism in its cradle, and nourished by Western left-wing crackpots whose notions it absorbs and blows back. They are crazy, and they rely on the craziness of strangers. Barack Obama was right on election night when he pledged to defeat them.
• We struck a security pact with the Iraqis. It’s imperfect. We protect our troops, but not contractors, from Iraqi law. There are two ill-advised unconditional deadlines in the agreement: June 2009 for U.S. troops to cease combat operations in Iraqi cities, and the end of 2011 for them to exit the country entirely. Since nearly everything in Iraq is negotiable, these deadlines can presumably be changed, especially the exit date (a new security agreement a few years from now could extend it). Whatever the flaws, concluding the agreement at all is a victory. The Iranians and their tool, Moqtada al-Sadr, opposed it, worried over what the continued presence of Americans in Iraq says about the future of the country. Now the temptation for both the Iraqi and the U.S. government will be to draw down too soon. This would be a mistake when Iraq has two important, and potentially destabilizing, elections coming up over the next year (provincial and then national). Barack Obama has been handed an extraordinary opportunity with the security gains of the last two years. He can preside over a successful endgame in Iraq. This is the gift the surge has given him, if he doesn’t throw it away.
• The times, they are a-changin’: peace & love & hope hope hope, etc. Except someone forgot to tell Iran. The details of the latest IAEA report make clear that the Islamic Republic now has, or is very close to having, enough nuclear material to produce an atomic bomb. It is also on track to have 6,000 centrifuges operating at its uranium-enrichment facility by the end of the year (the current number is 3,800). The uranium it is stockpiling has not yet been enriched enough to weaponize, and efforts to that end would be hard to hide if carried out at known facilities. When they begin, what will we do? Have we simply accepted that there will be a nuclear-armed terror sponsor? Sure looks that way. Are our policymakers and politicians and media thinking seriously about this question? Sure seems not. Meanwhile, a separate IAEA report tells of “a significant number” of uranium particles at a Syrian site bombed by Israel last year, and provides other details corroborating the claim that the site was an incipient nuclear reactor. Perhaps once we’re done feeling good (and bad) about November 4 we can give a minute’s thought to how dangerous the world remains.
• Russian president Dmitri Medvedev enjoys conducting a one-man permanent demonstration against the United States. Latin America must have looked like a promising setting for this favorite pastime of his. A weeklong fiesta began in Peru, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. In Lima, the country’s capital, Medvedev had a face-to-face meeting with President Bush, and the two discussed — if that’s the right word — the Russian seizure of Georgian territory and the U.S. proposal to install defensive missiles in central Europe. Next stop Brazil, and the day after that Venezuela, where Medvedev turned arms salesman with Hugo Chávez, who is always willing to volunteer for an anti-American demonstration. A Russian nuclear-powered cruiser, with support vessels, was sailing offshore just in case anyone missed the point. Final destination: Cuba, that Cold War hand-me-down. Russian companies hope to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico waters off Cuba, but the Cuban leadership has bad memories of being abandoned by the Soviets. One little detail is a fascinating revelation of Medvedev’s state of mind: He brought food-tasters with him, and thought it fit to let everyone know.
• For more than a decade, Daniel Ortega was dictator of Nicaragua. Then, in a strange twist of history, he was elected — with 37 percent of the vote, in 2006. But he has not exactly gotten the hang of democracy. In recent municipal elections, he and his Sandinistas threw their weight around, inflicting violence on the opposition. They had the support, financial and otherwise, of their partner in Venezuela, Chávez. They barred the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center from observing the elections. (If you’re a Sandinista and you fear what Jimmy Carter will think — you’re really behaving badly.) As the Wall Street Journal’s invaluable Latin Americanist, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, pointed out, Ortega “even barred Nicaragua’s highly respected independent watchdog, Ethics and Transparency — which had recognized [Ortega’s] 2006 victory — from the polling stations.” The Sandinistas declared that they won these municipal elections; the besieged opposition said no way — not legitimately. Democracy is a sometime thing in Nicaragua, as elsewhere in Latin America, and it is especially fragile when Sandinistas hold sway.
• The world cares very little about Falun Gong, the spiritual movement persecuted to a barely imaginable degree by the Chinese government. But some people care, including Ethan Gutmann, a writer and specialist on China. In a recent piece for The Weekly Standard, he spelled out the persecution of Falun Gong, concentrating on organ harvesting. It is a gruesome subject — one of the most gruesome — and it is natural to want to turn away. But that is the wrong inclination. In writing about this subject, National Review’s Jay Nordlinger has quoted Robert Conquest, the great analyst of totalitarianism (and its apologists). Conquest points out that the world has seldom wanted to listen to or believe human witnesses, at the time of their witnessing. Testimony out of the early Soviet Union was derided and dismissed — these were “rumors in Riga.” Reports of the Holocaust were Jewish whining. Mao’s victims, stumbling into Hong Kong, were “embittered warlords.” Cubans landing in Florida were “Batista stooges.” And now these strange Chinese cultists are spinning tales about organ harvesting. Years from now, the world might well say of Falun Gong, “Oh, if only we had known!” And some will reply, “What do you mean ‘we’?”
• Successive American presidents have tried for almost 20 years to give Somalia a government. Neither force nor aid worked. Not really a country any longer, Somalia is a free-for-all for men with guns — for warlords, tribes, and Islamists, including al-Qaeda. They’ve taken to piracy for a living, and they have a thousand miles of the African coast along which to hide. In the Gulf of Aden this year, Somali pirates have captured or attacked some 90 ships, for which they have obtained ransom estimated at around $30 million. The Sirius Star, a gigantic tanker with a cargo of oil taken on in Saudi Arabia and worth $100 million, is only one of at least a dozen ships recently hijacked and held in Somali harbors. Pirates have seized ships from many countries, including Ukraine, Denmark, and France. Owners and insurers have so far chosen to pay up, which of course has made piracy a successful money-making operation. Since 9/11, however, piracy has increasingly been seen more as a subdivision of terrorism than as a threat to trade. Well-armed and equipped with modern technology, pirates operate from a “mother ship,” and an Indian warship reportedly engaged and sank one of these. The hijacking of the Sirius Star may lead to more responses of this kind. The multinational Combined Task Force 150 already patrols the Gulf with ships of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and some from other countries too. Two centuries ago, the civilized world put piracy down, and it looks as though it will have to repeat the performance.
• Every once in a while, it pays to check in on what Middle Eastern elites are telling Middle Eastern audiences. And here is Syrian economist Muhammad Sharif Mazloum on al-Kawthar TV, an Arabic-language Iranian network: “The economic crisis began on August 15, 1971, when President Nixon canceled the Bretton Woods agreement which linked the old gold dollar to the Jewish gold. Thus, the dollar was severed from gold, and became subjected to the whims and schemes of the Zionist lobby.” In the early 1960s, “President John Kennedy decided to establish governmental banks to protect the dollar, in which the gold that was pouring into America would be deposited. What became of Kennedy? He was killed by the Zionist lobby.” Etc., etc. (This interview was translated and disseminated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute.) It’s easy to laugh at the kookery on Middle Eastern TV. But peoples that are lied to constantly, and baked in hatred, have little chance at self-emancipation. As David Pryce-Jones has said about the Egyptians, in particular: “Fine people, betrayed by their intellectuals.”
• Australia’s navy has chronic trouble with recruitment, so it’s been forced to come up with some creative incentives for enlistees. Last year it began offering free breast implants as a benefit for female sailors (male ones too, come to think of it), and now it has announced that almost the entire service will take December and January off, every year, as part of a campaign to create a more family-friendly environment. Tom Paine, in The Crisis, decried “summer soldier and sunshine patriot,” but Australia seems to consider a two-month summer vacation the height of patriotism. Besides, without one, what’s the point of those free breast implants? The strategy sounds like a winner, assuming the region’s numerous terrorists and pirates can be persuaded to adopt a similar schedule.
• Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has engaged six students as conversation police. The actual, even creepier term is “facilitators,” and the particular facilitations they will perform concern monitoring the speech of their classmates in the university’s residence halls. Should students be engaged in politically incorrect speech, and should a facilitator overhear them, then he — we beg your pardon: s/he — will step in to correct the offenders. Interviewed by the Toronto Globe and Mail, one of these facilitators explained that his interventions will help “to create an atmosphere of inclusivity.” An atmosphere of fearful silence punctuated with outbursts of rancor and litigation seems more probable. The adjective “Orwellian” has been seriously overworked, but nothing else fits here.
• Given that it’s the first original Guns N’ Roses album since 1991 — not to mention that all the original band members save singer Axl Rose are gone — we’d expect some in the music press to attack Chinese Democracy. What’s interesting is that the (very un-democratic) Asian state’s official press has joined in. China’s thuggish government evidently does not appreciate Rose’s stance on its practices: Though the title track’s lyrics do not put forth a particularly coherent argument, they reference the Communist state’s atrocities against Falun Gong, and elsewhere Rose has expressed sympathy for Tibet. It’s unlikely the “Welcome to the Jungle” screamer will advance the debate in an academic sense, but he may get Americans thinking and talking about the Chinese government’s actions. We welcome that, and consider Rose a contender for the coveted Favorite Rock Star of National Review award. If he were to bring back original Guns guitarist Slash, that would help his chances.
• LITIGIOUS MAN SEEKS SAME; FREEDOM A TURN-OFF. Complainant Eric McKinley, with the state of New Jersey on his side, has won a settlement from the dating site eHarmony under which it will begin to show listings for men seeking men and women seeking women. Other sites cater exclusively to homosexuals, but McKinley wanted to make a point — said point apparently being that nobody should be allowed to exercise his rights if it suggests even the slightest disapproval of McKinley’s choices. The company retains the right to discriminate against married people seeking new partners — although there has been a lawsuit on that, too.
• For more than six decades, the college-football teams of Illinois and Northwestern have battled over a trophy called the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk. The winner has had the privilege of keeping the prize until it goes up for grabs the next season — one of the many minor rituals of college football that continue to make the game so endearing for players and fans. But now political correctness has sacked the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk for a permanent loss. The trophy was awarded for the final time on November 22, when Northwestern whipped Illinois by a score of 27–10. Northwestern’s athletic director said the schools have agreed to retire the trophy “out of tremendous respect for the Native American community.” It is not clear why the trophy was ever seen as an insult: A tomahawk is a well-recognized symbol of bravery and martial valor. The schools now say they’ll come up with a new trophy. A white flag, perhaps?
• James Atlas, of Atlas & Co., decided to publish a book called How They See Us: Writers from Around the Globe Reflect on America. The book was to be released on February 2, 2009; galleys were sent around to book-review editors. But those galleys were recalled — because Atlas had changed his mind. Before, America was engulfed in “self-congratulatory isolationism”: We deserved the scorn of the world. But then came an event that, like 9/11, “changed everything.” “Since this book was conceived, compiled and set in galleys,” wrote Atlas, “the election of Barack Obama as our 44th president has altered not only the United States, but the world, in whose eyes we are now seen as a place where sudden strange miracles occur, where literally overnight the luster of the American dream can be restored.” November 4, 2008, like September 11, 2001, is an “indelible date.” How They See Us will now be revised, “in accordance with our new reality.” It is to be released on September 7, 2009, not an indelible date in book publishing, just another day in the amazing world of the American liberal mind.
• Richard Brookhiser first wrote for National Review when he was 14 — his piece appeared on the cover. Since then, he has written many, many pieces for us. And he has written many books, including studies of George Washington, the Adamses (“America’s first dynasty”), and Alexander Hamilton. Rick’s erudition and judgment are not only National Review treasures, they are national treasures — as acknowledged by President Bush when he awarded Rick the National Humanities Medal on November 17. Among the other honorees was Myron Magnet, of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. His book The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass is only the most celebrated of his achievements. Many people deserve medals, but seldom do they get them. How satisfying when they do.
• Maj. Gen. Amir Faisal Alvi commanded the Special Services Group, the SSG, Pakistan’s elite commandos. He was thus regularly in action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, inspiring his men as only a frontline general can, weapon in hand. An intelligent and cosmopolitan man, and essentially a patriot, he deplored the sad state of the Muslim world. The Islamists, he liked to say, were cowards who did not meet you out in the open but resorted to buried explosives and assassination. Sure enough, either al-Qaeda or the Taliban was lying in wait for him, and shot him and the driver of his car dead. Though retired, he was still in his 50s. Lately, the United States has been deploying drones with enormous success, killing important and irreplaceable Islamists, but on this occasion the Islamists killed someone important and irreplaceable on the side of humanity and freedom for all. R.I.P.
• Clive Barnes was one of the most famous critics in the English-speaking world, and deserved to be. He was born in London, and conquered the London papers. Then he came to New York, and conquered the New York papers. He wrote prolifically of dance and theater. Through all his work shined a love of the arts, and of what he was doing. That is something rare in a critic. He once said that the thing to do, if you were a reader, was to find a critic “on the same wavelength as you” and stick with him. A lot of people were on Clive Barnes’s wavelength. He died at 81, still reviewing and still loving. R.I.P.
Steady As She Sinks
By speaking of a two-year recovery plan, President-elect Obama has made it clear that the gathering economic gloom is going to continue gathering for some time. The stretching of time horizons is politically astute: If the economy picks up ahead of schedule, he will have beaten expectations; if not, he will have done what he can to avoid blame.
Obama’s economic team has been more reassuring. Timothy Geithner, the New York Fed chief, will become Treasury secretary, which promises continuity under circumstances in which we could do worse. Lawrence Summers, who is likely to head the president’s economic council, has been clearer-eyed than most Democrats about the role of Fannie and Freddie in causing the financial crisis. Christina Romer, who is likely to head the Council of Economic Advisers, has even had kind words for tax-rate cuts.
Still and all, the policies that command Democratic attention right now are orthodox Keynesian ones: Have the government put money into the economy, and give it to those recipients who are most likely to spend it. Which neatly fits Democratic proclivities: They are happy to give federal money to lower-income workers and state and local governments. We are less enthusiastic. Confidence will return when it is objectively warranted, and it will not be until the housing market finds its bottom and the extent of losses arising from it are known. A stimulus plan that does not advance this process will fail.
A happy side effect of the Keynesian moment in the nation’s capital is that tax increases are likely being deferred: The Obamites suggest that rather than immediately raise the top income-tax rate, capital-gains taxes, and dividend taxes, they will wait for those tax rates to rise automatically in 2010 — just in time to endanger their two-year recovery? Deferring those tax increases permanently would be more bullish, as would a reduction in the corporate tax rate. At the very least, regulators should change the mark-to-market rules so that companies do not have to hold fire sales of their assets to meet capital standards.
Obama has assembled as solid a team as those of us who do not share his worldview could reasonably expect. It is his aides’ views, not their competence or sobriety, that we question. If his economic team fails, it will not be because of factors specific to Obama but because the Democratic party as a whole was not up to the formidable challenge.
The Regulators’ Rough Ride
What caused the financial crisis? President-elect Obama had a simple story during the campaign: “Eight years of policies that have shredded consumer protections, loosened oversight and regulation, and encouraged outsized bonuses to CEOs while ignoring middle-class Americans have brought us to the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
According to this view, which was echoed vocally by Obama’s economic team, deregulation and conservative ideology are to blame.
There is a simple test of this view. Countries around the world have wildly different regulatory structures. Some, like the U.S., have relatively light regulatory structures, and rely more on free markets to discipline institutions. Others, including Germany and Turkey, regulate a good deal more.
If Obama’s thesis is correct, then the economic crisis should be worse in the countries that have looser regulations fueled by a “failed ideology.”
The data show the exact opposite.
The vertical axis in the accompanying chart measures the change in stock performance among major industrialized countries during the past year. The horizontal axis is the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index, which provides a measure of financial-market freedom. The index measures economic liberty by taking into account government size, property-rights protection, monetary policy, trade freedom, and regulatory barriers across countries. Freedom increases from left to right.
The fitted line is a regression line that captures the basic tendency of the data. If Obama were correct, the line would slope downward, and countries that are economically free would have had bigger collapses in their stock markets. In fact, the line is upward-sloping, which implies that over the past year, countries that are economically free have suffered less than countries that are not. (For those keeping score: The line is statistically significant.)
The data tell a startling story. There is no country that went unscathed over the past year. Even the most aggressive European regulatory states suffered terribly. As we consider regulatory changes, there is no successful country in the OECD that the U.S. could consider copying.
A terrible storm has certainly swept the world’s economies into recession. It will probably be years before we fully understand that storm. But at this moment, we do know one thing: Countries that were less free fared worse.
— KEVIN A. HASSETT