Politics & Policy

Speaking Truth

People wait for the start of the second day of CPAC at National Harbor, Md., February 23, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

It’s easy to call out hypocrisy among your political adversaries, and much harder to call it out when your own camp is guilty. So it’s really worth your while to watch the remarks made Saturday at CPAC by Mona Charen, who I’m proud to call a friend and colleague.

Her remarks came in the course of a panel on contemporary feminism, which is worth watching in general (C-SPAN had a live stream that’s hard to link to here, but I’m sure a full video will be online). But of particular note are two things Mona had to say.

First, in a discussion of how our culture wars create “bad guys” she said:

Speaking of bad guys, there was quite an interesting person who was on this stage the other day. Her name is Marion Le Pen. Why was she here? She’s a young, no longer in office politician from France. I think the only reason she was here is that she’s named Le Pen. And the Le Pen name is a disgrace. Her grandfather was a racist and a Nazi. She claims that she stands for him. The fact that CPAC invited her was a disgrace.

Then, in answering a question about what most upsets her in today’s political conversation about men and women. Mona said:

So I agree with everything my fellow panelists have said, and I could say the misuse of data like, you know, the “77 cents on the dollar” figure, which is a statistic that’s impossible to kill even though it’s false. But I’m actually gonna twist this around a bit and say that I’m disappointed in people on our side, for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party. Who are sitting in the White House. Who brag about their extramarital affairs. Who brag about mistreating women. And because he happens to have an R after his name, we look the other way, we don’t complain. This is a party that was ready to endorse — the Republican Party endorsed Roy Moore, for the Senate in the state of Alabama even though he was a credibly accused child molester. You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.

Mona’s comments and the ugly reaction of some in the audience lay out before us two possible paths for the Right. Let’s hope we ultimately choose the right one. It certainly isn’t the one we have generally been choosing lately.


A Question for Brooklyn

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The L Train, which carries the beautiful people from their lofts in Williamsburg to their jobs in Manhattan, will be closed for more than a year for repairs beginning in 2019. These repairs are necessary because of damage done to a tunnel by flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy. Writing in AM New York, Lauren Cook offers this account:

In 2012, superstorm Sandy’s storm surge flooded the 100-year-old Canarsie Tunnel under the East River with millions of gallons of salt water, causing severe damage.

In response, the MTA said it would need to shut down the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months beginning in April 2019 so that it could make critical repairs.

Writing in Wired, Alex Davies has a structurally similar account:

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy flooded the the 92-year-old Canarsie tunnel, which takes straphangers under the East River, with 7 million gallons of seawater. So, in just over a year, the stretch of the L subway train that runs from the west side of Manhattan, along 14th St, and through the tunnel into Brooklyn will go on a 15-month hiatus.

The same basic facts are found in the New York Times account:

After months of uncertainty, the authority said on Monday that the tunnel, which runs under the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, would be shut entirely for a year and a half, starting in January 2019, to repair serious damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

The same narrative elements are present in all of these accounts: There was a terrible storm in 2012 that damaged the tunnel; repairs beginning in 2019 will shut down L Train service for a year and a half, etc. What strikes me as remarkable is that none of these accounts contains any half-serious attempt to explain to the curious reader such as myself why in the name of all that is good and holy it is taking all these years to get from Hurricane Sandy to Hurricane Sandy repairs.

Assuming those repairs are done on schedule (ho, ho!) nearly nine years will have passed between Sandy and the completion of storm repairs. That’s twice as long as it took the United States to defeat the Axis powers, twice as long as the Civil War, longer than the time that elapsed between John Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech and landing Americans on the moon. It’s longer than it took for James Joyce to write Ulysses.


Economy & Business

What Should the Fed Do Now?

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (not pictured) at the Federal Reserve, February 22, 2018. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)

In a recent article for NR, David Beckworth and I looked back over the last ten years of monetary policy, arguing that the Federal Reserve has kept it too tight for most of that period. It should have kept the level of spending throughout the economy growing at a stable pace, as it had in the dozen or so years before the crisis, when spending grew at a relatively steady 5.3 percent per year. Instead spending fell during the crisis and then failed to recover to its previous trendline. Hitting the trendline would have required a few years of above-5.3 percent growth. Instead spending has risen by 3.7 percent per year.

In an informative post about the Fed’s latest meeting, Theodore Kupfer assumes that Beckworth and I want the Fed to pursue a looser policy now. We are actually agnostic on that question in the article, saying that it’s more important that the Fed commit to a sensible rule to guide its future policy than that it loosen or tighten policy now.

For much of the last ten years, any plausible rule would have counseled a looser policy. A Fed committed to a 2 percent inflation target, or to a dual mandate targeting both inflation and unemployment, or (as we’d prefer) to stabilizing nominal spending, would have followed a looser policy. But at this point, the case for more monetary expansion is a lot weaker than it was then. As we suggest in the article, it’s not clear that the Fed is holding the economy significantly below its potential by keeping monetary policy overly tight.

As we also comment, by this point the economy has largely adjusted to the new, lower rate spending growth. Spending growth during the recovery has been even more stable than it was pre-crisis. It no longer makes sense to try to return to the pre-crisis trendline. It would be better for the Fed to keep us on the current one, and commit to keeping us on it—and to getting back to it quickly in the event of a future dip.


North Korea’s Cheerleaders Are Forced to Have Sex with Party Leaders

(Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

North Korea wins the gold medal for evil regimes. Its people are starved. There is almost no electricity outside the capital. There reportedly are concentration camps. Its leader threatens the world with nuclear weapons.

But who cares?  Too many in the media went gaga over Dear Leader’s wicked sister — after all, at least she’s not Pence! — and they cheered on the cult-victim North Korean cheerleaders as if they had something to cheer about.

Now, it turns out, those cheerleaders are forced to have sex with party leaders. From the New York Post story:

Members of the North Korean national cheerleading squad — who have been featured gleefully rooting at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics — are systematically forced to have sex with high-ranking members of Kim Jong Un’s twisted regime, according to a disturbing report.

Behind the scenes, the troupe — dubbed the “Pleasure Squad” by insiders — are forced to perform sex acts on party leaders during their trip to the Olympics, a defector with knowledge of the sexual slavery told Bloomberg News.

“[The] troupe came here and performed with dances and songs, and it might seem like a fancy show on the outside [but] they also have to go to parties and provide sexual services,” said defector Lee So Yeon, a military musician who fled the country in 2008, during Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“They go to the central Politburo party’s events, and have to sleep with the people there, even if they don’t want it,” said Yeon, 42.

Those poor young women. Imagine the agony and fear they hide behind their rigidly choreographed smiles.

‘Men Are Men and Women Are Women’

There was a small transgender contingent at CPAC this year. One of them, Jennifer Williams, gave an interview to Slate, and was critical of Ben Shapiro for having retrograde attitudes about transgender people. Here is an amusing part of the interview conducted by Osita Nwanevu.

Nwanevu: Ben Shapiro was a very well-received speaker yesterday—

Williams: Yeah, unfortunately.

Nwanevu: —and one of his applause lines is always “Men are men and women are women” . . .

Williams: Ben Shapiro is going to say what he says in his speech. Moreso guys than women are going to hoot and holler and think it’s funny.

“Moreso guys than women?” How could one be so sure of that? Unless, perhaps, it is the case that . . . no, no, unthinkable thought.


How Do Universities Affect Their Cities?

Birds gather on the partially frozen Charles River in front of the Boston skyline during winter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 6, 2014. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Conventional wisdom has it that a university is a huge benefit to a city — spurring the economy, adding cultural vibrancy, and enhancing the intellectual atmosphere. A recent book, Universities and Their Cities by Rutgers professor Steven J. Diner, makes that case.

But in this Martin Center article, Professor Stephen Walters takes issue with much of what Diner says. What Diner has overlooked, Walters argues, is that many of the socialistic concepts that have so undermined cities have their origins in universities.

“In truth,” Walters writes,  “many of the ideas that would prove harmful to urban vitality in the second half of the 20th century were born in academe during its first half, especially at L’Ecole de Beaux Arts at the University of Paris, where the City Beautiful movement originated. Its central premises — that land-use and design decisions could not be left to property owners and the chaos of markets, while large-scale projects and rational planning would inevitably promote efficiency and good citizenship in cities — were imported to America by L’Ecole students such as Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis Sullivan. They were founding members of a ‘Chicago School’ of architecture and urban planning that would acquire great influence on policymaking in many American cities.”

Furthermore, universities in the U.S. have been big players in pushing interventionist policies that have done so much damage to our cities. The “urban renewal” mania of the 1950s and 60s was seemingly wonderful for big American universities, but did irreparable harm to the fabric of urban life.

Walters writes, “For example, the University of Chicago (among other institutions) lobbied aggressively for the Housing Act of 1959 because it gave them financial leverage: for every dollar a university spent to acquire land, demolish buildings, or relocate their occupants near a project, its host city could receive two to three dollars of federal money (that would, of course, be spent partially for the benefit of the affected institution). Hard to resist such a strong incentive to crank up the bulldozers and clear ‘blighted areas,’ even if one by-product might be an occasional sit-in by a civil rights group.”

Cities need the spontaneous order of the free market and the rule of law. Too bad that most universities are brimming with intellectuals who believe in central planning.

Economy & Business

What Can We Learn from the Fed’s Most Recent Meeting?

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)

The Federal Reserve should consider an expansionary monetary policy. So say Ramesh Ponnuru and David Beckworth, who, in the current issue of National Review, argue that the Fed has kept money too tight throughout the economic expansion of the 2010s. “The Fed’s apparent bias against letting spending and inflation drift higher,” they write, “makes it more likely that the next economic downturn will again be severe and the next recovery will again be sluggish.” Progressives such as J.W. Mason, who lament what they see as a lamentable tendency at the Fed to worry more about controlling inflation than maintaining a robust labor market, have made similar arguments.

The two groups have different desiderata, to be sure. Ponnuru and Beckworth are market monetarists who think the conventional wisdom that interest rates indicate the stance of monetary policy is wrong. What really indicates the stance of monetary policy, they say, is nominal-spending growth. Were the Fed to set a nominal-spending target rather than an inflation target, it would be free to pursue a more expansionary policy when the time is right; right now, with spending growth well below its pre-crisis trend, seems like one of those times. Many progressives who want an expansionary policy, on the other hand, are less interested in flexibility and more interested in permanently reorienting the Fed’s institutional priorities towards the interests of the working class. Nonetheless, the two camps seem to agree on what policy the Fed should pursue right now: an expansionary one. (Update 2/25/2018: See this post from Ponnuru for a corrective.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the minutes from this week’s meeting of the Federal Open Markets Committee. The meeting was the first of Jay Powell’s tenure as chairman of the Fed, and there were some encouraging nuggets for critics of the current monetary regime — left and right alike.

The FOMC minutes briefly mention two key market-monetarist priorities. A “couple” of committee members suggested that the Fed “might consider expressing its [inflation] target as a range rather than a point estimate,” while “a few other participants” mentioned a framework in which the bank “would strive to make up for past deviations of inflation from [the] target.” Inflation has consistently come in below the 2 percent target; it appears at least four FOMC members kicked around the idea of allowing it to temporarily rise in an effort to stabilize nominal-spending growth.

Meanwhile, a “couple” of participants “questioned the usefulness of a Phillips Curve–type framework” that asserts a connection between the tightness of the labor market and inflation. The Fed generally responds to news of low unemployment and strong wage gains by tightening the money supply, fearing a pickup in inflation. But lately, the connection appears to have loosened (some economists believe the labor market is not as tight as it seems): Unemployment is at record lows and wages are beginning to rise, but inflation remains below target. Fed governors skeptical of the Philips Curve might be more amenable to pursuing expansionary policy even if wages continue to rise.

These are encouraging signs to those who want an expansionary policy. But they’re just signs. Most FOMC members agreed that the Philips Curve is a useful concept; the talk about level targeting didn’t gain enough traction to inspire a change in policy; and the headline news from the meeting was that the Fed’s growing optimism about the economy could invite “further” interest-rate hikes. All of this means the conventional wisdom is still conventional wisdom. If you’re hoping for a newly enlightened Federal Reserve, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer.

Health Care

Canadian Hospice Says No to Euthanasia

(Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Assisted suicide/euthanasia is completely contrary to the hospice vision espoused by the late great medical humanitarian Cecily Saunders, who created the modern hospice movement. She stood steadfastly against assisted-suicide legalization. Indeed, suicide prevention is one of hospice’s most fundamental services, I would say close in importance to pain control. As Saunders told me when I had the great honor of interviewing her in London, assisted suicide denies the intrinsic dignity of hospice patients.

Alas, in recent years some U.S. hospice organizations have been weak-kneed in defending the hospice philosophy against assisted-suicide predation. Too often, movement leaders — not wanting to be controversial — have gone “neutral” on legalization. That is an abdication of duty and an abandonment of hospice patients and their families. Some hospices even participate in assisting suicides where it is legal.

This is also happening in Canada where lethal-injection euthanasia was recently legalized. Religious hospices have pushed back and received some exemptions from having to participate. Now Langley Hospice — hooray! — a secular hospice in British Columbia is saying no to euthanasia based on the philosophical precepts of the hospice movement itself.

Langley had previously required a patient seeking euthanasia to transfer out before being killed. It is apparently part of Fraser Health, which buckled and changed the policy to permit euthanasia on premises. The board of directors of Langley have pushed back. From the Langley Hospice Board of Directors statement (my emphasis):

  • The Langley Hospice Society will continue to uphold our constitution, bylaws and mandate to provide palliative care for dying people and their families in a supportive environment, which means that we plan to continue upholding our founding mission and philosophy of care that we value life and accept death as a normal process and that we “neither hasten nor postpone death.”
  • The Langley Hospice Society recognizes the right for all Canadians to have access to information about end-of-life options, including MAiD. However, we do not recognize that this right is a superior right to the recognized philosophy of hospice and palliative care. We do not believe that MAiD should be implemented in hospices…
  • We are concerned about the adverse consequences, emotional and otherwise that the Fraser Health December 2017 directive has had; first and foremost to the patients, clients and families we serve and also, to our Langley Community, Donors, Potential Donors, Hospice Volunteers and Staff…
  • We believe that as a non-faith based hospice, Fraser Health should provide Langley Hospice with the same “exemption option” it has provided to faith-based hospices as the Fraser Health mandate is in direct opposition to our mission and philosophy to “neither hasten nor postpone death.” Not granting an exemption to do so is discriminatory.

Precisely. Hospice is not “hemlock.” Whether the hospice is religious or secular, no hospice should participate in the killings or suicides of its patients. And certainly, they should never be forced to so do.

Let’s hope their courage stiffens the spines of our own domestic quavering hospice administrators.

Politics & Policy

Paid Family Leave and the Right

(Photo: Larryhw/Dreamstime)

I have been pretty skeptical of proposed government policies to promote paid family leave. But a recent proposal from Kristin Shapiro, a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, struck me as superior to previous proposals and worth considering. Her idea is to let new parents borrow from their future Social Security benefits. They could replace a portion of their wages for twelve weeks of leave, and in return delay taking Social Security benefits for a comparable period. (The calculations are being refined, but I gather that to make the numbers balance twelve weeks of leave would probably have to mean twelve weeks of delay.)

The more I’ve followed the debate, the more I’ve supported the idea. That debate continues, especially among conservatives and libertarians. Michael Strain and I argued about it in Bloomberg View recently, and Vanessa Brown Calder took up the case against it at Cato’s blog yesterday. The New York Times covered the debate this week, too.

The Times article mentions that many conservatives and libertarians have sought to convert, or partly convert, Social Security into a system of personal accounts. One thought that crossed my mind while reading it is that there are certain similarities between the personal-account and paid-leave ideas that ought to reduce conservative skepticism of the latter.

It never occurred to most people on the Right to object to personal accounts as a “new entitlement.” They understood that the accounts wouldn’t increase spending over the long run and simply added a new option to an existing entitlement. They didn’t reject the accounts because they would shift costs from the future and therefore require transitional financing. (Instead of paying Social Security checks to future retirees, the government would have to come up with cash to seed their accounts.) And they didn’t object to personal accounts on the theory that politicians would inevitably up-end the fiscal balance of the deal by just giving everyone the accounts and their full Social Security benefits too.

Yet we’re hearing the analogue of each objection to the paid-leave idea. Its opponents on the Right are calling it a new entitlement, treating its (much smaller) effect on the medium-term fiscal balance as a deal-breaker, and devising implausibly pessimistic political scenarios about its future.

Maybe conservatives and libertarians have been too optimistic about personal accounts in the past, and those on the right who object to using Social Security to help parents take time off from work are seeing this issue more clearly. But I think it’s more likely that there’s a mental block that’s keeping the paid-leave objectors from seeing how much these debates have in common.


Feds Aren’t Verifying Passport Data


Is there any agency in American law enforcement actually doing its job? Today in Wired:

Passports, like any physical ID, can be altered and forged. That’s partly why for the last 11 years the United States has put RFID chips in the back panel of its passports, creating so-called e-Passports. The chip stores your passport information — like name, date of birth, passport number, your photo, and even a biometric identifier — for quick, machine-readable border checks. And while e-Passports also store a cryptographic signature to prevent tampering or forgeries, it turns out that despite having over a decade to do so, US Customs and Border Protection hasn’t deployed the software needed to actually verify it.

This means that since as far back as 2006, a skilled hacker could alter the data on an e-Passport chip — like the name, photo, or expiration date — without fear that signature verification would alert a border agent to the changes. That could theoretically be enough to slip into countries that allow all-electronic border checks, or even to get past a border patrol agent into the US.

In a “WTF?” letter, Senators Wyden and McCaskill report that the relevant federal staff “lacks the technical capabilities to verify e-passport chips.”

All in, national-security spending is damn near $1 trillion a year. The average annual federal compensation package is somewhere north of $120,000 per worker. And we can’t even properly manage passport control.

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