Sports

The Importance of International Sports Bodies

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Swimmers compete in the women’s 200-meter individual medley semifinal during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, July 27, 2021. (Antonio Bronic/Reuters)

International sports organizations are becoming increasingly important in the fight to keep males out of female sports. One huge win was the decision of FINA, the international federation for swimming, to ban males who transition after the age of twelve from competing as self-identified women. This may yet stop Lia (formerly Will) Thomas from doing further damage to women’s swimming after the NCAA failed to ensure fairness.

USA Wrestling and the International Rugby League adopted similar policies. This, too, has had a knock-on effect. The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) is the latest sports body to exclude male athletes who self-identify as female. The IRFU’s decision prevents males over the age of twelve from playing female rugby — a contact sport — based on “medical and scientific evidence” that shows males retain their advantages “even after testosterone suppression.”

And the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing body for cycling, has managed to prevent a male cyclist from displacing more women at the U.S. Elite Track Cycling National Championships this week after it tightened the testosterone-level requirements. These are promising signs.

National Security & Defense

How Iranian Terrorists Watched John Bolton

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Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks during a lecture at Duke University in Durham, N.C., February 17, 2020. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

The Justice Department’s unsealing today of an indictment targeting an Iranian man who allegedly plotted former national-security adviser John Bolton’s assassination is especially disturbing given that the Iranian regime knew specific details about his whereabouts in a few instances.

In court documents made public today, prosecutors and federal agents described the assassination plot in detail, including how the suspect, Shahram Poursafi — a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — allegedly coordinated with U.S.-based individuals (one of whom worked with federal agents) from Tehran to surveil Bolton’s home and office.

In an affidavit submitted to the court, an FBI agent notes at a few points that Poursafi, who the Justice Department suspects worked in tandem with the guards’ Quds Force, demonstrated accurate knowledge of some of Bolton’s movements. He knew that Bolton was at home during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays this past year and at least one instance in which the former senior official was traveling. Each of those times, according to the Justice Department document, Poursafi did not state whether he knew this through in-person surveillance, a hacking operation, or other sources.

In addition, Poursafi allegedly had a second plot against a different former U.S. official in mind. Subsequent reports have indicated that that official is former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. According to the FBI affidavit, Poursafi told the person that he hired for the Bolton hit job that taking out the second official would require considerably less surveillance and intelligence work, since that was already “complete, and had been gathered ‘from the United States,’ not via ‘Google,’” per the document. Who completed that work in the U.S.? The affidavit does not say.

It was reported several months ago that Pompeo, Bolton, and other targets have been assigned government security details, considering Iranian threats. Still, the accuracy with which Iran surveilled Bolton, as revealed today, is chilling.

Media

Is J. K. Rowling a ‘Major Villain’?

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On a list titled “17 Famous People Who Started Out As Heroes But Lived Long Enough To Become Major Villains,” BuzzFeed includes Jim Jones, the murderous cult leader; Philippe Petain, a Nazi collaborator; Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and child; Harry Harlow, who emotionally tortured baby monkeys, and — you guessed it — J. K. Rowling, who “went from beloved children’s author to a TERF after making a number of anti-trans comments, then repeatedly doubling down on them.”

U.S.

Yes, That Is Mike Lee’s Twitter

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In July, a new Twitter account, @BasedMikeLee, surfaced, claiming to be run by Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) himself. Recent weeks have seen vigorous online debate and speculation about the claim. The account’s tweeting habits contributed to this ambiguity — its posts alternated between traditional political statements (such as this recent thread on the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago) and . . . definitively less traditional posts. (“I’m taller than @RandPaul”; “The haters can’t handle this frickin’ smoke”; “This account is no cap — bussin, forreal forreal”). Was this, in fact, the senior U.S. senator from the great state of Utah? Or a suspiciously talented impersonator?

Today, the Internet was given an answer:

So long as our political representatives are on Twitter — a phenomenon that I’m not convinced is good for the republic — I hope more of them tweet like @BasedMikeLee.

Media

Why Is the New York Times Publishing CCP Propagandists?

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People line up for taxis across the street from the New York Times building in New York City. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Yesterday, the New York Times published an opinion piece from Wang Wen, a literal CCP propagandist. That’s not an exaggeration — here’s Wen’s biography, as described in the Times article: “Mr. Wang researches global governance and has studied China’s re-emergence as a world power. He is a Communist Party member and a former chief opinion editor of The Global Times, an arm of the official Communist Party newspaper, The People’s Daily.”

Wang’s article, titled “Why China’s People No Longer Look Up to America,” is breathtaking. “When I was a university student in northwestern China in the late 1990s, my friends and I tuned in to shortwave broadcasts of Voice of America, polishing our English while soaking up American and world news,” Wang writes. “We flocked to packed lecture halls whenever a visiting American professor was on campus.” But now that America has ostensibly sacrificed its moral standing — and, perhaps just coincidentally, Wang has accepted a full-time job as a CCP apologist — things have changed:

But after years of watching America’s wars overseas, reckless economic policies and destructive partisanship — culminating in last year’s disgraceful assault on the U.S. Capitol ­­— many Chinese, including me, can barely make out that shining beacon anymore.

Yet as relations between our countries deteriorate, the United States blames us. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did so in May, saying that China was “undermining” the rules-based world order and could not be relied upon to “change its trajectory.”

I have misgivings about some of my country’s policies. And I recognize that some criticisms of my government’s policies are justified. But Americans must also recognize that U.S. behavior is hardly setting a good example.

Last I checked, America is not conducting a full-scale ethnic genocide of one of its religious minorities, replete with concentration camps and forced abortions. Any rational, unbiased observer would surely scoff at the idea that the January 6 riot at the Capitol was morally analogous to Uyghur concentration camps. But then again, Wang is not an unbiased observer. What’s that famous Upton Sinclair line? “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Whether or not the New York Times is obligated to publish salaried CCP organs, I’ll leave up to the readers to decide. 

U.S.

What Is the Midwest?

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Barn in an Iowa cornfield. (Credit: DarcyMaulsby/iStock/Getty Images)

America is a big place, full of many smaller places. And as proud as we are to be from the former, one of the best things about this country is the way we also continue to be proud of those latter places we are from. As an Ohio native, I embrace both my state (and its cryptids) and the Midwest, the region to which it belongs.

From these particularistic attachments spring not only many of the traditions, values, and associations that form us as persons, but also debates about place superiority — and even questions of definition and categorization. One such discussion often becomes a debate about what, exactly, constitutes the Midwest — and, for reasons that escape me, whether Ohio counts; it obviously does — both geographically and “culturally.”

“Data journalism,” often (rightly) mocked as an attempt by the people Edmund Burke called “sophisters, economists, and calculators” to legitimate their political preferences with a patina of objectivity, has come to the rescue. In this instance, however, its conclusions are at least interesting and worthy of consideration. In the Washington Post, Andrew Van Dam has attempted to use Airbnb listings to calculate “the most Midwestern things on Earth, according to data.” Essentially, Doran and his team used the frequency of descriptors in Airbnb listings as a way to answer some of these timeless questions. As he explains the process:

In Airbnb, we’d stumbled on an ideal data set for drawing that elusive line between culture and geography. More importantly, once we’d looked at more than half a million Airbnb listings and built a database powerful enough to answer “Where is the Midwest?” we could use it to answer a much more difficult follow-up: “What is the Midwest?” What cultural touchstones make it different from the rest of the country?

The map of the Midwest drawn by this research designates Iowa as the most Midwestern state, followed by Indiana and Wisconsin. That’s fine with me. The Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas also make the cut. As do Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio (sorry haters), despite having large urban centers whose populations are less prone to describe themselves as Midwestern in listings.

As for the most Midwestern thing, it gets interesting. With some extraneous info (e.g., brand names and state-specific attributes) screened out, the data reveal that the most Midwestern thing is . . . the walleye. The Post describes it thus:

a drab but delicious freshwater fish whose primeval bulging eyes and snaggled teeth would look at home in one of those Nebraska fossil beds. It’s the state fish of both South Dakota and Minnesota, and at least six Midwestern towns have claimed to be the walleye capital of the world.

Though I will forever cite this article’s conclusion of Ohio as Midwestern as definitive, I have to say that, by this metric, I am not very Midwestern myself. The walleye, alas, did not feature heavily in my upbringing. I did not experience much of what champion fisher Marianne Huskey Fechter called the “nostalgia of the walleye,” though I hardly begrudge those who have or do. Here, for those curious, are some of the other Airbnb descriptors established by these data as definitively Midwestern:

  • Heartland
  • Conservatory
  • Lutheran
  • Rehabbed
  • Bluegill
  • Blacktop
  • Glacial
  • Smallmouth
  • Supper
  • Orchestra
  • Largemouth
  • Snowmobile
  • Amish
  • Paddleboat

A lot of these are tourist-heavy, which is understandable, given the source of this information. But, as Van Dam notes, others connote regional dialect (“supper”) or characteristics (“smallmouth” and “largemouth” both appear because both types of bass can be found in the Midwest). “Lutheran” is a particularly amusing one to me, though even as a Midwestern Catholic, I cannot deny its utility as a Midwest descriptor.

At any rate, it’s all interesting information and should help continue the eternal — and welcome — conversations that arise from Americans’ particularistic attachments.

Economics

Bahnsenomics!

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David Bahnsen (The Bahnsen Group/YouTube)

The much-anticipated Bahnsen Economics Course has been unleashed and is now awaiting curious and parched minds keen on understanding the means to human flourishing, as presented by our paisan, David Bahnsen (host of NR’s popular Capital Record and Radio Free California podcasts).

This is not unserious stuff: a semester-style course anchored in David’s 29 video lectures (sampler — No. 10: “The Merits and Limits of Self-Interest,” No. 14: “The Price Mechanism,” No. 26: “The Broken Window Fallacy”) requiring reading and writing about ’rithmetic and theory and more (yes, there will be quizzes . . . and an exam!). Its virtue is simple: The course is a trustworthy opportunity for the curious mind to do that thing it’s put off for years — getting (finally!) thorough insight and appreciation of “a properly understood framework of economics,” a thing that Professor (if we may) Bahnsen assures is often poorly taught and understudied. In David’s own words, his objective is to provide a

substantive understanding of economics, but to do so rooted in First Principles. I want people who take this class and go through these lectures to come away with an understanding of economics applied, financial matters that are relevant in their lives, that are thinking about a framework of society structured, the political applications that may have to do with economic policy — I want all of these things to branch out of a foundation of economics that is informed by the principles we’ll cover in this class.

Kudos to David for conceiving and creating this project — which is free. Get started, here.

National Security & Defense

Saudi Spy Case Shows How Autocratic Governments Hijack Social Media

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Ahmad Abouammo leaves Santa Rita jail after being freed pending trial, in Dublin, Calif., November 21, 2019. (Kate Munsch/Reuters)

A former Twitter employee, Ahmad Abouammo, was found guilty this week of spying for Saudi Arabia, which paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars for providing regime critics’ private user information, including from anonymous accounts. The Justice Department charged another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, for his role in the scheme, but Alzabarah, who performed website maintenance for the company, fled the U.S. for Saudi Arabia when Twitter confronted him for accessing the personal information of over 6,000 accounts. This espionage incident displays the lengths Saudi Arabia will go to in order to suppress citizens’ criticism and dissent.

This is not the first time dictatorships in the Middle East have manipulated technology to bolster their governments and limit freedoms. For instance, the United Arab Emirates frequently establishes obstacles to social-media access, imposes limits on specific content, and violates the rights of users. These measures are used to identify and quell dissent as well as persecute dissidents. Many of these measures were implemented in response to the Arab Spring uprisings, when protesters used social media to coordinate large-scale demonstrations. Autocratic regimes in the Middle East perceived the Arab Spring democratization movement as an overall threat to their governments and authority. They understood that social media was becoming a tool for mass mobilization and democratization; they countered this movement by using social media to identify regime opponents. Across the Middle East, nations have instituted vague cybercrime and anti-terrorist laws, which they use as cudgels to strike down civil-rights activists and human-rights supporters. The use of espionage within the Twitter company is simply the latest bold move.

Social media can be used as a tool for connection, information-sharing, and genuine learning. But autocratic governments can hijack social-media accounts and data for the purposes of censorship and repression. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the Middle East but is happening around the world. Social media, as a hub of free expression, is targeted by governments seeking to restrict such freedom.

Politics & Policy

Cashing In on the ‘Raid’

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Former President Donald Trump gestures during a rally to boost Ohio Republican candidates ahead of their May 3 primary election, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, April 23, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

Former president Donald Trump is using the FBI’s Monday “raid” on his home at Mar-a-Lago to solicit donations from his supporters. In a fundraising email, Trump implored his supporters to donate: “I will continue to fight for the Great American People. I need every single red-blooded American Patriot to step up during this time.” Trump ended the email by urging his supporters to “Please rush in a donation IMMEDIATELY to publicly stand with me against this NEVERENDING WITCH HUNT​.” Trump is also sending texts asking supporters to donate. 

Meanwhile, failed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton used the unprecedented search as a fundraising opportunity for Onward Together, Clinton’s political action organization launched in 2017. As if pouring salt on Republicans’ wounds, Hillary jumped on social media and started hawking her products that brag about beating the rap on the FBI’s investigation into her email scandal. Hillary is promoting hats and shirts on her website that feature the caption, “But Her Emails.” The hats and shirts each go for $30. Hillary tweeted, “Every ‘But her emails’ hat or shirt sold helps @onwardtogether partners defend democracy, build a progressive bench, and fight for our values. Just saying!” According to Hillary, the hats sold out after her tweet but are now in stock again. 

Comedian Tim Young responded to Hillary with this tweet:

The fact that Hillary is fundraising off of the “raid” on Mar-a-Lago when she’s also been the target of an FBI investigation is somewhat ironic — but Hillary has never been a woman with much self-awareness. She’s the same woman who used BleachBit (computer software used to destroy files permanently) to erase 33,000 emails that she kept on her private email server so that they would not get into the hands of the FBI. Clinton also had her staffers destroy her phones using hammers. However, as Young pointed out, Hillary won’t have to worry about a raid from the FBI. With the hyper-political Attorney General Merrick Garland at the helm of the DOJ, Hillary appears safe. And besides, where is the evidence?

Another Danger of Domestic Political Escalation

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A Trump supporter protests near the Trump National Golf Club after former President Donald Trump said that FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach home, in Bedminster, N.J., August 9, 2022. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

With Trump controversies consuming yet another news cycle, I thought it might be useful to highlight an overall trend and a paradox.

Underneath much of the Washington establishment’s hostility to Donald Trump is the fear that he would undermine the position of the United States as the hub of various international alliances and commitments. To preserve the architecture of the post-war international order, these critics believe, Trump must be fought with every possible tool; according to this view, breaking political guardrails would have a civic price, but it would be worth it to preserve America’s place in the world.

However, if the goal is

Politics & Policy

Trump Takes the Fifth

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Former President Trump (left) and New York Attorney General Letitia James (right) (Brian Synder and Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Former President Trump’s announcement that he will assert his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid answering questions in New York attorney general Letitia James’s investigation of the Trump organization is significant.

James’s probe is civil in nature; it’s not a criminal case. The difference? In a criminal case, the Supreme Court has held that no negative inference may be drawn against a defendant who refuses to answer questions based on the privilege against self-incrimination. As Justice Scalia explained while dissenting in United States v. Mitchell (1999), this modern interpretation cuts against not only the original meaning of the privilege but also common sense (“If I ask my son whether he saw a movie I had forbidden him to watch, and he remains silent, the import of his silence is clear.”) Nevertheless, if a criminal defendant declines to testify, the jury may not deduce that if he had an innocent explanation that would rebut the charges, he would surely have provided it.

On the contrary, common sense reigns in civil cases. Yes, a party still has his constitutional right not to provide evidence that could be used against him — one may take the Fifth to avoid disclosing potentially incriminating evidence. Nevertheless, the fact finder is permitted to draw a negative inference from the party’s refusal to answer questions.

The New York state civil matter is an investigation of the Trump organization’s business practices. So, contrary to the implications in a criminal case, taking the Fifth is not cost-free. With respect to any question Trump refuses to answer — and he is apparently declining to answer all questions — the fact finder may infer that if he testified truthfully, his answers would have helped the state’s case.

When something is not cost-free, then our analysis has to be about costs and benefits — or, more accurately here, costs and worse costs. After consulting with his lawyers, former president Trump has decided that the damage he will sustain in the civil litigation by refusing to answer questions is not as bad as the damage he could sustain — not just in the civil litigation but in general — if he were to provide truthful testimony. That does not necessarily mean his truthful testimony would be incriminating, but it could very well mean that. And at a minimum, we can deduce that his testimony would not be helpful to his position.

There is no doubt that Trump is in a tough spot. When you are implicated in criminal investigation (and the search conducted at Mar-a-Lago Monday is clearly indicative of a criminal investigation, and may be relevant to multiple criminal probes), it becomes very risky to testify in a civil deposition because the statements made can be used against you in the criminal probes. This, naturally, gives the adverse lawyers in the civil case the incentive to ask questions they know may bear on the criminal case. But that’s the way it goes. You have to decide whether you’ll get hurt worse by answering or not answering.

Trump has decided he would get hurt worse by answering. Naturally, like most similarly situated investigative subjects, he is insisting that he is taking the Fifth on advice of counsel and because the government at every level is out to get him — as he put it today, “I have absolutely no choice because the current Administration and many prosecutors in this Country have lost all moral and ethical bounds of decency.”

Maybe. But when it gets down to brass tacks, it’s still a calculation of risk. Trump decided the greater risk would be testifying.

Politics & Policy

A Politicized AG Abuses Power to Target His Man

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In the Soviet Union, the rule of law and an independent judiciary had been replaced by a political machine under state control that was used to destroy anyone who was regarded as a threat to the regime.

Stuff like that can’t happen here, though. Or can it?

In this article, Rebecca Bynum writes about the amazing lengths to which Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, has gone to crush a critic of the government, Tim Eyman.

Stalin henchman Lavrentiy Beria said, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.” Ferguson allegedly has done the same thing regarding Eyman, bleeding him dry over paperwork disputes.

Bynum writes:

[Ferguson] is clearly on a crusade to crush Mr. Eyman in the belief that he would be removing an obstacle to the political left’s agenda. Ferguson is pressing forward regardless of the constitutionality of his actions. Ironically, Ferguson fundraises off the publicity of his prosecution of Eyman for his own campaigns.

Read the whole thing. Zealous left-wing AGs won’t hesitate to abuse their power (and spend taxpayer money) on their political opponents. I’m afraid that we will see much more of this sort of thing as “progressives” use every dirty trick possible to ensure that they stay in control.

Politics & Policy

Some Are Determined to Defend Free Speech on Campus

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The Left used to pride itself on “speaking truth to power,” but now that it has power, we find that it’s eager to suppress voices of those who disagree with it.

That’s nowhere more true than on college campuses, where “progressive” students and faculty have learned that if they complain loudly enough, they can usually prevent ideas they dislike from being heard. Fortunately, a resistance movement is building, and in today’s Martin Center article, Wenyuan Wu writes about it.

How bad are things? She gives this astounding case:

Though examples of the phenomenon are too numerous to recount, one anecdote and two data points are worth mentioning here. Last September, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) canceled a guest science lecture by University of Chicago professor Dorian Abbot due to his support for merit-based college admissions. Even though Abbot had been expected to deliver a lecture on atmospheric and planetary sciences, his critics labeled his views on affirmative action “infuriating,” “inappropriate,” and “oppressive”—fatal ideological stains accentuated by Abbot’s being “white.”

Such instances have sparked the creation of Free Speech Alliance chapters at a growing number of schools, including MIT. They consist of alums, students, faculty members, and others who want to keep our campuses from becoming ideological monocultures.

Perhaps your school has one and if so, why not support it? If not, why not start a chapter?

She nails the truth in saying, “More importantly, colleges and universities will be doing young Americans a huge disservice by deciding for them which speeches are appropriate on campuses and filtering the variety of opinions available using subjective tools. ”

The Left wants people with closed minds, true believers in its vision of a tightly controlled, egalitarian state. Let’s not let that happen.

Second Look at the Polls from Ohio

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Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, August 5, 2022. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

I’ve noticed a number of commentators starting to worry about a repeat of 2010, when a couple of bad Senate candidates seriously hurt the Republican Party. Some of the fear is focused on J. D. Vance in Ohio, including from our own Jim Geraghty. Vance won an especially contentious, and spendy, primary campaign earlier this year. But Jim looked at the polls and didn’t see Vance coasting the way a Republican should in Ohio. Jim worries that Vance is getting defined by Tim Ryan. Jim writes:

Since June, J. D. Vance has yet to lead a poll over Tim Ryan*, which

Politics & Policy

Budget Magic

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., August 7, 2022. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

Normally, when politicians want to escape the hard numbers associated with their decisions, they bring a bit of magic to the party. For Republicans it is the “growth fairy.” We’ll just have so much economic growth that our federal revenues will go up to meet our commitments.

For Democrats and Republicans both, there has traditionally been a dream that a few judicious investigations and a leprechaun will lead us to a pot of gold called “waste and inefficiency.” As soon as we find all the waste and inefficiency, we’ll turn it into the riches that pay for the latest moderate rebels in Syria or prescription-drug benefit.

These are nice stories, and they’re almost always false. Instead, we usually turn to the magic of our reserve currency and international debt markets, which is a powerful sorcery of its own.

While I think that all these mythical stories are false, I do admit that there is something mysterious about federal revenues. They don’t seem to move in a way that perfectly correlates with the policy levers that are pulled in Washington. I’ve come to view the federal revenues, which have run between 16 to 20 percent of GDP no matter the tax rates, as a kind of rough approximation of Americans’ trust in their institutions. After successfully concluding World War II, trust was very high. So too at the turn of the millennium. You can guess which way it went after the financial crisis.

Now, Democrats have come up with a new form of magic: the enforcement dwarves. New IRS agents, 87,000 of them, who will magically turn up a net of $124 billion in new revenue, according to the propaganda of the Inflation Reduction Act. In my book, that looks like an awful lot of squeezing — in middle-class and working-class audits — for not all that much more blood out of the rag.

People don’t remember the agony of mass middle-class audits or the radical expansion of audits to the working poor that was instituted by the earned-income tax credit. There’s a reason Democrats stopped pushing for hard enforcement.

But this has been a season of Democrats relearning the hard lessons of the 1970s and 1980s, hasn’t it?

Economy & Business

Today in Capital Matters: IRS

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Daniel Pilla writes about what the IRS will do with its billions in new funding:

The centerpiece of IRS spending would be for tax-law enforcement. The bill promises $45.638 billion for this purpose, to include enhanced audits and collection, legal and litigation support, criminal investigations, digital asset monitoring and compliance, and the general enforcement of tax laws and other financial crimes.

And while the administration has repeatedly assured us that the targets of this increased enforcement action will be only high-income earners, I have shown clearly that the targets will likely be self-employed persons, along with those who claim the benefits of the laundry-list of refundable tax credits — lower-income taxpayers.

But even if the IRS targets only high-income taxpayers, spending the lion’s share of the $80 billion on enforcement is simply bad policy.

Read the whole thing here.

World

The Baltic Monument Wars Continue

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Police officers near a monument commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII in Riga, Latvia, May 11, 2022. (Andrius Sytas/Reuters)

Six weeks ago, I wrote about plans to demolish what is now known as the Victory Monument, a massive, triumphalist excrescence that wrecks what would otherwise be a pleasant park in the Latvian capital, Riga. It was originally constructed in the 1980s to commemorate the Red Army’s “liberation” of Latvia toward the end of the Second World War, a liberation that, in the view of most ethnic Latvians, would have been improved had the Red Army had not stayed on — for nearly half a century.

As I noted:

Like neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia had been forcibly incorporated into the USSR in 1940, part of the spoils of Stalin’s pact with Hitler. When the Germans invaded their erstwhile Soviet accomplices in 1941, they overran and then occupied the Baltic states, until, in due course, the Red Army drove them out. That returned the trio to Moscow’s grim “union” for a second, far more prolonged taste of what that meant, including, notoriously, the killings, jailings, terms in the Gulag, and mass deportations that characterized the early phases of a reoccupation that lasted nearly a half century and, in Latvia’s case, ended with ethnic Latvians only just remaining the majority in their own country. Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that they want to be rid of a complex (the monument consists of an obelisk and a series of statues) built to celebrate the opening act of a fresh national catastrophe.

Plans to demolish the monument (no easy task: It’s vast) continue.

LSM (August 4):

Rīga City Council has designated a builder for the demolition of the Soviet monument, but the company’s name will not be disclosed for the time being.

Rīga City Executive Director Jānis Lange said that it would be impossible to dismantle the monument by breaking down the steps from top to bottom as it would take too long. Given that the builder must also dismantle the bronze statues and pool adjacent to the monument, and then perform the site development work, the demolition of the monument has to be quick.

At the end of my article, I argued that the demolitions would not stop there:

[T]he Baltic monument wars will continue elsewhere, just one front in the long-standing effort to define the identities of these lands by changing how the past is reflected in their landscape. After the Baltic states were annexed, the Soviets destroyed, with a couple of unlikely exceptions, almost anything honoring the republics’ inter-war independence. Many of these have now been rebuilt, and many of their Soviet successors have been torn down. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means that the pace of clearing away the remnants will pick up. . . .

ERR (August 4):

The [Estonian] government has agreed communist monuments in public spaces, including the T-34 tank in Narva, will be moved as soon as possible, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said on Wednesday. . . .

There are estimated to be between 200 and 400 Soviet monuments across Estonia.

“A separate issue is the Narva tank, which has been talked about a lot. Currently, this tank belongs to the City of Narva, and in the current legal space it has been difficult. But since it is clear that Narva is not doing it itself, tensions are rising there, it is clear that the Estonian state and government must make the decision themselves to move this and other monuments with symbolic value,” said Kallas.

“It is important to [emphasize] that commemorating the dead is not prohibited in any way and will not be prohibited, but that it should be done in the right place and that is at a cemetery, where it can be done with dignity,” said Kallas.

A visit to the military cemetery in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, quickly reveals that the Soviet dead are indeed treated with dignity.

The tank in question (a replica of a Soviet T-34) is a Soviet war memorial in Narva, the easternmost city in Estonia, which is separated from Russia by a not particularly wide river (I wrote about a visit there for the New Criterion a few years back), and, following some threatening remarks by Vladimir Putin in June, discussed the city in a Corner post here.

The tank stands at the spot where the Red Army crossed the Narva River in the course of brutal fighting in and around the city in 1944. By the end of it, Narva, formerly one of Northern Europe’s more beautiful small cities, had been destroyed. It was rebuilt in Soviet style and, with formerly independent Estonia now forcibly incorporated into the USSR, was repopulated by settlers, mainly Russian, from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The surviving Estonians who had lived in Narva before the war were not allowed to return. The city today is overwhelmingly Russian speaking.

Aliide Naylor, the author of a book about the Baltics, which I reviewed for NR here, has been in Narva recently, and has written a useful update on the debate surrounding the tank here.

It now appears that the tank will be removed sooner rather than later, and will probably end up in a museum in the city. This is an approach similar to that taken with the large statue of Lenin, which used to stand in the city’s main square, but which was later tucked away in a quiet corner within Narva’s impressive Hermann castle where, so far as I know, the old murderer still stands.

Business

The ‘Inflation Reduction Act’: Taxing Share Buybacks

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, March 19, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Share buybacks have never been particularly popular with the Left (#understatement). They are perceived as a device that can be played by unscrupulous executives wanting to ramp up their company’s share price and as a handy tax-avoidance scheme.

A return of capital to shareholders in the form of dividends is taxable, while its de facto equivalent in the form of a share buyback is not (it is, too simplistically, assumed). Another complaint? Companies are using buybacks to return capital to their shareholders, rather than put that capital to productive use.

Strangely, the argument that management might have decided that that productive use does not exist, and that it would be better (directly or indirectly) to return capital to the company’s shareholders — which is to say its owners — so that they can deploy it elsewhere generally goes unmentioned.

All that said, I’ve never been a great fan of share buybacks. To me, they represent too much of a bet by the company’s management on where a firm’s share price is going. I’d rather that decision was left to investors as they weigh whether to buy, sell, or hold. I prefer dividends. But yes, it is certainly true that share buybacks are more tax-efficient for shareholders who pay tax on dividends, a category that excludes, incidentally, investors who hold their shares or mutual funds in their 401(k)s.

And all that said, I am not a fan of either banning or taxing share buybacks.

But (via Reuters):

The $430 billion Inflation Reduction Act bill would impose a new excise tax on stock buybacks…

The tax will be levied at a rate of 1 percent.

Bloomberg:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said that the goal of the buyback tax is to curb share repurchases and to encourage companies to invest in their businesses, rather than buying back shares to boost stock prices.

“Unless you take some steps to check it, it’s never gonna get checked,” Wyden told reporters Saturday. “What’s wrong with reinvesting that in new equipment, for example, that could reduce carbon emissions?”

What’s wrong with that, Senator, is two-fold. Firstly, a company management is probably best placed to decide how the firm’s capital is best invested. Secondly, that management has a duty to the company’s shareholders, not, in the absence of legislation to the contrary, to the socio-political agenda of certain senators or some other section of the ruling class. The rules might be different under a corporatist regime, but that is not yet where we are. Not yet, anyway.

The Wall Street Journal:

Buybacks aren’t tax free: Owners who sell shares back to the company realize a taxable capital gain. Any boost in the share price contributes to a higher taxable gain for remaining owners when they sell their shares in the future.

Why not pay dividends instead? Companies and shareholders might prefer buybacks in some instances, such as if the company is disbursing a one-time lump sum or shifting the balance of equity and debt on its books. For the economy overall, buybacks have the effect of distributing capital specifically to those owners who choose to participate because they believe they have a more productive use for it. Capital flows from companies that don’t need it to companies that do.

Sen. Sinema’s 1% levy represents a climbdown from the 2% rate Senate Democrats tried to include in the Build Back Better plan last year. But don’t think the rate will stop at 1% once Democrats create this new tax, and don’t assume there are no economic costs even at the 1% rate. This is still a tax on capital and investment by a different name, and it will hit share values and your 401(k).

America needs fewer tax impediments to the free and productive flow of capital to investors and entrepreneurs, as Sen. Sinema recognized with her other changes to the Schumer-Manchin plan. Alas the progressive demand for more revenue, and to punish business, is insatiable, so any tax gimmick they can conjure up to cobble together 50 Senate votes will do.

Note: Updated with the sentence “I prefer dividends”, just to make absolutely clear that I have (as ought to be obvious) no objection to dividends, which as I see as a preferable way of  not only providing investors with a current yield, but, under certain circumstances, returning ‘excess’ capital to shareholders.

Media

Israel Is the Bad Guy in the Eyes of the Media, Once Again

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Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, seen from Ashkelon, Israel, August 5, 2022. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

On Friday, Israel began Operation Breaking Dawn, striking Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) targets and assassinating the senior-most PIJ commander, Tayseer al-Jabari, in what Israel says was a preemptive strike against PIJ terrorists in Gaza.

Israel’s southern communities had been locked down since August 2 after Israel arrested PIJ senior member Bassam al-Saadi in Jenin, a city in Samaria (in the West Bank). Reportedly, al-Jabari was preparing imminent attacks against Israel, including firing anti-tank missiles near the border.

Israel struck 170 targets in a 66-hour period, including PIJ bases, terrorist attack tunnels, weapons factories, and the residential buildings of PIJ leaders, killing two PIJ commanders, including al-Jabari. Israel claims every major PIJ leader has now been killed.

PIJ retaliated, shooting over 1,100 rockets at civilian areas in Israel. An unexploded rocket hit a residential area in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, and some Israelis were slightly injured while running to bomb shelters.

The Iron Dome, one of Israel’s missile-defense systems, intercepted 96 to 97 percent of the rockets fired on Israel. Forty-four Palestinians were killed in this round of fighting. A cease-fire went into effect at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, and except for a barrage of rockets fired by PIJ eight minutes later, it has held. A senior Israeli diplomatic official said PIJ had been dealt a “very significant blow” and was set back decades by the operation. 

Many media outlets put their usual anti-Israel spin on the story. The Associated Press ran a headline reading, “Israeli strikes on Gaza kill 10, including senior militant.” The word “terrorism” is not mentioned once in the story. The AP uses the euphemistic term “militants” to describe Islamic Jihad, also omitting the word “Palestinian” from the name.

The AP also refers to Hamas, the terrorist group that runs the Gaza Strip, rather euphemistically, as “militant.” Both of these groups are designated as terrorist groups by the U.S. government. What the Israeli prime minister called a new wave of terrorism this past spring, which saw the murders of 21 Israelis in multiple deadly terrorist attacks around Israel, this AP story describes as “a wave of attacks inside Israel.”

NBC’s headline was “Israel Strikes Gaza, with Palestinian Militant Commander and girl, 5, among the dead after days of tension.” NBC showed its bias in the headline by not identifying the commander as a member of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad and by allowing readers to infer that Israel targets innocent civilians such as the five-year-old girl.

Al Jazeera published an article with the headline, “Photos: Children Killed as Israel Bombards Gaza,” describing the Gaza Strip as a “besieged Palestinian enclave.” Al Jazeera refused to call PIJ a terrorist or militant group, instead describing PIJ as the “Palestinian Islamic Jihad Group” and referring to the terrorists as “fighters.”

The Guardian’s headline was, “Israel Strikes Gaza amid tensions following arrest of Palestinian militant.” Arsen Ostrovsky, an international human-rights lawyer, took the liberty of fixing the Guardian‘s headline on Twitter, rephrasing it as “Israel Strikes Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, after relentless threats by the terror group to hit Israeli civilian centers”:

Many left-wing media outlets frequently place the blame on Israel for its conflicts with the Palestinians and Palestinian terrorist groups, which are proxies for Iran. The New York Times ran a headline that omitted any mention of Palestinian rockets, saying, “Israel Strikes Gaza as Tensions Rise.” The Times article mentions the rocket response in the second sentence of the subheading, saying, “Militants responded with a volley of rockets into Israel.” The Times makes the 1,100-rocket barrage launched at Israeli civilians sound like a game. They also neglect to mention the PIJ by name in the subheading, instead referring to the terrorist organization as “a Palestinian militant group.” See the pattern?

Israel is often blamed for civilians killed during conflicts with Palestinian terrorists (even though Palestinian terrorists use women and children as human shields), but rockets from Palestinian Islamic Jihad actually killed more Palestinian civilians during the fighting than Israeli bombs did. The Associated Press tweeted, “Close to one-third of the Palestinians who died in the weekend of fighting . . . may have been killed by errant rockets fired by the Palestinian side, according to an Israeli assessment that appears consistent with AP reporting.” Surprisingly accurate and fair reporting.

The AP should have included the video evidence that shows an errant rocket being fired from Gaza and then going off course and landing in Jabalia, which killed five Palestinian children. Here is an instance captured by Hezbollah’s Mayadeen outlet showing a long-range missile being fired from Gaza City and then malfunctioning and falling inside a civilian area in Gaza. 

Avi Mayer, a former spokesman for the foreign press for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), posted videos that reportedly show the IDF aborting operations because of the possibility of civilians being killed: 

The fact that the media routinely view Israel’s conflict with its terrorist neighbors — PIJ and Hamas — through a lens that finds a moral equivalence between both sides is not only bad journalism, it’s morally repugnant. 

Sports

This Is Sportsmanship at Its Absolute Best

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I love sports, but I especially love sportsmanship, which has obviously been on a long decline. But check out this episode from the Little League World Series, which is just . . . simply . . .  beautiful:

Law & the Courts

Sorry, Not Nearly Machiavellian Enough, Mark

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In response to A Machiavellian DOJ Would Pick This Moment to . . .

As a friend noted to me today, the truly Machiavellian move would be for President Biden to fire Wray for authorizing a politically inflammatory raid on Mar-a-Lago and then take the opportunity to install his own guy to quash any Hunter Biden investigation.

International

Maritime Insurers See Low Risk of War over Taiwan

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Container ships are seen at the port in Keelung, Taiwan, August 6, 2022. (Jameson Wu/Reuters)

If China were to go to war with Taiwan, one of the many negative consequences would be an immediate and severe disruption to ocean shipping. The waters around Taiwan are some of the busiest in the world for commercial vessels, and the Port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s busiest, is a top-20 port globally.

As such, shipping lines have a lot to lose if China’s aggressive rhetoric turns into aggressive action. Wars that affect ocean trade are not as common as they used to be (thanks largely to the global peacekeeping presence of the U.S. Navy), but they still do happen from time to time.

To mitigate risk, the maritime insurance industry designates areas of the sea according to the likelihood of war. Currently listed sites include Ukraine, the Strait of Hormuz, Libya, and Yemen. Insurers have taken note of China’s military exercises following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute writes for Foreign Policy:

I asked Neil Roberts—head of marine and aviation at Lloyd’s Market Association, which represents underwriters, and secretary of the Joint War Committee (JWC), a London-based body that classifies the world’s waters according to risk—how concerned insurers are. Higher risk means more expensive insurance. And if the JWC places a body of water in its highest-risk category—as it did with the Sea of Azov and the Russian and Ukrainian parts of the Black Sea on Feb. 15—the terms of cover have to be confirmed through negotiation instead of slotted into preexisting arrangements, making it difficult to obtain insurance at all.

The maritime insurance industry got the Russian invasion right when many commentators were still doubtful of Putin’s resolve to invade. The simple explanation of that: Commentators don’t lose money for being wrong, but maritime insurers would have been in deep trouble if they were wrong. It’s not just a matter of being overly cautious, either. Insurers would have also been in trouble if they had jacked up rates only for nothing to happen.

What are they saying now about Taiwan? Braw writes:

As of Sunday, the JWC had not elevated any waters around Taiwan to its highest-risk category. In fact, those waters are not listed by the JWC at all, which means they are not considered to pose an elevated risk to shipping, though it goes without saying that crews have been informed of the exercise areas and are expected to avoid them. “Underwriters were naturally asking questions but were reassured by JWC’s advisors, who said that there are no real signs of preparation or intent to follow through [on military attacks against Taiwan],” Roberts told FP. “If there were other signs like a media blackout, that would indicate differently. JWC considers the situation to be as it appears: an exercise, albeit amidst aggressive rhetoric.” China’s intent seems to be to send a message to Taiwan and the United States, not undertake a hugely difficult and highly risky amphibious invasion or even attempt to seize outlying islands like Kinmen. “There are navigation warnings that shipping companies will take into account, but access to Taiwan’s ports is entirely possible with just some extra awareness needed,” Roberts added.

So far, that judgment was proven correct. Sky News reported that ships were able to navigate around the Chinese military activities without much difficulty:

Lloyd’s List Intelligence reports that there has been no reduction in port calls nor has there been any further reports of disruption to ports in Taiwan.

The impact is largely being felt through detours around Taiwan’s eastern coast, which analysts say are inconvenient but manageable.

“Delays are obviously never good and especially not for a supply chain that has been riddled with delays for a long time,” said [BIMCO shipping analyst Niels] Rasmussen. . . .

“Small speed increases in the vessels’ onward schedule should be able to make up for these delays during the next month or two.”

Rasmussen’s last point about speed is important. Environmentalists are pressuring the shipping industry to reduce its carbon emissions. The International Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency, wants to reduce the industry’s emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to 2008 emissions. New ships are powered by cleaner-burning fuels, such as liquefied natural gas, but the only practical way for most existing ships to pollute less is by slowing down.

The ability to decide ship speed ought to belong to the shipping companies, not to the environmentalist zealots at the U.N. The advantages of flexibility are on display right now. With high fuel prices, ships have slowed down to save money. Then, when something like the Taiwan incident pops up, ships are able to take detours at higher speeds to maintain their schedules. Taking that flexibility away from carriers would make situations such as this much more disruptive and costly.

Insurance markets certainly aren’t perfect, but insurers have better incentives to get difficult questions about risk correct than just about anyone else. They see the risk of war over Taiwan as being very low, so that’s good news.

Science & Tech

Biden Allegedly Slow-Walking TikTok Investigation, GOP Demands Answers

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The U.S. head office of TikTok in Culver City, Calif., September 15, 2020 (Mike Blake/Reuters)

A group of House Republicans demanded answers about the Biden administration’s slow-walked investigation into Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat in a letter to Secretary Gina Raimondo, head of the U.S. Department of Commerce, obtained exclusively by National Review.

Those apps, owned by Chinese parent companies, have recently faced heightened scrutiny after a BuzzFeed News report revealed that TikTok owner ByteDance could access U.S. users’ data. That’s significant given ByteDance’s extensively documented ties to the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the fact that it is under the Party’s legal jurisdiction.

The letter’s lead author, Representative Jim Banks — the chairman of the Republican Study Committee — said that it seems as though the Biden administration has fallen asleep at the switch. “The Biden administration should be using every tool at their disposal to protect the data privacy of Americans from the Chinese Communist Party and so far, there has been no evidence to prove that is happening,” he told NR in a statement.

In June of last year, President Biden replaced Trump-era executive orders that would have banned TikTok, the messaging platform WeChat, and digital payment app AliPay from the United States, with a different order that directed the Commerce Department to investigate all entities that might provide Americans’ sensitive data to foreign adversaries. That order followed TikTok’s legal challenges to Trump’s ban order that had temporarily frozen the measure. The new Biden approach instead tasked the Commerce Secretary with completing an investigation by the fall of 2021 — perhaps leading to a future ban of such apps.

But the GOP lawmakers emphasized that, to their knowledge, the Commerce Department has not yet concluded that investigation.

“Unfortunately, based on publicly available information, nineteen months into the Biden administration, the Department of Commerce has done little towards the enforcement of the [data security] rule other than subpoenaing some Chinese companies in March 2021,” they wrote in the August 4 letter. They seemed to be referring to Commerce’s public disclosure that month of having subpoenaed “multiple Chinese Companies that provide information and communications technology and services (ICTS) to the United States.” The letter’s signatories also included House GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik, Michael Waltz — a prominent Republican voice on China policy — and over a dozen other lawmakers.

The Commerce Department, meanwhile, did not respond to NR’s request for comment asking whether it had taken further steps to investigate Chinese apps.

The lawmakers also highlighted the TikTok revelations as a reason for Commerce to act urgently. They cited the BuzzFeed report, in addition to an Australian Financial Review story which revealed that TikTok has a server connection to a mainland Chinese company run by a firm run by a Chinese Communist Party official.

“American cybersecurity experts have since renewed their call for banning TikTok,” they wrote. Indeed, it is puzzling why, rather than banning TikTok or taking action on TikTok to protect American user data, the Department of Commerce is still allowing TikTok to expand in the United States at an alarming rate!” They noted that the number of TikTok users in the U.S. is expected to reach nearly 90 million next year.

While there was a flurry of Congressional activity surrounding the TikTok revelations in June, that seems to have died down as Congress adjourned for a recess. ByteDance’s well-funded Washington lobbying team had a record quarter, coinciding with the BuzzFeed report, according to legally-mandated disclosure forms.

The failure to investigate TikTok reflects the slow pace at which Commerce is investigating other Chinese tech firms. The House lawmakers additionally wrote: “The Department of Commerce Probe that could force U.S. telecom carriers to expunge Huawei equipment is proceeding at a snail’s pace.”

In addition to scrutinizing TikTok, Huawei, and Tencent — which owns WeChat — they asked Raimondo whether Commerce considers BGI Group a national security risk. BGI is a Chinese genomics giant suspected of collecting genetic information worldwide and has a history of research collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army.

 

Law & the Courts

A Machiavellian DOJ Would Pick This Moment to . . .

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Hunter Biden looks on during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., April 18, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

appoint a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden on gun charges.

You snicker — but it would instantly mute the strongest (and facially plausible) arguments against the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago: that this is a politically motivated Department of Justice fishing expedition; that Hillary Clinton didn’t face prosecution for similar mishandling of classified materials; that this is all a plot by Democrats to (a) either destroy Trump by indicting him or (b) build him up in the eyes of the Republican base so that he’ll declare he’s running for president, win the GOP nomination, and then, presumably, be defeated by Biden again in 2024.

“The DOJ is persecuting Trump / protecting Hillary / ignoring Hunter,” its critics charge?

There’s a way to fix that.

(To be clear, I’m not endorsing a Machiavellian DOJ, which would be a malign thing in American life. It should operate without fear or favor. As the kids these days say, however: “I’m not saying . . . I’m just saying.”)

Economy & Business

Today in Capital Matters: Oil-Export Ban

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Benjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute writes against reinstating the ban on crude-oil exports:

A number of perverse Beltway ideas never seem to die despite their underlying fallacies. The latest such nostrum is the argument that a renewed ban on the export of crude oil and refined products would reduce domestic fossil-energy prices, as asserted in a recent letter to President Biden from four U.S. senators urging Biden to “preserve petroleum supplies for the U.S. and our allies.”

Just such an export ban on crude oil was implemented by the U.S. beginning in 1975. This followed the 1973 global price increases and the imposition of price and allocation regulations on the U.S. market, resulting in an artificial suppression of domestic production. (It was the regulatory regime and not the “embargo” that created the queues and massive market dislocations.) The export ban was ended by legislation in 2015, after the technological revolution in fracking and horizontal drilling yielded a sharp increase in U.S. output.

Notwithstanding ubiquitous assertions to the contrary, the ban did not reduce U.S. prices below international ones because it created a disincentive for foreign producers to export oil to the U.S. Why should foreign producers sell to us for less? Market forces thus resulted in domestic and international prices being equated, controlling for such factors as transportation costs and exchange rates. The same is true for such refined products as gasoline.

Read the whole thing here.

Law & the Courts

Do We Believe Our Own Dogma?

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Former President Donald Trump takes the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, August 6, 2022. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The FBI’s serving a search warrant on Donald Trump’s residence is not — in spite of everything being said about it — unprecedented. The FBI serves search warrants on homes all the time. Donald Trump is a former president, not a mystical sacrosanct being.

If we really believe, as we say we believe, that this is a republic, that nobody is above the law, that the presidency is just a temporary executive-branch office rather than a quasi-royal entitlement, then there is nothing all that remarkable about the FBI serving a warrant on a house in Florida. I myself do not find it especially difficult to believe that there exists reasonable cause for such a warrant. And if the feds have got it wrong, that wouldn’t be the first time. Those so-called conservatives who are publicly fantasizing about an FBI purge under the next Republican administration are engaged in a particularly stupid form of irresponsibility.

There are no fewer than five different congressional committees with FBI oversight powers. I’m not especially inclined to take federal agencies and their officers at their word in almost any circumstance, and so active and vigorous oversight seems to me appropriate here, as in most other cases. But if it turns out, in the least surprising political development of the decade, that Donald Trump is a criminal, then he should be treated like any other criminal.

If that did indeed establish a precedent, it would be a good precedent.

Books, Arts & Manners

Not by Bread Alone

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(Zbynek Pospisil/Getty Images)

Today is the publication day for one of the most interesting and worthwhile books I’ve read in a long time. It’s called Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us, and its author is Russ Roberts — the economist and host of the EconTalk podcast who is now the president of Shalem College in Israel.

On its face, the book is about how to think about particularly consequential decisions in our lives: decisions about things like whom to marry, whether to have kids, what kind of work to pursue, where to live. But that ambitious self-presentation actually undersells it. In fact, this is a book about the nature of the moral life, intended to guide people who incline to be excessively cold and rationalistic about moral choices — that is, who strive for a more mathematical-style precision than the underlying subject will allow — toward a fuller understanding of the nature of the human person and therefore of the character of the most significant human decisions and judgments.

At the heart of the book is the insight that our most important choices are not answers to the question, “What do I want to do?” but rather to the question of, “What kind of person do I want to be?” These most important choices set us on courses that change who we are and so have to be understood in terms of personal formation rather than utilitarian calculation.

Like most of the best works of popular moral philosophy, the book is basically an extended paraphrase of Aristotle. But Roberts brings to it not only his engaging voice but also his experience of coming to this view from a very different starting point. A real Chicago economist, Roberts is deeply familiar with the various forms of decision theory developed by modern economics. He’s respectful of these, and helps his readers understand and respect them too. But he has come over time to recognize their profound limitations, and their blindness to their own limitations, in ways that have opened his eyes to a deeper understanding of the human experience.

Roberts offers himself as a kind of guide from his old view to his current one, in a way that ought to make the book a valuable resource for youthful libertarians of all ages, but also for more curmudgeonly moral conservatives (like me) who incline to be too dismissive of the utility of utility functions. He charts a path from economics-minded utilitarianism toward a more powerful yet also more humble virtue ethics, and does so with style, generosity, humor, and sympathy that make the book a real pleasure to read.

In the end, Roberts brings his reader to a distinct understanding of the nature of freedom. The human person, he says, is indeed capable of a kind of self-formation in some important respects. We are always building ourselves. But that fact is not an argument for radical liberation but rather for taking real care about moral formation, and therefore also for taking most seriously those sources of formation that seem to take us most seriously in turn.

Roberts’s Orthodox Judaism shines through in this illuminating insight. But it also brought to my mind another modern paraphraser of Aristotle who argued for paying careful attention to the formation of the human person in our social life.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, when considering the challenges involved in making people capable of responsible judgment, Edmund Burke offers this extraordinary observation:

Every sort of moral, every sort of politic institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are not more than necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure, Man, whose prerogative it is to be in a great degree a creature of his own making; and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation.

This paradoxical formulation came constantly to mind for me in reading Roberts’s book. There is a way to understand a good life as the function of a series of good decisions. But it is ultimately much more true, I think, that good decisions are functions of a good life, which in turn is a function of habits built up by modes of formation that are not really best understood as discrete decisions at all.

It isn’t easy to make that sort of idea accessible, appealing, even exciting. But Wild Problems does just that. Well worth your while.

If the Raid on Mar-a-Lago Was Not Justified, Then What?

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U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (left) listens as FBI Director Christopher Wray discusses enforcement actions against Russia at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2022. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

The opinion on last night’s FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago around which many in the media seem quickly to have coalesced is that it was, indeed, a “dramatic” and “norm-breaking” event, but that this fact implies that it “must” therefore have been warranted. On CBS last night, Major Garrett confirmed that such action “is without precedent in American history, a former president of the United States now subject to a search of his primary residence by the FBI.” This morning’s Politico Playbook describes it as “the most aggressive law enforcement action ever taken against a former American president.” The BBC notes

Business

Public Pension Funds: Digging a Hole for the Taxpayer

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(metamorworks/Getty Images)

Managers of public pension funds have been notable advocates of switching to an investment approach that incorporates the disciplines of ESG or something akin to it (ESG is a variant of “socially responsible” investment under which potential or actual portfolio companies are measured against various environmental, social, and governance guidelines). Yes, there was a green bubble for a while, and there may well be others in the future, but it’s by no means clear (I’m being polite) that ESG will help deliver superior returns over the long term.

Meanwhile, via Marketwatch:

Top state and local pension funds lost $250 billion on the markets during the month of June and are down more than $600 billion for the year, according to a new study.

The 100 biggest public sector pension funds were a staggering $1.5 trillion underfunded by the end of June, according to the latest survey by analysts at Milliman. That funding gap will ultimately be the responsibility of taxpayers if the pension plans can’t make it up through investments. The gap is equal to more than $11,000 per full-time U.S. worker.

On the bright side, pension fund investments did better than a balanced portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds through the first half of the year…

On the gloomier side, this investment performance will include optimistic valuations of illiquid assets like private equity and venture capital.

I think we know what “optimistic” means.

Marketwatch:

 “Pension funds [were] 26% unfunded by June 30, meaning they only have 74 cents in assets for every dollar of liabilities.

It’s easy to hope for better times ahead, and maybe we should. On the other hand, cynics note that this funding gap comes after an unprecedented 40-year bull market in U.S. stocks and bonds. From 1982 to the present, the S&P 500  has beaten inflation by an average rate of 10.4% a year, 10 year Treasury bonds by 5.2% and investment grade corporate bonds by 7.2%.

These numbers are all way, way ahead of the historic averages. We had better hope future returns don’t end up “reverting to the mean.”

If they do, pension fund levels may get worse, not better.

Of course, without knowing what has been in these funds’ portfolios, it’s impossible to know to what extent (if at all) ESG has affected their performance (let’s just hope that they were not underweight conventional energy in the first half of the year). And it should be remembered that this was a general survey. Some funds, obviously, will have done better than others. Nevertheless, the overall numbers reported by Marketwatch make for grim reading, not least for the taxpayers who may well end up picking the tab for any shortfall. Those managers who have succumbed to ESG would do well to drop the political agenda that comes with it — and, for that matter, they should forget ESG’s false promise that it offers a way to do well by doing good.  In fact, they should forget ESG entirely: They should invest for economic return, and economic return only.

Education

Biden vs. DeSantis: The Unknown Clash

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Left: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at CPAC in 2021. Right: President Joe Biden at the White House, January 19, 2022. (Joe Skipper, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

What kind of leader is Ron DeSantis? Undoubtedly, we get a clue from his widely discussed suspension of a state attorney who had publicly pledged that he would not enforce state laws against late-term abortions and sex-change surgeries for minors. An equally important clue, however, comes from a battle that far fewer have noticed. DeSantis is at odds with the Biden administration over university accreditation.

Are your eyes glazing over? Well, that is the point. DeSantis is at loggerheads with the Biden administration on an issue of great importance that, sadly, only education policy wonks tend to follow. DeSantis didn’t pick this fight with Biden over accreditation for the sake of tooting his own horn. University accreditation isn’t exactly a populist lightning rod, after all. And it’s actually Biden who is trying to squash DeSantis’s bold state-level move on accreditation, thereby turning the dispute into a federal issue. Policy, not publicity, has been DeSantis’s core motivation from the start.

In short, precisely because you’ve never heard of it, the DeSantis–Biden clash over university accreditation shows who DeSantis really is. Pushing back in unprecedented ways against the faceless bureaucracy that regularly frustrates conservative governance is what DeSantis does — whether or not you’re paying attention.

The DeSantis accreditation battle began in the spring of last year, when DeSantis’s education commissioner and former speaker of Florida’s house, Richard Corcoran, was being considered for the presidency of Florida State University (FSU). Since Corcoran is a conservative and committed to reforming higher education’s culture of intellectual conformity, the prospect of his appointment horrified FSU’s faculty and Florida’s left-leaning press. Nevertheless, Corcoran’s prospects looked good until Belle Wheelan, the head of FSU’s accrediting agency, stepped in to effectively scuttle his bid.

Accreditors certify that institutions of higher education meet basic standards of quality. Students can’t receive Pell Grants or federal student loans unless their institution is accredited. Since almost every college depends on such federal assistance, loss of accreditation is tantamount to an institutional death sentence.

That leverage gives the faceless bureaucrats who run FSU’s obscure accreditor — SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges) — the power to kill off any serious campaign of university reform. Or rather, accreditors — who are supposed to be apolitical — can abuse their daunting powers by deploying them to protect the illiberal regime that currently governs America’s college campuses.

President Wheelan of SACSCOC makes a practice of writing unsolicited letters to universities whenever she reads a news story about something that might supposedly put them “out of compliance” with accreditor policy. Ostensibly, these letters are requests for further information. In practice, they read like threats to withdraw accreditation.

When Corcoran was up for the presidency of FSU, Wheelan wrote a letter to the chairperson of the Florida State University System Board of Governors suggesting that a conflict of interest and a potential lack of appropriate experience and qualifications on the part of an unnamed candidate might put FSU’s accreditation into question. The letter was widely understood to be referring to Corcoran. As a member of the University System Board of Governors, Corcoran had a potential conflict of interest in voting on his own job application. And even though Corcoran was Florida’s commissioner of education, a member of the University System Board of Governors, a former speaker of the house, and former chief of staff to Senator Marco Rubio, Wheelan was apparently arguing that he lacked qualifications for the academic position of university president.

Wheelan’s concerns were baseless. The Board of Governors planned to follow standard procedure and have Corcoran recuse himself from any vote on his own application for FSU’s presidency. As for experience and qualifications, political leaders often become university presidents. (Think of Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue.) In fact, two former Florida house speakers have helmed FSU in the last two decades, including John E. Thrasher, the incumbent president when Corcoran was under consideration. This is not to mention Corcoran’s education-based experience as Florida’s education commissioner and member of the University System Board of Governors.

National Association of Scholars (NAS) president Peter Wood made these points in an open letter to Wheelan, noting that her insistence on an academic background “by definition excludes all reform-minded outsiders.” In a follow-up piece, Wood decried “weaponization of an accrediting agency to dispose of candidates who are politically disfavored.” Notwithstanding such protests, however, Corcoran’s name was withdrawn from the short list of candidates for FSU’s presidency, very likely in response to the accreditor’s implied threat.

In the wake of the Corcoran affair, the Florida legislature enacted SB 7044, a bill that requires state colleges and universities to change accrediting agencies at the end of each accreditation cycle. By rotating accreditors, the bill reduces the ability of any single accreditor to abuse its regulatory powers. Although the Corcoran case was not explicitly put forward to justify the bill’s passage, most reports on the new law portray it (accurately, I think) as a response to the Corcoran controversy. Governor DeSantis strongly supported the bill and signed it into law.

Had matters ended there, a rare state-level experiment in accreditation would have begun to play out. The Biden education department, however, was not going to allow that to happen. It recently issued new guidance, accompanied by an explanatory blog post, all of which amount to an effort to neutralize the Florida law by effectively keeping the state’s universities chained to their current accreditors.

Andrew Gillen of the Texas Public Policy Foundation persuasively makes the case that Biden’s new accreditation guidance uses absurdly “twisted logic” to try to kill off Florida’s reform. NAS concurs. For the moment, however, let’s focus on what this dust-up reveals about DeSantis.

Gillen notes that the Florida bill is “one of the only accreditation experiments we’ve seen in decades.” That’s important. Accreditors such as Wheelan have turned themselves into de facto enforcers of the academy’s illiberal orthodoxies. Worse, they get barely any pushback from conservatives, even in red states. Just last year, another Wheelan letter effectively undermined the candidacy of former Georgia governor and Trump agriculture secretary Sonny Purdue to be chancellor of Georgia’s State University System. It took DeSantis and his allies in Florida to finally draw the line against this sort of regulatory abuse.

If you want to know why even public universities in red states find it hard to shake the woke ascendency, politicized accreditation is a big part of the reason (along with the quiescence of university regents). For decades, Republicans — much to their shame — have been reluctant to push back against the leftist education bureaucracy. True to form, however, DeSantis has broken that pattern and is leading the way on yet another cultural battle. Given the obscurity of the accreditation issue, it’s tough to dismiss this as political showboating. When DeSantis sees the Left using bureaucratic tricks to stymie conservative governance, he pushes back. That is who he is, and that is what he does.

But let’s not sit back and depend on DeSantis alone to fix things. It’s time for conservatives to wake up and fight back against the accreditation cartel. For one thing, we need to follow and support the accreditation struggle now joined between the Biden education department and DeSantis. As Gillen’s piece and the NAS commentary linked above make clear, DeSantis and Biden are now locked in a kind of chess game over accreditation. It’s now DeSantis’s move. How the game plays out over the next few years depends on both the courts and the Florida state legislature. Other states should take note and jump in.

Beyond that, we need to see federal reform of the accreditation system. The politicization of accreditation must be blocked. NAS has some proposals, and more are likely on the way, from both NAS and from other quarters.

Conservatives lost the commanding heights of the culture for many reasons, but failure to fight back against the leftist education establishment, even where we held the levers of power, is surely among the most important. Ron DeSantis is a very important exception to that unfortunate rule. His obscure accreditation quarrel with Biden may establish his culture-war credentials even more surely than his higher-profile controversies. Meanwhile, put accreditation on your personal radar screen, and let the battle be joined.

Politics & Policy

The Unprecedented FBI Raid on Former President Donald Trump

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Then-President Donald Trump speaks to the media after participating in a video teleconference with members of the U.S. military at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., December 24, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

It is unprecedented for the FBI to raid the house of a former president, as it did on Monday when it searched inside Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.

At this stage, with so little known, it is best for everybody to await more information before drawing any conclusions.

But the idea that a law enforcement organization under a sitting president would raid the home of his predecessor, opponent in the previous election, and potential opponent in the next election, has no close parallel in American history.

Trump no doubt deserves condemnation for his egregious denial of his 2020 election defeat and his role in inspiring the Capitol rioters. But this sort of action by the FBI should not be taken lightly.

Given the implications for the nation’s constitutional system, the FBI better have had a really good reason to search Trump’s property. If they do not actually have the goods, this will make a political system that is already under stress that much more unstable — and should be alarming to anybody, no matter their personal feelings about Trump or his statements and actions.

Politics & Policy

Why the Expansion of the IRS Is So Worrisome

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Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“We’re just trying to make sure the rich pay their fair share.” So runs the Dem line on the expansion of the IRS. People and businesses that comply with the tax code have nothing to worry about.

Writing at Power Line, John Hinderaker has other thoughts.

Here’s his key paragraph:

I think the liberals who run the IRS would sic their agents on every conservative nonprofit in the country. They would audit such organizations, looking for evidence that they somehow had violated the extremely vague regulations governing political activity. Such audits would require even squeaky-clean organizations like my own to hire lawyers to defend them. Government lawyers work for free–that is, courtesy of the taxpayers–while private lawyers have to be paid. Thus, a concerted attack by the IRS could largely disable conservative nonprofits, whose revenue would be dissipated by paying for lawyers, and whose energies would be dissipated in dealing with IRS attacks.

The “progressives” intend to weaponize every aspect of the government to cement their power in place permanently. I think Hinderaker is right in saying that the “fair share” baloney is cover for the further politicization of the IRS.

Science & Tech

About Those ‘Synthetic Embryos’

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(Evgenyi_Eg/iStock/Getty Images)

Israeli researchers appear to have created what they are calling “synthetic mouse embryos,” using embryonic stem cells — without fertilization — and developed them about halfway through a normal mouse period of gestation. From the Guardian story:

Last year, the same team described how they had built a mechanical womb that enabled natural mouse embryos to grow outside the uterus for several days. In the latest work, the same device was used to nurture mouse stem cells for more than a week, nearly half the gestation time for a mouse.

Some of the cells were pre-treated with chemicals, which switched on genetic programmes to develop into placenta or yolk sac, while others developed without intervention into organs and other tissues.

While most of the stem cells failed to form embryo-like structures, about 0.5% combined into little balls that grew distinct tissues and organs. When compared with natural mouse embryos, the synthetic embryos were 95% the same in terms of their internal structure and the genetic profiles of the cells. As far as the scientists could tell, the organs that formed were functional.

I have no problem with this work in mice. But the scientists want to take this technology into human experimentation:

But researchers believe the work could also reduce animal experimentation and ultimately pave the way for new sources of cells and tissues for human transplantation. For example, skin cells from a leukaemia patient could potentially be transformed into bone marrow stem cells to treat their condition.

Hold on a second. We heard these same kinds of goals for what was called “therapeutic cloning,” that is creating clones of patients and harvesting the organs or other tissues after a period of gestational development. But media descriptions always left something out: The organs and tissues taken in that process — were it to be done — would have been harvested from unborn cloned human beings. Morally speaking, that’s a much different thing than, say, turning skin cells into stem cells and then into heart cells for use in regenerative treatments.

So it seems to me that the key determinant in judging the moral propriety of applying this technology within the human realm is whether this process creates a human being or not. Or, to put it another way, would the “synthetic embryo” be a human organism?

If the “entity” — let’s call it — develops like a natural embryo and has nearly identical genetic properties, why would it be considered something other than bona fide human life? After all, a cloned human embryo doesn’t involve the use of sperm but is as fully human as its counterpart that comes into being through fertilization. Just because sperm and egg are not involved would not necessarily make the resulting entity less human.

What should matter is the nature of the thing itself, however brought into existence. Just calling something “synthetic” doesn’t make it so. And the burden of proof in this regard should fall on the scientists to demonstrate that the process would not create an organism before they are given carte blanche.

The broader point in this news is that biotech researchers are developing the most powerful technologies since the splitting of the atom. The time is now — while the field remains embryonic — to establish enforceable ethical and legal boundaries about what can be done, particularly with human research, and what shouldn’t be allowed. Boundaries are needed to help us navigate the tremendous potential of bioscience, without falling into the crassest kind of utilitarianism in which unborn human life is desiccated of all intrinsic moral value.

But we are not even having that conversation. The scientists only will agree to voluntary guidelines, which as the old saying goes, are not worth the paper they are written on. Until society demands accountability and transparency, I don’t see any likelihood that biotechnologists will restrain themselves.

Somewhere Aldous Huxley is saying, “I told you so.”

Politics & Policy

No Trade Is Better Than a Bad Griner Trade

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Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants’ cage before the verdict in a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia, August 4, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters)

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters at a summit in Cambodia on Friday that Russia is ready to discuss a prisoner swap with the U.S. that would free WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison on drug-smuggling charges. Griner is being transferred to a penal colony to serve her term. Lavrov stated that Moscow is “ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of the channel that has been agreed by the presidents.”

Shortly thereafter, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken said the U.S. will engage in discussions with the Kremlin. Also on Friday, President Joe Biden said, regarding the administration’s efforts to bring Griner home, “I’m hopeful. We are working hard.” U.S. officials are also hoping to include Paul Whelan, an American sentenced to 16 years in prison on spying charges in 2018, in the deal. Both the U.S. and Whelan deny the charges against him.

The Biden administration is negotiating to swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year federal prison sentence on four counts of conspiring to kill Americans, obtaining and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death,” was arrested in 2008 during a Thailand sting operation for selling $20 million worth of weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist guerilla group. The weapons included hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, 10 million rounds of ammunition, and five tons of plastic explosives, and were to be used to kill Americans in Colombia, according to the DOJ. Bout was also accused of selling weapons to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Rwandan militants. Former attorney general Eric Holder called Bout “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.” 

Griner said in Russian court that she knew of Russia’s stringent drug laws and mistakenly brought cannabis oil into the country. Griner said she was in a rush and “stress packing.” Griner said in her speech, “I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here.” Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, gave the court a U.S. doctor’s note recommending that Griner use cannabis oil to alleviate pain. “The attending physician gave Brittney recommendations for the use of medical cannabis,” Blagovolina said. “The permission was issued on behalf of the Arizona Department of Health.” Medical marijuana is not legal in Russia.

I previously wrote that the Biden administration was weak to have failed to secure Griner’s release. However, given that the offenses that Griner and Bout have committed are vastly disproportionate, this trade would be highly inappropriate. Bout is a potential national-security threat who has past ties to terrorism, and he should serve the rest of his 25-year term in prison. It would be unacceptable to trade Griner for a man who is in prison for selling weapons to a group that planned to kill Americans. It is hard to believe that Griner erroneously put cannabis oil in her suitcase. If she did intentionally pack it, she likely knew she was breaking Russian law. The U.S. must find a different path to free Griner.

 There are other Americans stuck in Russian prisons about whom one never hears, but Griner is getting special treatment because she is a WNBA player. If Biden goes through with this deal, it would be reminiscent of former President Obama’s decision to trade Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban Gitmo detainees back in 2014. Bergdahl deserted his infantry regiment in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban. He pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. That swap should never have happened. If the Biden administration were prudent, it wouldn’t make this swap and instead look for other avenues to bring first Whelan, and then Griner, home. 

Politics & Policy

Talk and Action in the 117th Congress

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) departs after a news conference to tout the $430 billion drug pricing, energy and tax bill at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, August 5, 2022. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The distance between rhetoric and action is one of the markers of the dysfunction of our political culture at the moment. Political speech should be directed to, or at least connected to, political action, which means that it needs to recognize the constraints to which policy-making is subject in our republic. Those constraints remain real, but our way of talking about politics has become disconnected from them, and too often this leaves us thinking that the constraints should be removed rather than that our political rhetoric should be pulled back to reality.

The structural constraints on political action in our system are charged with a difficult task: They are there to make sure that our politics is representative of the majority’s will and at the same time that it is protective of minority rights and prerogatives. These goals are obviously in tension, which means that our system is always and purposefully in tension with itself. This can be frustrating for both majorities and minorities — or in other words, for everyone. And it can be especially frustrating when majorities are very narrow, so that both legislative action and the lack of legislative action feel somehow excessive and illegitimate to a large portion of politically active citizens. The two houses of Congress, with their distinct overlapping electorates, and the supermajority requirement the Senate imposes on itself in most circumstances are there to force small majorities to deal with large minorities, and to moderate the pace and scope of action.

That has been plainly evident in the current Congress, in which the Democratic Party holds pretty much the narrowest majority in American history. Considering that fact in light of the institutional constraints on political action in our system, you’d assume that this majority would, at best, enact a small number of modest legislative measures, most of them bipartisan but maybe a couple making use of the exceptional procedures that allow a majority to act on its own. And that is in fact what has happened over the past 18 months.

The Democrats began this Congress by passing a reconciliation bill (which is exempt from the filibuster’s supermajority requirement in the Senate) nominally directed to Covid-19 relief. It’s a bill that could easily have been structured to be bipartisan, as the previous Congress had passed several large bills of that sort with bipartisan majorities. But they decided to make it unpalatable for Republicans so they could take ownership of it. The bill was misguided in some ways, given the threat of inflation that was evident by then, but it was plainly constrained by the narrowness of the Democratic coalition.

After that, the key legislative measures have been an infrastructure bill, a gun-control bill, and a bill funding subsidies for microchip manufacturers and some strategically significant R&D — all of which have passed with bipartisan supermajorities in the Senate. Still in process is a bipartisan reform of the Electoral Count Act that may or may not come together, and another partisan reconciliation bill, which passed the Senate this past weekend and is likely to pass the House. At less than half the size of the reconciliation bill the Democrats passed last year (and about a tenth the size of the bill some of them originally said they would pass this year), this latter measure is still fairly large but greatly curtailed by the dynamics of their coalition and the realities of the political moment.

If you had watched our politics on mute over the past 18 months, you might not have been that surprised by this list. But when you turn up the sound on our politics, you suddenly find yourself in a very different reality. The Democrats, having surprised even themselves by winning two seats in Georgia (with an assist from Donald Trump) and so ending up in a tied Senate they could control with the vice president’s help, somehow persuaded themselves that they could achieve their every fantasy. Joe Biden could be the next LBJ, every constituency in the party could get its ticket stamped in a multi-trillion dollar spending bill, and if they would just get rid of the filibuster they could also rewrite voting rules in every state, enact sweeping gun restrictions, codify the most radically permissive abortion regime in the developed world, and on and on. What couldn’t they do?

Of course, they couldn’t do any of that, because they hadn’t won anything close to the crushing majorities it would take. But in each case, the rhetoric had its own logic, so that it created periods of fevered delirium in our political culture in which the majority toyed with breaking the system and the minority insisted America was being run aground. It’s very hard to stay out of that kind of frenzy. None of us can really do it reliably.

To this day, I think the Democrats don’t grasp, for instance, how utterly mad their scheme to use the narrowest congressional majority in our lifetimes to change election rules in all 50 states at a time of exceedingly low public confidence in election rules really was. Read the speech President Biden delivered on that subject in Atlanta in January. Look at how he described the situation, his opponents, a state law he opposed, the law he supported. Biden’s not crazy, but that speech was totally bonkers. And it’s far from the only example.

This very great distance between action and speech makes it hard to know how to think about what actually gets done in our politics. Given the constraints they had, and maybe especially the very unusual circumstances of a tied Senate, the Democrats got a decent amount passed. The reconciliation bill they are pushing through now could have been much bigger, of course, even within these practical constraints. A year ago, Joe Manchin agreed with Chuck Schumer to spend twice what this bill has ended up spending. Schumer’s mismanagement of the process that followed will be studied as a cautionary tale by future Senate leaders. Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers to trip up and trim down those reconciliation efforts will be a salutary lesson for those same leaders. But on the whole, what this Congress is getting done is well within the range of what its partisan makeup should have led us to expect. It’s just nowhere near where the rhetoric around it has been.

One way for Democrats to deal with that is just to pretend they are achieving far more than they are. This is a natural move for politicians, and it is also how some observers and analysts seem inclined to resolve the tension. On Sunday, reporting on Senate passage of the reconciliation bill, the Politico “Playbook” offered the following example in an analytical tone:

There’s not much debate anymore over whether Biden has been a consequential president. In the long run, his first two years may be remembered as akin to LBJ when it comes to moving his agenda through Congress.

Seriously, that’s what they said. There was no punchline.

For many others on both sides of our politics, however, the preferred solution to the gaping distance between aggressive talk and modest action is to demand ways of enabling more aggressive action. Activists in both parties think their leaders should just pay less heed to structural constraints and “fight” more. Others want to break those constraints, whether by eliminating the filibuster or (particularly on the left) even changing the Constitution.

The explicit premise of such calls is that our system is not sufficiently representative of the will of the public. But their implicit premise seems to be that the system is not representative enough of the will of party activists, and indeed that it is perhaps too representative of a genuinely divided and constructively circumspect society.

But in truth, our politics has come to speak far too exclusively for the activists of both parties, especially thanks to the primary system, which fills political offices with men and women who take themselves to be answerable to a narrow, hyper-engaged slice of the public. Much of our political speech is directed to that activist slice. Our actual governing institutions have not been deformed to the degree that the parties’ candidate-selection processes have been, though. That is why they better represent the broader society. And that in turn is a big part of the reason for the gap between rhetoric and action. And it is why many party activists want to deform those governing institutions too.

In fact, the last 18 months speak fairly highly of the design of our governing institutions, and their capacity to compel a deeply deluded political class to deal with reality against its will.

The filibuster has proven particularly important and valuable over this period, and not just to the right — or rather, not just because it restrained the left. Critics of the filibuster often insist that there is no evidence that it can effectively compel bipartisan bargaining over legislation, at least in our intensely polarized era. But there has been plenty of such evidence in this Congress (as there has been in general, of course). The filibuster substantially strengthened the Senate’s position relative to the House, and made possible (by making necessary) substantive bargaining across party lines on a range of meaningful issues. It has forced our polarized, divided, embittered parties to find ways to work together a little. That’s its purpose, and that of the Congress as a whole.

Of course, none of this is to say that conservatives ought to be sanguine about the direction of public policy in this period. Elections have consequences. The two reconciliation bills have been full of bad ideas and waste — and the bipartisan bills haven’t been empty of those either. But a better grasp of reality would help explain that too: Republicans would get something closer to a politics they like if they won more elections, and they would win more elections if they offered the voting public more appealing candidates and ideas. Here too, it’s easy to talk yourself into all kinds of wild conclusions, but the practical reality is relatively simple. Sure, the radicalism of the left could create many opportunities for the right in the coming years. But if Republicans can’t see that they need to get past Donald Trump, that they have to stop letting petty charlatans, infantile celebrities, and deranged conspiracists represent them to the public, and that they should help voters grasp how their lives could be better under Republican governance then they will not be able to seize those opportunities. Our political speech should better conform to these realities, not the other way around.

And that’s the case more generally: Narrowing at least a little that vast gulf between talk and action will require our politics to be better guided by the limits of action, since (as we constantly demonstrate now) there are no limits on talk. Rather than altering the structure of our system to let our action be as aggressive as our talk, we should try to moderate our speech so that it better falls into line with the limits of what our very good system of government guides us toward doing even in times when we’ve all gone mad.

This is actually what a commitment to representative democracy demands. The institutional constraints of the American system force us to deal with the pluralistic reality of American life. The frustration it creates, the necessity of dealing with the other party even when you won the last election, is more true to the state of our society, and more likely to produce the governance the electorate wants, than a simpler majoritarianism. The desire to escape this complex reality, to make narrow majorities look and feel like broad ones, is the problem in our politics, not the solution.

U.S.

David McCullough: A Gracious Man

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Author David McCullough poses for a photo at the screening of HBO’s new miniseries John Adams in the Cannon Caucus Room in Washington, D.C., March 5, 2008. (Paul Morigi/WireImage via Getty Images)

I met David McCullough early in the new century at an alumni summer program at Washington & Lee. He gave the opening address, I gave the closer, and in between he ran seminars for the alums. I snuck into the back of one. He was in his element — fielding questions knowledgably and graciously. There came an uunusually interesting one: Who was the most dangerous man of the Founding period? He gave the answer that John Adams would have given — Alexander Hamilton. Ambitious, prone to intrigue, etc. My heart sank. I had just written my Hamilton bio, and here was David McCullough hanging him out to dry. I waited until he had finished, then ventured, “Arnold?”

Immediately, he said, Well, of course, Benedict Arnold, and talked about his failed conspiracy. I was glad to have nailed down the fact that the only major general in American history to commit treason had been worse than the first Treasury secretary.

David was always polite, genial, with never a trace of entitlement or hauteur — a delight to know. He epitomized the serious popular historian. He told engaging stories, often hung on a biography or biographies, but bolstered with research and attention to detail. His interests were wide: TR, Truman, American painters in Paris, the grim year 1776, the founding of Marietta, Ohio. His grand slam was his bio of John Adams. Author and subject were made for each other. Adams’s contemporaries, friends and enemies alike, all seemed to sense that he was a great character as well as, maybe even more than, a great public figure. Add his wife Abigail, as well-spoken and as prickly as her husband, and you had a fine entrée into a great time.

How great a time? The 250th anniversary of independence, not that far off, looks as if it may be a very different affair from the 200th. McCullough, the popular historian, echoed a cadre of academic historians who took the ideas of the Founders seriously, and found them worthy of that attention. Academic history is very different today.

The Founders will survive. Good stories beat bad ones, interesting ones beat both fustian and complaint. David knew it, and told them. So will as yet unknown successors.

Politics & Policy

Democrats’ Spending Bill Subsidizes Obamacare Plans that Cover Abortion

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Protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The new reconciliation bill that Senate Democrats just passed — under the almost unbelievable title of the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” — will have plenty of ill effects, including that it will extend Obamacare’s premium tax credits for health-care plans that cover elective abortion.

The bill extends the credits through 2025 at a cost of an estimated $64 billion, unless they’re made permanent in the future — a further extension of what was done under the American Rescue Plan. In short, the bill will continue subsidies for health-insurance plans on the Obamacare exchanges that fund abortion on demand, in violation of the Hyde amendment.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services has under the Biden administration proposed a rule change that would allow for the conflation of payment and accounting requirements related to abortion, rather than requiring premium payments for abortion and actual health care to remain separate, as Obamacare itself requires. Late last month, a group of Republican senators wrote to HHS secretary Xavier Becerra in opposition to this proposed rule change.

Politics & Policy

Americans Are Correct to Be Instinctively Terrified of the IRS

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Then-Director of Exempt Organizations for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Lois Lerner prepares to deliver an opening statement during a hearing on the alleged targeting of political groups seeking tax-exempt status by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

This argument seems to be popular online this week:

Markowitz says that he has “never understood the fear of an IRS audit.” Given that he is an IRS-enrolled agent — that is, that he makes his living representing taxpayers in front of the IRS — this should perhaps not be too surprising. Oddly enough, my butcher doesn’t understand vegetarians. Nevertheless, I might be able to help Markowitz out a little — or, at least, to shed some light on why this particular tweet yielded such a cacophony of mockery and indignation, and on why the Democratic Party’s desire to be associated with IRS audits is a terrible political move.

Markowitz suggests that those who are worried about being audited by the IRS should just make sure that they are truthful on their return. “Don’t lie,” he suggests. “How about just don’t cheat on tax returns?” But this, of course, misses the point. I do not “cheat” on my tax return, and I never have. I don’t “lie,” either. But I’m still terrified of the IRS. Why? Because the process of being audited — especially in-person, which this funding will increase — is an absolute nightmare. It’s costly. It’s stressful. It’s invasive. It’s time-consuming. It’s easily manipulated by rogue political actors. And it is all of those things even if the saga concludes with a nice letter saying that everything is in order after all.

One suspects that, in any other circumstance, this would be intuitively obvious. Suppose that, tomorrow, the FBI announced that it intended to begin “auditing” millions of people to find out if they had committed any federal crimes. Would Markowitz and co. respond to this news by shrugging and saying, “don’t lie,” or “if you haven’t broken any laws, who cares?” I suspect that they would not. And they’d be absolutely right to decline to do so. The federal government is extremely powerful, and having it snoop around your life is distressing and scary even when you’ve done nothing wrong. In what other circumstances would Markowitz’s implication hold water? I’m not a domestic abuser. Should I therefore not care if the government wants to put cameras around my house? I haven’t murdered anyone. Should I therefore not care if the local police open a homicide investigation into me? The very idea is totalitarian.

To illustrate this, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the IRS’s intent here was reversed — that, instead of the Democratic Party having passed a law designed to squeeze more money out of taxpayers by cracking down on tax evasion, the Republicans had passed a law designed to ensure that Americans were taking advantage of all the deductions and credits in the tax code. In other words, assume for the sake of argument that Americans were facing the prospect of a million-and-a-half more audits, but with the aim of ensuring that everyone audited was getting a bigger refund than they otherwise might. “We just want,” the Republicans might say, “to ensure that you’re not overpaying. Even better: The average audited American will get to keep an extra $240!”

Would that make me comfortable with such an audit?

No, it bloody well would not. On the contrary: I would enthusiastically relinquish that $240 — or more — in order to avoid one.

One of the best things about the United States is that its constitution habitually preempts the “If you have done nothing wrong . . .” arguments that tend to prevail elsewhere. As a matter of course, Americans do not buy the idea that only a man with something to hide would cherish the Fourth Amendment or that only a man who is guilty would plead the Fifth or that only a man who wishes to demean others would wish to favor a robust understanding of freedom of speech. The broad opposition to a supercharged IRS that has so baffled Adam Markowitz and his fellow travelers is predicated upon a similar conceit: that this is a free country, and that those who wish to make it less so can shove it.

Law & the Courts

Disparate Impact Theory Has Done a Lot of Damage

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(Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Getty Images)

Neetu Arnold of the National Association of Scholars has written an excellent Law & Liberty essay on one of the Supreme Court’s greatest blunders, namely, Griggs v. Duke Power.

She points out that the disparate-impact theory the Court accepted and wove into the 1964 Civil Rights Act has had the unfortunate and unintended consequence of pushing employers to demand college credentials. Once testing became a legal minefield, many employers chose to use college degrees as a screening mechanism. As a result, more and more of the labor market was closed off to people who don’t have the right educational credentials, even if they have the native ability to learn the work.

Arnold writes, “Griggs, specifically, chilled merit-based hiring by businesses. Because companies feared legal liability if any of their job-specific hiring tests produced disparities, they turned instead to the college degree as an imperfect signal for the requisite talent and skills. Colleges, after all, can use test scores to filter strong and weak candidates. As a result of this shift, Americans — regardless of interest or ability — now need a college degree to qualify for most well-paying jobs. ”

She is right that the Court would do the country a service if it were to overturn Griggs. But the same thing would be achieved if Congress were to amend the Civil Rights Act. I doubt that there are any disparate-impact cases moving through our court system since I think that employers gave up that fight long ago. If Congress weren’t in Democratic hands, however, it might be possible to rewrite the Civil Rights Act so as to stop promoting needless, costly credentialism in the labor markets.

Economy & Business

Today in Capital Matters: Free Markets/Culture and China/ESG

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Samuel Gregg of the American Institute for Economic Research writes about why free markets need a cultural base:

I have discovered, however, that good economic arguments only go so far in changing the minds of market-skeptic conservatives. If the state doesn’t engage in extensive and deep economic regulation, I’ve heard more than one conservative say, what’s to stop rampant materialism from becoming the norm? How, they say, do we prevent the type of dynamic commercial relationships associated with markets from putting immense pressure on other types of human relations, especially families?

The good news is that many free-market thinkers in the past thought long and hard about these matters, many of which revolve around the type of moral and cultural ecology most suitable for market economies. Consider, for instance, the German ordoliberal economist Wilhelm Röpke. . . .

Andrew Stuttaford writes about the supposed dilemma that Chinese companies pose for ESG funds:

This is a dilemma? Does the “g” in ESG stand for genocide? Because that is what is taking place in Xinjiang. Regardless of climate change, investors who believe that ESG (a variant of “socially responsible” investing in which actual or prospective portfolio companies are scored against a series of environmental, social or governance — the real “g”, in case you wondered — benchmarks) is in some sense ethical surely should find it unacceptable to take a stake in any firm manufacturing (or using) solar-panel materials (notably solar-grade polysilicon) processed in Xinjiang by forced labor.

But should that be the end of the matter?