Science & Tech

Our Flourishing Fears of Big Tech’s Power

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Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) and PAL Max Robots in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. (SPAI)

Two recent animated movies I watched with my sons over the break — Ron’s Gone Wrong and The Mitchells vs the Machines — deal with the themes of social media, modern tech giants, and the fears that all those hours of staring at our phones, tablets and computer screens is getting in the way of real human connection among family and friends. As far as animated children’s movies go, both movies are really good, but I think Ron’s Gone Wrong had more to say about kids being addicted to social media and their phones in unhealthy ways, featuring iPhone-in-a-rolling-robot devices called “B-Bots.”

But it’s not just in kids movies; you can find versions of “evil” new media and “Social Media Is Bad” tropes everywhere.

If a modern piece of pop culture fiction features a tech giant, there’s a good chance the CEO will be an openly sinister caricature of either Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. And there’s about a 90 percent chance that the character will have a big product unveiling scene like Jobs used to do with new Apple products, unveiling the plot-driving product that will seem miraculous but have some hidden dark side. There’s a good chance the character will offer some darkly ironic slogan, like, “now, everything in our lives is in the palm of my hand.”

If a movie or tv show features everyone using a new kind of technology, there’s a 50-50 chance that technology will turn out to be a secret form of mind control, or force people to buy things, or be enormously dangerous in one form or another, or the artificial intelligence will turn “evil” and start attempting to enslave humanity. The hero of the story will almost always be someone who doesn’t use the technology, and who does things the old-fashioned way, finding it simpler, more honest and virtuous than all of this modern convenience – “a Timex watch in a digital age,” as the villain taunts in Live Free or Die Hard.

So, here’s the thing: If seemingly everyone is wary, suspicious, or worried about the influence of these products, companies, and corporate titans… why are so many people still using those devices and on those social media networks? If we fear social media and our ubiquitous smartphones are manipulating us, controlling us, corrupting us, or making us dumber . . . how is it that 85 percent of Americans own a smartphone? (TikTok is more or less an extension of Chinese intelligence, and yet everybody under age 25 seems to be using it.)

Is it simply a matter of convenience and laziness? Or is it that we realize that as demonic as these devices and networks may seem in fiction, in real life, they’re… just sort of there? Facebook lost a half-million daily active users in three months in early 2021 – — not exactly a mind-controlling hypnotic device, then. It may seem like everyone is on a particular social media network, but they aren’t;  Twitter has significantly fewer users than other sites and apps like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram – and in the U.S., just 10 percent of tweeters contributed 92 percent of tweets in 2020. We say we can’t live without our phones, and yet we are absent-minded enough to lose about 70 million smartphones per year.

In real life, these new technologies are not quite as pervasive, ubiquitous, and all-seeing and all-controlling as their fictional counterparts.

Our souring feelings towards big tech are complicated; some people are livid with social-media companies for suppressing voices and shutting down discussion of topics like Hunter Biden’s laptop; some worry that the tech companies are helping extremist views flourish and proliferate. Others worry about privacy, and those seemingly all-knowing algorithms after hearing stories like how Target learned that a teenage girl was pregnant from her shopping habits. We rightfully worry whether kids and teenagers can handle the open sewer that is some corners of the Internet; we don’t want kids and teenagers picking up bad and self-destructive ideas like cutting themselves and eating disorders. But most of us also know that simply banning kids from certain social networks until they’re 18, as Peggy Noonan recommended this weekend, is likely to work about as well as other efforts to keep adult materials from teenagers. Ban them from TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube and they’ll just move on to other online ways of communicating with each other.

In the end, most of our problems with social media and new technology are with the users, or how it is used. Our technology problems are, at heart, human being problems. Technology doesn’t change us, so much as it reveals us.

Then again, the consistent sinister portrayal of Big Tech in pop culture may reflect the mentality of screenwriters and directors who were familiar with one way of doing things in Hollywood a decade or two ago, and who now feel overwhelmed, trying to catch up with an entertainment environment dominated by streaming services. Are some of us inclined to believe that anyone who comes along and tries to get us to change the way we’ve always done things must have a sinister agenda? Lord knows that’s the way I feel every time our publishing system changes.

World

‘Freedom Does Not Have Time to Wait’

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British prime minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky walk in Independence Square after a meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 9, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / Handout via Reuters)

Volodymyr Zelensky, for one, thinks the war in Ukraine involves something bigger than Ukraine. The “entire European project is a target for Russia,” he said. Therefore, “it is not just the moral duty of all democracies” to assist Ukraine. It is “a strategy of defense for every civilized state.”

People may recognize this as true, not long from now.

Zelensky further said, “Freedom does not have time to wait. When tyranny begins its aggression against everything that keeps the peace in Europe, action must be taken immediately.”

I believe he is right.

• Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv and walked the streets with President Zelensky. This was a show of solidarity. Merely showing up, being present, can help people who are under siege: who are being murdered, displaced, maimed, raped. People need to know they are not alone. That they have not been forgotten.

• The Kyiv Post reports,

Ukraine on Thursday accused its neighbour, Kremlin-ally Hungary, of appeasing Russian aggression and disrupting EU unity following a telephone call between the Hungarian and Russian leaders. . . .

Putin congratulated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after his party won a fourth term in general elections last week.

Yes.

The two leaders spoke again Wednesday and Orban told Putin that Hungary would be prepared to pay Russia in rubles for gas imports.

Yes.

In his Election Night speech, the Hungarian chief cited Zelensky, among the opponents he had overcome: “This victory will be remembered for the rest of our lives because so many people ganged up on us, including the Left at home, the international Left everywhere, the bureaucrats in Brussels, all the funds and organizations of the Soros empire, the foreign media, and, in the end, even the Ukrainian president.”

Hungary forbids the transfer of arms to Ukraine through Hungarian territory.

• On Thursday evening, the U.S. House voted on a non-binding resolution. “Resolved,” said the resolution, that “the House of Representatives” . . . does what?

(1) reaffirms its unequivocal support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an alliance founded on democratic principles;

(2) urges NATO to continue to provide unwavering support to the people of Ukraine as they fight for their sovereignty, territorial integrity, and a democratic future;

(3) calls on the President to use the voice and vote of the United States to adopt a new Strategic Concept for NATO that is clear about its support for shared democratic values and committed to enhancing NATO’s capacity to strengthen democratic institutions within NATO member, partner, and aspirant countries; and

(4) calls on the President to use the voice and vote of the United States to establish a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO headquarters.

As The Hill reported, “The resolution passed 362 to 63, with all 63 no votes coming from Republicans.”

Tweeted Daniel Hannan,

I was pretty sceptical of NATO myself 20 years ago. It seemed to me to have done its job in 1990, and to have been blundering around ever since in search of a role. But it is odd to see this mood among US Republicans just when NATO is proving its worth.

I myself observed,

If you had said to me, “One day, there will be a congressional resolution in support of NATO and the bolstering of democracy, and 63 members of the House, all of one party, will vote against it,” I would have bet every dime I could find on the Democrats. What a strange trip.

Someone with the handle “Populist Lobbyist” responded,

This is an interesting part of how the “old right” thinks. NATO doesn’t make any sense in the context of today’s world.

If Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and other NATO members weren’t in the alliance, do you think they would be vulnerable to what the Ukrainians are facing right now? Invasion? Brutalization? You might want to ask them.

• I hear that the Ukrainian government, along with Ukrainian society, is “woke.” I also hear they are “Nazi.” Interesting to be woke and Nazi at the same time. Any epithet will do, evidently.

Madison Cawthorn, the Republican congressman: “Zelensky is a thug. Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene, another Republican House member, opposing aid to Ukraine: “You have to ask, is this money and is this United States military equipment falling into the hands of Nazis in Ukraine?”

Back to wokeness, from Matt Gaetz, another Republican, opposing the Magnitsky Act: “Empowering the Biden Administration to use ‘human rights’ as a weapon of global wokeness is a flawed strategy to defeat Russia or anyone else.”

Wokeness has become jokeness, in the mouths of many.

• Cawthorn said “incredibly corrupt,” along with “incredibly evil.” Ukraine indeed has had problems with corruption. They gained independence in 1991, after decades of Soviet Communism. Their growing pains have been obvious, and they have made great strides — also obvious, to those willing to see. In any event, is corruption not a strange topic of discussion when a country is trying to fight off invasion? Fighting for its very life? Its very right to exist?

At Politico, Jacob Heilbrunn published an article headed “Trumpian Conservatives Hold an ‘Emergency’ Meeting Over Russia.” “At a Washington Marriott,” said the subheading, “the nationalist wing of the Republican Party wrestles with what Putin’s war means for their movement.”

One of the participants said, “Ukraine is a corrupt country. Come and get me.”

If corruption is their concern — rather than, say, nationhood, independence, sovereignty, peace, freedom — wait until these guys hear about Russia, among other countries. There have been many books written on the subject. Vladimir Putin may well be the richest person in the world.

• How does a “biolabs” theory get into the mainstream of the U.S. media? The mainstream of American politics? How is it that the name “Victoria Nuland” is suddenly on the lips of many everyday Americans? This article, from the Anti-Defamation League, explains. Fascinating.

• In a conversation with me, Eliot A. Cohen said, “We’re seeing in about as stark a way as we’ve seen since World War II what it means for a free people to fight for their very existence and for freedom, and that should inspire us profoundly.”

But does it? It inspires some and not others, right?

Said Cohen, “If they fail or go under because we’re not willing to support them — I mean, help them defend themselves — it is a terrible blow to who we are and what we think we’re about in the world.”

And yet Americans don’t agree on who we are or what we’re about in the world — do we? I mean, not by a long shot.

“Conversely,” said Cohen, “if they’re successful — as I hope they will be, and tend to think they will be — it is a tremendous victory for the very principles on which this country was founded.”

I think so. And I once would have been confident that this was a majority view — a well-nigh universal view. Today, I don’t know.

• Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes went to Kyiv last week to interview Zelensky. Pelley asked what Zelensky had seen in Bucha. “Death,” said Zelensky. “Just death.”

“What must the world understand?” Pelley asked. Zelensky answered, “We are defending the right to live. I never thought this right was so costly. These are human values. So that Russia doesn’t choose what we should do and how I’m using my rights. That right was given to me by God and my parents.”

• A man named Kyro Maseh is a pharmacist and pharmacy owner in Toronto. He tweeted,

There’s a young Syrian man that came to Canada as a refugee in my neighborhood. I watched him struggle to get accustomed to living here, get an education & a job. Yesterday he dropped by the pharmacy
Him: still collecting donations for Ukrainian refugees?
Me: yes
Him: here’s $100

Humanity.

• A friend of mine, born in Ukraine, sent me this video. Pink Floyd. They have done a song, in support of Ukraine. I think people do what they can, many of them. They want to assert their humanity, somehow, and try to help people who are being ravaged by evil. One can feel helpless. In any event, I don’t know anything about Pink Floyd — I know they’re a big deal, and had an album called “The Wall” — but I salute them, and all others, doing whatever they can, not excluding the act of praying.

World

In, and Out of, a Fear Society

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A demonstrator sits inside a police vehicle after being detained during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, April 21, 2021. (Anton Vaganov / Reuters)

Independent journalists in Russia are among the bravest people on earth — long have been. Same with anyone in Russia who wants to promote transparency, democracy — the truth. The last remaining independent journalists in Russia held out for as long as they could. Now it is impossible. Novaya Gazeta is trying to reestablish itself in exile.

Its editor is Dmitry Muratov. I wrote about him earlier this year. He won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Maria Ressa, the brave journalist from the Philippines. Six of Muratov’s colleagues at Novaya Gazeta have been murdered. I should name them, rather than leave them anonymous: Igor Domnikov. Yuri Shchekochikhin. Anna Politkovskaya. Anastasia Baburova. Stanislav Markelov. Natalia Estemirova.

Last week, Muratov was on a train from Moscow to Samara. Someone attacked him with a red liquid, which burned his eyes. The attacker shouted, “Muratov, here’s to you for our boys!” You can read about it from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, here.

Muratov is still in Russia, apparently. Incredibly brave man. Even the Nobel Peace Prize can’t protect him from Putin’s guys, is my guess. Putin is feeling an impunity. And why not?

• A report in the Wall Street Journal is headed “‘We Will Kill You’: How Russia Silenced Its Antiwar Movement.” Uh-huh. The subheading: “Repressive laws and arrests discourage protests against the war in Ukraine and prompt dissenters to leave.” Oh, yes.

Evan Gershkovich writes,

Alexander Teplyakov wanted to speak out against the war in Ukraine but feared landing in prison if he took part in a public protest. So the Russian activist designed an antiwar sticker featuring Russian and Ukrainian flags and the phrase “NO TO WAR” and posted and distributed thousands of them around Moscow.

He got into trouble anyway.

Yes, indeed.

Gershkovich also writes,

A new Russian law prohibiting referrals to the military campaign in Ukraine as a war or an invasion and mass arrests of protesters have largely eliminated visible signs of dissent inside Russia against the war. Large numbers of Russians opposed to the war have chosen to be exiled.

The Kremlin has welcomed the departures of critics.

Oh, yes. Gershkovich quotes Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, who said, “Many people are showing themselves to be what we in Russia like to call ‘traitors.’ They disappear from our lives on their own. Some resign from their jobs, some withdraw from their professional lives, and some leave the country and move to other places. That’s how Russia is cleansed.”

Yes. Meaningful word, cleansed. Has been used many times, in history — in salutary ways and . . . not.

• “Spurred by Putin, Russians Turn on One Another Over the War.” That is the headline over a report in the New York Times. “Citizens are denouncing one another, illustrating how the war is feeding paranoia and polarization in Russian society.” In this report are strong 1984 vibes.

Anton Troianovski begins as follows:

Marina Dubrova, an English teacher on the Russian island of Sakhalin in the Pacific, showed an uplifting YouTube video to her eighth-grade class last month in which children, in Russian and Ukrainian, sing about a “world without war.”

After she played it, a group of girls stayed behind during recess and quizzed her on her views.

“Ukraine is a separate country, a separate one,” Ms. Dubrova, 57, told them.

“No longer,” one of the girls shot back.

A few days later, the police came to her school in the port town of Korsakov.

Oh, yes.

“With President Vladimir V. Putin’s direct encouragement,” writes Troianovski, “Russians who support the war against Ukraine are starting to turn on the enemy within.”

There is something in this report I find almost amusing:

In St. Petersburg, a local news outlet documented the furor over suspected pro-Western sympathies at the public library; it erupted after a library official mistook the image of a Soviet scholar on a poster for that of Mark Twain.

• Thanks to Vladimir Putin and his gang, Russians are leaving their country in droves, hoping for a better, freer, less fearful life. Natan Sharansky has popularized a useful phrase: “fear society.” Who wants to live in one?

For The Dispatch, Brent Orrell and Alex Nowrasteh wrote an article headed “Skilled Workers Are Fleeing Russia. Let’s Welcome Them.” Yeah, let’s. “Depriving Russia — and Belarus — of such workers would strike a blow against our adversaries and strengthen our economy.” Hear, hear.

World

Reality in Ukraine: Staring It in the Face

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Serhii Lahovskyi, 26, mourns over the body of his friend Ihor Lytvynenko, in Bucha, Ukraine, April 5, 2022. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters)

Read it, if you can bear it. And if you can’t bear it, (1) I understand (fully) and (2) at least be aware of it. Deniers will deny. They are doing so even now. The fog machine never rests. “Horrors of Ukraine’s Bucha Laid Bare on Yablunska Street.”

• Bethan McKernan writes, “I am a parachute journalist in Ukraine. I’ve seen many awful things in the Middle East, but the scale of the violence here has left me stunned.” A report from her is headed “With bloodied gloves, forensic teams uncover gruesome secrets of Bucha in Ukraine.”

• “Satellite images show bodies lay in Bucha for weeks, despite Russian claims.”

• From Shaun Walker (one of the reporters whose work has been most eye-opening): “After Russians’ retreat, scarred Ukrainian village recounts month of terror.”

• Simon Shuster of Time writes,

We’ve all seen the images. But nothing prepared me for the hellscape on the highway into Kyiv today. Bus stops full of bullet holes. Piles of bricks where homes once stood. Commuter cars crushed under tanks. So many people’s lives.

Hanna Liubakova (invaluable) reports,

Almost 50 people were burned alive in the Mariupol hospital. The mayor Vadim Boychenko said that Russian troops destroyed more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure. At least 5000 people have been killed during the first month of the occupation.

• The headline of this article is “Execution of Village Mayor Becomes Symbol of Russian Brutality in Ukraine.” It begins,

Mayor Olha Sukhenko took care of her village like a family for more than a decade, locals say, sprucing up public buildings, organizing concerts and settling disputes.

When the Russian army withdrew last week after a monthlong occupation, her neighbors found Ms. Sukhenko’s lifeless body in a shallow grave, her hands bound. Her husband and son lay next to her, dead.

• Another article begins,

Russian forces in Ukraine appear to be using a new type of weapon as they step up attacks on civilian targets: an advanced land mine equipped with sensors that can detect when people walk nearby.

Charming.

• The Spectator is not screwing around. Its cover shows Putin, his face illustrated in human skulls. The piece by Fraser Nelson, the editor, is titled “Putin’s terror: the politics of war crimes.” He writes,

The story of the mass grave found in Bucha shocked the world because it represents how fast things have deteriorated and that we are now seeing the kind of barbarism Europe thought it had left behind. The pictures of dead children and the corpses with their hands and feet bound were proof that nothing has changed, and a reminder of our impotence: all of Ukraine’s allies have ruled out direct conflict with Russia.

Here is a piece from Foreign Policy: “Russia’s Ukraine Propaganda Has Turned Fully Genocidal: Egged on by the language of annihilation and extermination, Russian soldiers have become willing executioners.” What is contained in that piece is very important to know.

• This is very important too: “Russia’s genocide handbook: The evidence of atrocity and of intent mounts.” Timothy Snyder writes,

Russia has just issued a genocide handbook for its war on Ukraine. The Russian official press agency “RIA Novosti” published last Sunday an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. It is still available for viewing, and has now been translated several times into English.

More from Professor Snyder:

As I have been saying since the war began, “denazification” in official Russian usage just means the destruction of the Ukrainian state and nation. A “Nazi,” as the genocide manual explains, is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian.

Opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican congresswoman, said, “You have to ask, is this money and is this United States military equipment falling into the hands of Nazis in Ukraine?”

A few more sentences from Snyder:

The genocide handbook explains that the Russian policy of “denazification” is not directed against Nazis in the sense that the word is normally used. The handbook grants, with no hesitation, that there is no evidence that Nazism, as generally understood, is important in Ukraine. It operates within the special Russian definition of “Nazi”: a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit being a Russian.

• “What’s happening in Ukraine is genocide. Period.” An op-ed by Eugene Finkel, author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.

• Maybe get acquainted with one more victim. As Visegrád 24, a news aggregator, says,

The Lithuanian film director Mantas Kvedaravičius was taken prisoner by Russians and executed with a shot to the head and chest in Mariupol. His body was then tossed into the street. May he rest in peace.

• A phrase has been in my head: “Face the slaughter.” In 2014, Ethan Gutmann published his book The Slaughter, which is about organ harvesting and other horrors in China. My review was titled “Face The Slaughter.” Again, one must — we should — face it.

Coronavirus Update

China’s Covid-19 Catastrophe

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People pass food to residents over the barriers of an area under lockdown, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China, March 25, 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)

I can remember when James Palmer, the deputy editor of Foreign Policy, jabbed at me for calling China’s official Covid-19 statistics “insanely implausible,” insisting, “China did, in fact, get the pandemic under control with draconian lockdowns. Pretending that didn’t happen just reinforces the belief of the Chinese public in Western bias and prevents them accepting *good* coverage. That you don’t like it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

Whatever else you want to say about Palmer, he does keep a close eye on China, and he wrote up this update of how the lockdowns are going:

The entirety of Shanghai is now under lockdown after a previous experiment to shut the city down one half at a time failed to contain a growing COVID-19 outbreak. Some residents have now been under lockdown for over three weeks, with a succession of smaller lockdowns limited to particular districts or compounds. In China, lockdowns are stricter than in many other countries: It can entail a complete ban on leaving one’s home or being limited to one excursion every few days for food.

National coronavirus cases continue to climb steadily, with numbers doubling roughly every five days. Shanghai remains the epicenter of the outbreak, with over 83 percent of cases, although numbers are also growing in neighboring provinces. Mass testing in the city is uncovering a very high number of asymptomatic cases, suggesting that other regions with lower rates of testing probably have large numbers of undetected cases. (China also uses a very particular definition of “asymptomatic” cases, excluding many that would be considered symptomatic in other countries.) The number of deaths remains officially very low, though deaths in old age facilities are likely being underreported.

Conditions in Shanghai’s isolation wards are worsening, with reports of food and water shortages and fighting among residents. The authorities have just reversed policy on one of the worst decisions, the separation of children from uninfected parents, after a wave of online anger. The sporadic killing of dogs in coronavirus-hit households—not official policy, except briefly in one city—has also prompted rage. Lockdowns of hospitals and prioritization of COVID-19 testing have also caused serious health care problems, while an angry call from an official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention complaining about government policies went viral before being censored.

And he wrote all of that before the reports of rioting over food shortages.

Hey, help me out here, does all of that living nightmare constitute the Chinese government having the pandemic “under control” as we were told, or did all of those “Covid zero” policies just delay the reckoning? Trying to stop the spread of this variant is like trying to stop the spread of the common cold. If other countries had tried to lock down entire cities during the usual cold and flu seasons, they would run into the same problems. A zero-Covid philosophy makes no sense in these circumstances, but Xi Jinping and the rest of the government cannot admit to themselves, their citizens, or the rest of the world that their approach isn’t working anymore.

Authoritarian regimes are more brittle than they look; they are sustained by fear and the ruled people’s sense that for all of his flaws, the autocrat knows what he is doing and can deliver something worthwhile – stability, order, safety, prosperity. Thus, autocrats need their publics to believe that “Dear Leader” has everything under control and has all the right answers. Admitting that the zero-Covid philosophy is destined to eventually fail would represent the Chinese government telling the Chinese people that their massive sacrifices in the past two years were a waste, and that China did not, in fact, get the pandemic under control with draconian lockdowns.

PHOTOS: Shanghai Lockdown

All the spin in the world can’t alter what those of us outside China can see: the leaders in Beijing are flailing right now. The Chinese-made vaccines either barely work or don’t work against Omicron. The virus offers a minor threat to most healthy people, but the number of elderly and immunocompromised in Shanghai and the rest of the country would likely overwhelm the Chinese medical system. (Shanghai’s convention center is being converted into a temporary hospital with more than 40,000 beds.) Remember that while the Chinese statistics are indeed implausible, there are still many, many Chinese whose immune systems have never encountered Covid-19 before, so they have no existing natural immunity. The city’s trade center, with the busiest port in the world, has ground to a halt, exacerbating the existing global supply chain problems.

And the richest city in China is facing overwhelming food supply problems and the risk of large-scale starvation. This is your country on autocracy, devastating self-deception, and obsessively stubborn Covid-19 policies.

That warning from a surveillance drone warning people to go back inside from their balconies– “control your soul’s desire for freedom” — makes a really succinct national motto.

Markets

ESG — A Mystery and a Shock Poll

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(Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

From the Financial Times:

In January, the FT reported that activist investor Nelson Peltz had built a stake in Unilever. Despite positioning itself as a leader on corporate sustainability — especially under former chief executive Paul Polman — the company’s shares have underperformed, making it a juicy target for activists.

Despite?

Despite? 

I wrote something about Unilever back in January. I included a report from the Daily Telegraph in which Fundsmith’s Terry Smith, a well-known British portfolio manager, had something to say about Unilever’s corporate, uh, focus.

It’s too good not to reprint part of it:

One of Britain’s best known investors has attacked Unilever for its “ludicrous” focus on sustainability, in a sign of growing City frustration at blue chip companies championing fashionable causes.

Terry Smith, manager of the £29bn Fundsmith Equity fund, said that the consumer goods behemoth has become “obsessed” with its public image and mocked its efforts to imbue brands such as Hellman’s mayonnaise with a higher purpose.

He said this overzealous focus on environmental and social issues has proved a distraction at a time when the £101bn maker of products from Vaseline to Marmite is struggling with a falling share price.

In a letter to investors in his fund, Mr Smith said: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has, in our view, clearly lost the plot.

“The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”

. . . Unilever in particular has long seen itself as a leader in the [ESG] field.

Which is rather like taking pride in being one of the first lemmings to leap off the cliff.

Meanwhile, the FT also reported on another disappointing development for the ESG/sustainability industry:

Climate-related financial risks are getting growing attention — but a new survey from BCG casts doubt on how seriously institutional investors are taking them. Just one in 20 investors polled by the consulting firm said that climate and ESG-related issues were among the three risks they took most seriously. And only 11 per cent of the 150 investors polled indicated that ESG is a primary consideration in day-to-day investment decisions.

Oh.

And yet we always seem to be hearing just how enthused investors are about ESG (a form of “socially responsible” investment which scores actual or potential portfolio companies against various environmental, social, and governance benchmarks).

I’d expect a new poll shortly from someone somewhere, showing more suitable results.

World

Ecuador’s Highest Court Grants Rights to Wild Animals

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(miroslav_1/Getty Images)

The “nature rights” movement is not a benign attempt to improve environmental practices. Rather, it seeks to upend human exceptionalism and elevate animals — and even geological features — to rights-bearing beings or entities.

Ecuador has instituted the rights of nature into its constitution. Now, the highest court there ruled that making a wild monkey a pet 18 years ago — before nature had rights in Ecuador — violated the monkey’s rights. From the Climate News story (my emphasis):

Wild animals, the court said, generally have the right “not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, marketed or exchanged” and the right to the “free development of their animal behavior, which includes the guarantee of not being domesticated and not forced to assimilate human characteristics or appearances.”

Those rights emanate from animals’ innate and individual value, and not because they are useful to human beings, the court said. That distinction is important because courts typically have interpreted rights of nature laws as applying to entire ecosystems, made up of many animals and inanimate aspects of the biosphere like rivers and forests.

In other words, nature rights apply to individual animals. And, one would assume, to be consistent, to individual plants, insects, water, and (what the hell) germs too. Why not? Viruses and bacteria are part of nature, after all.

By the way, Switzerland’s constitution already accepts the dignity of individual plants. The highest court in New York will soon rule whether an elephant is a non-human person entitled to a writ of habeas corpus.

If current trends continue, humankind will suffer self-inflicted, catastrophic harm. What if fish in the sea, for example, have a right not to be caught and consumed by us? (Seals will be free to continue to eat them.) What if deer have a right not to be hunted?

And what would keep those same rights from being extended to domesticated animals? The Ecuador court refused to go there. But why not, once one accepts the premise that animals and nature are people too.

We live in a topsy-turvy world. Anyone who says, “It can’t happen here,” is living in a dream. The time is now — not later — to stop rolling our eyes and impede this movement before it gains any more traction. For a start, Congress and each state should pass laws stating that no animals or elements of nature have any rights or legal standing in courts.

If we continue to refuse to take this movement as seriously as its adherents do, don’t say I didn’t warn you when the hammer falls.

Law & the Courts

‘Let’s Not Bicker and Argue Over Who Killed Who’

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U.S. Supreme Court Building (lucky-photographer/Getty Images)

In today’s Post, Ruth Marcus comes through with some strong “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who” energy:

We could endlessly debate how things degenerated to this point: Republicans point to the Bork hearings, the Thomas hearings, the Gorsuch filibuster and the Kavanaugh hearings; Democrats bemoan the Garland blockade and the hurried Barrett confirmation. Neither side has clean hands.

Ah, yes. On the one side we have the Bork hearing, the Thomas hearing, and the abomination that was the Kavanaugh hearing — all of which involved deliberate and egregious character assassinations. And on the other side, we have the . . . Senate exercising its powers under the Constitution. (I’d put the Gorsuch filibuster into this category, too. I personally favored Gorsuch’s appointment, but the Senate was not obliged to, and it was permitted to filibuster him if it so wished.)

Even the slightest inspection here would reveal that there is no similarity between these things whatsoever. One suspects that the reason Marcus would rather breezily say that “neither side has clean hands” than “endlessly debate” her own evidence is that, in her heart of hearts, she knows it.

Regulatory Policy

Biden’s Energy Strategery

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Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden walks past solar panels while touring the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, N.H., June 4, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

If you’re looking for a story that neatly encapsulates the mess that the Biden administration is making of energy policy, this Wall Street Journal story takes some beating:

The contradictions of White House energy policy keep piling up. In the latest example, President Biden on Thursday invoked the Defense Production Act to subsidize the mining of certain minerals in the U.S. that his own Administration is using regulation to block. Weird, right?

That opening paragraph ought to be enough, but read on:

[G]overnment climate policies are driving up demand for critical minerals. An electric car includes huge amounts of graphite (66.3 kg), copper (53.2), nickel (39.9), manganese (24.5), cobalt (13.3) and lithium (8.9). Conventional cars require far less—22.3 kg of copper and 11.2 of manganese. Solar and wind also require more of such minerals than do fossil-fuel plants.

Could it be that the environmentally friendly alternative is not quite so environmentally friendly as claimed?

And, geopolitically speaking, it may not be so great either:

Global production isn’t keeping pace with demand, and most mining is done in countries with low environmental and labor standards. Some of these countries aren’t friends of the U.S. and aim to leverage their resources for political advantage. China restricted exports of rare-earth minerals to Japan during a standoff over the Senkaku Islands in 2010.

Beijing has also encouraged investment in foreign mining projects as part of its Belt and Road initiative to lock up critical minerals. This has enabled China to dominate mineral processing and made the West dependent on Beijing for some green technologies.

But don’t we have quite a lot of these metals here in the U.S.?

We do, but as oil and gas producers could tell you, that’s not the end of the matter, and so:

[T]he green lobby in the U.S. wants to keep minerals in the ground, and Biden regulators are helping. Consider Ioneer Ltd.’s planned lithium mine in Nevada, which aims to supply 22,000 metric tons of lithium annually—enough for about 400,000 electric cars. The U.S. has only one operating lithium mine, which produces about 5,000 metric tons per year.

Green groups claim the mine threatens Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare flowering plant, and accused Ioneer of destroying it. The Trump Interior Department concluded after an extensive analysis that the real wildflower culprit was hungry squirrels.

Then greens asked the Biden Administration to list the buckwheat as an endangered species. Biden regulators proposed a listing, and the lithium mine is now stuck in purgatory . . .

It gets worse, but read on some more and see for yourselves.

World

Ukrainian Official Details Three Rape Cases; One 14-Year-Old Victim Pregnant

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Pro-Russian troops inspect streets in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, April 7, 2022. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A Ukrainian official alleged in a post on Telegram earlier today that Russian troops raped civilians, some as young as 11 and 14 years old, during their occupation of the Kyiv region in March.

“A 14-year-old girl was raped by 5 occupying men. She is pregnant now. Bucha,” wrote Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsperson for human rights, referring to the Kyiv suburb where Russian forces carried out horrific atrocities.

“An 11-year old boy was raped in front of his mother — she was tied to a chair to watch,” Denisova wrote, of another case in Bucha.

“A 20-year-old woman, raped by three occupiers in all possible ways at once. Irpen.”

Bucha and Irpin were both liberated by Ukrainian forces during a counteroffensive in late March.

According to eyewitness accounts, evidence collected by Ukrainian investigators, phone calls intercepted by German intelligence, and satellite imagery, Russian troops tortured and killed hundreds of civilians during their monthlong occupation of Bucha. Authorities and residents are still finding bodies across the city.

While that suburb has seized international attention, a number of nearby towns and cities were subjected to other acts of brutal, indiscriminate violence.

In Borodyanka, anther Kyiv-region city, Russian forces relentlessly shelled apartment complexes, from which bodies are still being extracted. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said today that even more people died in Borodyanka than in Bucha.

The discovery of the atrocities carried out in March suggest that similar acts are being inflicted on other regions of Ukraine currently under Russian occupation.

On April 3, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the “repeated rape” of a 31-year-old woman in Kharkiv.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter that the rape allegations documented by Denisova suggest that Russian troops are doing the same elsewhere.

“They probably commit same unspeakable crimes in the occupied towns as you read this tweet,” he wrote. “European politicians can stop this madness by imposing oil and gas embargo on Russia. Do it now!”

Two U.N. officials, Pramila Patten and Sima Bahous, also said in a statement that “mounting allegations of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls” in Ukraine are shocking and “raise serious questions about possible war crimes.”

Culture

Is ‘Groomer’ the Right Word?

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In the latest episode of The Editors, Rich, Michael, and I discuss culture-war stories such as the D.C. abortion horror and whether conservatives should use the word “groomer” to describe LGBT activists who target little kids. . . . Listen here.

Woke Culture

How World Leaders Should Talk about Transgenderism

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“I don’t think that biological males should be competing in female sporting events. And maybe that’s a controversial thing … but it just seems to me to be sensible,” British prime minister Boris Johnson said in a recent interview.

“And I also happen to think that women should have spaces, whether it’s in hospitals or prisons or changing rooms or wherever, which are dedicated to women. That’s as far as my thinking has developed on this issue. If that puts me in conflict with some others, then we have got to work it all out.”

See how easy that was, Joe Biden?

Law & the Courts

What the Whitmer Case Acquittal Means

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Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks by video feed from Michigan on the first day of the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention as participants from across the country are hosted over video links to the originally planned site of the convention in Milwaukee, Wis., August 17, 2020. (2020 Democratic National Convention/Pool via Reuters)

The acquittal of two of the four suspects in the Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping-plot case is one of those events that lends itself to unfortunate overinterpretation.

The acquittal does not mean that the men did not do anything wrong, or even that they did not do what they are accused of; still less does it mean that the entire episode was, as some sympathizers say, a case of federal entrapment; nor does this mean, as some other critics charge, that the government is soft on right-wing violence or on political violence perpetrated by white people.

All this means is that the prosecution failed to prove its case to the satisfaction of the jury. That’s it. This happens pretty often.

A jury trial is an act of republican faith — a faith that is not always and everywhere obviously justified. But it has, by and large, worked pretty well for a long time, and arguably it is the most direct exercise in self-government that we undertake. Self-government requires understanding and accepting that you won’t always get what you want — an understanding that appears to be in dangerous decline.

There is an unfortunate vogue for vilifying lawyers who represent unpopular clients, most recently demonstrated by Republican senators who should know better. But a trial without a vigorous defense isn’t a trial at all — it is a lynching. So is a trial without the possibility of acquittal.

Economics

Setting the Record Straight on Adam Smith

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Adam Smith (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

George Mason University economics professor Daniel Klein has a new essay today at Law & Liberty setting the record straight on Adam Smith’s positions on trade and free markets. He is responding to Oren Cass of American Compass, who wrote in an essay that economists have been reading Smith wrong for years, and that the great proponent of free markets actually thought capitalism could only work well within national borders, not internationally.

As Stan Veuger replied, the modern economic arguments for the gains from international trade do not rest primarily upon Smith’s arguments anyway. The great foundational texts of economics, such as the Wealth of Nations, are used today as “sources of both inspiration (rarely) and rhetorical flourish (more frequently),” wrote Veuger.

Veuger is correct about that, but it is a shame that more economists don’t actually read Smith. His thought is very deep and rich with insights into human nature and sociality.

Fortunately, Klein has read Smith very closely, and he presents a bevy of evidence from Smith’s writing that gives a very different picture than the one Cass tried to draw.

Klein notes Smith’s attitude toward the relatively limited globalization that existed in the late 1700s:

The first chapter of Smith’s Wealth of Nations culminates in marvel and wonder: “How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world!”

That is one of three consecutive sentences ending with an exclamation point. Here, Smith imagines the worldwide activities flowing into the woolen coat enjoyed by “the most common artificer or day-labourer.” Beyond that chapter, there are only three exclamation points in Wealth of Nations. Smith, then, begins his work with a unique sense of marvel at how his theories do apply across national boundaries.

“[E]ach nation ought, not only to endeavour itself to excel, but from the love of mankind, to promote, instead of obstructing the excellence of its neighbours,” Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His ethics are patterned after benevolent monotheism and a universalistic Imago Dei: “The all-wise Author of Nature,” he says, “has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; and has in this respect, as in many others, created him after his own image.” He calls the Chinese the “brethren” of Europeans.

It’s not just trade of physical items that Smith sees as beneficial between countries. He also recognized the benefit of foreign investment, though he was cautious about it at times. Smith’s thought is best understood as a series of presumptions, and presumptions have exceptions. Klein explains:

I do not mean to imply that Smith would not under any circumstances favor a restriction on foreign trade or investment. Smith considered arguments for making an exception to the principle of free trade, but, as Boudreaux explains, Smith himself tended to diminish those arguments.  We cannot rule out that Smith might favor certain restrictions under certain circumstances, for polity reasons, perhaps because they would support political stability or national security, or simply because they would play a part in the crafty art of liberal politics. Smith strove to make governments less dishonest and illiberal, but knew that foreign countries had governments too. Smith’s friend Edmund Burke exemplified the virtuous pursuit of circumstantial liberal politics.

If Cass’s only points were that Smith is not a fundamentalist, and people who make him out to be are wrong, then Cass would be correct. But as Klein demonstrates, it goes much too far to say that Smith would support Cass’s idea of a “bounded market.” Klein concludes, “Cass might help liberalize any of the 10,000 commandments now obstructing gainful employment and honest living. Then Cass could justly invoke Adam Smith.”

For Klein’s full analysis and his numerous direct quotations from Smith’s work, read his whole essay here.

Sports

The Boston Marathon Is Wrong to Ban Russian Athletes

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Runners race in a pack during the 2021 Boston Marathon in Boston, Mass., October 11, 2021. (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2020, just weeks into the mass outbreak of Covid-19 in the United States, the Boston Marathon was canceled. (I had raced it the year before, notching a 2:35:48, 225th overall, out of some 30,000 entries.) The venerable race has since returned, but now it is canceling some of its participants.

In doing so, the Boston Athletic Association, which administers the race, has yielded to one unseemly Western consequence of Russia’s unjust war in Ukraine (a war which, of course, remains the primary and rightful target of outrage): namely, the bout of performative elite hysteria directed against anything even remotely connected to Russia. Previously aimed at such bizarre targets as musical performances of or by Russian artists and participants in cat contests, this passion has now driven the BAA to ban Russian and Belarussian athletes from the race. Per its announcement on Wednesday:

The Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) announced today that Russians and Belarusians, who were accepted into the 2022 Boston Marathon or 2022 B.A.A. 5K as part of the open registration process and are currently residing in either country, will no longer be allowed to compete in either event.

Russians and Belarussians not currently living in either country will be allowed to participate, and the BAA will attempt to refund athletes banned. Meanwhile, Ukrainians unable to participate in the race this year will receive a refund or a deferment, an excellent policy. Still, the treatment of others seems indecent to me. It is unlikely that the athletes set to participate in this race from the banned countries are directly implicated in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Nor will the BAA’s decision make the conflict any likelier to turn in Ukraine’s favor.

It is also a strange decision in light of how the BAA reacted to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The bombing, which killed three people and injured nearly 300 others, was perpetrated by two Chechen brothers. Despite poor U.S.–Russian relations over the past decade, the Russian government had warned the U.S. about the older of the pair (who largely drove the plot). The BAA did not react to an attack on its own event by banning all Chechnyans (or Russians) from participating. Its actions now seem pointless and spiteful.

Immigration

Ending Title 42 Is a Choice

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Josh Barro makes a good point here:

Like with the student loan pause, the use of Title 42 to limit asylum applications during the pandemic is an administrative action that has gotten more and more pretextual as the acute pandemic has waned. And as with lifting the student loan pause, rescinding the Title 42 order will be a real political mess. It will once again overwhelm our capacity to process asylum seekers and it will encourage an increased flow of unauthorized migrants seeking to enter the country for primarily economic reasons. This will be very unpopular.

But the administration seems intent on implementing the lifting of the Title 42 order, inviting an extremely visible mess at the border right before the midterm elections.

The administration can’t say that it has to lift the asylum restrictions because it’s what an honest reading of the law requires, and at the same time refuse to follow anything like an honest reading of the law on student loans. The administration is also sticking with steel protectionism on the entirely pretextual theory that it’s needed for national-security reasons. It’s making deliberate choices about which legal obligations it should follow. Republicans should not hesitate to hold it accountable for those choices.

Media

Reuters Whitewashes Terrorism — Again

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Israeli soldiers work near the scene of a fatal shooting attack near a bar in Tel Aviv, Israel April 7, 2022. (Moti Milrod /Reuters)

Here is how Reuters covers terror attacks in Israel:

Those incorrigible Israelis and Palestinian are at it again — “cycle of violence” and all that. Those who did not read past the headline may never find out that the dead Palestinian, one of two, had walked down Dizengoff Street, the city’s most crowded commercial district, indiscriminately shooting people. Two Israelis were murdered, and many others are in serious condition. The attack in Tel Aviv is part of string of deadly attacks, perhaps the beginning of a third Intifada, that includes the recent murder of five people in nearby Bnei Brak.

Reuters has a long history of anti-Israel activism. I can remember writing about an incident more than a decade ago in which a Palestinian terrorist planted a bomb near a bus stop in Jerusalem — or, as Reuters might say, the “Jewish district of Jerusalem.” The explosion killed a British woman and injured 30 others. The piece explained: “Police described the explosion as a ‘terrorist attack’ — Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike.”

On the bright side, at least Reuters, unlike our Secretary of State Antony Blinken — who has no problem decrying so-called “settler violence” — can identify the nationality of the attackers. Which seems noteworthy considering that the families of both dead terrorists are likely to be paid bounties by the Palestinian National Authority, which is, in turn, generously funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Media

The Washington Post’s Pathetic Hit Piece

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Maxine Joselow at the Washington Post has written one of silliest hit pieces I’ve read in a long time. “Advocate promotes fossil fuels for poor nations he once disparaged” targets Alex Epstein, a pundit who makes the moral and practical case for fossil fuels.

The piece is pathetic on two counts:

First: Joselow digs into Epstein’s college writings at Duke and finds that he — and maybe you should be sitting down for this one — argued in March 1999 that students should be required to take courses on Western civilization. “Without mentioning race or ethnicity, he claimed that Western culture’s achievements far surpass those of other cultures,” notes Joselow. So you’re telling me that a man named Epstein, attending a university founded by Methodists and Quakers, in a one-time colony founded by Sir Walter Raleigh, in a nation founded in the ideals of the Enlightenment and structures of the Classical World, believes that Western civilization is superior to other cultures? Chilling stuff.

Second: The piece doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Joselow writes that Epstein’s dismissals of non-Western cultures “raise further questions” about whether his argument “is rooted in a ‘moral’ concern for developing nations or is a cynical attempt to promote the use of oil, coal and natural gas.” Now, it might be the case that progressive journalists don’t change their positions after college, but most intellectually self-aware adults refine, rethink, and augment their beliefs as they mature. Even if Epstein has not, though, it is in no way contradictory to contend that Western society is, in general, more advanced and moral, and also others would be better off adopting its ideas. In fact, it makes all the sense in the world.

Of course, even if Epstein is being cynical, his positions — with which, broadly speaking, I agree — are bolstered with arguments and data. Rather than debunking them, the Post tries to discredit Epstein by accusing him of harboring the wrong kinds of feelings.

World

Corgi Beaten to Death in Shanghai as Part of City-Wide Government-Imposed Lockdown

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Workers in protective suit spray disinfectant during a new lockdown in Shanghai, China, April 5, 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Despite the fact that Covid-19 exists in the world because of the Chinese government, ever since that government released its plague upon the world, it has had a certain dubious esteem from many corners. Whether out of a credulous acceptance of the efficacy of the CCP’s totalitarian methods to suppress the domestic spread of the virus it created, or out of an excessive disdain for the supposedly ineffectual U.S. response to Covid, such voices have put themselves in a position of grudging (or not-so-grudging) admiration of the CCP’s methods.

The Chinese government has claimed for many months essentially to have wiped out Covid, a claim which should be taken with not a grain but at least a mine of salt. But in certain parts of the country, the spread of Covid (unmitigated by China’s inferior vaccines) has now outstripped the ability of the government to cover it up. As a result, it is resorting to the same March 2020 playbook it helped export around the world: i.e., totalitarian lockdowns. Much of life in Shanghai, a city of 26 million people, has been shut down, with residents barely able to leave their homes, frequent testing mandatory, and those found positive forced into Covid-quarantine facilities.

None of this is surprising for China. And we now know well the human cost of such measures. But a recent news story involving something not even human reinforces how truly barbaric these practices are. According to the South China Morning Post, a family whose members had tested positive for Covid in Shanghai was forced to leave a pet corgi behind as they were forcibly transferred to a Covid-quarantine facility. Unsure whether to leave the pet inside to starve or to let it out and hope it would survive on its own, the family chose the latter course. Heartbreakingly, the corgi ran after its owners as they were taken away. And then someone tasked with lockdown enforcement beat it to death:

The family was torn between letting the dog go outside in the hopes that it would survive or keeping it inside where it could starve if the family was stuck out of the home for too long.

The family decided to let the dog outside before they were quarantined. The video, which has gone viral in China, showed the corgi chasing the van for a short distance as it left.

Once the van had driven away, the worker, identified as a gate guard for the complex, hit the dog three times with a spade, killing it.

The dog’s pained cries could be heard in the video, taken by a resident from her high-rise residential building, who yelled, “it is too cruel”.

There has been an outcry over this in China. Here’s the response of the government, which initially claimed to have killed the dog out of concern it could further spread the virus:

“We did not fully consider the issue, and we have told the dog’s owner that we will discuss compensation with him later,” the official, whose name was not released, was quoted as saying.

Human life is obviously more important than animal life. But in this case, the uncivilized and brutal methods of the Chinese government presented a false choice. It is but a small example of that regime’s cruelty — something worth keeping in mind as its misguided admirers persist in their affection or obfuscation.

Politics & Policy

‘Hello, Can I Share the Good News about Joe Biden?’

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An Election Officer prepares “I Voted!” stickers at a polling place at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington, Va., November 2, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Politico reports:

A group of Democratic strategists is trying to spread a novel organizing tactic in this year’s election. Technically, it’s called “paid relational organizing,” but it boils down to this: paying people to talk to their friends about politics.

Democrats think it helped them win the Senate in 2020 — and are hoping the get-out-the-vote strategy will help limit the pain of a brutal 2022 election environment.

Granted, I am not an expert in voter turnout. But my instinct is that the Democrats should not do this. In my experience, the last thing any normal human being wants is to be talked at enthusiastically about progressive politics by the sort of people who like talking about progressive politics. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if the Democrats want to do okay in 2022, they should probably be paying the sort of people who are likely to volunteer for this task to stay quiet between now and November 8 — or even to leave the country for a while.

The Democrats did not win the Senate in 2020 because they paid people to talk to their friends about politics. The Democrats won the Senate in 2020 because, despite underachieving across the board, Donald Trump lied stupidly about the election result and the GOP blew both runoffs in Georgia. (It doesn’t matter to the result or the legitimacy of the result — Georgia’s system is what it is, and everyone knew that going in — but Perdue actually got more votes across the two elections than Jon Ossoff did.) The problem the Democrats have ahead of 2022 is not that their message hasn’t been sufficiently amplified; the problem the Democrats have ahead of 2022 is that voters are not happy with how things are going. Hiring a bunch of political junkies to spread the good word to their reluctantly engaged acquaintances seems unlikely to change that.

Law & the Courts

‘Making History’

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Headline: “Ketanji Brown Jackson makes history as first Black woman Supreme Court Justice.”

As far as I know, nobody ever asked Thurgood Marshall about zirs pronoun preferences, so we’ll never know for sure.

Politics & Policy

On the Proliferation of Academic Programs

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In recent decades, we have seen a huge proliferation of academic programs. Is that a good thing?

In today’s Martin Center article, GMU grad student Steven Zhou ponders that question and thinks that the answer is largely “no.”

Zhou writes, “Especially in the humanities, there is an increasing number of PhDs but a decreasing number of tenure-track faculty positions available. The trend is even apparent in STEM, where there are likewise “too many PhDs, too few research positions.” It does no good to have a plethora of options for a student interested in graduate school if there’s little to no chance of that program landing them a job after graduation. The result of this imbalance in supply and demand is the recent trend of PhD graduates finding jobs outside of academia — which, to be clear, is a commendable and smart move given the lack of academic jobs. However, the reality is that one does not need a PhD for most jobs outside of academia (other than some research-intensive positions), and thus students often find themselves in situations where their formal education of four to six years did not prepare them for a non-academic job.”

Indeed so. As I have been arguing for years, we have oversold higher education, causing a great many people who don’t really want advanced study to pursue college and grad school simply because it seemed necessary to get some academic credentials.

Zhou observes that many grad programs lure students in with claims that their degrees will prepare them for the world of work. Often, however, they don’t. Colleges and universities take student money and then leave them on their own.

He concludes, “As a PhD student, I am far from being in a position where I can influence the creation and quality control of academic programs and journals. But I implore those who are to consider the potential negative impacts of creating endless new choices. For program directors and accreditors, ensure that students are not taken advantage of and are equipped with the necessary skills and experiences to succeed in their chosen career fields.”

Economy & Business

Today in Capital Matters: Dual Mandate

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Bryan Cutsinger and Alexander William Salter argue that the Fed’s dual mandate is redundant because there is no trade-off between inflation and unemployment:

Economists should be leading the charge on reforming the Fed’s mandate so that we can avoid situations like the one in which we currently find ourselves. Sadly, many have gotten lost in the woods because they ignored the map provided by the aggregate supply-aggregate demand model. Some made a fetish out of theory, creating ever-more mathematically sophisticated yet practically irrelevant models. Others abandoned theory for pure statistical analysis. Both approaches are a dead end. Economists have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advise public officials on the best way to reorient the Fed. If they return to their roots and put their training to work, the economics profession and the public will be much better off.

Read the whole thing here.

International

Changing the Energy Equation in Europe

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Power lines near the Golfech nuclear plant on the border of the Garonne River between Agen and Toulouse, France, in 2018. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Behind Japan, Germany and Russia are the two nations in the world best positioned to appreciate just exactly how the United States ended World War II in the Pacific.

When World War II began, there was no such thing as an atomic bomb. The concept of a nuclear chain reaction dated only to the 1930s, and the closest thing to nuclear power that had been produced was brief fission of uranium in a laboratory. The United States — with the help of some of the best scientific minds of Europe, chased away by Adolf Hitler — oversaw the conceptualization, development, production, and deployment of the first nuclear weapon, taking it from the physicists’ blackboards to the bomb bay of the Enola Gay, in a remarkably brief period of time: The Manhattan Project lasted about four years.

The United States did this while in the midst of a ruinous war that, among its many other horrors, severely disrupted industrial and economic activity in the United States and around the world — and was insanely expensive to boot.

The United States is not currently at war with Russia. Neither is Germany. Neither is the rest of the European Union. But we all have a Russia problem that needs solving.

Replacing Russian fuel in the European economy would be — or, rather, will be — a difficult and expensive proposition. Wildly so, in all likelihood. To replace Russian gas imported by European consumers would require a great deal of equipment and infrastructure that does not currently exist: The United States produces a great deal of gas and has the capacity to produce more, as do many other petroleum-producing nations, but we do not have the LNG-ready ships, the necessary terminals, or the regassification facilities in Europe to make that happen; nor do the Europeans have all the pipelines they would need to connect to other providers closer at hand. But we know how to build LNG-ready ships, terminals, and regassification facilities. We know how to build new pipelines. None of that requires groundbreaking work in physics or the invention of new technologies. It doesn’t need a team of Einsteins and Oppenheimers. All it needs is doing. That is not to say it will be easy — only that it relies on technologies and capacities that already exist and do not have to be invented.

This isn’t an immediately urgent issue for Washington. Thanks to all that hated fracking, the United States has abundant natural gas. But the question that Berlin and Brussels should be asking themselves right now is: Do they want to get started on this before the Russians cut them off, or do they want to wait until they are in an energy crisis after the Russians have cut them off? Which the Russians are very likely going to do, because the gas supply is the only real instrument of coercion they will have to use against Europe in their effort to get relief from the economic sanctions that are strangling their economy.

Right now, the Europeans are worried about Russia cutting them off. But we have the ability to turn that around and make the Russians worry about Europe cutting them off. The pipelines are where they are, and a pipeline without a paying customer at the end of it might as well not be there. The European Union has a diverse economy. Russia does not. And the Russians don’t want to spend the next 20 years selling their only real export at a steep discount to the Chinese and the Indians, taking a haircut on their energy and getting nothing but renminbi and rupees in exchange, without the prospect of a dollar, euro, or yen landing in their coffers for the foreseeable future.

The United States, the European Union, and Japan constitute the wealthiest and most technologically sophisticated societies the world has ever seen. Together, they account for about half of the economic output of the entire human race. And in spite of the infantilizing talk of our politicians, I do not think that Americans have suddenly become incompetent, that we are for some inexplicable reason incapable today of doing the kind of world-changing things we did way back in the first half of the 20th century and continued to do thereafter. I do not think that all we know how to do is invent social-media platforms and manage hedge funds.

Changing the energy equation in Europe would shift the geopolitical balance decidedly in favor of the free world. Of course, the transition costs will be enormous — but they are going to get even heavier the longer we all wait, and Europe is not likely to escape paying them at some point.

Gas is only part of the solution, of course, and maybe not the most important part: It very well may turn out to be the case that once the relevant parties sit down and run the numbers, the most effective and easily achievable thing to do would be renewing and expanding Europe’s capacity for generating electricity with nuclear power, which would make much of that natural-gas deficit moot. The Greens won’t love it, for ideological reasons, but from a climate point of view, nuclear power is by far the most desirable source of electricity that can be depended on to perform in a practical and consistent way.

It is very likely that there is never going to be a more politically advantageous moment to do this than right now, when the United States, the European Union, and much of the rest of the world are enjoying a rare moment of broad consensus in the face of Russia’s brutal campaign of slaughter and atrocity in Ukraine. I do not expect the Biden administration to take the lead on this (or on much of anything else), but there is more urgency for Olaf Scholz and his government — and the U.S. energy industry has an enormous quantity of capital, brainpower, and practical expertise to bring to the problem, and it needs no invitation from Washington to do so.

This isn’t the Manhattan Project or the moonshot — this is keeping the lights on and fueling vehicles, something that we have been doing since the 19th century. It is time for the richest and most powerful nations of the world to starting acting like it rather than allow themselves to be bullied by a tinpot dictator in a pissant country with an economy that wouldn’t make the top three if it were in a U.S. state.

If we can’t work up the necessary self-respect, we should at least act out of self-interest.

World

Sparks of Humanity and Crimes against Humanity

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Ukrainian soldiers walk next to destroyed Russian tanks and armored vehicles in Bucha, Kyiv Region, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

At the beginning of this week, news reports and satellite images showed what looked to be a Russian atrocities committed in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv. Our own Jay Nordlinger rightly called for a full investigation and documentation of these crimes. This is important not only for justice, but to properly establish guilt.

Last night the New York Times shared a video appearing to show Ukrainian soldiers executing bound and bleeding Russian soldiers. The immediate reactions I’ve seen are that this is understandable. The Russians are invading. Hadn’t Russian soldiers just previously raped and murdered Ukrainians? It’s important to think through these issues soberly.

Yes, the Russians are the invaders. But as of now we don’t know from the video alone that these executed prisoners had just committed the barbarities that would make a retaliatory war crime akin to a crime of passion.

My father-in-law’s father served in the Army’s 157th Infantry Regiment during World War II; the Third Battalion was led by Colonel Felix Sparks, later promoted to brigadier general. This was the unit that cut a bloody swath northward through Europe, from Anzio in Italy to Berlin. One of the soldiers’ final missions was the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. What they found in Dachau was a horror unimaginable. Nothing about it had been tidied up or hidden ahead of the liberation. I have seen the photos that members of the 157th took; they are a portal into the depth of hell. Thousands of bodies, many women and starved children, mutilated, and stacked “like cordwood,”according to their accounts.

One of the most notable moments in the remarkable career of Sparks was his imposition of discipline on his soldiers as some of them were understandably losing control of their emotions and imposing rough justice on the hundreds of German guards and civilians near the camp.

Lieutenant William Walsh of the 42nd Battalion was one such man who lost control. He had expected to find a POW camp like ones he had seen in upstate New York. Instead he found railcars full of corpses. He separated German SS soldiers into a coal yard and called for a machine gun; his charges opened fire, killing a number of them. The gunfire attracted the attention of Colonel Sparks, who ran over. You can see a photograph of him firing his pistol while attempting to restore order here.

From his account:

As I watched, about fifty German troops were brought in from various directions. A machine gun squad from I company was guarding the prisoners. After watching for a few minutes, I started for the confinement area. After I had walked away for a short distance, I hear the machine gun guarding the prisoners open fire. I immediately ran back to the gun and kicked the gunner off the gun with my boot. I then grabbed him by the collar and said: “what the hell are you doing?” He was a young private about 19 years old and was crying hysterically. His reply to me was: “Colonel, they were trying to get away.” I doubt that they were, but in any event he killed about twelve of the prisoners and wounded several more. I placed a non-com on the gun, and headed toward the confinement area.

By Sparks’s own account it took about 30 minutes to quell the disorder breaking out in American ranks, a disorder inspired by the horror they saw and what Sparks called the “chilling roar” beginning to come from the camp’s prisoners as the fact of their forthcoming liberation dawned on them. In the months after the war, there were rumors that the Americans had indeed massacred hundreds of German soldiers that day. But, in the affray and in those first 30 minutes, the number of Germans killed in fighting, or while trying to escape imprisonment by the Americans, was much lower. Some German SS men were murdered by prisoners.

These moments were duly investigated by the U.S. military. American soldiers were variously charged for firing their weapons on prisoners and with dereliction of duty for refusing medical care to a dying German concentration camp guard. And yes, in the end, the charges were dismissed on grounds similar to those cited to defend a crime of passion. Colonel Charles Decker, acting as judge, concluded: “In the light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken.”

Sparks’s intervention to stop an American slaughter of the SS — however understandable such a reprisal would have been — was brave, wise, and noble. He first sought to reestablish order rather than the meting out of justice. Order meant meeting the immediate priority: getting food and medical assistance for the thousands of prisoners in the camp. He and the 157th also set their priority as burying the dead — the thousands of corpses in the camp itself. For this task, they drafted the residents of Dachau.

Sparks eventually moved to Colorado, the home state of most of his subordinates. And it was his bravery that very day that allowed him to serve time and again as a valuable eyewitness against those who tried to deny the horror of Shoah. He could not have done so with such credibility if he had allowed war crimes to be committed that day.

Media

Sloppy New York Times Reporting

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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)

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently reported on GOPers who he alleges support Vladimir Putin. The piece is hard to take seriously because it includes the egregious insinuation that Charles Koch and Will Ruger, president of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), support Russian tyranny, and in fact, are pro-Vladimir Putin.

There is so much wrong with this particular section of the Leonhardt piece that I can’t get to it all. So I will focus on the increasingly common habit of reporters and pundits recklessly inferring evil intent from what is often innocent and reasonable disagreement over policy.

For instance, according to Leonhardt, arguing against the imposition of broad sanctions on Russia — an honest argument that occurs each time sanctions are proposed as a means to change or punish some foreign government for its actions — makes someone a Putin supporter.

The reason to accuse Will Ruger of being a Putin supporter is as bad. Leaving aside the grotesque characterization of Ruger’s position for now (more on this later), it’s true that Ruger, in a podcast with Reason’s Nick Gillespie, argued against U.S. military intervention in Ukraine. It’s also true that Ruger said that because this conflict poses no real threat to America’s national security, the U.S. government would be unwise to risk sparking a potential World War III by putting boots on the ground or enforcing a no-fly zone or other such measures. Such positions, however, don’t make him pro-Putin. In fact, anyone who actually checks what Ruger’s position is will see how clearly he regards Putin’s actions as tragic and immoral.

I’m particularly sensitive to this form of attack because I’m frequently accused in the same manner. For example, my disapproval of federal subsidies to higher ed gets me labeled as “anti-education.” My opposition to any federal paid-leave program is portrayed as opposition to the benefit itself. The fact that I am against extended child tax credit or child tax credits in general is taken to mean that I’m against parents and children.

Such a manner of arguing is ridiculous and unhelpful. It avoids the relevant substance of the policy disagreements. And it wrongly implies that all reasonable people agree on which specific policies are best, including the issue of broad versus targeted sanctions (the latter of which is supported by Charles Koch’s Stand Together organization).

Leonhardt’s manner of arguing also suggests that all that’s necessary for America to have a strategic interest in the Ukraine war is moral revulsion against Putin’s invasion. But no sober person accepts this suggestion.

What is disappointing too is that this piece shows no signs of serious fact-gathering. It took me a grand total of two minutes to find multiple quotes from Stand Together revealing that this Koch organization endorses targeted sanctions against Russia. Also, it was easy to learn that Stand Together supports the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russians and is repulsed by Putin’s invasion.

The same is true of Leonhardt’s totally misleading reporting of Ruger’s view. You can listen to Gillespie’s extensive interview of Ruger here. What you’ll hear is a policy argument about the national-security interest of the U.S. and a condemnation of Putin’s invasion. And so to read Leonhardt falsely describe Ruger’s position (or Stand Together’s, for that matter) as being that “a Ukraine victory is not in America’s interest” is shocking.

Ruger’s position, by the way, is consistent with the many policy positions taken by other well-respected defense analysts on both sides of the aisle who support a realistic and restrained U.S. foreign policy, defined as securing America’s vital national interests through a strong national defense but with prudence and caution about how we use force abroad, as well as about the commitments we make given the constraints of the world (such as the balance of power and interests, nationalism, and geography) and the relatively strong geostrategic position we find ourselves in.

Ruger is clear that his foreign-policy position is centered on advancing American national interests. And he has put his own skin — literally — in the game. Unlike many pundits who from the comfort of their couches bellow support for strong positions, Ruger volunteered to fight in Afghanistan.

Here’s the bottom line: David Leonhardt seems to have done no actual investigating whatsoever before accusing Charles Koch and Will Ruger of being pro-Putin. This is particularly sad in a piece that actually quotes some people praising Putin. It’s obvious that he has delegated to others (in this case a Democrat political operative writing for a subscription-based newsletter — funny for a guy who throws Koch-funded accusations around) whatever “investigation” is done for this section of the report. That alone is disappointing enough. But what is more disappointing is to equate disagreement over just what the U.S. should do regarding the Ukrainian invasion or disagreement about why we shouldn’t put boots on the ground in Ukraine (no national-security stakes, vs. Putin has the nuclear bomb) with support for Putin himself. These types of attacks, especially in the pages of the NYT, hinder debates and make us all stupider at a time when we need more debates and more ideas.

P.S. Also sloppy and laughable is calling AIER a Koch-funded organization. Can we please stop assuming that scholars on the right or on the left hold their policy positions because of who funds them? AIER received a small grant from the Koch Foundation in 2018 and 2019. If that makes them a Koch-funded organization, then the NYT should start referring to the ACLU as a Koch-funded organization, too.

Update: I saw this piece in Reason setting the record straight about the source for the NYT piece.

World

Fifteen Things that Caught My Eye Today (More Terror in Israel, Ukraine’s Churches & Parenting Fun

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A cross and the destroyed dome of a local church damaged by shelling in Hostomel outside Kyiv, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

1.

2. U.S. nun, 83, kidnapped in Burkina Faso

3. Christopher Howse: Why the destruction of Ukraine’s churches matters

In the first month of the war, the Ukrainian ministry of culture listed 59 religious sites badly damaged, most of them Orthodox churches, but some evangelical churches, and synagogues too. At Mariupol, for example, the church of the Archangel Michael, overlooking the Sea of Azov, was reported to be ‘severely damaged’. And here we come to a difficulty.

Mariupol has been devastated, but it has been hard to get news or pictures out. One English charity worker with good contacts in Ukraine told me: ‘Having presented himself as the defender of Christians as part of his public persona in Russia, it would not be good PR for Putin if pictures of a church destroyed by Russian missiles went global.’

4. The unexpected way some people are helping Ukrainian refugees 

Continue reading “Fifteen Things that Caught My Eye Today (More Terror in Israel, Ukraine’s Churches & Parenting Fun”

World

Being Tough on Russia Means Being Tough on Iran

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, in 2015. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/File Photo via Reuters)

The list of reasons to ditch Biden’s Iran deal grows daily. Today is no exception.

Iran and Russia are working together to evade U.S. sanctions and create a mutually beneficial black market. This would undoubtedly help Putin withstand economic pressure as he continues to wage brutal war in Ukraine.

Yesterday, the Free Beacon reported that Iran and Russia conducted a trade conference in Moscow, hosting 70 Iranian businesses and 300 Russian businesses. An Iranian diplomat said the countries will “witness a leap in their bilateral relations.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. is still trying to wrap up a weak Iran deal, allowing Russia to play a major role in negotiations as Biden talks tough on Ukraine. As Andy McCarthy pointed out in March:

Even as President Biden has condemned Russia’s aggression, his administration has made Putin’s regime its most significant intermediary in the talks with Tehran, a client of Moscow. Not only has Putin’s envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, been delegated a leading role — because Iran still will not deign to meet with Biden’s Iran-friendly envoy, Robert Malley; the new deal hinges on Russia’s agreement to house the uranium that Iran has been enriching to levels ever closer to weapons grade.

Since then, Russia has gotten a written guarantee from Biden negotiators that the State Department would not sanction any Russian “participation in nuclear projects” with Iran as set out in the deal.

The timing of this Moscow trade conference is no coincidence. As the Biden administration tries to finalize the Iran deal, a deeply sanctioned Russia would benefit from black-market trade with Tehran when and if its own economic sanctions are lifted. The Beacon noted:

Increased trade relations between the rogue nations come as the Biden administration moves to unwind sanctions on Iran as part of a new nuclear deal, which will enable Moscow to use Tehran as a vehicle for its own bid to skirt international pressure.

In an excellent op-ed from the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Mark Dubowitz and Matthew Zweib referenced a previous report on Iran’s multibillion-dollar illicit financial system used to withstand sanctions. They believe Iran could teach Russia how to do the same:

Tehran could teach Moscow how to replicate this illicit financial architecture, or the clerical regime could serve as the Kremlin’s broker, taking a cut of the covert trade it facilitates on Russia’s behalf. The combination of Russian and Iranian expertise in illicit financial activities could produce the world’s most sophisticated and expansive sanctions-evasion network. If Western sanctions lose their bite, the pressure on Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine and other threats would diminish.

By publicly flaunting a growing economic relationship during ongoing nuclear conversations, both Iran and Russia are sending a clear message to Biden: We’re not afraid of you, AND we can still get what we want.

Biden can’t call Putin a “war criminal,” then turn around and give Iran billions that will not only sponsor terrorism, but help Russia endure sanctions.

Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tweeted earlier today: “If you oppose Putin, you need to oppose the Iran Deal.”

Law & the Courts

Dick Durbin Is a Bad Joke on Supreme Court Nominees

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Sen. Dick Durbin, (D., Ill.) gives opening remarks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., October 27, 2021. (Tasos Katopodis/Reuters)

On the Senate floor this afternoon, Dick Durbin said this:

Dick Durbin doesn’t get to make this argument. Dick Durbin voted against Amy Coney Barrett, against Brett Kavanaugh, and against Neil Gorsuch. He voted against Samuel Alito. He even voted against John Roberts — becoming one of only 22 senators who did. “The partisan fray”? Dick Durbin is “the partisan fray.”

There are a few senators among the current crop — Susan Collins and Joe Manchin, for example — who are willing to vote for both Republican-nominated and Democrat-nominated Supreme Court nominees. Those people, if they so wish, can talk as Dick Durbin did today. Dick Durbin cannot.

There is nothing wrong with senators having strong views on judicial nominees. The two parties in this country disagree profoundly as to what we should expect from the Supreme Court, and their attitude toward those who staff it tends to follow suit. But one has to choose a course: either one must stick to one’s jurisprudential guns and vote accordingly, or one must adopt a more formal conception of “qualification” and consider only that in one’s deliberations. One cannot do both.

Since Dick Durbin arrived in the Senate in 1997, he has never voted for a Republican-appointed Supreme Court nominee, and he has never voted against a Democrat-appointed Supreme Court nominee. He does not get to make saccharine speeches about the importance of “political courage.” He does not get to criticize others for behaving as he does himself. He does not get to praise others for behavior he is wholly unprepared to engage in.

And if he tries? He should be laughed derisively out of the room.

Politics & Policy

Indiana Republicans Should Be Clear on Where They Stand on Women’s Sports

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Swimmer Lia Thomas holds a trophy after finishing fifth in the 200 free at the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships as Kentucky Wildcats swimmer Riley Gaines looks on at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga., March 18, 2022. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

In the 2022 midterms, Indiana’s first congressional district looks like a prime target for a Republican flip. It is one of the most continuously blue congressional districts in the country — it hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress in 90 years — but it’s been trending red over the course of the past few election cycles. Its current representative, Frank Mrvan, carried 56 percent of the vote in 2020, as compared with his predecessor’s 65 percent in 2018. In November, the National Republican Congressional Committee added Mrvan to the list of vulnerable Democratic congressmen it aims to unseat in 2022. 

So the Republican primary for the district — set to take place on May 3 — matters. And the district’s GOP primary voters should be skeptical of prominent Republican candidates who don’t seem to have figured out where they stand on important hot-button issues yet. Blaire Milo, the former mayor of a town in the district called LaPorte, is one of those Republicans. Milo, who filed for the primary in January, is one of the most viable candidates in the GOP primary — she’s the only Republican to have won an election to a major office in Northwest Indiana, and went on to serve as Secretary for Career Connections and Talent in Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s office. But on Sunday, when asked about Holcomb’s recent veto of a ban on biological males in girls’ sports — a move that drew widespread rebuke from Republicans across the state — Milo couldn’t get her answer straight.

In an interview with a local Indiana television station, Milo was asked if she supported “the Indiana bill that calls for banning transgender girls in women’s sports.” She answered that she “believe[s] in a fair playing field,” and that “it’s crucial that we identify the mechanisms and the policies that ensure that fair playing field for all genders.” When pushed — “so do you disagree with the governor vetoing that bill?” — Milo dodged again:

I believe that we need to continue evaluating what the fair playing field is going to look like, so whether that decision needs to lie within a state policy or working with the governing organizations for high school sports, then we need to make sure that those policies are in place, so that again, that every student and all genders are getting a fair shot in competition.

This complete lack of an answer says a lot in and of itself. If Milo actually supported the bill, this would have been an easy slam-dunk: “Yes, I support the ban.” Other candidates in the race are capable of such clarity. Contrast Milo’s answer with how Jennifer Ruth-Green — another Republican candidate vying for the nomination in the district — has responded:

See? It’s not that hard. It’s time for Republicans to learn that this is a winning issue. In fact, we have recent polling from the state of Indiana to prove it. As I wrote when the poll was published yesterday:

A new poll of Indiana voters from the American Principles Project (APP), a social-conservative advocacy group that has been at the forefront of many state-level legislative battles surrounding transgenderism and gender ideology, seems to confirm Banks’s assertion. The poll, which was conducted from March 28 to April 3 and focused primarily on transgender issues, found 42.1 percent “strongly disapproved” of Holcomb’s veto of the ban on biological males in girls’ sports, and 11 percent “somewhat disapproved.” By contrast, 11.3 percent “somewhat approved,” and 28.1 percent “strongly approved.” The survey sampled 1,022 likely voters in Indiana.

On the broader issue of transgender athletes in women’s sports, 54.4 percent of polled Indiana voters “strongly supported legislation that banned biologically male students that identify as transgender girls from competing in girls’ sports programs at Indiana K-12 public schools,” while 10.1 “somewhat supported,” 7.7 percent “somewhat opposed” and 19.5 “strongly opposed.” At the college level, 56.4 percent “strongly supported” a ban, while 10.3 percent “somewhat supported,” 8.4 percent “somewhat opposed,” and 17.2 percent “strongly opposed.”

It’s not just because Indiana’s a red state, either. As APP’s Terry Schilling notes: “Overall, Indiana voters support legislation protecting girls’ K-12 sports by a 37.8-point margin (64.5%-26.7%), including large majorities of Republican and independent voters. Even Democrats are split almost evenly on the issue, with 40.3% supporting a ban, and 44.4% opposing.” And independents disapproved of Holcomb’s veto by a full 16.1 points.

Time for Republicans to find some conviction. On both a political and moral level, the stakes are too high to mess this one up.

Politics & Policy

Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Just Made a Big Political Mistake

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Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear speaks to the crowd gathered during his public swearing-in ceremony in Frankfort, Ky., December 10, 2019. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Yesterday, Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear vetoed a bill “that would ban transgender athletes from participating on girls’ school sports teams from sixth grade through college,” Zachary Evans reports. “The bill stipulates that a student’s ‘biological sex’ on their birth certificate determines whether the student may participate in women’s or men’s sports. The Kentucky Senate passed the bill 26-9 on March 24, while the state House approved the bill 70-23 in a vote earlier that month.”

Kentucky is a red state — one of the reddest in the nation, in fact. Its Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) currently sits at R+15. In November 2019, Governor Beshear unseated his scandal-plagued incumbent Republican predecessor, Matt Bevin — then the most unpopular governor in the country — by 0.37 percentage points. Notably, Bevin had also been weakened by a bruiser of a primary battle, where he squeaked by with just 52 percent of the vote.

Beshear is up for reelection in 2023. And he just handed his prospective opponents a major political win. There isn’t state-level polling on the issue in Kentucky, but recent history in other red states suggests that Republican voters are overwhelmingly in favor of limiting athletic participation based on biological sex. Other red-state governors who have found themselves on the wrong side of this issue have been the subject of harsh political backlash. Utah’s Spencer Cox was overridden by the state legislature in a matter of days when he vetoed a ban on biological males in girls’ sports, and Indiana Republicans have vowed to do the same to their governor’s recent veto of analogous legislation. Additionally, a recent poll of Indiana — which holds a Cook PVI of R+9 — shows that state voters support a ban at the K–12 level by 38 points, and at the collegiate level by a margin of 41.

Kentucky Republicans should be paying close attention. If they hope to take back the governorship in 19 months, this would be as good a place as any to start.

International

Energy Policy: Germany and the U.K. — Two Bad Examples

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Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands in front of her election campaign tour bus before a CDU board meeting in Berlin, Germany, September 16, 2013. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

For quite some time, different countries have been choosing different ways to fail in their energy policy. Thus, under Merkel, “the indispensable European,” Germany opted for the Energiewende, a policy that gave it soaring energy prices, a dangerous dependency on Russia, and didn’t do much, if anything, for the climate.

In Britain, the Tories embarked on a headlong pursuit of reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions without giving much thought about how this goal could be implemented without wrecking the economy. (To be fair, in doing so they were cheered on by most of the British political establishment.) And no, this effort was never going to do much for the climate, either. To combine recklessness, incompetence, and pointlessness in this fashion took quite some doing, but the Conservatives did it.

Germany is now having something of a rethink, although the country still (other than accepting an economic crisis) has no clear way of getting out from under Putin’s thumb for now.

The Brits too have been looking again at where they stand and as, the Spectator’s Ross Clark reports, the U.K.’s new Energy Security Strategy “puts energy security at the heart of the debate over energy and environmental policy, where it always should have been.”

Indeed it should. As it should be here in the U.S.

Clark looks at this new “strategy” and is, shall we say, not entirely convinced, but one point he raises has clear American implications:

Renewed emphasis on the North Sea will be welcome. However, the Energy Security Strategy simultaneously has given a big disincentive for oil and gas companies. Far from relaxing the commitment to reach net zero, today’s document produces a new target: 95 per cent of electricity to come from low-carbon sources by 2030. Previously the target was to make all electricity low-carbon by 2035. Who will want to develop a new gas field if the product will be driven out of use in just eight years’ time?

That’s not a hard question to answer. But the fact that Clark has to ask it is a reminder of how far under May and Johnson the Conservatives have become a party of the center-left, with little obvious understanding of how markets work.

And the U.S. question is related.

If the administration, regulators, Democratic politicians, and investment managers in thrall to ESG (a form of “socially responsible” investing), continue to demonstrate, despite some softer words (sometimes) from the White House, hostility toward the oil and gas sector, how likely is it that the industry will feel confident enough about what lies ahead to make the investments in new production that will be needed to restore American energy independence, deliver affordable energy, and build a bridge to a less carbon-reliant future?

That’s not a hard question to answer either.

Politics & Policy

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra: ‘I Will Do Everything I Can to Defend’ Sex Changes for Children

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Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra answers questions during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss reopening schools during the coronavirus on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 30, 2021. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

While testifying before the House Budget Committee yesterday, Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary Xavier Becerra affirmed that yes, his department was in favor of taxpayer-funded sex-reassignment surgeries for minors. “So for the record, you favor HHS funding . . . for sex-reassignment surgeries for minors?” Lauren Boebert, (R, Colo.) asked. Becerra answered:

I will do everything I can to defend any American, including children, whether or not they fit the categories you have mentioned or not. And if they talk about gender-affirming care, I am there to protect the rights of any American.

In other words: yes.

That’s good to know. Americans should keep it in mind next time they show up to the ballot box.

 

Politics & Policy

Abbott’s Rightfully Fed Up, But His Gimmick Goes Too Far

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks during a rally in Conroe, Texas, January 29, 2022. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

Last night, Texas governor Greg Abbott tweeted that he plans to bus illegal immigrants to Washington, D.C., because of Biden’s failed border policy:

In a press conference on Wednesday, Abbott laid out the plan in more detail. The Texas Tribune covered it:

Texas would place state troopers in riot gear to meet migrants at the border and bus them straight to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where he said the Biden administration “will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border.”

According to the Tribune, Abbott soon after took a “softer tone” when his office clarified that the program is voluntary:

The governor’s office clarified that the program is completely voluntary for migrants and would happen only after they had been processed and released by the Department of Homeland Security. And in addition to buses, Abbott also ordered the state to charter flights to transport migrants to the nation’s capital. The migrants would have to show documentation that they had already been processed by DHS. Many immigration advocates have noted that providing transportation services for asylum-seekers to reach their final destination is something the state should invest in.

Texas senator Ted Cruz voiced his support for the plan and also suggested sending migrants to wealthy parts of the country, per legislation he proposed in 2021:

The stunt has predictably drawn outrage from progressives and immigration activists. But even some Republicans have questioned Abbott.

State representative Matt Schaefer (R., Texas) tweeted:

Schaefer’s right; the plan sounds gimmicky. And more than that, it’s dehumanizing to some migrants, thousands of whom are fleeing situations of poverty and persecution. They should not be regarded as mere political pawns (no matter where you stand on immigration).

But, despite his unsavory tactics, Abbott’s frustration is reasonable.

The lifting of Title 42 on May 23 will trigger a surge of over 170,000 migrants at the border.

Title 42 — a Trump-era CDC policy that turned away asylum seekers to prevent the spread of Covid — will cut off the Biden administration’s only comprehensive form of border control (though as Charlie pointed out, that’s shouldn’t be enough to keep the emergency provision in place). 

This U.S. will certainly experience a mass migration event on top of the existing border crisis. I wrote last week

The southern border is being inundated by migrants, with about 7,100 encounters on a daily basis and over 160,000 encounters in February alone. (In February 2021 there were 101,099 encounters and in February 2020 there were 36,687.) The situation is so dire that DHS deputy secretary John Tien asked employees to consider joining the DHS Volunteer Force. Despite turning over a million migrants away under Title 42, the Biden administration has been releasing thousands of families into the interior, further encouraging the current surge on the southern border.

While Biden has carried out over 1.7 million expulsions under Title 42, the administration has still processed thousands of migrants — mostly unaccompanied minors and family units — under Title 8, the normal process for asylum seekers:

According to the CDC’s reassessment report on Title 42 in August, a “significant percentage” of family units (73.8 percent in 2021) were “unable to be expelled” for a “given range of factors, including . . . restrictions imposed by foreign governments.” The Mexican government accepts only returned Mexican and Northern Triangle nationals. On top of that, Mexican officials “refuse to accept the return of any non-Mexican family with children under the age of seven.” This, in turn, “greatly [reduces] DHS’ ability to expel” family units.

As these migrants await asylum proceedings under Title 8, they are supposed to be detained by DHS.

With detention centers full and migration rates surging, it’s been impossible to “detain” everyone. Instead, they’re being released into the interior to await proceedings, encouraging even more immigration at the southern border.

This is putting a massive strain on border communities, like those in Texas. In December alone, 55,000 migrants were released into the United States, many heading to Texas cities and towns.

So Cruz and Abbott’s frustrations are rooted in reality. But their messaging isn’t just dehumanizing, it may also carry political consequences for their party.

Abbott, of course, is up for reelection and wants to talk tough on immigration as his state experiences migrant surges. But this may have repercussions for his party on the national level by alienating Democrats who are questioning Biden’s border policy and further riling up activist groups.

After the Biden administration announced an end to Title 42, Democrats — especially those in tight reelection races — were either quiet or critical. On Tuesday, Politico wrote:

While progressives have largely called the rescission of Title 42 — which allowed border agents to quickly kick out thousands of migrants — long overdue, moderates have slammed the administration for proceeding without a plan to handle an expected surge of migrants. The four most vulnerable Senate Democrats — Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire — have all spoken out against the Biden administration’s move, echoing GOP concerns about a coming spike in the number of migrants arriving at the border.

Today, we reported that a bipartisan group, led by Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) and James Lankford (R., Okla.), are proposing legislation to block Title 42’s repeal. (Again, to Charlie’s point, keeping Title 42 as more permanent border control seems shaky — it’s an emergency response.)

So tread carefully, Abbott.

Democrats’ most consistent and resounding criticism of conservative immigration policy is its inhumanity (though, ironically, Biden is still using Trump’s Title 42). I’d imagine the Republican Party — on the cusp of a bipartisan condemnation of Biden’s immigration policy — would prefer not to give progressives more fodder.

Editor’s note: This post originally referred to Matt Schaefer as a congressman; he is a state representative. 

Politics & Policy

Conservatives Must Defend Women’s Sports

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Swimmer Lia Thomas holds a trophy after finishing first in the 500 free at the NCAA Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga., March 17, 2022. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

In recent weeks, two Republican governors have taken the unusual step of vetoing legislation meant to protect female-only athletics. In both Utah and Indiana, lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting biologically male athletes from competing on girls’ sports teams, an eminently reasonable policy that several other states have enacted.

But Republican governors Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Spencer Cox of Utah appear to think otherwise. As our own Nate Hochman chronicled in a piece yesterday, this was hardly the first sign that Cox is . . . less than conservative when it comes to social issues. And Nate has also noted that Holcomb’s veto came in spite of the fact that protecting female sports is popular in Indiana (to no one’s surprise).

What exactly is afoot? I don’t have much insight into why these two issued their vetoes — it seems fair to infer that Cox might actually want to let biological males compete against girls, while Holcomb seems to be playing a political game that necessitates rejecting his state’s consensus. But their vetoes are an occasion to note that we are at a major inflection point in the debate over gender identity, over the fundamental realities of what it means to be a man or a woman, and now is not the time to let up.

Mere weeks ago, the nation watched the biologically male UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas dominate the NCAA championship competition, racing against young women who have worked their whole lives to get where they are and who stood little chance against Thomas’s inherent biological advantages. We all know that this is a charade and that it’s deeply unfair, but elite progressives are committed to continuing the lie, no matter the cost to women and girls. If “conservative” politicians plan to go along with the charade, they should be prepared to kiss their political careers goodbye.

World

Evidence of Beheadings, Torture as Hundreds of Bodies Continue to Be Found in Bucha

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Funeral service employees and police investigators work with bodies of civilians collected from streets to a local cemetery in Bucha outside Kyiv, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. (Oleg Pereverzev/Reuters)

A week after Russian troops retreated, investigators and residents are still discovering hundreds of decomposing corpses, some of which had been dismembered, across the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the Washington Post reported.

Last week, the small city gained international notoriety as the site of the Russian military’s most grisly atrocities in the invasion of Ukraine currently known. Ukrainian troops recaptured the city as Russian troops retreated from the region surrounding Kyiv, following a month-long occupation.

Early reports focused on mass graves, the apparent summary executions of civilians by Russian forces, and other grisly acts. Initial estimates last week placed the death toll at 280 people, with new indications that that number will rise drastically.

According to the Washington Post, the authorities are still, a week after Ukrainian troops pushed Russian troops from the area, “clearing Bucha of the hundreds of corpses decomposing on streets and in parks, apartment buildings and other locations.”

Washington Post reporters accompanied Ukrainian prosecutors across Bucha on Wednesday to a glass plant and other locations where Russian forces tortured, dismembered, and shot Ukrainians. The article notes that at least one corpse seen by the Post’s reporters had been “cleanly” decapitated, while “it appeared that someone has tried but failed to behead” another corpse found nearby.

One resident described to the Post the summary execution of a neighbor who had been detained by Russian soldiers while leaving the basement of a kindergarten serving as a shelter to walk his dog.

Photos accompanying the article depict the beheaded corpse and dozens of body bags gathered at Bucha’s overfilled city cemetery ahead of their burial there or transport to morgues in Kyiv, which have more capacity.

World

Ukraine and the Meaning of This War

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Damaged Ukrainian national flags wave over graves of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the country’s eastern regions at a cemetery in Chernihiv, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. (Serhii Nuzhnenko)

I very much wanted to talk with Eliot Cohen, and have — in this Q&A. Cohen is a scholar of international relations. His affiliations are several: the School of Advanced International Studies, at Johns Hopkins; the Center for Strategic and International Studies; The Atlantic magazine. Years ago, Bill Buckley asked Cohen to write regularly for National Review, and he did. For many years, he was on our masthead. In our podcast, Cohen refers to WFB as “that wonderful man.”

Among Cohen’s books are Supreme Command (2002) and The Big Stick (2017). He studied at Harvard with, among others, Richard Pipes and Samuel Huntington. Both of those names come up in our podcast.

Here on the Corner, I will provide a taste of what Professor Cohen has to say — paraphrasing him (though closely) in italics.

Why now? Why did Putin launch his all-out assault on Ukraine in February 2022, rather than earlier or later?

This is not necessarily knowable. There may always be an element of mystery. But we can make some guesses.

There have always been rumors about Putin’s health. He may have wanted to do one last big thing, before shuffling off this mortal coil. One last thing in the fulfillment of what he regards as his historical mission.

But other things? He did not respect Zelensky. He may have misjudged Olaf Scholz. He expected the Europeans to roll over. 

He could have interpreted the American withdrawal from Afghanistan as weakness. The Chinese interpreted it as a shift to the Indo-Pacific. Putin, however, might have thought simply: weakness.

Also, he may have thought that his military was ready. He had poured a lot of money into it.

But I return to the personal element. One reason Hitler launched World War II in 1939 is that he had premonitions of mortality. Hitler would have been better off launching the war several years later. But he had this conviction that he was going to die young, so, if he was going to do big things, he needed to get on with it.

This assault on Ukraine: Is it a Putin thing or a Russian thing? John Bolton wrote a highly interesting piece in which he said, “This is not Putin’s war, it’s Russia’s war.” Russia is trying to devour Ukraine now. It may try to do so again in 50 years. Or a hundred years. Etc.

Yes, I think of Richard Pipes — who had a dark view of Russia as a patrimonial state that has perpetually committed violent, aggressive acts. We may have a Russia problem, as well as a narrower Putin problem. But that does not mean that, for all eternity, a predatory Russia will be ready to lunge into eastern or central Europe for the purpose of reestablishing the old empire.

Speaking of your teachers: Are we in a Huntingtonian moment? Are we seeing a clash of civilizations? Or is that too grand?

It may be a little too grand. Sure, there is something to it. The problem is, the world is complex, and there are many explanations for what occurs. Is there a general split between the Orthodox world and the Catholic world? Maybe — but think of the great division now between the Ukrainian Orthodox and the Russian.

What is the role of NATO in Putin’s thinking?

Of all the explanations for Putin’s war, the most stupid is that he has reacted to NATO expansion. As he says over and over, he does not believe that Ukraine is a nation. He believes that it belongs to Russia. Also, he is deathly afraid of a color revolution, such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Obviously, he doesn’t like NATO expansion, but that is not the point here. And the irony is: He’s likely to get NATO expansion as a result of his war.

Talk to people in the Baltic states. There is no question in their minds that being in NATO has protected them from the kind of behavior we are seeing in Ukraine. Putin’s attitude toward the Balts is not all that different from his attitude toward the Ukrainians. And Russian hostility to Poland is as great as it has ever been.

I am haunted, or semi-haunted, by something that Peter Pomerantsev said. The response we have seen from the West in the last couple of months has been impressive. It would have been great in 2014. But now . . .

Well, that’s the nature of liberal democracies, right? That’s the story of the late 1930s. It would have been a lot easier to stop Hitler at the Rhineland. 

Look, the West doesn’t know a whole heckuva lot about Ukraine. The Ukraine experts — they tend to be Russia experts, really. In 2014, people may have thought, “The Donbas is Russian-speaking, and they’re going to be pro-Russian, so Putin’s invasion isn’t great, but at least he’s not trying to overthrow the Ukrainian government or anything.” 

The response of eastern Ukraine to the invasion has stunned many people. The nature of Ukrainian patriotism has changed in recent years. Ukraine has developed as a nation. People in Kharkiv and other Russian-speaking cities have put up as ferocious a resistance to the invasion as anybody.

Is there anything more the United States should be doing?

Yes. Take secondary sanctions. You say to big companies, “You have a choice: You can do business in Russia or you can do business in the United States. But not both. Which do you prefer?”

A word about weaponry:

There’s no such thing as a defensive weapon! Or rather, weapons can be used for defensive and offensive purposes. Say someone bursts into your house with the intention of strangling your children. You shoot him with your pistol. Which is a defensive weapon in your hands. But if you burst into someone else’s house, with the same intention — now your pistol is offensive.

This is elementary.

People say, “Beware escalation.” But Putin is probably the biggest escalator on the planet.

True. And Putin is not a master strategist. He is a KGB thug. He knows how to play mind games. And he likes to say, in so many words, “Ooh, you better not upset me. Who knows what I’ll do?” The truth is, Russia is in a very weak position.

As in the Cold War, we are seeing apologists for the Kremlin. Fellow travelers. Useful idiots. “Blame America first.” “Moral equivalence.” Everything old is new again. And yet the Kremlin-friendly folk may be coming from a different direction . . .

You and I are good conservatives – which means we’re virtually homeless – so we tend to look at the dark side. That’s what we do. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, but there are bright spots. Look at Congress, where there has not been much difference between Republicans and Democrats, on the issue of Ukraine. If anything, Republicans have been critical of Biden for not doing more.

The extremes on left and right have gotten worse: in their worldviews, their dishonesty, and in some cases their cruelty. But most Americans, I think, are in the sensible middle.

A final question: What is the importance of Ukraine to the United States?

The stability of Europe is involved. We must contain a pretty malign Russia. But there is a larger importance, too.

We’re seeing in about as stark a way as we’ve seen since World War II what it means for a free people to fight for their very existence and for freedom, and that should inspire us profoundly.

If they fail or go under because we’re not willing to support them — I mean, help them defend themselves — it is a terrible blow to who we are and what we think we’re about in the world. 

Conversely, if they’re successful — as I hope they will be, and tend to think they will be — it is a tremendous victory for the very principles on which this country was founded.

Our podcast, again, is here. Professor Cohen is informative, judicious — all that. You can learn a lot from him. Also, he is moving, or so I found.

Economy & Business

Today in Capital Matters: Bahnsen on Inflation and the Fed

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David Bahnsen offers his views on inflation and the Federal Reserve’s role in stopping it:

My agenda in pursuing a more long-term and informed understanding of inflation, government spending, and monetary policy is not to defend governmental actions but rather to more exhaustively and rigorously critique themThat is the fundamental point I would ask readers to understand: My views on monetary policy and excessive governmental spending are more critical than even those of the consensus inflation camp.

The following five contentions are intended to clarify my own perspective but also to offer nuance for those who desire a more holistic understanding of these economic issues. Inflation is a potent topic in both political and economic circles, and if all I cared about was the upcoming election cycles, I would pile on the current narrative for the obvious political benefits they provide a conservative Republican such as myself. But as a steward of capital managing close to $4 billion of client assets, and as an economist focused on the visible and invisible effects in both short- and long-term contexts (per Bastiat), I am writing with a different agenda on the subject.

Read the whole thing here.

International

ESG or China: Pick One

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(metamorworks/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, I noted this story of yet another pension fund playing politics with other people’s money:

Reuters:

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board [CPPIB], the country’s biggest pension fund, said on Thursday that directors of its portfolio companies presiding [over] material environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) failures should be asked to resign immediately. . . .

I also noted that CPPIB appeared to have some investments in China, and concluded as follows:

ESG. China. Pick one.

CPPIB’s investments in China were discussed in a recent article in the Ottawa Citizen by Phil Kretzmar and  Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, in which the authors state that CPPIB’s investments in China are C$57.5 billion, or 11.5 per cent of its portfolio.

That’s not a small amount of money, nor is it a small percentage.

Kretzmar and McCuaig-Johnston would like to see Canada’s public-pension plans divest from China, both because of the ways the regime in Beijing has, in one way or another, given support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, of course, because of the continuing genocide of the Uyghur people.

Those are clearly political and/or moral reasons for divestment, but the authors also make a strong economic case for why Chinese companies are a far riskier investment proposition than they were in the past:

While China provided good returns for many years, the risks under autocratic leader Xi Jinping are mounting. Chinese companies and markets do not operate under “rule of law” and are increasingly subject to regulatory interference. In the past year, many of the Chinese companies in which CPPIB has invested have lost considerable value due to sudden policy shifts. These include TenCent and Alibaba, which by size are the pension plan’s first and eighth-largest investments respectively. Inconsistent and arbitrary practices contribute to investment risk and in China these have been increasing, with continued uncertainty expected.

Reasonably enough, Kretzmar and McCuaig-Johnston also cite geopolitical risk, and, linked to that, the danger of “being held hostage by these investments in years to come.”

Before too long, there will need to be a great deal more discussion (and not, obviously, just in Canada) about the extent of the West’s economic relationship with China, a discussion that ought to cover far more than investment in Chinese securities.

In the end, however, when it comes to investments in such securities, portfolio managers will have to decide for themselves what to do, but they should not be allowed to escape criticism for putting them in funds where ESG is supposedly an important investment consideration (ESG is a “socially responsible” investment discipline which measures actual or potential portfolio companies against a set of environmental, social, and governance benchmarks).

To repeat my earlier comment, “ESG. China. Pick one.”

World

On Eurotrash

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(Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

In response to A Little Context on Europe

Kevin hasn’t delved into Eurotrash (subtle titles, by the way, are for suckers) to the extent Kyle has, but in it I note upfront that Western European nations are wealthier and freer than most, and some of their policies are still worth appropriating. Very broadly, I argue:

(1) Europe is on the wrong moral and economic trajectory, abandoning many of its best ideas and principles, so we should not follow its lead. (2) Europhiles often mislead the public about alleged European successes as a means of persuading voters to adopt policies that neither scale economically nor comport with our priorities. (3) We do not think or act as Europeans. Nor should we try.

Nowhere do I contend, however, that our health-care system isn’t in need of improvements or that any one European system tells us the entire story. Rather, I maintain that comparisons used by Europhiles to rationalize abolishing the private health-care insurance system — life expectancy, infant mortality, and costs — are highly misleading. “Americans are fat and homicidal” is nothing to brag about, for sure. But that’s an argument against guns, highways, fast-food restaurants, and personal choices, not for European-style health care.

Kevin also says our tax bills aren’t radically different from those in Europe, pointing out that the U.S.’s tax-to-GDP ratio is just over 27 percent, while it is fairly close in places such as Switzerland (28.5), Spain (33), and Germany (37.)

First, I suspect the average American would find a 10 percent tax hike “radically different.” Second, the average tax-to-GDP ratio in the European Union is 41 percent, and higher in nations that progressives want us to emulate, like France (47), Denmark (47), Belgium (46), Sweden (44), and Finland (42). Paul Krugman and Bernie Sanders aren’t interested in Hungary’s 9 percent corporate tax rate; they want Denmark’s system, where the average person, poor or rich, pays at least 54 percent in individual taxes alone.

As for our irresponsible spending, you’ll have no argument from me. I’m not sure, though, why Spain (government spending at 41 percent of GDP), Netherlands (42), and Germany (44) merit special attention over France (62), Belgium (60), Norway (58), Austria (58), Finland (56), Denmark (54), Sweden (52). As for public debt, I also think it’s a huge problem, but Singapore and Japan hold higher levels of debt than we do, while Botswana and Guatemala hold far less. So I’m unsure why it’s a more important metric than others.

And, no, I don’t believe Europe’s lack of technological innovation makes it a less desirable society than China. Though I do think the lack of dynamism and entrepreneurship in Europe reflects poorly on a culture that prioritizes security and “equality” over risk-taking and meritocracy. As I detail in the book, technocrats in the U.S. are very interested in importing those values.