‐ One thousand pages of stimulus legislation, a few hours to read it: It’s change you’ll just have to take his word for.
‐ The Democrats have made a number of personnel blunders, Republicans have mostly held together against the stimulus, and the public shows little confidence that the stimulus will save the economy. Republicans are taking comfort from these developments. Too much comfort, actually. Obama’s cabinet difficulties have not reduced his popularity. The public, far from associating Republicans with superior alternatives to the stimulus, rates the party’s handling of the issue unfavorably — especially compared with that of the president. The Republicans’ unity is a real accomplishment, but they should save the high fives for later.
‐ We at National Review believed that the Senate should seat Roland Burris, Barack Obama’s successor, despite the corruption of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the man who appointed him, on the grounds that Burris himself was untainted by sleaze. Did we speak too soon? On January 8, Burris told an impeachment panel of the Illinois legislature that he had had no contact with Blago’s brother Robert. But on February 5 (three weeks after being sworn in to the Senate), he gave a supplementary affidavit to the impeachment panel admitting that, yes, he had spoken with Brother Blagojevich three times in October and November. Burris then claimed he had refused to do any money-raising for Blagojevich, and insisted he simply hadn’t gotten a chance to tell the impeachment panel the whole story. But it later emerged that he had indeed tried — unsuccessfully — to raise money for Rod, at Robert’s request. Illinois politicians are saying that Burris perjured himself (he spoke to the impeachment panel under oath). He hangs by a thread. If anything else emerges — other Blago talk, a dime of money changing hands — he’s a goner.
‐ Everything about Sen. Judd Gregg’s recent turn in the spotlight was odd. It was odd that the conservative New Hampshire Republican — a tax cutter, spending cutter, and stimulus skeptic — would accept President Obama’s offer to serve in the cabinet as commerce secretary. Odd, too, that he would then reverse course and explain that he had only just realized that his philosophy would make it impossible for him to join the president’s team. The senator is highly regarded by his colleagues, who seem to share our puzzlement at this flaky behavior.
‐ Politicians like to say the only poll that matters is the one taken on Election Day. If what are thought to be Obama’s desires are met, the Census Bureau will “sample” Americans rather than count them in 2010. This is nothing but a glorified public-opinion survey, though it could have profound political consequences. For the GOP, most of them are bad. The fundamental idea is that because some people are difficult to locate with precision — the homeless, illegal aliens, etc. — the government’s bean counters won’t bother to try. Instead, they will strive to identify some fraction of total population, perhaps 90 percent. Then they will log their findings into computer models, mix them with demographic projections, add two cups of sheer guesswork, and shake vigorously. Advocates of the practice will claim to have produced a “scientifically” accurate census, even though it will be full of phantoms whose existence can’t be proved. Many will be said to hail from urban areas. If the census treats them as flesh-and-blood people, they will tip the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives toward Democrat-heavy districts. Bill Clinton tried to pull this stunt in the 1990s, but congressional Republicans were able to stop him. Obama’s determination to succeed where his predecessor failed became obvious when, during the short-lived cabinet nomination of Gregg, he ordered the Census Bureau to report directly to the White House rather than to the secretary of commerce. The president and the Democrats don’t want an actual enumeration: They want a poll, followed by a statistical gerrymander.
‐ David Lloyd George once dismissed an irresolute rival thus: “Like a cushion, he always bore the impress of the last man who sat on him.” Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has not yet even warmed the cushion of her Senate seat but already is conforming to the shape of she who sat in it before. Until about two minutes ago, Gillibrand held reasonably conservative positions on immigration and gun control (NRA rating: A) but abandoned her principles upon arrival in the Senate. Having got on the wrong side of the Kennedy clan by securing the Senate spot that Caroline Kennedy took for her patrimony, Gillibrand may fear a primary challenge. So she’s gone from categorical opposition to an amnesty for illegals to “path to citizenship” talk. (First step on the traditional path to citizenship: Don’t break the immigration laws.) She’s gone from endorsing civil unions to supporting gay marriage. And her formerly full-bore support for the right to keep and bear arms has become meek endorsement of “hunters’ rights,” as though the Founders wrote the Second Amendment because they fretted about the deer population in Oscawana Corners. There’s a certain pleasing symmetry here, though: Hillary Clinton adopted New York for reasons of political expedience; now a New Yorker is adopting Clinton’s positions for the same reason.
‐ As predicted, General Motors and Chrysler need more money. GM says it needs $12 billion in addition to the $18 billion it has already asked for, and Chrysler wants another $2 billion on top of its $7 billion request. GM announced that it plans to eliminate 47,000 jobs this year, while Chrysler’s Hail Mary pass entails the addition of electric vehicles, those proven moneymakers, to its product line. GM still has not reached an agreement with its bondholders to reduce the debt it cannot pay, and neither company has struck a deal with the United Auto Workers that would allow Detroit to stay viable. It is clear that these parties will remain deadlocked as long as the government is willing to keep GM and Chrysler on life support. Bankruptcy for the sickly two is the only restructuring plan that makes sense.
‐ The U.S. government created this country’s ethanol industry. First it subsidized it. Then it protected it with tariffs. Finally, after these measures failed to spark a demand for ethanol, the government mandated its use as an additive in gasoline. The mandate did the trick. Once people were actually required to buy ethanol, distilleries started popping up all over the Midwest. Then the financial crisis hit. Gasoline consumption declined as the economy slowed, meaning less demand for ethanol. Plants started going out of business every week, putting thousands of people out of work. Now the industry is asking for a $1 billion bailout to get it through these difficult times. The joke is on the American public, whose representatives set aside $20 billion for renewable-energy subsidies in the stimulus bill. Think of the ethanol industry, and remember that subsidies are just the beginning.
‐ The Democrats have enacted a major expansion of the federal-state health-insurance program for children, S-CHIP. While we know that the expansion is expensive, we have no evidence that it improves children’s health. In part the absence of positive outcomes is a result of the facts that S-CHIP often replaces private health insurance and that it is sometimes inferior to what it replaces. The program’s other perversities include a structure that punishes beneficiaries for making economic strides and a system of subsidies that transfers money from poor states to rich ones. As a way to move the country toward national health care, on the other hand, the bill should work nicely.
No sane person enjoys a global recession, particularly one that flirts with being a depression. But in the spirit of the man who asked Mrs. Lincoln, “How was the theater, beyond the obvious unpleasantness?” I join with Eric Idle of Monty Python, who proclaimed from his perch on a cross, “Always look on the bright side of life”:
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing.
And . . . always look on the bright side of life . . .
I don’t think it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes (never mind on crosses). But it is almost certainly true that there are fewer atheists in foxholes than there are in faculty lounges. In other words, hardship concentrates the mind on important things. One pleasant side effect of watching Barack Obama “rescue” us from an unstable and inegalitarian 21st-century prosperity and deliver us to a sustainable and renewable 13th-century model is that Americans will focus on the important things, like family and faith, and the smaller pleasures of life, such as meals around the table and the joy of hunting and killing squirrels and other local, hitherto overlooked, comestibles.
Conservatives defend free markets with gusto, but no conservative has to defend everything the market produces. While this is obvious when it comes to, say, violent hardcore pornography or Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance, it is less obvious with the more mundane effluvia of commerce. For instance, it strikes me as no tragedy that Starbucks will have to abandon its goal of providing one franchise for every man, woman, and child in America. There will be no net increase in suburban blight if these overpriced java hubs are no longer cattywampus to each other at every American intersection and get replaced by businesses owned by local residents eager to satisfy local tastes, such as regional versions of succulent squirrel recipes.
For all the agita caused by plummeting home prices, it is worth remembering that while homeowners may be losing wealth, home buyers are gaining opportunities. Who can do anything but rejoice at the news that people who, just months ago, could never afford to be your neighbors can now purchase the most expensive home on the block for half of what you paid for yours?
Okay, that was less than sunny. It’s hard to whistle for joy when you discover that your money pit is worth less than the mounds of cash you’ve fork-lifted into it.
At least there’s the solace of schadenfreude. For instance, as a deadline prospector who spent years tin-panning rivers of ink for microscopic specks of specie, I was never above begrudging wet-nosed whippersnappers who, freshly hatched from their law-school pods, earned a pasha’s purse simply for parsing black-letter law. That these twentysomething twits must now Twitter to each other over the injustice of their still-extravagant wages does put a spring in my step.
Now, this all may seem like cold comfort as you careen through one sphincter-tightening roller-coaster portfolio plunge after another. But just remember: Cheer up, for the worst is yet to come.
‐ In a closely watched case in California’s Ninth Circuit federal appeals court, the Obama Justice Department reaffirmed the Bush administration’s assertion of the state-secrets privilege in order to block a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of five men who claim they were kidnapped by the CIA and dispatched to countries that tortured them. Such transfers, known as “extraordinary renditions,” were actually first used extensively by the Clinton administration. But the practice has been bound up with enemy-combatant detentions, military commissions, “enhanced” interrogation techniques, warrantless surveillance, and data mining in the Left’s litany against Bush measures that have protected the nation from terrorist attacks. The new administration understood that the lawsuit could not go forward without endangering other countries’ cooperation with our anti-terrorist efforts. It tried to soften the blow for its base by promising that Attorney General Eric Holder will review all pending state-secrets claims, but the natives are restless. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, which piloted the lawsuit, bristled that Obama had “disappointingly reneged” on his promise of state-secrets “reform,” and Michael Ratner of the radical Center for Constitutional Rights lamented that “the chances of bringing a criminal case” against the Bush administration seem to be “getting lower and lower.” For once, we hope Ratner is right.
‐ The future of military-commission prosecutions for terrorist war crimes remains in doubt. Despite his rash campaign rhetoric, President Obama has been cautious on the national-security front, maintaining most Bush policies and conceding that many detainees who threaten U.S. security cannot be tried in civilian courts. Military prosecutors were instructed to seek a four-month adjournment of the commissions (in which 21 Guantanamo detainees are slated to be tried) while the new administration’s team got up to speed. But the judge assigned to the case of USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri denied the request. When the president then scheduled a meeting with the families of both Cole and 9/11 victims, speculation ran rampant that he was about to end the commissions and transfer the cases to federal court. But the military’s convening authority (which oversees commissions) intervened, dismissing the charges against Nashiri without prejudice to their later reinstatement — in some forum. When Obama met with the families, he promised swift and certain justice, but was noncommittal about the system that would mete it out. Meanwhile, the administration is exploring various alternatives, including a new legal system for processing terrorist cases. We hope Obama sees that returning to September 10 ways will get September 11 results.
‐ After steering the nomination of Holder through his Judiciary Committee by giving short shrift to Holder’s prior stewardship of the blatantly politicized Clinton Justice Department, Sen. Patrick Leahy promptly called for a “truth and reconciliation commission” to investigate the politicization of Bush’s DOJ. Leahy wants to continue poring over Bush’s firing of nine U.S. attorneys (though not the patronage-minded Clinton’s firing of nearly all 92). But there is no crime, since U.S. attorneys serve at the president’s pleasure; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his staffers were already forced from their jobs in 2007; the firings and related matters have already been thoroughly investigated by Congress and DOJ’s inspector general; and the Justice Department (under Bush AG Michael Mukasey) assigned a federal prosecutor from outside Washington, who is still probing the matter. After stoking calls for a “reckoning” during the campaign, Obama and Holder have prudently voiced a preference to “look forward, rather than back.” One might have thought Leahy, who was forced from the intelligence committee in 1987 for leaking classified information, would see the merit in that. The use of state power to investigate political adversaries is banana-republic stuff. Obama should eschew it.
#page# ‐ Bill Clinton, it must be owned, has a way with words. He famously couldn’t determine what the meaning of the word is is, and now he defines the word fairness as a synonym for censorship. The former president is lending his voice to the choir of Democrats calling for a revival of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which they mean to use to silence conservative talk-radio critics, Rush Limbaugh being Enemy No. 1. Clinton has a disreputable history of trying to squelch dissent, most notably trying to connect his AM tormenters with the Oklahoma City bombing. The Fairness Doctrine works like this: If anybody offers an opinion with which a sufficiently influential person disagrees, any broadcast outlet relaying that opinion is obliged to offer equal time to the aggrieved party and his views. This has the effect of stifling the expression of all non-conforming opinion, because it makes it unprofitable to broadcast anything but the blandest pabulum. And pabulum can be packed with opinion, too — cf. the New York Times, NPR, your average undergraduate lecture, etc. — even when passed off as The Facts. Presidents and ex-presidents used to have more pressing concerns than tyrannizing radio entertainers, and Uncle Sam has no business deciding which opinions can be broadcast, which cannot be broadcast, or which must be broadcast. The movement to censor talk radio is shameful, and it is therefore no surprise to find Clinton associated with it.
‐ In 1985 Congress made it unlawful to use lead pigments in the inks, dyes, and paints in children’s books, though there was no evidence that any child had ever been harmed thereby. Last summer, following the panic over lead paint on toys from China, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Books came within the scope of the act, though the evidence of harm from books is no better now than it was in 1985. When CPSIA duly took effect on February 10, used-book dealers, thrift stores, and libraries nationwide began shipping the entire glorious heritage of early-20th-century children’s book illustration to garbage dumps, terrified of the fines (up to $250,000) and prison time (up to five years) specified by the act for selling or distributing pre-1985 volumes. That treasured copy of Little Women that belonged to your grandmother, with those lovely colored illustrations, is now contraband. Perhaps our zealous new administration will establish a federal corps of “firemen,” like the one in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, to hunt down these poisonous books and burn them — for the sake of the children, you know. Beware, beware, beware of a Congress passing ill-considered laws in panic.
‐ As we go to press, jurors in Arizona are considering a complaint against Roger Barnett, an Arizona rancher. Sixteen Mexicans seek $32 million in damages from Barnett, whose ranch was under siege from illegals who cut through his fences, slaughtered his livestock, destroyed expensive water pumps, stole his cars, and broke into his home. Barnett has, over the years, turned 12,000 (!) illegals in to the authorities. During the episode in question, he was armed, and prudently: One of the men he apprehended was a convicted drug smuggler, already once deported. The Mexicans say Barnett violated their civil rights and caused them distress. This is the sort of distress that should be encouraged.
‐ President Obama, hailed as a verbal master, uses “enormity” a lot. And he uses it incorrectly. He thinks it means something very, very big, instead of something very, very bad. (Some modern dictionaries nod to the incorrect usage, out of weariness, no doubt.) The stimulus package is enormous, all right. For the sake of America’s economy, and the world’s: Let’s hope it does not prove an enormity.
‐ Abdul Qadeer Khan is a real-life Dr. Strangelove whose career casts a menacing shadow over the future. Thanks to him, his native country of Pakistan has the nuclear bomb. To his countrymen, he is the hero who allows them to wipe India out even as India wipes them out. As if that were not destabilizing enough, Khan sold the bomb technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. When this proliferation became public knowledge, the Pakistani government of President Musharraf placed Khan under house arrest, hardly more than a token punishment. After five years of an increasingly unsupervised sentence, the high court in Islamabad has freed him to do as he pleases. No checks seem to have been placed on his traveling, or on the surreptitious sale of nuclear technology abroad. Talking to reporters, Khan in Muslim style thanked Allah for his release and praised the present government of Asif Zardari as well. As for the international reaction, he said, “I don’t damn care.” According to the Pakistani foreign ministry, “the so-called A. Q. Khan affair is a closed chapter.” Altogether they couldn’t make it plainer that they consider President Obama a pushover.
‐ Geert Wilders, Dutch politician, was invited to Britain to screen Fitna, his film blaming jihadist violence on the Koran. But the government refused him a visa, held him when he tried to land at Heathrow, and sent him home. The Home Office explained that the British government “opposes extremism in all its forms” and “will stop those who want to spread” it “from coming to our country.” But this is not true. Radical Islamic clerics immigrate, accept British welfare payments, and spew hatred to their ovine congregations. Wilders was kept out because radical British Muslims threatened to take to the streets, and Gordon Brown’s Labour government, facing a dicey election, did not want to rile them. Fitna pulls no punches; welcome to the 21st century (and to the 18th). Not that the opposition Tories made any defense of free speech. A cosseted minority and a political class void of intellectual principle and national self-respect are tugging Britain across a cultural divide. Britain stood with us nobly in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the next flare-up of the Terror War, will it be less anti-jihadist than Iraq?
‐ The trouble with the Israeli election is that Tzipi Livni of the center-left Kadima party and Bibi Netanyahu of center-right Likud won it more or less equally. Neither of them has anything like the numbers necessary for government, so the end result will be a coalition of some sort. Israel is basically a leftist country, and Livni might be able to appeal to the abiding wish to reach some kind of peace with the Palestinians. However, the electorate has been disenchanted that the campaigns against Hezbollah and Hamas ended without the clear-cut defeat of terror, and it has swung right. Other parties with smaller numbers represent various special interests, whether nationalist, religious, or social, and the experts are busy calculating who among them is prepared to go back on promises and principles for the sake of office. It is none too pretty. Whatever the assorted party leaders say in public should be taken with spoonfuls of salt. For some time to come, none of them will reveal their inner hopes or the price they are prepared to pay for them — except in private, and then only in face-to-face bargaining sessions. Some hot money is going on Kadima and Likud’s coming together in a coalition of national unity. And as in the theater, lo and behold, the curtain will soon rise to reveal the government that this cast of characters has finally managed to scrabble together.
‐ The world makes too little of the oppression of Palestinians — by other Palestinians. So Amnesty International is to be applauded for its recent report on Gaza. The nub of it is, “Hamas forces and militias in the Gaza Strip have engaged in a campaign of abductions, deliberate and unlawful killings, torture and death threats against those they accuse of ‘collaborating’ with Israel, as well as opponents and critics.” The details are characteristically disgusting, and Hamas has been doing this for years. (So has the PLO, but that is another story. No, actually the same one, pretty much.) At least a big human-rights group has taken notice. People who claim to care about Palestinians but speak only of Israel are pretending.
‐ The tactic of accusing Israel of war crimes whenever it takes steps to defend itself should by now have been worked too often to be effective any longer. But no: The recent campaign in Gaza produced a memorable specimen of the false accusation against Israel, courtesy of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The agency was set up 60 years ago to care for Palestinian refugees, but instead has served to perpetuate their plight. This time, UNRWA was claiming that Israeli shelling in northern Gaza had hit a school under its auspices, killing 43 civilians and wounding more among the 1,300 taking shelter there. UNRWA officials and then–U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon spouted rage and retribution. Investigating, the Toronto Globe and Mail was the first among other media outlets to discover that in fact the school had not been hit at all, that the casualties had occurred outside in nearby streets, and that a good few of them were Hamas terrorists. Backpedaling, the UNRWA officials announced that a clerical error had led to the false accusation. That’s really bizarre, but perfectly in keeping with an agency that has long outlived any useful purpose it might have had.
#page# ‐ The depravity of Islamofascism, the depravity of the jihad, knows no bounds. The latest illustration of this comes from Iraq, where lives a woman named Samira Jassim. She is known as “Um al-Mumenin,” or the “Mother of the Believers.” She organized the rape of more than 80 women: so as to force them into suicide bombing. First, they would be raped. Then they would be told that there was no escape from the “shame” of this except “martyrdom”: a self-detonation that murdered others. As President Bush continually said, if this is not evil, then there is no evil. And civilized people have no choice except to keep fighting it.
‐ Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez won a referendum, giving him the possibility of remaining in power forever. The voters abolished term limits. Chávez jubilantly declared that he would speed up “the construction of true socialism.” (Would that be the socialism of North Korea? Nazi Germany? Castro’s Cuba? Hoxha’s Albania?) And Chávez was at his revealing best before the referendum. First, he said that Lech Walesa would not be welcome in Venezuela. Why would he? He is a trade unionist who stands for the opposite of Chávezism — specifically, liberal democracy. Chávez also abolished Valentine’s Day. Or rather, he postponed it. V-Day fell on the Saturday before the Sunday referendum, and Chávez imposed a dry law starting on Friday afternoon: no partying before the vote. As he put it, “We’re going to be in battle. After achieving our great victory, the week of love begins.” Yes, “I’m giving you a week in exchange for a day. That’s not bad, is it?” This is comical stuff, of course. But a strongman who can postpone Valentine’s Day — can do a lot more.
‐ Charles de Gaulle regarded NATO with deep suspicion as a conspiracy by les Anglo-Saxons to dominate Europe. In 1966 he removed French troops from NATO command and expelled non-French troops from France. Well, times have changed. Current French president Nicolas Sarkozy is keen to improve his country’s security ties with the U.S. An announcement that France will fully rejoin NATO is widely expected this spring. Gaullist sentiment is still strong in France, though, and Sarkozy must appease it by playing up Europe’s independent defense capability, such as it is. That would be Eurocorps, the ad hoc six-nation unit created in 1992 by François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. As part of the playing-up of Eurocorps, a battalion of German soldiers will now be based in France, the first since World War II. The announcement has occasioned much tasteless humor. Will les Boches have to detour round the Maginot Line to reach their new garrison? Was the agreement signed in a railroad carriage? Will there be a parade along the Champs-Elysées? Etc., etc.
‐ Prince Harry’s sins against multicultural orthodoxy just go on multiplying. The 24-year-old second son of the heir to the British throne is currently a lieutenant in the British army, having graduated from Sandhurst Military Academy in 2006. He has recently been in hot water, since being seen, on an old video, calling fellow Sandhurst cadets “Paki” and “raghead.” (The former colleague was from Pakistan, the latter had camouflage netting on his helmet.) Now, in a new outrage to our sensibilities, black comedian Stephen Amos has told the world that the prince said, on first meeting him, “You don’t sound like a black chap.” The prince’s commanders, having been revived with smelling salts, ordered him to attend an “equality and diversity” course — his second, as British military training routinely includes such a course. This second course, we are assured, will be “more intensive” than the first. Perhaps the prince will be waterboarded until he screams out his eagerness to celebrate diversity.
‐ Fire has been a recurring part of Australia’s natural history for millions of years. The Aborigines understood this and preemptively burned off vegetation around villages to protect themselves. White settlers learned to take similar precautions in Australia’s desert climate, but recently green activists in many areas have mandated the planting of trees and banned their removal, or even the clearing of brush. These restrictions made the horrific wildfire in Victoria even worse and, by hastening the already rapid spread of the flames, denied scores of residents a chance to escape. Nobody blames greens for starting the fire, which by one estimate put as much carbon into the atmosphere as all of Australia’s industry does in a year; it was arson, possibly related to terrorism. But the added deaths and damage caused by reflexive tree-hugging show the harm that can result when sentiment replaces science.
‐ An important blow for public health was struck on February 12 when a special federal court ruled there was no evidence of a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism in children. A few days before the decision was announced, the London Sunday Times reported that the doctor responsible for spreading the MMR scare, who was already under investigation for assorted misconduct, had falsified the data in his original paper. In view of the terrible toll that autism takes, it’s hard to blame parents who search for answers, but even though all responsible scientific authorities agree that the purported connection with MMR is illusory, measles cases have rebounded alarmingly from near-zero levels in areas where the allegation has taken hold. For the sake of everyone’s health, the judges’ endorsement of MMR’s safety should be spread just as widely as were the false reports of its supposed dangers.
‐ Here is an abortion story: In the Miami area, a woman named Sycloria Williams went to get an abortion. She was 23 weeks pregnant, and she paid $1,200. As she sat in the chair, waiting for her abortion, an accident happened: She gave birth to a girl. The doctor had not yet arrived. And here we will quote the Associated Press: “What Williams and the [Florida] Health Department say happened next has shocked people on both sides of the abortion debate: One of the clinic’s owners, who has no medical license, cut the infant’s umbilical cord. Williams says the woman placed the baby in a plastic biohazard bag and threw it out. Police recovered the decomposing remains in a cardboard box a week later after getting anonymous tips.” And Williams is suing the late-arriving doctor. Her attorney said, “I don’t care what your politics are, what your morals are, this should not be happening in our community.” What’s the attorney’s problem, and what’s Williams’s? She went for an abortion, and the doctor was a little slow-moving. She wanted the baby gone, and the baby was, indeed, gone. The AP has said that “both sides of the abortion debate” are “shocked.” Why? Do five minutes make all that much difference — or 20, or 80? The gruesome cases make us think harder. And, in truth, all the cases are gruesome — some are just less seen than others.
‐ Muzzammil Hassan is a businessman in the Buffalo area. He founded a TV network designed in part to portray Muslims in a positive light. Recently his wife, Aasiya Zubair Hassan, filed for divorce from him. She is no longer: Her husband beheaded her. At least that seems to be the case, and that is the charge. Here is a little lesson: If you seek to portray Muslims and their practices in a positive light, don’t behead your wife, or anyone else. And it would be nice if, in the worldwide struggle against Islamofascism, the world had a little liberal and feminist help.
‐ The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln should not obscure that of Charles Darwin. The English naturalist offered to explain the origin, multiplicity, and development of species, but his work was immediately put to other uses. Evolution appeared to explode one of the traditional demonstrations of the existence of God, the argument from design: no plan, no Planner. Among those who tried to fill the alleged void were George Bernard Shaw, and others a great deal worse, who hoped to hasten the evolution of superior species of men (and the extinction of inferior ones). But religion and philosophy rose to the challenge. Darwin’s coeval reasserted that all men are created equal, and that God judges them. The truth shall set you free, and that includes the truths of science, which it can never be wrong to know. Love, wisdom, and action must then do their part — as they did in the beginning, do now, and ever shall do.
‐National Review readers, along with our writers and editors, all (we are pretty sure) belong to the species Homo sapiens. A very closely related species, with whom our remote ancestors shared territory for many thousands of years, was Homo neanderthalensis, the Neanderthals. It would be fascinating to know more about this cousin species. Alas, the last known member perished some 30,000 years ago. Now researchers in Germany have announced a complete analysis of the Neanderthal genome — the full DNA carried in the nucleus of every one of an organism’s cells. Bone fragments from a cave in Croatia yielded most of the DNA, but the researchers had to overcome formidable problems of microbial and human contamination. Now of course Jurassic Park fans are speculating about the generation of an actual living H. neanderthalensis. Should moral qualms about offenses against human dignity extend to not-quite-humans? Surely they should . . . though if an adult Neanderthal is eventually raised, it ought to be possible to find a seat in Congress for him.
#page# ‐ The saga of Nadya Suleman, better — much better — known as Octomom, continues to enthrall and appall. Motherhood remains a good thing, even in a culture of abortion and broken homes, and the primitive awe that attended multiple births — Rome was founded by twins — lingers as well. But the production of Miss Suleman’s octuplets by in vitro fertilization, on top of her six previous children, all IVF births, smacks of science fiction. Her determination to bear and raise all 14 children without a father is both feckless and willful, and her retention of two publicists — the first quit — suggests hucksterism. Her current flack, Wes Yoder, has also represented Rick Warren, the evangelical megapastor. Maybe the Reverend Warren can counsel Nadya — and Elijah, Amerah, Joshua Jacob, Aidan, Caleb, Calyissa, Jonah, Noah, Maliyah, McCai, Isaiah, Nariyah, Jeremiah, and Josiah.
‐ The old-fashioned virtues are still alive in Omaha, Neb., where a man named Anthony Burres accidentally dropped his wallet and then sped off on his motorcycle as $100 bills began flying away in the breeze. A bystander took off to chase down Burres, while others at the site — near Boys Town, coincidentally — began gathering up the C-notes. When Burres returned, they gave him back his wallet and all but one of the 25 fugitive Benjamins. We commend the residents of Omaha for their unswerving honesty, and in these days of illusory “stimulus packages” we can only wish that all Americans were so scrupulous about accepting dubious cash windfalls.
‐ This magazine has often expressed ambivalence about the government’s war on drugs, but private-sector prohibition is another issue. Major League Baseball — a business highly dependent on public goodwill that prizes continuity with the past — is entirely right to ban performance enhancers and enforce that ban rigorously. The revelation that Alex Rodriguez, the likely future home-run king, used steroids (only between 2001 and 2003, he says) can hardly be called surprising after so many others have tested positive, but it is distressing nonetheless to fans who think that all of baseball’s rules ought to be followed. Yet eventually the steroid problem will be gotten under control; students of the game will mentally adjust drug-enhanced statistics, the way they do with those from the dead-ball era or the 1960s pitchers’ ascendancy; and, through it all, baseball will survive. As Adam Smith might have said, there’s a deal of ruin in a national pastime.
‐ The recession economy is playing havoc with some of our received wisdom. The maxim “Quit before they fire you,” for example, is out of favor when jobs are hard to find. So believes 35-year-old Ravone Jones of Madison, Wis. Obviously disgruntled, or at any rate far from gruntled, with his job in a restaurant, Mr. Jones trashed the place, throwing food and utensils on the floor until apprehended by police. He told them he was trying to get fired because he couldn’t collect unemployment if he simply quit. A pity we can’t scale down the “golden parachute” concept to avoid such unpleasantness. Even more of a pity, perhaps, that we can’t scale up the no-benefits-if-you-quit principle, to apply it to the heads of banks and investment houses.
‐ Ready to snap fingers? Two, three: “They’re creepy and they’re kooky / Mysterious and spooky / They’re altogether together ooky / The Addams Family.” Pleasant to recall an old TV favorite; but that theme song brought a 20-week jail sentence down on a gent in Derbyshire, England. He had made a point of whistling it at a couple of elderly neighbors, apparently with malice aforethought, every time he encountered them. Whether he did the finger-snapping too is not recorded; but after four years of this, the neighbors’ patience snapped. They called the police, claiming harassment. A court agreed, and it’s off to the pokey for the spooky, kooky Derbyshire whistler. Our own Straggler swears he was completely uninvolved.
#page# THE ECONOMY
Stimulus for Liberals
Perhaps the central liberal criticism of George W. Bush is that he used a national crisis as an opportunity to pursue partisan aims. Liberals do not seem to see that, to an outsider, this is exactly what the stimulus bill looks like: an attempt to use the financial crisis to enact every liberal spending wish of the last two decades. (The difference is that Democrats had input in the Patriot Act and the authorization-of-force resolution.) The political scientist John Pitney has calculated that between the introduction of the bill and its passage, Congress spent money at a clip of a million dollars a second. The next time a liberal spending program is proposed, we will have to ask: How worthless must this program be if it could not make it into the stimulus?
Nor is the commitment of current and future taxpayer resources the worst of it. The stimulus bill partly undoes the most successful social reform of the last 30 years, not that Congress debated the matter. State governments will now be rewarded for expanding their welfare caseloads — rewarded even more than the previous unreformed version of welfare allowed. (Welfare reform has been partly, not wholly, undone: Recipients still lack the court-enforced entitlement to their benefits they had before 1996.)
The bill also includes funding for “comparative-effectiveness research” about health care. We have too little research on the effectiveness of treatment regimes because we do not have a system of health-care financing that puts consumers in the driver’s seat. Combined with the Obama administration’s interest in a more government-centered health-care system, however, this research threatens to pave the way for federal rationing — unless industry groups succeed in making it pointless. Either way, it is a bad idea.
Federal policies have made the impact of this recession on state governments worse. By matching state Medicaid spending, the feds encourage states to expand benefits during booms and make it harder for them to save money during busts. This bill deals with the resulting state budget shortfalls by increasing the match rate — thus making the underlying problem worse.
Congress attached restrictions on the pay of executives of companies that have received government aid. The propriety of this move can reasonably be debated. But it is not a costless gesture: The Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will reduce federal tax revenues by $11 billion over ten years, by reducing the executives’ income. Is it really worth raising the future tax burden to make up for this loss?
A little opprobrium ought to be directed at Senators Collins, Snowe, and Specter, the only Republicans in Congress to support this bill. Specter claims that he did so because something had to be done. Obama, for his part, has pretended that Republican opponents wanted to do nothing. In truth, superior alternatives have always been available. Regulatory changes could have strengthened the automotive and financial sectors of the economy. Reductions in the payroll tax could have given consumers more spending power, and encouraged job creation, without bureaucratic leeching.
Democrats preferred to rush through as permanent and large an expansion of the federal government as they could get. Republicans were right not to acquiesce to this politically and ideologically driven folly.
#page# THE ECONOMY II
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced his plan to save the banking system — or, rather, announced that he has a plan. Geithner hinted at new financial commitments on the order of $2 trillion, but he declined to describe his plan in any detail. What specifics he did provide failed to inspire any confidence in the man or his plan. Investors reacted by deserting bank stocks, and the market dropped by 300 points that day.
No doubt Geithner has a difficult task on his hands. There is no consensus, to say the least, among economists or policymakers on the proper government response to the banking crisis. Nevertheless, we have a pretty clear idea at this point of what doesn’t work. Injecting capital into the banks — former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson’s fallback when his plan to purchase troubled assets proved unworkable — turned out to be rife with unintended consequences. Banks’ balance sheets continue to deteriorate as their CEOs are hauled before Congress to take marching orders from the likes of Barney Frank. Stock values have plunged as investors have abandoned these sinking ships.
Against this backdrop, Geithner proposed stress-testing banks and injecting more capital into “those institutions which need it.” Does that mean directing more capital toward healthy banks? Propping up moribund banks? Either way, it means more banks working for two masters: their shareholders and Congress. Remind us: How did that work out for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Also, the government is the first in line for repayment, increasing the likelihood that shareholders would be totally wiped out in the event of a bankruptcy or federal takeover. Is it any wonder that the market reacted to this proposal with a huge sell-off?
Geithner’s other pronouncements raised more questions than they answered. For instance, he proposed new spending on foreclosure-prevention programs that could total up to $100 billion. How would these efforts succeed where others, such as last summer’s HOPE for Homeowners program, have failed? How would the administration deal with the stubborn reality that 30 to 40 percent of loan modifications end in foreclosure, regardless of the renegotiation? Geithner left these questions up in the air, giving the impression that this proposal was made at the last minute for political considerations.
Geithner called for a public-private partnership to buy toxic assets from troubled financial institutions. How would that work, exactly? Geithner said that the administration was “exploring a range of different structures,” and that it would start by putting in $500 billion of public money and “expand it based on what works” — by how much, in addition to that first half a trillion dollars, Geithner didn’t say. And why should private investors voluntarily deal with the government at this point, unless they have a strong desire to be lectured on subjects like executive pay and the use of private aircraft?
Finally, we come to the proposals we would have liked to hear from Geithner but didn’t. We heard nothing about regulatory forbearance — the idea that temporarily relaxing mark-to-market accounting rules might be a prudent way to reduce the pressure on the banking system. This would allow banks to hold troubled assets to maturity (or until the market settles) without having to take crippling write-downs in the process. It’s not an ideal solution, nor will it save every troubled bank. But the alternative seems to involve forcing taxpayers to purchase troubled assets at inflated prices. We’d rather make it easier for banks to keep these assets on their own balance sheets.
Even so, more financial institutions appear headed for insolvency. Some failed banks are beyond saving; indeed, an orderly liquidation of these firms is necessary to get the financial system working again. Above all, the government needs clear rules concerning the orderly dissolution of giant banks and non-depository financial institutions. During his confirmation hearings, Geithner pointed out the inadequacy of the government’s ad hoc approach to such collapses and stressed the need for a contingency plan. His failure to deliver one explains much of the discontent over his dud of a speech.