Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

‐ Winters in Illinois: Obama finally gets tough with the terrorists.

‐ Just in time for Christmas came a new batch of polls bearing glad tidings for Republicans. Many more people oppose the president’s health-care legislation than support it. His job-approval rating is below 50 percent. Republican Senate candidates are competitive or ahead in races for Democratic-held seats in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Nevada (yes, that’s Harry Reid’s seat — for now). When people are asked which party they will vote for in House elections, the parties are tied; that measure usually underestimates Republican performance. A few House Democrats who represent Republican areas have just announced their retirements. Watch for more Democrats to retire before Election Day, or be retired on it.

‐ Start with the problems of President Obama’s Nobel remarks. He has no editor: He ran on for 5,000 words (William Faulkner’s 1949 masterpiece was 550). He was both catty and savage toward his predecessor, implying that George W. Bush condoned torture, and that Gitmo violated the Geneva Conventions. Yet he got many important things right. “Evil does exist in the world.” Therefore, “force may sometimes be necessary”; “history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason” require it. American force has benefited mankind. “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.” It was good for the Nobel committee, and the world, to hear from a commander-in-chief who believes in just war, and that he rules a just nation.

‐ While in Oslo to pick up his prize, the president skipped a lunch with King Harald, which irked a lot of Norwegians. We can see Obama’s predicament, however. Once you bow to some monarchs, do you have to bow to them all? If you bend low before the Saudi king or the Japanese emperor, do you have to descend to the same altitude before the Europeans? And if you decline to do so, have you insulted a monarch’s subjects? Do you create some sort of diplomatic row? Of course, Obama bowed to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, too, meaning that these maneuvers are not reserved for royalty only: Communist chiefs can qualify. Our president’s manners abroad leave us absolutely dizzy.

‐ Sarah Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue, got a glowing review from New York Times blogger Stanley Fish. Fish is one of the academics who discovered postmodernism; he made Duke, his bailiwick in the Eighties and Nineties, a citadel of it (in Small World, David Lodge’s novel of academic life, Fish appears as the trendy Morris Zapp). Now Fish scopes out Palin’s political future. He calls her book “compelling and very well done”; he tosses bait to Hillary supporters (“[Palin] loves to rehearse the kind of wonkish details we associate with Hillary Clinton”); and he concludes by warning Palin’s enemies, “especially those who dismissed Ronald Reagan,” to “take note.” Being Fish, he also throws up a screen of double-talk (“Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project,” which is “to portray themselves”). But he saw the next thing once before. Liberals should take note of his taking note.

‐ When it came time to recommend nominees for U.S. attorney, Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) made a pass for the private option, namely his lover and former staffer Melodee Hanes. Eventually she dropped herself from consideration and faded away — much like this story. Curiously, instead of rushing to cover this sordid slush of sex, politics, and privilege, the press jumped to Baucus’s defense. It’s a “non-scandal,” declared the New York Daily News. At least Hanes is “not a bimbo,” mused Newsweek. “Baucus’s move is almost par for the course,” wrote Politico. And CNN, at first, refused to cover the story. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post called the network’s scandal slack “a stunning lapse in judgment.” Indeed. Though Baucus is no Tiger, his mistress pick should have given the media more than the yips.

‐ Somewhere in the labyrinthine recesses of the Department of Education is an Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. This office naturally needs a secretary — a Safe Schools Czar. Earlier this year, Kevin Jennings was appointed to the post. Jennings’s career to date had consisted of founding and expanding the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), whose business is to teach school children that gay is just as good as straight. Reporters delving into GLSEN’s “recommended reading” lists for K–12 have emerged dazed and horrified. The GLSEN folk seem particularly keen to promote an activity unmentionable in a family magazine, but described in What Wild Ecstasy, John Heidenry’s 1997 book about the sexual revolution, as “the first original sex practice in centuries.” Apparently our schools are to be safe: for aggressive, unrestrained homosexualist propaganda.

‐ The Foley Square federal courthouse, standing in what was once the shadow of the Twin Towers, dubiously served as counterterrorism’s central command throughout the 1990s, when the jihad was treated as a crime wave rather than a war. On a cold, rainy Saturday this December, a large crowd, made up mostly of New Yorkers, gathered outside that courthouse to protest the Obama administration’s decision to give the 9/11 plotters a civilian trial there. The protesters heard a moving letter from Ruth and Judea Pearl, whose son Daniel was brutally murdered by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind who is to be the travesty’s lead “defendant.” Also featured were survivors of the suicide-hijacking attacks, the families of those who did not survive, representatives of the firemen and policemen who gave their lives to save others that day, and veterans of our armed forces. The passion was impressive, all the more because it cut across the partisan and ideological divide. It was the passion that gripped Americans in the aftermath of September 11, spurred by a government determined to go back to September 10.

‐ When a congressional committee investigating the White House state-dinner crashers considered asking Desiree Rogers, President Obama’s social secretary, to testify, the administration responded with a blanket refusal. “Based on separation of powers,” explained press secretary Robert Gibbs, “staff here don’t go to testify in front of Congress.” Obama’s view of this question was different in 2008, when President Bush tried to invoke the same principle for his aides and a certain Illinois senator called his position “completely misguided.” What makes Obama’s sudden conversion even more implausible is that Bush asserted executive privilege only for a handful of his most senior advisers: Harriet Miers, Josh Bolten, and Karl Rove. Candidate Obama scoffed at even that limited exemption — but now President Obama claims constitutional protection for his social secretary. Surely James Madison is smiling down from Heaven.

‐ On the subject of banking, Barack Obama is in a debate with Barack Obama. (We hope he loses.) With unemployment persisting at painful levels, President Obama casts himself as the scourge of the “fat cats” — he has taken to the language of vacuous populism — castigating banks for making too many risky loans. At the same time, he dressed down a group of bankers, demanding they make more loans, which means riskier ones. Obama is correct that banks have restricted lending, and that this is a factor in unemployment. Banks are chary because they have been run through the wood-chipper, by the markets and by Obama, for making too many risky loans, e.g. subprime mortgages. Banks are especially unkeen on real-estate risk, so mortgage lending and refinancing are tight. The New York Times calls that a “volatile political issue,” which it is, largely because Obama & Co. are making it one. But our Janus-faced president cannot have it both ways: If the banks are to take on less risk, they must do so by raising their lending standards. That means fewer mortgages, especially for ACORN types without much cash or credit. It means tougher requirements and higher fees for mortgages and refinancing. It also means less credit for start-ups, small businesses, and business development — and that means fewer new jobs. Obama demands “extraordinary” lending, which is precisely what got us into this mess to begin with. Flip a coin, Mr. President.

‘Dans le doute, abstienstoi

‘That’s “Kutuzov’s maxim,” as Albert Jay Nock called it. General Kutuzov, my favorite character in War and Peace (yes, I actually read it, not just the Classic Comics version), understands that what is difficult and costly in the here and now may become simple and cheap with the proper application of time. Hence his maxim: When in doubt, do nothing.

“The strongest of all warriors,” says Kutuzov, “are these two: Time and Patience.” Dismissing a rival general’s accomplishments, Kutuzov rails: “Kamenski would have been lost if he had not died. He stormed fortresses with thirty thousand men. It is not difficult to capture a fortress, but it is difficult to win a campaign. For that, not storming and attacking but patience and time are wanted.”

Patience with life-as-it-is may be the single, defining conservative virtue. 

Elsewhere in this issue, I write about Richard Ely, an emblematic progressive who agreed with Condorcet’s declaration that there is “a science that can foresee the progress of humankind, direct it, and accelerate it.” At its philosophical core, that is what progressivism means: Putting your shoulder to the wheel of history and trying to speed up God’s plan as you see it (though these days God is often replaced with History or Science or a Demiurge To Be Named Later). The problem is that some things cannot be sped up. Try baking brownies for half the recommended time if you don’t believe me.

One can glimpse progressive confusion on this point in any number of controversies. For example, activists insist that because gay marriage is “inevitable,” we must hurry as quickly as possible to implement it everywhere.

There are two problems with this reasoning. The first: Just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean you should cave in to it immediately. We will all die one day, but that’s hardly a case for suicide. The second: Inevitability is not necessarily an argument for premature action. Victory in WWII may have been inevitable, but that doesn’t mean the Allies should have hurried to invade Normandy in 1942.

Even if gay marriage is inevitable — and that’s still a very open question — rushing it into existence now may damage established institutions far more than doing it a generation from now. Resistance to a change usually has the salutary effect of sharpening the arguments for the change and better educating the public about its necessity. Hence Burke’s admonition: “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.” If we had banned child labor in 1800, it would have caused terrific economic upheaval. Instead, we banned it a century later, when the practice was close to disappearing, thanks to advances in education and technology. Sometimes society decides it’s ready for something only when the social costs are clearly tolerable.

Waiting is a potent weapon because, thanks to technological advances and economies of scale, what is expensive now usually gets cheaper — and better — down the road. Cell phones were clunky luxuries in 1990; now they’re streamlined stocking stuffers.

Global warming is a great example. The warmists insist that we must pay trillions of dollars now to reduce global warming by a tiny amount a century from now. People of a conservative bent may concede all, some, or none of the science behind global warming, but even if they buy the warmists’ diagnosis, they understand that waiting for the costs of remediation to drop is the wisest course of action.

Such arguments enrage the progressive mind, because the progressive mind is fundamentally religious. It sees the will of God and feels compelled to act immediately. The conservative mind is humbler about such things, and happier with life as it is, and therefore patient.

– JONAH GOLDBERG

‐ Underneath the din of the bailouts and the stimulus and the health-care debate, the Democrats quietly continue to expand the federal government in less obvious ways. Regular appropriations will increase discretionary spending (the part of the budget not consumed by Social Security and other entitlements) by 8 percent for the third consecutive year. By way of comparison, its annual rate of growth under Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress was 3.4 percent. Democrats, including Obama, blasted Republicans for spending wastefully during the Bush years. They singled out the practice of earmarking funds for pork projects, but the past three years have seen no abatement in the number of earmarks attached to spending bills, nor in their wastefulness. The most recent omnibus spending extravaganza contained over 5,000 of them, totaling nearly $4 billion. The deficit has more than tripled in a single year, entitlement spending is projected to double by 2050, and plans are in the offing to raise the debt ceiling by $2 trillion. This would bring the total debt close to 100 percent of GDP. What we have here is a government in deep denial about the state of its balance sheet, and no one to bail it out — until we all are forced to do so.

‐ Barney Frank is a man immune to irony. Under his guidance, the House has passed a 1,279-page bill that, among other things, creates a new “consumer protection” agency. Said agency will, in the words of the New York Times, “be responsible for making sure that marketing and financial disclosures are easy for consumers to understand, for conducting financial literacy education and research,” etc. Congress is of course famous for producing easy-to-understand 1,279-page documents, and its financial literacy is the stuff of legend. Frank’s legislation is a hand up the skirt of the banking industry, but it will do very little to protect consumers when they are most vulnerable: Financing from car dealers, for example, would be exempt, as would most loans from smaller banks, credit unions, etc. But the bill, written to preempt state laws, would give Washington an even stronger hand in micromanaging the national banks and large regional banks, deepening the already dysfunctional symbiosis of Wall Street and Washington. It creates a raft of new bureaucracies in addition to the consumer-protection agency, imposes vast new regulatory burdens on the financial-services industry, and interferes with the independence of the Federal Reserve. The one defensible idea that Frank has offered is to create an FDIC-style resolution authority that would charge an insurance premium to “too big to fail” institutions, offsetting the government’s implicit subsidy of them. If that idea is to advance, it should do so on its own, after this legislation has been strangled in the Senate.

‐ Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) has been a man on fire of late: rallying tea-party protesters, lambasting immigration laxity, denouncing bailout shenanigans, and generally disturbing the sleep of congressional Republicans. Good on him. He plans to vote against the reappointment of Ben Bernanke to the chairmanship of the Fed, and, though we are more sympathetic to Mr. Bernanke, Senator DeMint’s criticism of the Fed’s role in creating the housing bubble has merit. The one initiative on which we sharply part company with the senator is his signing off on Ron Paul’s crusade to involve Congress in the Fed’s monetary-policy decisions. There are excellent reasons to insulate the Fed’s workaday monetary operations from the political winds sweeping down from Capitol Hill. The audit-the-Fed campaign is not about opening the Fed’s books, but about extending Congress’s meddlesome reach, a project that promises destruction. It is Congress, not the Fed, that drives us into debt, and Senator DeMint would do better to stand athwart appropriations than to expand the congressional portfolio.

‐ With a wary eye toward the 2010 elections, Democrats are starting to craft another stimulus package. Obama has laid out a number of proposals, and not all of them are objectionable: His support for suspending the tax on profitable small-business investments is welcome and overdue. But for the most part, the new stimulus would give additional life (and funding) to bad ideas from the old stimulus. Transportation projects are slow and inefficient vehicles for job-creation, and green-energy subsidies siphon the nation’s resources into uses of dubious value. Even more objectionable is the method the Democrats would use to pay for this new spending. A rally in the stock market has enabled some banks to repay the money they took as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which in turn has led the administration to downgrade its estimate of this year’s deficit by $200 billion (from $1.5 trillion to $1.3 trillion). The Democrats would fund their new stimulus bill out of these “savings.” The bill would not, they claim, add to the deficit. This bit of gimmickry requires no further elucidation: To state it plainly is to illuminate its absurdity. 

‐ This may be the Great Recession for the 15.4 million Americans out of work, but it is the Roaring Aughts inside the Beltway, where the federal bureaucracy has added 13,000 jobs in the last year and the number of civil servants making over $100,000 has doubled since the beginning of the recession. The most dramatic increase came in the Transportation Department, where the number of employees earning over $170,000 increased by 16,900 percent over the last 18 months. During the same period, the Defense Department saw a fivefold increase in the number of employees earning $150,000 or more, after new merit-pay rules took effect and there emerged far more merit around the Pentagon than Congress had anticipated. Across the board, the pay bonanza has pushed the average federal worker’s pay to $71,206 — not including an estimated $41,000 in non-salary benefits — while the average private-sector salary sits at $40,331. And Washington’s good fortune does not end there. The D.C. area received a number of stimulus dollars per capita that was nearly ten times the national average, creating an estimated 407,000 jobs for its government contractors, and keeping its unemployment at 6.2 percent, far below the national rate. Perhaps we’ve been wrong all along. Big Government does pay.

‐ After promising that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — which provides school vouchers to inner-city children — would get a fair hearing, congressional Democrats buried a provision deep within their huge spending bill that bars new students from participating. While presented as a “compromise,” this is most likely the first step in killing the program entirely. As the Washington Post’s editorial board noted, “The number of students participating in the program has already shrunk from more than 1,700 to 1,319, and the nonprofit that administers the scholarships has said that it may have to pull out because the conditions would be untenable. It’s also possible that some schools that now enroll voucher students could be forced to shut down.” All hope is not lost — the president hasn’t signed anything yet, and supporters of the program promise not to give up — but this was a significant defeat. The president and his allies in Congress may claim to champion the disadvantaged, but somehow the teachers’ unions always end up being more important to them than poor children.

‐ More complicated than climate science, less fair than a Daily Kos reader poll, and shakier than Harry Reid’s budget math, the BCS method for ranking college football teams is universally, and quite properly, regarded as a joke. Perhaps the only thing crazier than using a formula to decide who will play for the national championship is trying to ban it with an act of Congress — yet that’s what a House subcommittee has voted to do. Rep. Joe Barton, upset that TCU’s undefeated Horned Frogs got shut out of this year’s championship, led that effort; meanwhile, in the Senate, Orrin Hatch of Utah (a state whose teams have been frequent BCS victims) threatens an antitrust investigation. Admittedly, the BCS is so opaque and misguided that even Congress could probably design a better system. But the notion that whenever something is wrong, the federal government can and should fix it, is more than just silly; it’s pernicious. Otherwise reliable conservatives such as Barton and Hatch should know better than to abandon their principles for the votes of a disgruntled football fans.

‐ The New York state senate rejected a same-sex-marriage bill by a vote of 38 to 24, eight members of the Democratic majority joining all 30 Republicans in opposition. The vote came on the heels of a Maine referendum repealing a gay-marriage law that the legislature had passed in the spring. Attention now turns to New Jersey, where pro-gay-marriage legislators hoped to rush through a bill in time to get the signature of lame-duck governor Jon Corzine (Governor-elect Chris Christie would veto any such bill). One supporter admits that the New Jersey bill has gone from “slam dunk” to “who knows?” The chief weapon in the arsenal of gay-marriage backers has been the argument from inevitability — who wants to be the Robert Byrd of gay rights? — but recent setbacks show that the same-sex-marriage tide ebbs if opponents lobby, and inform the electorate.

‐ “You have been found innocent of the charge by a Limerick jury, and may leave this court with no other stain on your character.” So went the old Anglo-Irish legal quip. John Gotti Jr., son of the late Gambino crime-family boss, was not acquitted by any of the last four juries to ponder federal racketeering charges against him, but he did leave them all deadlocked, with mistrials duly declared. The latest of the four occurrences was on December 1, when a federal jury in New York declared itself unable to reach a unanimous verdict after eleven days’ deliberation. It is not clear whether federal prosecutors will attempt another trial. It seems that it is not easy to convict a man with a dangerous past — Gotti has admitted having been one of his father’s lieutenants — in New York federal court. Does Khalid Sheikh Mohammed know this, we wonder? Does Eric Holder?

‐ Thousands of Iranian students in Tehran and other cities are continuing the protests that followed the fraudulent presidential election in June. But this round of demonstrations shows a more radical edge. Chants link Ayatollah Khamenei with the shah — “Death to the oppressor, whether it’s the shah or the leader!” Demonstrators wave Iranian flags, minus “Allah,” a theocratic addition, and burn pictures of Khamenei and, in some instances, Ayatollah Khomeini himself. The reforming moderates who catalyzed the earliest protests are unwilling to go so far: Khomeini’s grandson, a reformer, thinks the burnings of his grandfather’s image are provocations. But masses of Iranians have lost patience with a regime both brutal and incompetent. The students’ bravery is breathtaking: “Take my picture, film my face,” one young woman taunts an undercover agent videoing her (you can see it on YouTube). “You can’t silence me.”

‐ Spooked by galloping inflation and an expanding black market, Kim Jong Il’s government revalued the North Korean currency November 30. Citizens must exchange their 1,000-won banknotes for new 10-won bills. The nation’s nomenklatura of high party officials are not much affected, since they have their assets in foreign currencies. Also unaffected are the starving, cowed masses, who have no assets, monetary or otherwise. It is the country’s small middle class of semi-official traders and fixers who are taking the hit. They are not taking it passively: The authorities have shut down street markets after riots. In apparent concessions to the unrest, state-controlled prices are being revised, and the rules for converting old currency to new have been somewhat relaxed. All this comes on top of other troubles for the regime. Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is in poor health, and the succession is uncertain. Meanwhile, a planeload of Nork weapons, apparently headed for Pakistan, was forced to land in Thailand, whose government promptly impounded it under U.N. sanction rules (which were strengthened in June). Some governments have crises; North Korea’s is a perpetual crisis.

‐ Some on the left, including the notorious Bill Ayers, are very cross at President Obama for continuing the Afghan War. What could be the reason for their upset? During the presidential campaign, Obama said over and over that Afghanistan was the good war, whereas Iraq was the bad one. Afghanistan was the war of necessity, whereas Iraq was a terrible war of choice. In Afghanistan, we had to commit ourselves entirely, so as to win: no ifs, ands, or buts. Did Obama’s left-wing supporters think the man was insincere? Did they think he was just faking this stance, for political and electoral purposes? If so they made a cynical bet, and their losing it should inspire no tears.

‐ There has been an interesting break in a 50-year romance: that between American black political elites and the Communist dictatorship in Cuba. The dissident movement is filled with blacks, and so, of course, are the Castros’ prison cells. But these facts have not disturbed the romance, until now. Sixty American black leaders signed a document titled “Acting on Our Conscience: A Declaration of African-American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba.” The occasion for this protest was the imprisonment of Dr. Darsi Ferrer. Among the signers were Jeremiah Wright, Cornel West, and Ron Walters. Why now? And why Dr. Ferrer, in particular, instead of Dr. Oscar Biscet or any number of other black political prisoners (or white political prisoners)? The answers are unclear. But the protest was welcome, if late, and it got under the skin of the dictatorship, which can be forgiven its surprise and pique.

‐ Muntazer al-Zaidi is the Iraqi journalist who earned his place in the headlines by being rude to George W. Bush and chucking shoes at him. He did almost a year in prison for this, and ever since he’s been trying to start a charity on behalf of “victims of the U.S. occupation in Iraq.” Paris was the obvious place in which to bolster his militant reputation by holding a press conference. A kerfuffle followed when someone present stood up and in Iraqi Arabic defended U.S. policy, accused al-Zaidi of aiding and abetting dictatorship, and gave him a taste of his own medicine by throwing a shoe at him. It was al-Zaidi’s turn to duck, and he didn’t like it one bit, complaining that “the occupier and his lackeys” would stop at nothing to get him. Hustled out, the avenging shoe thrower took the precaution of giving his name only as “Khayat,” but he had already proved that one Iraqi at least is able to spot the difference between freedom and tyranny, and is not afraid to say so.

‐ In 2002, Stephen Boissoin, an Alberta minister, published in a local newspaper a letter disparaging “the militant homosexual agenda” and calling anyone who supported it “immoral.” A high-school teacher named Darren Lund sued Boissoin under Alberta’s hate-speech law, which forbids statements likely “to expose a person or a class of persons to hatred or contempt.” The minister was ordered to apologize, pay Lund $5,000, and refrain from making any further anti-gay statements, even in private. Now a federal judge has overturned that decision, saying that while the letter was “jarring, offensive, bewildering, puerile, nonsensical and insulting,” it did not meet the law’s standard of being hateful or extreme. That still leaves room for Canadian zealots to punish statements they deem unacceptable, so the ruling is only half a victory; yet in the absence of an American-style right to free speech, it was probably the best that could be done. Afterwards, Lund complained that “the judge’s ruling sets such strict standards for hate speech that this section [of the law] is rendered all but unenforceable.” That’s the point, Mr. Lund — and in the future, if you take exception to some unrestrained talk in a newspaper’s letters column, try writing a response instead of calling a lawyer.

‐ In two weeks, the Tiger Woods story went from a fender-bender to a hiatus in the greatest career in golf, with an X-rated reality show along the way. The ancient world had its professional athletes, but capitalism, democracy, and health-consciousness have made sports the pastime of millions and the obsession of thousands upon thousands of talented young men and women. Celebrity culture and 24/7 media meanwhile ensure that anything a star athlete does can be as public as teeing off at Augusta. In Tiger Woods a peerless talent was joined to a compulsive young man, uncontrolled everywhere except on the golf course. We hope fans will someday see the return of their hero. We hope even more that Woods can pull himself together, and that he and his family find some measure of happiness. 

‐ The History Channel aired a show called The People Speak, in which Howard Zinn gave his view of American history. This is the same view he gives in his bestselling books A People’s History of the United States and Voices of a People’s History of the United States. He’s big on The People, you see, as all radicals are, or say they are. The People Speak was produced by Matt Damon, the Hollywood star who has long been a champion of Zinn’s. Damon grew up near Zinn, in Massachusetts. If only he had grown up next to Paul Johnson . . .

‐ This year saw the 50th anniversary of the Barbie doll, beloved plaything of two generations of little girls in the U.S. and elsewhere, though a hate object to angry feminists and other enemies of heteronormative tyranny. To mark the birthday, toy company Mattel, which owns the Barbie brand name, exhibited and auctioned 500 Barbies at the Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence, Italy. Included in the display were Barbies in traditional Islamic dress — burkas and chadors. We await the appearance of Jihadi Ken. And then, perhaps, an accessory stoning kit in case Barbie should go astray.

‐ Through the decades, National Review has been blessed to have many talented and dedicated people, starting with its late founder. One of those people is now retiring. He is John Virtes, a New York native who began with NR in April 1976. Ford was president, and the country’s bicentennial was a few months off. John has been our librarian and research director, and is a master of facts. He has done his best to keep us honest, for facts are stubborn things, as an early president (John Adams) said, and a later president (Reagan) liked to repeat. John is a thorough professional, and a friend to his colleagues. His knowledge of music, by the way — particularly rock — is almost unbounded. We would put him up against anyone at Rolling Stone. One of John’s favorite phrases is “Good enough,” as in, “Okay, thanks, got it.” He has been more than good enough, much more, and this magazine thanks him heartily. 

‐ Paul Samuelson was the last of the giants of post-war economics and the first American to win the Nobel prize in his field. One or two of his intellectual achievements would have earned him a place in the economists’ Valhalla, but Samuelson’s well was deep, and the breakthroughs kept coming: Welfare economics, international trade, and consumer behavior were among the subjects laid open by the blade of his calculus. The language of modern economics — “public goods,” “revealed preferences,” etc. — is to no small extent his coinage, and few men dominated the pedagogy of their subjects the way he did; you hadn’t read economics if you hadn’t read his Economics. Samuelson popularized the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and, as in the case of Keynes, his genius was no inoculation against public-policy folly: Though he was a withering critic of formal Marxist economics, he misunderstood socialism and argued that the Soviet economy was proof that such a system could thrive. No friend of the effort to limit government, he lent his prestige to the campaign against the Bush tax cuts. He was an early opponent of Milton Friedman’s monetarism, though his views evolved. Some lament his mathematicization of economics, but none denies the rigor of his work. Dead at 94. R.I.P.

ONE THIN SEPTEMBER SOON

One thin September soon

A floating continent disappears

In midnight sun

Vapors rise as

Fever settles on an acid sea

Neptune’s bones dissolve

Snow glides from the mountain

Ice fathers floods for a season

A hard rain comes quickly

Then dirt is parched

Kindling is placed in the forest

For the lightning’s celebration

Unknown creatures

Take their leave, unmourned

Horsemen ready their stirrups

Passion seeks heroes and friends

The bell of the city

On the hill is rung

The shepherd cries

The hour of choosing has arrived

Here are your tools

– AL GORE

COMMENTARY

Phonetically, this is an extraordinarily sterile poem. There is no detectable rhyme, meter, cadence, or rhythm; no alliteration, assonance, or refrain; no effort at euphony or cacophony; no onomatopoeia. The poet has shown remarkable restraint in declining to employ any of the traditional devices of poetic diction. A charitable explanation might be that he wishes his poem to mirror the desolation of a world ravaged by climate change.

The poet has placed all his bets on figures, imagery, and allusions, but even the best of these are feeble. Most are poorly set. “Continent” is, I think, an acceptable conceit for the Arctic ice cap; but the “shepherd” in line 19 is conceit of a different kind. We hear a faint echo of Paradise Lost (“that shepherd who first taught the chosen seed . . .”) and laugh, or groan.

“Neptune’s bones” seems to refer to the calciferous or siliceous parts of marine animals; but these hard substances dissolve only in very strong acids — concentrated hydrochloric or sulphuric for preference. Oceanic pH levels are nothing like that low, even in the direst forecasts of climate-change alarmists. The dissolving of Neptune’s bones might be allowed as hyperbole, except that the whole tone of the poem is already sufficiently hyperbolic.

Allusion is the poet’s strongest card, but it is clumsily played. Should we take “the city / On the hill” to be an enjambed reference to Matthew 5:14, or to later evocations by John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan? It is not clear. The horsemen of line 15 are presumably saddling up to ride out from the Book of Revelation; but then they are agents of human calamity, so they don’t really belong with those “unknown creatures.” There just isn’t room in a three-line, eight-beat stanza for sharp turns like that. “Hard rain” calls to mind Bob Dylan’s 1963 song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” That concerned nuclear war, though, so the allusion loses much of its power by leaving the reader’s mind reflecting on the transient, faddish aspect of popular apocalyptic concerns — surely not what the poet intends.

The poem is at least well structured. Each of five stanzas describes some aspect of climatic catastrophe. A sixth stanza suggests wakening collective alarm; a seventh calls us to action, and states the purpose of the book in which the poem is embedded. It’s a shame that the poet, having settled on such a suitable framework, did not place his words with more skill, and disdained altogether those phonetic devices that leave a good poem reverberating in the mind’s ear.

– JOHN DERBYSHIRE

HEALTH CARE

Holy Fools

Sen. Harry Reid has been a kind of reverse Houdini, with a talent for getting into traps. To appease Democratic moderates he proposed to drop the public option, which made liberals furious. To get back in their good graces he suggested expanding Medicare by letting people as young as 55 participate in it — but that led Sen. Joe Lieberman to threaten to join Republicans in a filibuster. If Reid manages to cobble together a deal that gets 60 votes, he may find that it cannot win majority approval in the House. The Senate and House do not, for example, see eye to eye on abortion funding. And if Reid and Nancy Pelosi somehow squeak something through Congress, they may walk into the biggest trap of all. They will have pushed through a major, unpopular piece of legislation on a party-line vote.

Democrats seem to be reconciling themselves to losing seats in order to achieve their health-care ambitions. A few ended political careers will be the price of progress. This attitude would be admirable were it not delusional. This legislation will not reduce health-care costs; the Obama administration’s own actuaries have just reported that it will increase them. It is unlikely to make Americans healthier: The evidence tying extensions of insurance to improved health outcomes is surprisingly weak. Insurance will reduce the financial anxiety of some people, but others will find theirs increased. Some will still lack insurance but now have to pay a fine for the privilege. Some will be paying higher premiums and taxes.

The Medicare buy-in that Reid proposed is the perfect distillation of the Democratic approach. It would expand a program that is already facing insolvency. Similarly, the bill attempts to achieve cost control by empowering the Medicare and Medicaid bureaucracy to drive hard bargains — a policy that has been tried, and has failed, for decades.

Ramming through complex, far-reaching, and unpopular legislation on a party-line vote would be unprecedented, and if it happens it should call forth an equally unprecedented response. Federal programs tend to last regardless of their results. This time, Republicans should commit themselves to not letting that happen. If anything resembling the current health-care legislation passes, Republicans should spend the next two election campaigns vowing to repeal it. We should both deny liberals their cause and give them their martyrdom.

CLIMATEGATE

Hot Mess

The Copenhagen climate summit devolved into an international farce, an episode of Carbon-Police Squad! as ridiculous as anything directed by David Zucker. In the run-up to the summit, hacked e-mails from Britain’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) depicted the scientists behind the alarmism as a cabal of bickering egotists and corner-cutters. Then another leaked document, the so-called Danish Text, angered developing nations and threatened to unravel the summit almost as soon as it began. At press time, Obama is about to depart for Denmark, a planned appearance that the media have interpreted as a sign of his confidence in the summiteers’ ability to reach a deal. We think it looks more like his last trip to Copenhagen, when he mistakenly thought his personal charm would persuade the International Olympic Committee to let Chicago host the 2016 Olympics.

Let’s review the comedy, scene by scene. In the wake of the e-mail scandal, the head of the CRU stepped down. Other institutions whose scientists were involved launched investigations. Yet some professional climate-change activists stamped their feet and decried “deniers” for launching a “smear campaign” that took the e-mails out of context. Others admitted that the e-mails were clear evidence of sloppiness and groupthink but nothing that altered the “scientific consensus” that global warming is caused by humans and presents a grave threat to the world.

In fact, the e-mails do call the most alarmist claims into question. In particular, they show collusion between several scientists to overstate the evidence for the argument, made by Penn State University’s Michael Mann, that “the 1990s are likely the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, in at least a millennium.” This claim was allegedly supported by Mann’s famous hockey-stick graph showing a sharp increase in global temperatures. The CRU e-mails demonstrate that some scientists were castigated for voicing doubts about Mann’s work, while others emulated the “trick” he used to “hide the decline” in global temperatures indicated by tree-ring data. 

Al Gore clocked in with the best attempt to wish this story away, telling Slate, “I haven’t read all the e-mails, but the most recent one is more than 10 years old.” Gore repeated this falsehood three times. Slate had to append a correction: Many of the e-mails were written in this decade, the most recent one in 2009. Gore got his facts wrong again when he told a crowd in Copenhagen that one climatologist had predicted a 75 percent chance that the polar ice caps would be completely melted in five to seven years. When told of Gore’s claim, the climatologist in question said that he predicted the caps would melt a lot, but not completely. Al Gore, exaggerate? Nah . . . 

The laughs continued at the summit, where the release of the Danish Text revealed the existence of a Bilderbergesque “circle of commitment” among developed countries. The text left the developing countries outraged, because it called on them to sharply cut their greenhouse-gas emissions; they would prefer to sign an airily nonbinding commitment to reduce the rate at which their emissions are growing. The leak prompted China and the bloc of poor countries it leads to stage a huffy walkout. After much cajoling from the leaders of the Western democracies, the China bloc has reluctantly returned to the table, but the atmosphere at the summit remains uncomfortably warm. Chances that negotiators will produce anything other than hot air appear to be slim.

Back at home, things are a lot less funny. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued an endangerment finding declaring that global warming is a hazard to human health, and a wrongheaded Supreme Court decision gives it the authority to protect us all by regulating our carbon emissions (for the details, see Iain Murray’s article on page 26). The Obama administration has so far used this finding only as a stick to beat congressmen into passing a cap-and-trade bill that they seem to prefer not to pass, but there is a chance that the EPA means business and fully intends to strangle the economy by ukase. There’s a thin line separating comedy and tragedy; enforcement of the EPA finding would send the climate farce hurtling across it.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Growth Is Not Enough

On hearing that the unemployment rate had finally started to drop, conservatives and Republicans were stony-faced. On December 4, the Department of Labor reported its initial estimate that the economy ...
Politics & Policy

Air Power

While on the surface it seems to be a simple matter of environmental policy, the finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare actually ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Regression Dissection I am normally a fan of Kevin A. Hassett’s NR contributions, but I found his most recent column (“The Metamorphosis,” December 21) unconvincing. The graph accompanying the piece appears ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Winters in Illinois: Obama finally gets tough with the terrorists. ‐ Just in time for Christmas came a new batch of polls bearing glad tidings for Republicans. Many more people ...
The Long View

Transcript: Larry King Live

LARRY KING: Tomorrow night! The whole hour with the cast of Fantasy Island! Living and not! From Indianola, Mississippi! Hello! CALLER: Hi, Larry. Hello, Mr. Claus. S. CLAUS: Ho ho. CALLER: I just ...
Politics & Policy

Translators

In the beforetime, under a different administration, There were marsupial words, chameleon words in trees, Words shedding their wings and tunneling in the sea –  Clever and strong, out-thronging all our mute associations. Among ...
Happy Warrior

Czar Vlad’s Guano

We pundit types are expected to have opinions on everything, but I confess I would have been momentarily stymied had I chanced to be in the big geopolitical-analysis chair on ...

Most Popular

Elections

How States Like Virginia Go Blue

So this is what it feels like to live in a lab experiment. As a native Virginian, I’ve watched my state come full circle. The last time Democrats enjoyed the amount of power in the Old Dominion that they won on Tuesday, I was entering middle school in Fairfax County. In 1993 the governor was a Democrat, one ... Read More
Elections

Democratic Denial

One point I'd draw out from David Harsanyi's post below: It has been more than thirty years since a Democratic presidential nominee failed to make it to the White House and thought the loss was legitimate. Read More
Elections

Religious-Freedom Voters Will Vote Trump

The late Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy wrote, "Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all have a double aspect — freedom of thought and freedom of action.” To which one should be able to add, freedom of inaction -- meaning that absent a compelling state interest, people should ... Read More
Books, Arts & Manners

Why Study Latin?

Oxford professor Nicola Gardini urges people to read and study Latin. He believes that Latin is the antidote for the modern age, which seems transfixed by the spontaneous, the easy, and the ephemeral. His new book, Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language, argues that Latin combines truth and ... Read More