Magazine February 21, 2011, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

‐ It looks like Egypt has discovered term limits.

‐ The House vote to repeal Obamacare is being treated by the media as a political stunt, since the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate and certain to be vetoed by President Obama if it does. Nonsense. Everyone knows that repeal is a project that cannot be completed until 2013 at the earliest. But everyone also knows that the project would have died this year if a Republican House had not approved the repeal bill. When Obamacare passed in the spring of 2010 by seven votes, nobody predicted that within a year the House would have voted to repeal it by a 56-vote margin. Nor did anyone predict that 28 states would have challenged the law’s constitutionality in court. (One federal judge has ruled against a key provision, and another recently ruled against the whole law, though appeals are pending.) If present trends continue, expect liberals to keep insisting that Obamacare is starting to gain popularity and that the repeal campaign is losing steam — right up until the day that repeal becomes inevitable.

‐ When President Obama proposed, in his State of the Union address, using “our generation’s Sputnik moment” to promote American technology, he was closer to the mark than he realized. Like the USSR in the 1950s, China today is a poor and repressive country that talented people want to leave — but one that, by throwing its weight around and concentrating on showy technological feats, has made itself into a world power. And like the America of the 1950s, today’s America has a significant lead in every area of technology that matters. Obama cites China’s research in clean (and expensive) energy, but in reality, Chinese industry remains a smoky, toxic horror. As for high-speed rail, it may make sense in a nation with few cars, high population density, and terrible roads, but in America it would be a wasteful niche product at best. Perhaps the biggest difference between 1957 and today is that when a real Sputnik moment comes along, you don’t need the president to declare it. And if China ever does threaten America’s security and supremacy, the weapon it would most likely use is financial instead of technological — so if this were actually a Sputnik moment, we would embark on a crash program to cut government expenditures instead of increasing them.

‐ Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman, happily took a scalpel to the Obama agenda in his State of the Union rebuttal. “We face a crushing burden of debt,” he warned. “Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first.” But he did more than wag the finger. House Republicans, he acknowledged, “owe you a better choice and a different vision.” That’s just what he provided in an able national debut.

‐ Keith Olbermann, MSNBC anchor, left the network after almost eight years. Olbermann’s niche was mad yelling — mad in the double sense of angry and unhinged. He caught on because liberalism was sick of George W. Bush, beginning with Bush v. Gore and abating only briefly after 9/11. The Iraq War caused a recurrence; Olbermann was like the noise — intercoms, screams, blaring TVs — in the hospital where the patient was confined. He kept it up after Obama won (viz., his 2010 comment on Scott Brown: “an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex–nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women, and against politicians with whom he disagrees”). He had many, sometimes public, conflicts with his bosses, notwithstanding his demure and genial personality. Not a great enough railer to survive his time (cf. Voltaire, Mencken), he will be filed in journalism’s cabinet of curiosities.

‐ Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana opted not to try to become the James Garfield of 2012 by going directly from the House to the White House. Instead the conservative stalwart is expected to run for governor of Indiana. The decision disappointed some of his fans, who do not see the same mix of fiscal and social ardency in the rest of the field. But some executive experience would serve Pence well. And he is only 51.

#page#‐ Rudy Giuliani appears to be at least sticking his toe in the presidential-primary koi pond, telling Larry Kudlow that he will “take a look” at a run, and scheduling a speech at a Manchester, N.H., GOP funder in March. Giuliani’s toughness and executive flair recommended him to many Republicans, including some who do not share his liberal views on abortion. So, why didn’t he run for president in 2008 — in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, where it might have mattered? Giuliani’s wait-till-Florida strategy then was not only obviously wrongheaded; it also bespoke a fatal ambivalence to the inescapable scrum of national politics. Being his city’s savior and the nation’s mayor is enough luster for any man; further futile presidential campaigns will only dim it.

‐ Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has proposed cutting the budget by $500 billion — not over ten years, but immediately. Not all of the cuts seem sensible. Eliminating foreign aid, while tempting and popular, would also eliminate a potentially useful tool of U.S. foreign policy. Reform would be wiser. Many of Paul’s cuts are excellent ideas, on the other hand, such as: Cutting farm subsidies. Ending Amtrak subsidies. Shrinking the FCC. Selling unused federal assets. The only trouble with these ideas is that, at the moment, they are probably too sensible for Washington.

‐ A politician announced last month that he wanted new government regulations to mandate that every vehicle be capable of running on ethanol or methane. No, we’re not talking about the president’s latest green-energy initiative. This big-government boondoggle is the pet project of none other than Newt Gingrich, who gave a talk detailing his love of ethanol to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Summit. Gingrich joins a long line of Republicans, chiefly midwestern but including outsiders seeking presidential votes from midwesterners, who see the folly of government intervention in just about every industry but ethanol. That industry is currently supported by legislation mandating its use, taxes on imports, and tax credits domestically (which Gingrich would allow to expire). It doesn’t need any more help — and forcing all consumers to shoulder the higher costs of ethanol-compatible cars is a little like, well, forcing all consumers to buy health insurance.

‐ Democrats have assailed newly elected Republican congressmen as hypocrites for taking health insurance from the government even though they say they oppose socialized medicine. At least four Republicans have lent credibility to this charge by refusing coverage. But the charge is absurd. Congressmen are federal employees being provided salaries and benefits as part of their compensation package. It is no more hypocritical for a congressman to take government-provided health insurance while opposing Obamacare than it is for a congressman to take government-provided wages while opposing federal-jobs-for-everyone. Instead of giving in to the Democrats, the Republicans ought to turn the tables: How many of their accusers say that school choice would “undermine public education” but put their own kids in private school?

‐ Senate Democrats were unable to muster enough unity to push through rules changes. Enough of their members fear being in the minority, as early as after the next election, to make them wary of reducing its power. The rules changes to which Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell agreed were innocuous. “Secret” holds on nominees and legislation — which were always open secrets — have been abolished. If amendments are filed 72 hours in advance they do not have to be read out loud on the floor. Reid and McConnell have made a “gentleman’s agreement,” by which the minority will have more opportunities to amend legislation in return for filibustering less. These minor changes let the Democrats who wanted bigger changes save face, but without threatening the Senate’s ability to deliberate. There is, alas, no deal that can make it actually deliberate.

#page#On the Down Grade

Sometimes the best argument in favor of buying one type of asset is a damning analysis of another. There are lots of places to invest one’s money, and U.S. government bonds are beginning to look terrible.

With the U.S. government deficit hovering around a trillion and a half dollars, our nation’s creditworthiness is coming under increased scrutiny. The Congressional Budget Office issues budget outlooks that get grimmer and grimmer, and even those bleak projections are the result of implausibly rosy assumptions.

The journey to insolvency can be quick, or it can be slow, but most analysts agree that the first signpost along the way will be the withdrawal of the U.S.’s coveted Aaa bond rating. And when that happens, woe be unto him that owns government bonds.

Throughout modern history, the U.S. has had a relatively low cost of funds because Moody’s and the other ratings agencies have given it the highest rating possible. If Uncle Sam loses that rating, then borrowing costs will increase. These higher costs will make the U.S. fiscal situation more untenable, inviting subsequent downgrades and an ultimate death spiral that can be stopped only by massive policy intervention.

Notes: Bars display the annual gross and net debt as a share of GDP in selected countries for the year closest to the date of their sovereign-rating downgrade by Moody’s Investors Service (except for the U.S., which has maintained a AAA rating to date). *USA 2020 forecast is the CBO alternative-fiscal scenario forecast with crowding out. Sources: IMF World Economic Outlook database; CBO

Thomas Friedman accurately characterized the impact of ratings in 1996, when he said, “There are two superpowers in the world today in my opinion. There’s the United States and there’s Moody’s Bond Rating Service. The United States can destroy you by dropping bombs, and Moody’s can destroy you by downgrading your bonds. And believe me, it’s not clear sometimes who’s more powerful.”

When bombers show up on radar, it’s time to head for the shelters. What should bond investors look at? No one can know for sure, but there is a fairly regular and predictable relationship between a nation’s total level of indebtedness and its bond rating. As debt goes up, ratings go down.

The question then becomes, how high must U.S. debt climb in order to make a downgrade inevitable? The accompanying chart provides the sobering answer. It plots two different measures of national debt for large industrialized countries in the year that these countries lost their Aaa status. For comparison, it provides the same number for the U.S. in 2010, and for the U.S. at the end of the current ten-year budget window.

Canada, for example, was downgraded in 1994. At the time, its net debt, that is, debt held by the public, was 68 percent of GDP. Its gross debt, which includes debt that the government owes itself in trust funds and the like, was just shy of 100 percent of GDP.

The U.S. in 2010 looked very similar to Canada of 1994, suggesting that a downgrade is possible. By 2020, the U.S. will have a net debt as a share of GDP that is above even the high levels experienced by Japan just prior to its downgrade.

Every other country in this chart that has reached levels as high as the CBO projects has seen a downgrade, and the U.S. will too.

Equities, anyone?

#page#‐ It’s no surprise that in the wake of the Tucson shooting, liberals are agitating for more gun control, and in particular a revival of the “assault weapons” ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. But banning assault weapons is utterly pointless. What distinguish these guns from hunting rifles are militaristic-looking but harmless baubles such as flash suppressors. Because of their weight, bulk, and expense, they are very rarely used in crimes. Nor would another component of the ban, which prohibited the manufacture and importation of magazines that hold more than ten rounds, have clearly helped in Tucson. The shooter, Jared Loughner, used a magazine that held 30 rounds, emptied it (plus a bullet he had stored in the chamber), changed magazines, found that his gun would not fire, and was tackled. The problem with the gun was that a spring had jammed — something that is far more common among non-standard and high-capacity magazines. It is quite possible, therefore, that if Loughner had used ten-round magazines, he could have continued to change them indefinitely. If, as the saying goes, gun control means hitting your target, these proposals fail.

‐ The Credit CARD Act of 2009 was supposed to save consumers from greedy credit-card companies by strictly limiting when the companies could hike interest rates. Since it is now harder for companies to jack up rates when they see signs that customers are mismanaging their finances, they have decided to give everyone higher rates from the outset. The result has been record-high interest rates, with rates on new credit cards now averaging 15 percent APR, a 20 percent jump from two years ago. For consumers with lousy credit, rates can be as high as 60 percent. Look for a price control without perverse consequences, and you will search in vain.

‐ Frances Fox Piven is an old socialist (honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America) thrust into prominence by Glenn Beck. In a 1977 book, Poor People’s Movements, Piven and her husband, Richard Cloward (since deceased), praised the race riots of the Sixties: America’s poor, they wrote, were so disempowered that they could better their condition only by abandoning “quiescence in civil life: they can riot.” In December 2010 Piven returned to her theme: “Local protests,” she wrote in The Nation, “have to accumulate and spread — and become more disruptive. . . . An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece.” N.B.: Greek rioters threw a Molotov cocktail in a bank that killed three people. Glenn Beck acted the enfant terrible by taking Piven seriously. Now she complains she has gotten threatening e-mails. We deplore them. How can she? After all, she urges other people to riot, and accepts that still other people will die.

‐ When the South Carolina NAACP held a Martin Luther King Day rally at the statehouse in Columbia, it built a temporary box around the statue of George Washington that stands atop the steps. Tea Party activists and Fox News took note: The NAACP, said Lloyd Marcus of the Tea Party Express, should be focusing on high-school dropout rates rather than “covering up statues of dead white guys.” The NAACP said they build the box every year to provide a backdrop (which other groups rallying at the statehouse steps don’t seem to need). How would the honoree of the rally have used Washington’s statue? Maybe this way: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” If you cut off your usable past, how can you use your present?

#page#‐ Feisal Rauf, once the public face of the proposed Ground Zero mosque, has been replaced by Abdallah Adhami, a 44-year-old former architect and current cleric born in Georgetown. Rauf had become a drag on the project, thanks to his notoriety. Will Adhami equal him in that regard? Asked last year about sharia and apostasy, he gave a ten-minute answer in which he said, inter alia, that some jurists had prescribed death, though perhaps imprisonment was enough (comforted yet?); private apostasy might incur no sanction (how private?). Adhami also has associations that would take more than ten minutes to explain. He has spoken for the now-defunct Islamic Association for Palestine, a Muslim Brotherhood front, and he designed a mosque for Siraj Wahhaj, a black-radical convert who was a character witness for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik behind the 1993 World Trade Center plot. Will he invite Wahhaj to preach at Ground Zero now?

‐ At the state dinner for Chinese boss Hu Jintao, President Obama and the White House laid on some entertainment, including Lang Lang. He is the young Chinese pianist educated and launched in the United States. Among his selections was “My Motherland,” which many Chinese describe as an anti-American propaganda song. Hu Jintao was visibly delighted, embracing Lang Lang. Chinese democracy leaders were shocked and amazed, saying that the United States had been humiliated, in its own house. Before the dinner, Lang Lang had a statement for Chinese television: “I thought to play ‘My Motherland’ because I think playing the tune at the White House banquet can help us, as Chinese people, feel extremely proud of ourselves and express our feelings through the song.” After the dinner, when a controversy arose, he told the American media that he had no idea the song had any political or propaganda associations. He is just a simple musician, you know. He is also a vice chairman of the All China Youth Federation, that country’s version of the old Soviet Komsomol. In 2009, the pianist played at the Nobel ceremony for Obama. He would not have dared play at the next year’s ceremony. The 2010 laureate languishes in a PRC prison.

‐ Pharaonic tombs have been objects of plunder throughout history, as the treasures that were to have accompanied god-kings to the next world enriched thieves in this. Marauding armies and new religions take their own toll. During the present upheavals looters broke into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, looking for gold. They damaged several dozen pieces and pulled the heads off two mummies. There were also attempted thefts at Luxor and elsewhere. Egypt’s past is deeply alien to its present, yet it still looms, in gigantic monuments and thousands of small artifacts. Through Joseph and Moses, Plutarch and Shakespeare it has been woven into minds around the world. The awe men feel in the face of death and the dead adds another layer of interest. Ordinary Egyptians and the army are doing their best to prevent further destruction. So pride, curiosity, and fellow feeling struggle against cupidity and carelessness.

‐ The Mavi Marmara is the ship used by Islamists for an anti-Israeli publicity stunt. They filled her with dozens of activists, set sail from Istanbul with the blessing of the Turkish government, and attempted to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza whose purpose is to prevent weapon-smuggling to Hamas. Israeli commandos duly boarded her and met resistance, and in the fighting nine Turkish activists were killed. Investigating this event, an Israeli commission found that nothing illegal had occurred. The Turkish prime minister exploded that the report had “no value or credibility.” In a report of their own, the Turks then released a barrage of adjectives and false allegations to blacken the Israelis. Commenting, the State Department spokesman said that Turkey and Israel had both worked seriously to get at the facts. Which had the advantage of being half-true.

#page#‐ We have reported in previous issues on stories of animal misbehavior in the Muslim world, all attributed by locals to the evil machinations of you-know-who. It seems we have barely scratched the surface of this genre. Released Guantanamo Bay inmate Walid Muhammad Hajj, in a story reported by a sympathetic Al Jazeera news anchor in prime time, alleged that Jews employed at Gitmo bewitched him, and the local fauna too, with alarming results: “The birds on the barbed wire would talk to me, and tell me to urinate in the milk. . . . Once, when I was sleeping . . . I suddenly felt that a cat was trying to penetrate me. It tried to penetrate me again and again. I recited the kursi verse [Koran 2:255] until the cat left.” (How did he know it was a cat?) Oh, and Iran has arrested 14 squirrels for spying. The rodents were, says the state news agency IRNA, “carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services.” If it was nuts those squirrels were seeking, they certainly came to the right part of the world.

‐ It’s a good idea to be suspicious of a referendum that obtains a 99 percent vote, but in the case of the southern Sudanese it is cast-iron. Christians and animists, they have been fighting for years against the rule of the northerners who are Muslim and have introduced sharia law. The long-drawn-out civil war was an atrocity, with massacres, rape, hunger, and refugee camps. North and south signed a peace treaty in 2005, the United States backed it, but few believed that Sudan really would split into two. There are obstacles: The south has substantial oil reserves that the north is reluctant to part with, a crucial area is disputed, and in the Islamic perspective land that is Muslim cannot be allowed to pass to non-Muslims. But that unmistakable 99 percent prompted the vice president in the north to say, “We wish our brothers in the south good luck and a fruitful future.” And so say all of us.

‐ The Guardian has published a book on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. On the day of publication, the paper touted some revelations of the book. For example, “Assange initially rejected pleas to redact documents to protect sources.” At an “early meeting with international reporters in a restaurant,” he said, “Well, they’re informants. So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.” The book says that, “for a moment,” there was “silence around the table.” Perhaps two moments of silence were in order. The nature of Assange and his project grows ever clearer.

‐ Drug smugglers on the Mexican border, hindered by fencing in the Arizona sector, have resorted to ancient siege-engine technology. U.S. National Guard troops observed several people launching packages over the fence into Arizona by means of a ballista — the spring-loaded giant catapult used by Roman legionaries to fire rocks or volleys of darts into walled cities. The projectiles in this case were bales of marijuana. Two of these ballistae have since been seized. Nice to know the drug gangs are not without some classical learning; but let’s pray the people-smugglers don’t get any similar ideas.

‐ Foremost among the Confucian virtues is filial piety. A standard handbook in pre-modern Chinese culture was the Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, offering exemplars like Dong Wen (176 b.c.), who sold himself into slavery to pay for his father’s funeral. Alas, modernity has eroded these fine traditions. Oldsters in today’s China too often go neglected by their busy, ambitious children. (Increasingly, child: The oldest offspring of the “one-child policy” are in their thirties.) China now has the world’s third-highest elderly-suicide rate. What to do? Pass a law! The nation’s Civil Affairs Ministry is pushing legislation that will require adult children to visit their elderly parents regularly. Unvisited parents will have a right to sue the kids. Confucius, who taught that the key to social harmony was self-cultivation, not laws, would have disapproved, and we’re with Confucius on this one. In any case, given China’s capricious legal climate, we doubt the proposed law will do much to silence moaning — by no means unique to China — that: “You don’t write, you don’t call . . .”

#page#‐ Of all the world’s fighting people, few are more feared by their enemies, or admired by their allies, than the Gurkhas of Nepal. A recent story from India reminds us why. Bishnu Shrestha took voluntary retirement from one of India’s Gurkha regiments and headed home to Nepal by train. At midnight in the jungle of West Bengal, a band of 40 armed robbers stopped the train and began robbing and assaulting the passengers. Fortunately Mr. Shrestha was carrying his kukri knife — the trademark long, curved machete of the Gurkhas. He set about the robbers, killing three and driving away the rest in a 20-minute fight. Now he is a national hero in India; though no doubt if they had American liberals over there we would be hearing calls for kukri control.

‐ The Obama administration, we are pleased to discover, has at least one sensible economic adviser. He bears the flavorfully American name of Rocco Landesman, and he runs the National Endowment for the Arts. In remarks made at a conference in Washington, he appraised the nation’s investment in theater — and shorted it. Noting that many regional theater companies are financially unviable, their numbers proliferating while attendance declines, he concluded: “You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” The nation’s NEA-dependent thespians immediately began to rhetorically cast Mr. Landesman in various celebrated stage roles, mostly as Jokanaan in Salome or Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.

‐ When Dickens’s David Copperfield resolved to quit the factory to which he had been sent, he worked one last week before making his escape. The reason: He had been paid in advance and did not want to cheat the owners. A similar spirit of fairness is being shown by Gil Meche, a solid right-handed starting pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. Facing surgery on a sore shoulder, he announced his retirement, thus forfeiting $12 million for the last year of his guaranteed contract — even though collecting on such contracts after an injury is routine in sports. Meche’s decision might have seemed pointless if he worked for a rich team like the Yankees, but the Royals are chronically cash-poor, and perhaps they will reward their long-suffering fans by spending the money they save on upgrading the team (though sports economists, as dismal as the rest of the profession, dispute the likelihood of this). In any event, whether principled or quixotic, Meche’s decision reinforces the principle of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Too many people in too many professions could profitably learn from his example.

‐ Utahns love their guns — fortunately for the local ATF bureau, which otherwise would have nothing to do. So it is perhaps no surprise that the state house of representatives has passed a bill declaring the Browning M1911 pistol the official state firearm. If the bill passes, it would be America’s first such designation. The gun’s inventor, John Moses Browning, was a lifelong Utah resident, and his pistol, which turns 100 this year, remains in widespread use in a form barely changed since its invention. While the M1911 may not be as delicious as an official state snack food (popcorn in Illinois, boiled peanuts in South Carolina), or as existential as an official state question (“Red or green?” in New Mexico, referring to chilis), it’s much more useful when dealing with bad guys. And if you’re going to designate an official state something, you may as well reinforce a constitutional freedom in the process.

#page#‐ These are glum times in Las Vegas. Convention attendance and gaming revenues are down; bankruptcies and foreclosures are up. As one bankruptcy attorney remarked to the Las Vegas Business Press: “Elvis has left the building.” The city has not lost its ability to generate bizarre news, though. Here is Hubert Blackman, a student from New York City, age unspecified, who visited Las Vegas last December. Mr. Blackman hired a stripper to come to his room and do what such girls do. Alas, he was drunk, and the lady left before the agreed-upon time had elapsed. Mr. Blackman called the police, as anyone might. The officers, however, only reminded him that prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas (who knew?) and advised him to register a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Back home in New York, Mr. Blackman filed a lawsuit, claiming that he needs treatment for mental distress arising from the incident. This case cries out for Obamacare coverage.

‐ Daniel Bell described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” and it’s no surprise that he chose the most upbeat option, if not always the best, in each case. The son of Lower East Side garment workers originally named Bolotsky, Bell was an anti-Stalin Trotskyist in the feverish political ferment of late-1930s CCNY, and throughout his life, he stayed where the intellectual action was — leftist journalism in the 1940s; sociology in the 1950s and 1960s, when that spuriously scientific field seemed destined to run the world; in 1965, founding with Irving Kristol, a fellow CCNY lunchroom debater, the Great Society–skeptic quarterly The Public Interest (which he left in 1973 after differing with Kristol over its direction); and in the 1970s, writing influential works on post-industrial society (he coined that now-common term) and the problems of capitalism. He argued stoutly but made few enemies, and while he was hardly a full-fledged man of the Right (in later years he disavowed any association with neoconservatism), his scrupulous attention to research, accuracy, and original thinking, combined with genuine respect for others’ views, made him an inspiration to believers in all those timeless virtues. Dead at 91. R.I.P.

‐ Milton Babbitt was a mathematician and composer who wrote music of scientific brilliance. It was also music that few could appreciate, and that fewer could enjoy. He wrote a famous article called “Who Cares If You Listen?” The title was an editor’s, not his, and it always dogged him. But the title was not inapt. Babbitt, an American born in 1916 and associated for much of his life with Princeton, was an independent-minded fellow. And this independent-mindedness manifested itself in his politics: He was a conservative and anti-Communist. He had the courage to join the Committee for the Free World, the organization started by Midge Decter in 1981. That made Babbitt a very rare artist indeed. He has died at 94. Is heavenly music proudly atonal? R.I.P.

Editor’s note: In our last issue, Jason Lee Steorts wrote a long critique of the defense of traditional marriage made by Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson in an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. We will publish a reply to Mr. Steorts in our next issue.


Mubarak’s End

It’s not as though Hosni Mubarak didn’t have it coming. After decades of his stultifying misrule, Egyptians rebelled. The 82-year-old dictator was forced to say that he will not run for a sixth six-year term as president. As we went to press, he was still clinging to power, if barely.

The protests have been an inspiring display of people’s power — exuberant, brave, and mostly peaceful. It’s a testament to the human spirit that Egyptians finally said “Enough” to the indignity of political powerlessness and economic deprivation. If it were only a matter of the moxie and sentiments of the anti-Mubarak protesters, the Egyptian rebellion would be an unalloyed good.

Alas, there is the question of what comes after Mubarak. The graveyards are littered with the victims of revolutions that started as heartening breaks with authoritarianism: 1789, 1917, and — most relevant, here — 1979. Egypt lacks a galvanizing radical cleric like Ayatollah Khomeini and the protests have so far been largely secular, but the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized opposition force and it might be able to exploit chaos or a weak post-Mubarak government.

The strength of the Brotherhood is partly the cynical work of Mubarak, who suppressed secular dissent so he could portray himself as Egypt’s only alternative to Islamism. If habits and customs and institutions have an outsized influence on the fate of nations, Egypt is an unlikely candidate for an immediate transition to a liberal, constitutional democracy. It has no experience with true democracy running back through Nasser, the British, and the Ottomans, and its strongest institution is the military. All of this makes it a prime candidate for one-man, one-vote, one-time or a weak, illiberal democracy on the model of Pakistan.

There is probably no saving Mubarak. The longer he stays, the more he is going to discredit the military, and if he orders a crackdown, it could — besides killing many innocent people — further radicalize the street and split the army. The fracture and then the total meltdown of the shah’s army in 1979 laid the ground for the takeover of the ayatollahs. It is essential that the Egyptian military maintain its coherence so it can shepherd the political process forward. Ideally, a military-backed transitional government will present a package of constitutional reforms to the Egyptian people for a vote, setting up new parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year or so.

Putting aside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s absurd early assurance that Egypt is “stable” and Vice President Joe Biden’s incredible denial that Mubarak is a dictator, the Obama administration has performed as well as could be expected in the fast-moving conditions of a revolution undercutting a longstanding ally. Especially given that it has put so little stock in reform and democracy. Events in Egypt show that George W. Bush was right to deny the existence of an “Arab exception” to people’s natural distaste for repression. But Bush’s administration underestimated the difficulty of implanting liberal democracy in the hardscrabble soil of the Middle East — which is why our hopes and our fears about Egypt are so hard to separate.


Can-Do Collectivism

The president’s State of the Union address wore a flag pin. But to paraphrase the president on another occasion, safeguarding the American experiment takes more than expressions of patriotism. President Obama made a Reaganesque joke about the ham-handedness of government. But he nonetheless seems oblivious, quite unlike Reagan, to the dangers that unconstrained government poses to the American future. Nor, apparently, does the president believe that the protection of Americans from threats abroad warrants more than sporadic rhetorical leadership.

Unless, that is, the threat is to our “competitiveness,” Obama’s latest catch-all justification for liberal domestic policies. (Obama’s vaunted pragmatism often seems to consist entirely of flexibility in the production of such justifications.) We should welcome other countries’ prosperity, not fear it, especially as it typically adds to our own — so long as those countries are assimilating into a peaceful world order. Obama’s approach of fretting about their prosperity while ignoring the challenges of keeping the peace is exactly backward.

American workers and companies can hardly be made more competitive in any case by a strategy as confused as the one Obama outlined. He said that the government cannot pick the industries of the future — moments before explaining how it is going to create jobs in renewable energy. His proposal to improve the nation’s infrastructure centered on the faddish boondoggle of high-speed rail, which is wholly unsuitable for a country with our population density. He favors increased subsidies for higher education that are more likely to increase college tuitions than to prepare our work force for the challenges of tomorrow. His plan for Social Security must consist entirely of tax increases, since he ruled out every other expedient. He is unwilling to rethink a health-care plan that is likely to exacerbate the country’s economic burdens: increasing insurance premiums, reducing wages, raising taxes, and adding to the national debt. Obama’s economic strategy is a high-speed train to nowhere.

Every once in a long while the president made a worthwhile, though usually vague, proposal. He expressed interest in cutting the corporate tax rate while simplifying the corporate tax code: a reform that has become more pressing with each year as other countries have cut their rates. Even vaguer was his call for reforming the rest of the tax code. Regarding these promises the Republican posture should be to distrust and verify.

“We do big things,” President Obama said. Too bad that what his administration mostly does is big government.

#page#ROE AT 38

Ho-Hum Horror

The case of Kermit Gosnell reached the newspapers just a few days before the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. President Obama did not mention Gosnell in his official statement celebrating the anniversary. But the case sheds more light on Roe’s import than the statement did.

Obama did not refer to the word “abortion,” preferring instead to discuss “reproductive freedom” and the “fundamental principle” that “government should not intrude on private family matters.” The stories about Gosnell were a little less abstract. They told of a Philadelphia clinic where dirty instruments spread venereal disease, cats roamed and defecated freely, and some patients died. The state government conducted essentially no oversight; administrations of both parties wanted to keep abortion as free from governmental intrusion as possible.

The clinic’s lack of hygiene is not the detail that has captured the most attention, or inspired the most outrage. It turns out that Gosnell frequently, perhaps hundreds of times, fully delivered intact fetuses and then took scissors to the newborn’s spine. In his words, he engaged in “snipping” to “ensure fetal demise.” In many cases, the fetuses were in the third trimester.

This procedure, sometimes called a “live-birth abortion,” is illegal. But not thanks to President Obama. As a state legislator in Illinois, he argued that the law should offer no protection to neonates if they had been delivered before viability. He said that protecting them would violate Roe v. Wade and undermine the right to abortion. What looked like infanticide to most people was for him, it must be inferred, a “private family matter.” When Gosnell applied his scissors to pre-viable children, he was, on Obama’s terms, merely exercising a cherished freedom.

Credit Obama with a real insight: The physical location of a human being conceived five months ago may mark the difference between whether he is considered a “fetus” or an “infant,” but it cannot mark a moral difference. Nor can it make a moral difference whether this being is partly inside the womb. When Congress moved to ban partial-birth abortion, most liberals took the view that any prohibition had to include a health exception: If in the judgment of the abortionist the safest method of . . . ensuring fetal demise . . . was to partly deliver the fetus, crush its skull, vacuum its brains, and then deliver the rest, then he had to be free to do so — at any stage of pregnancy. President Obama favored this health “exception.”

A few liberals — notably Supreme Court justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; also the celebrated intellectual Richard Posner in his role as a judge — made the moral point as well: What difference could it possibly make whether the fetus was partly out of the birth canal when its life was ended? Start with the correct view that location does not matter; add the liberal view that partial-birth abortion is justified whenever an abortionist says so; and it is hard to escape the conclusion that a live-birth abortion is justified whenever an abortionist rules it the safest method of killing.

We don’t know that Gosnell has closely followed the Supreme Court’s opinions or the president’s statements. We can say that his actions perfect the logic of the mainstream of the pro-choice movement. He has followed premises shared by the president and by four Supreme Court justices to their unavoidable conclusion.

Concluding his statement, President Obama said, “I hope that we will recommit ourselves more broadly to ensuring that our daughters have the same rights, the same freedoms, and the same opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.” Let us commit ourselves to ensuring that our sons and daughters have the opportunity to live; an opportunity cruelly snatched away from more than 50 million human beings since the day the president commemorated.

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

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