‐ They’ll stop at nothing, those Republicans — even quoting the president’s words.
‐ At the moment, the Obama campaign’s major message appears to be that Mitt Romney is an outsourcer who won’t release enough tax returns. Romney argues that if he releases more, the Democrats will distort what’s in them and demand still more. We can’t imagine anything in Romney’s tax returns that would make a rational voter turn against him, which weakens the argument for the public’s right to know. Past candidates have disclosed more than Romney, either in the form of tax returns or in that of Senate financial-disclosure filings, which strengthens it. Our judgment, expressed on National Review Online, was that Romney would strengthen his position by releasing more tax returns. He risks flare-ups of this controversy that will make it harder for him to get his more important points through the media. If he released more, Democrats would indeed take their shots and be unsatisfied, but it would be easier to deflect their demands if Romney matched the disclosure rates of recent candidates. This advice may, however, be moot. Romney has dug in, as have many of his supporters, so releasing more information now would look weak. The point he should make from here on out: His tax returns matter less than what Obama would do to everyone else’s.
‐ Speaking to the NAACP, Romney laid out some positions that his audience liked while acknowledging disagreements. The crowd had a positive reaction to his opposition to same-sex marriage (even though the group officially favors it) and support for charter schools. His pledge to repeal Obamacare, on the other hand, drew boos. In our ever more surreal racial politics, those boos led the sages of MSNBC to theorize that Romney had deliberately angered the crowd so as to win votes from racist whites. If Romney had not spoken to the group, they would have said he was reprising the Southern strategy. If he had said only things with which it agreed, they would have said he was downplaying his anti-black agenda. If he had confessed his sin and committed ritual suicide, they might have found something to like.
‐ President Obama, who seems to believe that the work of the president of the United States of America consists in the main of making speeches, offered a deluded account of his political troubles: He has spent so much time “getting the policy right” that he has neglected “to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.” Between the composite girlfriends of his memoir and the “shovel-ready” projects, the president is nothing if not a good storyteller. We do not think he got the policy right: From the pork-packed stimulus to health care, he outsourced his policymaking chores to familiar congressional bulls who have been botching the task for years. The republic desires recovery, not storytime.
‐ Five conservative members of the House of Representatives, led by Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), sent a series of letters to the administration alleging that “influence operations” by the Muslim Brotherhood have affected its policies and noting that several relatives of Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have ties to the Brotherhood. The letters and accusations were widely denounced. Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) defended Abedin, a friend, on the Senate floor. There are two legitimate issues here, best considered separately. First, congressional Republicans could reasonably make discreet inquiries about how the State Department handled Abedin’s security clearance. Second, the administration’s policies touching on the Muslim Brotherhood deserve scrutiny. Bachmann et al. present no evidence that the group’s “influence operations” explain any administration policies. That they lead with this charge does not augur well for the success of their initiative, or reflect well on their judgment.
‐ Kathleen Sebelius has announced that she, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, let states out of the work requirement imposed on them by welfare reform in 1996. The work requirement was the central element of that bipartisan reform, and what made it successful in reducing child poverty and welfare caseloads. Nobody, until now, has ever claimed that the law gave the secretary the authority to waive it. Few discussions of this issue note how weak the work requirement is. States have to ensure only that 40 percent of welfare recipients are participating in 30 hours of work (or on-the-job training, or similar activities) a week. Federal benefits such as food stamps and public housing come with no serious work requirements. And if there is any case for changing the law, it must be made in Congress, as old-fashioned as that may sound to this administration.
‐ Even many liberal social scientists have largely accepted that the intact biological family is generally superior as a locus of child-rearing to other family forms: those led by single parents, or those involving divorce or adoption. Same-sex parents are held to be the only exceptions to this rule: They are supposed to yield outcomes at least as good as those of everyone else. Hence the controversy surrounding Mark Regnerus’s recent study casting doubt on this idea. Two hundred academics have issued a statement denouncing the study, and four of Regnerus’s colleagues on the sociology faculty of the University of Texas at Austin have released their own (they chastise him for “irresponsible and reckless representation of social science research”). A gay-rights activist has filed an ethics complaint, which the university is investigating. The study has its limitations, but it also exceeds the standards of the field. Nobody filed ethics complaints or started petition drives about the earlier, inferior studies. The mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace said that “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” In the modern academy, it must be inversely proportioned.
‐ Former FBI director Louis Freeh made a damning report on Penn State’s handling of Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse. The highest officials, including head football coach Joe Paterno, knew of Sandusky’s behavior as long ago as 1998 and chose to handle the matter quietly, to protect the reputation and the revenue of their cherished program. The NCAA responded to the report by fining Penn State $60 million, banning it from bowl games for four years, and wiping out its victories from 1998 to 2011. The last move seems senseless: No one denies that Paterno was a great coach with stellar teams. The other penalties, however, do not go far enough. Penn State should lose its program. The benchmark should be SMU, which lost two years in the Eighties for paying players under the table. Raping boys in the shower should cost Penn State two years plus at least another year, for emphasis. The values Paterno upheld were effort, teamwork, and athletic excellence. Turning football into a golden calf corrupted these ideals, and allowed worse corruptions to flourish.
‐ Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.), who heads her party’s Senate campaign committee, gave a speech to test out a new gambit. The tax cuts enacted at the behest of President George W. Bush expire at the end of this year. Most Democrats believe that the tax cuts that directly benefit investors and high earners should be allowed to expire, while the other tax cuts continue. Murray said that if Republicans block action on legislation to this effect by insisting on extending all the tax cuts, Democrats should let taxes rise for everyone. Some Democrats believe they will gain leverage over Republicans with this threat. We think its main effect will be to remind voters which party is more willing to countenance higher taxes on the middle class. May Murray’s strategy prosper, if not her cause.
‐ A host of celebrities and government officials called for “gun control” in the wake of July’s horrific shooting in Aurora, Colo. But one among them should have known better. Author Salman Rushdie, for whom America’s Bill of Rights has been a great blessing, took to Twitter to announce that “the ‘right to bear arms’ is the real Bane of America.” After his book The Satanic Verses provoked the Iranian state into issuing a fatwa against his life in 1989, Rushdie surrounded himself with armed guards. Their presence may have spared him the fate of one of his translators, who was stabbed to death. (Two others were severely injured in similar attacks.) Rushdie now joins a small but vocal clique of celebrities who are unwilling to extend the courtesy of self-defense that they enjoy to citizens less prominent than themselves.
‐ As President Obama would have it, the federal government said, “Let there be an Internet,” and there was an Internet — only to see its mighty benevolence ignored by those who profited from its creation. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money,” he told a crowd in Roanoke, Va., in mid-July, in the process of making an unfortunate case that businesses ultimately owe their success to the state. The contention is false in detail and in principle. The Internet as we know it today was developed by a combination of the U.S. Department of Defense, Xerox, the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee, and a wide range of private companies that were left largely to their own devices. Whatever role the state played, it did it within its legitimate function as defender of the realm, not as an economic partner seeking to stimulate the economy. Al Gore could not be reached for comment by e-mail.
‐ While a few miles down the highway the city of San Bernardino was declaring bankruptcy, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will commit the state to tens of billions of dollars in new spending for a high-speed-rail project, the first leg of which will connect the mighty metropolises of Fresno and Bakersfield. The state has no money, several of its cities have gone into bankruptcy, and the finances of its largest city are perilous; if past is precedent, the projected $68 billion expense will end up being much more. Ultimately, the project will connect Los Angeles with San Francisco, though to what end is not clear: Air travel between the cities can be had for $120 or so and takes just over an hour. As anybody who has ever languished on the 405 can attest, California’s acute problem, particularly in the southern end of the state, is travel within its cities, not between them. Governor Brown boasts about the jobs that the project will create, but jobs created by spending tens of billions of dollars on superfluous public-works projects leave the public worse off.
‐ Whole towns and villages in Syria have been reduced to ruin. The dead number 18,000 at a minimum, and 125,000 are refugees. The rebels — otherwise the Syrian Free Army, and realistically the Sunni majority in arms — planted a bomb that killed four of Bashar Assad’s inner circle, including Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law and an outstanding thug in this thugocracy. When the SFA then attempted to build on success by capturing the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo in what would have been an endgame, Bashar Assad and his supporters — otherwise the Baath Party and realistically the Alawite minority — reacted true to form. Helicopter gunships have destroyed yet more districts and sent the rebels flying. Atrocities are fostering irreconcilable hatred. The violence of Bashar Assad has put an end to the Syrian state. Some observers believe that he is driving Sunnis out in order to regroup Alawites into an enclave of their own. The leader of the Kurds, another minority in Syria, says that his people could now gain independence very rapidly. Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia prop up the Alawite regime in a coalition whose real interest is to counter any influence the United States might still have in the region. The regime is likely to collapse anyway, and we will regret not having exerted any influence on the opposition by helping it.
‐ Israeli tourists on a charter flight landed in the Bulgarian resort of Burgas, where a suicide bomber was waiting for them. He had long hair, probably a wig, and he carried a bulky backpack. As soon as the Israelis boarded a bus, the suicide bomber exploded this backpack. He himself, five Israelis, and the Bulgarian tour operator (who by chance was a Muslim) were killed, and some 30 wounded or badly burned. The identity of the culprit remains obscure. One witness says he actually had short dark hair, and another that he spoke English with an Arab accent. His attempt to rent a car failed because his Michigan driver’s license was fake. There may have been accomplices. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu confidently laid the blame for the outrage on Iran, which has previously been caught red-handed trying to kill Israelis in countries ranging from Thailand to India to Kenya to Argentina. His defense minister, Ehud Barak, more specifically singled out Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy. The likelihood, then, is that here was another front in the undeclared war that Iran’s nuclear program is forcing upon so many, and Israel first of all.
A Dividend for Romney
Pointing to Warren Buffett’s “unfairly” low taxes, President Obama has called for an increase in the dividend tax that would, after one sifts through the fine print, raise it from its current level of 15 percent to about 45 percent. This promise could cost him the election.
It could do so for two reasons. First, the value of equities should be approximately the same as the present value of their expected future after-tax dividends. A huge tax increase makes dividends far less valuable. A bad stock market is bad for an incumbent, and Obama’s promise is likely to give us a bad stock market when market participants focus on his policy promises.
Second, and more politically ominous for Obama, firms that expect higher dividend taxes in the future should pay massive dividends this year in order to get the returns to shareholders before the hike takes place. These dividend payments become a near-term substitute for capital investment. Firms that ordinarily would be using their cash to purchase machines, expand operations, and otherwise generate economic growth will mail dividend checks instead.
There are clear signs that this effect is beginning to take hold.The nearby chart shows the recent history of dividend payouts and compares it with the changes in other types of income since the end of the Great Recession. While personal income has increased less than 5 percent since June 2009, and wages have increased an even lower 3 percent, dividend payouts have skyrocketed by 35 percent. Even the more robust improvement in proprietor’s income, or income in owner-operated businesses, does not come close to the growth in dividend payouts over the same period.
There are also signs that these many dividend payments have coincided with a sharp deceleration in capital spending. Through the middle of last year, capital spending contributed about 1 percent on average to overall GDP growth each quarter. This has dropped steadily in recent quarters, and capital spending contributed only 0.32 percent to economic growth in the first quarter of 2012. If capital spending had been normal, GDP growth would have been high enough to let the media ballyhoo the solid Obama recovery.
There is every reason to believe that dividend payments will continue in large numbers through November, and that capital spending will take a pause. This will keep the weak economy in the headlines between now and the election. It will be bad news for Obama — but good news for Warren Buffett’s taxes.
‐ Of all the Cuban dissidents, in prison and out, Oswaldo Payá was one of the most valuable. He was the head of the Christian Liberation Movement, and of the Varela Project — the effort to gather signatures in support of a referendum on basic civil rights. In 2002, Payá won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given by the European Parliament. He was indeed in the tradition of Sakharov. Václav Havel, the late Czech dissident and president, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, without success. (No Cuban has ever won the prize.) Payá has now died in one of those “mysterious car crashes.” His family and many others say the regime finally killed him. Andrei Amalrik was a Russian dissident who died in one of those mysterious crashes (1980). A totalitarian society, he said, is like a soldier pointing his gun at a prisoner 24 hours a day. Eventually, his arm will get tired, the gun will sag, and the prisoner will escape. The Castros’ arms are infuriatingly strong.
‐ China’s Catholics, estimated at 12 million, are split. Their spiritual compass points to Rome — unless it points to Beijing. The government requires bishops and priests to register with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which forbids members to criticize China’s one-child policy and harasses and detains Catholics who recognize the authority of the pope. In July, another Chinese bishop was consecrated without the Holy See’s consent. Within days, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who had just been consecrated auxiliary bishop of Shanghai with support from both Beijing and the Vatican, avoided the imposition of hands by an illicitly consecrated bishop and announced his resignation from the CPA — to long applause, according to one news report. The government’s Administration for Religious Affairs has confined him to house arrest at a local seminary, but it should worry what the answer might be to Stalin’s question.
‐ Ranking high in the category of ideas that are less interesting than they sound (and don’t sound very interesting to begin with) is the plan by an outfit called Clandestine Classics to publish new editions of classic novels with sex scenes added. A press release promises that they will reveal “what Mr. Darcy really wanted to do to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and unveil the sexy escapades of Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre,” all while “keeping the original prose and the author’s voice.” Even if this can be accomplished (and the sample that Clandestine offers is not encouraging), we’d rather Mr. Darcy didn’t tell us. As for Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, we doubt that one reader in a hundred was panting for the details there.
‐ The British Open is played on links courses, those beguiling courses by the sea. When the wind is down, they can be lambs. When the wind is up, they can be nasty lions. According to legend, a Scotsman threw his clubs into the sea after a dispiriting round. He then drowned trying to retrieve them. That captures something of the allure of golf. The latest Open was played at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, in Lancashire. On Sunday, the final round, Tiger Woods was flat. Adam Scott folded. And the veteran Ernie Els, whose career was thought by some to be over, charged from behind to win. A heartbreaking and thrilling game, golf.
‐ This story will sound like one of Mayor Bloomberg’s fantasies, but it is true: There is a New York City saloon that serves nothing but water. While you might expect exotic varieties from New Zealand and France, in fact what the bar stocks is regular New York tap water, purified with ultraviolet rays, ozone, and the ever-popular reverse osmosis. The proprietor says he doesn’t want “chemicals” in his water, though the bar is named Molecule. Adventurous types can get their aqua pura spiked with vitamins, and for those who crave the hard stuff, Molecule offers libations fortified with various blends of roots, herbs, fruits, and mushrooms. Our only concern is that fancy water could serve as a gateway drug. Down a few vitamin A–and–porcini shots and next thing you know you’re moving on to wine coolers, lite beer, and maybe even crème de menthe. And people who pay $2.50 for a glass of tap water certainly would not want their judgment impaired.
‐ To call someone a fox is a high compliment among Arabs, and Omar Suleiman was a fox all right. Head of military intelligence in Egypt since 1991, he was the right-hand man of the deposed president, Hosni Mubarak. A suave figure in beautifully tailored suits and dark glasses, he had an air of authority and secrecy that went well with his job. In activities that were mostly invisible, he made sure that Islamists, the Muslim Brothers especially, did not have their way. He willingly handed Islamists suspected of terror over to American officials for interrogation. Conducting back-channel negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, he was appreciated by all sides except Hamas, the Muslim Brothers’ branch in Gaza. As revolution broke out in Cairo, Mubarak did what he could to make Suleiman his successor, but it was too late, and grounds were found to disqualify Suleiman when he stood for election as president. Avoiding the retribution suffered by Mubarak and his friends, a fox to the last, Suleiman died rather suddenly at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. R.I.P.
‐ William Raspberry wrote an opinion column for the Washington Post for almost 40 years. He was a decent man; in a profession, and a city, in which somebody almost always gets rubbed the wrong way, nobody had a bad word to say of him. More than that, he wrote with decency: A liberal, he was fair, independent, and plain-spoken enough to use that hoariest of tropes, the everyman cab driver, and make it stick. “I grew up in apartheid,” he told one interviewer (he was born in Okolona, Miss.). “And yet it never induced my parents to teach us anything else than that we were responsible for our own behavior, for our own minds.” Dead at 76. R.I.P.
‐ Alexander Cockburn was the Christopher Hitchens of the late Seventies and Eighties: everyone’s favorite British expat and crossover leftist. His Oxford manner made Americans tug their forelocks and propelled his writing into mainstream outlets: the New York Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal. Yet somehow it all went sour. His rigid pro-Communism hurt: He tried to revise Stalin’s death toll downwards and praised Brezhnev’s foreign policy. So did his anti-Semitism: He was the enemy of all things Israeli. Sometimes, to stir up the horses, he would feint right: He died attacking global warming. But wherever the struggle was hottest, he was on the side of mischief and destruction. Journalism became cleaner with his late-career shrinkage, and cleaner still with his death, at 71. R.I.P.
If Barack Obama loses the election, historians will point to his remarks in Roanoke, Va., on July 13 as a cause. Clip the paragraphs and laminate them: They express his worldview with clarity and force.
Obama began by attacking Mitt Romney’s calls for tax cuts. “I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney.” The word “investments” drew him into a rumination on the way the world works. “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. . . . I’m always struck by people who think, Well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”
Register the meaning of this statement: Obama devalues the talents and virtues of the successful because other people — all people? — have them in equal measure.
The president continued: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” He gave as an example “a great teacher.” But then he called in the helping hand of government. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system . . . that allowed you to thrive.” The system of law and property rights? No. “Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” What else? Rachel Maddow’s favorite, the Hoover Dam (a mighty structure, but hardly the Erie Canal); the Internet (half-wrong: the Pentagon helped create it, but the crucial work was done by private actors); the GI Bill (a great boon — but then didn’t all those greatest-generation college graduates have to show intelligence and hard work?). In sum, your talents are a trifle, because the government does the lion’s share.
“That’s the reason I’m running for president,” Obama concluded — “because I still believe in that idea.” That idea is a cradle-to-grave corset of prompts, subventions, and the plans of your betters. Hammer at it, Mr. Romney, and offer an alternative — the American alternative — and you may win.
The Aurora Massacre
One would like James Holmes, the presumptive Aurora, Colo., spree killer, to be lost in oblivion. Empedocles the philosopher supposedly threw himself into Mount Etna to prove that he was immortal. Mass murderers, whether despots or common criminals, hope to be talked about in the world. How much better to remember the men who helped others: Jarell Brooks, who pushed a young mother out of the movie theater despite being shot in the leg himself; Jonathan Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alexander Teves, who died shielding companions.
What will never be lost in oblivion are the arguments that such crimes engender. Gun control: yes, or no. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a devout gun controller, hastened to make the expected point. Movie violence: no, or yes. The Dark Knight Rises, the brooding conclusion of the latest Batman cycle, offered an inviting hook for that discussion. What we must learn anew every day is that brokenness of all kinds, from the little murders of pettiness and cruelty to actual murders, is our lot. Sensible laws, good policing, good training, and self-control can hold the worst at bay, but there will always be slips, falls, and bloody eruptions. Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the models for the teenage killers of Badlands, committed their crimes in 1958, the heyday of Leave It to Beaver. Many mass murderers, from Jack the Ripper to Timothy McVeigh, used no guns. Guns make killing easier, but they also make self-defense easier, which is one of the reasons gun owners value their weapons.
More debate came via ABC’s Brian Ross, who announced that a “Jim Holmes, of Aurora, Colorado” was listed on a tea-party website as a new member. “James Holmes,” however, is a common name, and the tea partier Ross slandered had nothing to do with the Holmes who allegedly committed the crime. Ross acknowledged the error within minutes. But consider the mindset that produced it: Some gnome found the tea-party website, probably by googling “Holmes” + “Tea Party”; some producer fed the info to Ross; and, without further checking, Ross read it, because all parties assume that the Tea Party is a petri dish for murderous lunacy. The cows are sick — find a witch. Or, if you work in the mainstream media, a tea party will do.