‐ Egyptian prosecutors are investigating a popular television comedian for insulting the president. That could never happen here. When do popular television comedians insult the president?
‐ Chuck Hagel, the Republican former senator from Nebraska, is President Obama’s choice to be secretary of defense. Hagel has his virtues, no doubt. To begin with, he is a decorated Vietnam War vet. But he has his shortcomings as well. He labeled the Iraq War surge the biggest mistake since Vietnam. He has repeatedly opposed sanctions on Iran. He is for direct talks with Hamas, a terrorist group pledged to destroy Israel. He would not sign a letter urging the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group. He voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. He has griped about the “Jewish lobby” and its allegedly pernicious effect (he later regretted the choice of words). He has said that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities ought not to be an option. And so on. Obama’s nomination of Hagel sends a clear signal to Iran and other enemies of freedom, democracy, and peace: a dangerous signal. The American people reelected Obama, true, and Hagel reflects his thinking, if not his public positions. (Obama has said all options should be on the table with Iran.) One can certainly see the attraction for Obama of having a Republican war hero preside over the shrinking of our defenses. Let someone else preside over that: Senators, who were elected too, should vote Hagel’s nomination down.
‐ Liberals, convinced that it is irresponsible and unreasonable for congressional Republicans to seek to tie spending cuts to an increase in the debt ceiling, are increasingly pondering desperate measures to thwart them. One idea, blessed by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, would have the president invoke the 14th Amendment, which says that the validity of the public debt will not be questioned, to borrow even if the debt ceiling gets hit. At best, though, that’s an argument for allowing debt-service payments to continue, not for letting additional deficit spending take place. Another idea is to mint two trillion-dollar coins, deposit them at the Federal Reserve, and use them to finance deficit spending. Should Obama go this route we suspect that the liberal commentators who are indulging this inflationary idea, including Paul Krugman, would find that the public has a very different idea of which party was being irresponsible and unreasonable.
‐ After a dance along the fiscal cliff, the 112th Congress prepared to go home, without voting on a $60 billion bill for Hurricane Sandy relief. The House did not act because the Senate had loaded up the bill with pork (e.g., a new roof for the Smithsonian, aid for Alaskan fisheries). The delay caused a hurricane of outrage from local Republicans. The loudest was that of Long Island representative Peter King, but the most consequential was that of New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who called the delay “disappointing and disgusting” and “toxic.” He also mentioned “duplicity” and “shame.” Sometimes a politician has to think with his glands (Churchill at Dunkirk). But Governor Christie, who bonded with President Obama in the aftermath of Sandy, is making a habit of it. This will weigh against his presidential ambitions. N.B.: The 113th Congress immediately approved a $9.7 billion package of relief, and pledged to examine the remaining $51 billion in mid-January.
‐ Hillary Clinton was released from the hospital after being treated for a blood clot in her head. Best wishes to her, and to her family, on her recovery. Now it is time for Congress to question her on the State Department’s deaf-and-blind handling of security at its mission in Benghazi, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed on 9/11 last year. There is much to ask about: A Senate report (Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs) flayed the State Department for not acting on available intelligence, and for ignoring both Libya’s inability to protect the mission and requests from personnel on the ground for more security. Neither the lapse of time nor Clinton’s imminent departure nor her recent health scare should cause Congress to pull its punches. A disaster, caused at least in part by American negligence, happened on her watch. She should speak on the record about her conduct, and her actions or inactions should be weighed when her record and her fitness for future office are judged.
#page#‐ Mark Sanford is reported to be eyeing a run for the House seat vacated by Tim Scott, who was appointed to the Senate when Jim DeMint resigned to head up the Heritage Foundation. Sanford, who represented South Carolina’s first congressional district before being elected governor in 2002, would be favored to win the Republican primary there on March 19. Voters will recall the confusion that reigned when he disappeared from the governor’s mansion for a week in June 2009. He was going hiking in Appalachia, he told his staff before he left. He had been in Argentina, he told a reporter who approached him at the airport when he finally returned. In any case, he was somewhere whose name has four syllables bookended by the letter “a.” Now divorced from his former wife and engaged to his soul mate, as he calls her, from Argentina, Sanford sounds ready to look beyond state politics and revive his career in Washington. His new campaign for a seat in the House will test the theory that voters do not particularly care whether they can find their congressman.
‐ A lot of people are finding their health-insurance premiums going up by double-digit percentages, reports Reed Abelson in the New York Times, “even though one of the biggest objectives of the Obama administration’s health care law was to stem the rapid rise in insurance costs for consumers.” Obama actually promised that American families would save $2,500 a year in premiums under that law, not that Abelson mentions it — or mentions that opponents of the law predicted that its regulations, the worst of which have not yet been implemented, would have this effect. As the months go by, expect to see a large number of businesses dropping their insurance plans, and long delays in the administration’s plans to start administering the exchanges the law directs it to set up. In each case, nothing will be as predictable as the media’s surprise.
‐ Since the massacre in Newtown, liberals have cried for bans on “assault weapons” and high-capacity ammunition magazines. California senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce legislation to this effect; her proposal would essentially resurrect the Clinton-era ban, which expired in 2004, while tightening some of the definitions and requiring registration for many guns. “Loopholes” were intrinsic to the ban: Prohibit an arbitrarily selected group of guns, and there will be legal ones with no important differences from the banned ones. No assault-weapon ban, whatever its definition, can have much effect in stemming gun violence. Of the two-thirds of murders that involve firearms, 69 percent involve handguns rather than rifles or shotguns of any kind; very few involve so-called assault rifles; and assault rifles are not functionally different from hunting rifles, so it’s unclear what benefit there is in forcing criminals to switch from one to the other. High-capacity magazines are similarly of dubious benefit to a shooter: They require less frequent reloading, but they also jam more often, and the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech reloaded without issue. Feinstein’s measure is unlikely to pass the Republican House, and unlikely to do any good if it becomes law. Congress should not waste time on it.
‐ One loophole that Feinstein’s bill shares with the expired assault-weapons ban is that it would not apply to restricted guns that are already in circulation at the time of enactment (though such guns would need to be registered this time around). Unsurprisingly, Americans have lined up to clear out gun dealers’ existing stocks of these weapons. The sales explosion emphasizes an obvious problem with these kinds of initiatives on their own terms — they may result in more gun buying, not less, at least for a while. And beyond that, as Clayton Cramer has noted on National Review Online, it is not a good idea for people to purchase guns just because they “still can.” Firearms ownership is a serious responsibility, and government policy should not encourage panic buying.
‐ Properly understood, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press does not require the use of a printing press (as some have flippantly suggested), or even apply only to printed material; but neither does it give reporters license to break any laws they find inconvenient. This point was lost on NBC’s David Gregory, who, while interviewing NRA head Wayne LaPierre, brandished a 30-round magazine, possession of which violates District of Columbia firearms laws. (Network brass had requested a permit for the magazine and been turned down.) When the police announced an investigation, Gregory’s media brethren were up in arms — even as non-reporters were being arrested for possession of similar magazines. Gregory’s intentions were pure and public-spirited, they said, which is also true of people whose attempts to provide for their own defense run afoul of local gun laws. Gregory did neatly illustrate one of the NRA’s points, that laws are no obstacle to those determined to break them.
‐ The Journal News, a Gannett paper serving the suburbs north of New York City, recently secured the names and addresses of pistol-permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties through an open-records request — and published them as an interactive online map. It was foreseeable that drawing attention to permit holders — those gun owners who follow New York State’s strict laws — would not turn out well, and the results did not disappoint: Reformed burglars told Fox News that the list would be incredibly helpful to the current practitioners of their old trade (whether one is looking to steal a gun or to avoid being shot during a theft), inmates at one jail taunted guards whose addresses had been made public, police organizations protested because the addresses of many officers had been included, and a woman who had left an abusive relationship told Newsday that she feared for her safety. Nonetheless, the Journal News is still trying to publish information from Putnam County, whose officials refuse to release it. The Journal News is demonstrating colossally poor judgment. If New York’s state legislature wants to insist that every handgun owner have an official permit, it should act to protect the resulting records from freedom-of-information requests.
#page#The Progressive U.S. Tax Code
For many years, left-wing intellectuals have exalted Western Europe as the paragon of redistributive equity, contrasting it with the trickle-down nightmare that is America. But on tax policy, at least, that characterization is flat-out wrong, especially after the latest round of tax increases.
President George W. Bush cut taxes for everyone. The “fiscal cliff” dispute was not over most of those tax cuts, but just the ones for the “rich.” After the dust settled on the deal, we were left with a permanent extension of Bush’s tax rates for lower brackets and a large increase in the marginal tax rate on incomes above $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for married couples filing together. The top rate climbs to 40.8 percent once the phasing out of deductions and exemptions is accounted for.
This agreement locked in big tax cuts for low- and middle-income Americans and a much higher rate for those with high incomes. The resulting tax system, then, is more progressive than the system Bush inherited from President Clinton. As the nearby chart shows, it is also more progressive than the systems of most European nations.
The chart compares our tax structure with those of countries in Western Europe (plus Canada). It provides a snapshot of the relative progressivity of the tax systems by plotting the ratio of the top marginal income-tax rate in each country in 2011 to the rates that applied to incomes of $30,000 and $80,000 that same year. The higher the ratio, the more progressive the system. $30,000 was the average income of the second income quintile in 2011, and $80,000 was the average income of the fourth quintile that year, so these two income levels roughly represent a typical lower-class family and a typical family from the upper middle class. The U.S. ratios for both 2011 and 2013 — before and after the recent deal — are shown.
Before the recent hikes, the top bracket in the U.S. faced a marginal income-tax rate (35 percent) more than two times as high as that of someone making $30,000 (15 percent). Someone making $80,000 paid taxes at a 25 percent marginal rate, so the ratio there was a bit greater than 1.
This year, the highest earners will face a marginal tax rate of 40.8 percent — almost three times as high as that of a worker making $30,000. As of 2011, only four countries had a more progressive federal income-tax schedule by this measure: Finland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands.
Interestingly, the U.S. was comparatively progressive even before the tax increases. One reason is that the massive welfare states finance themselves by taxing everyone. In Belgium and Austria, for example, workers making $30,000 pay a marginal tax rate of more than 40 percent to the central government. An equivalent U.S. worker pays a 15 percent marginal tax rate.
European nations also finance themselves with huge value-added taxes (VATs), which this chart does not include. Since VATs are regressive, adding them to the analysis would only make the U.S. look more progressive.
This is not the only way in which the U.S. tax system looks progressive in comparison with its European counterparts. An OECD study in 2008 found that the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans paid 45.1 percent of taxes (including direct taxes, such as income and payroll taxes, national and local, but excluding sales and other indirect taxes), compared with the OECD average of 31.6 percent; and wealthy Americans paid more than the wealthy in any other OECD country even if one takes into account their share of total national income.
In other words, from now on, the European Left should point to the United States as a redistributive paradise.
#page#‐ Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain with 500 stores and 13,000 employees, is the largest corporation so far to sue the Obama administration in response to its mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception, and some drugs that may act as abortifacients. Hobby Lobby is owned by a Christian family who say that paying for abortion-inducing drugs violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. Though several other companies have won injunctions against enforcement of the mandate while their suits are pending, Hobby Lobby’s request for one was denied in late December by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, who hears emergency appeals for the Tenth Circuit, also denied a request for a temporary injunction. Though they face potential fines of up to $1.3 million a day, the owners of Hobby Lobby have announced that they will not comply with the mandate. It’s not a choice they should face in a free society.
‐ A particularly black-hearted newspaper editor once set up keyboard shortcuts on his computer to generate headlines he expected to use regularly: “Bus Plunges into Ravine in Himalayas,” “Thousands Dead in Bangladesh Flood,” “Clinton Denies Wrongdoing,” etc. (That last one has been golden for 20 years.) Here’s a candidate: “Social Security: It’s Worse Than You Think.” The latest comes from a study published in the journal Demography in which the authors document that the federal government has failed to update its forecasting processes since the 1930s, when Social Security was created. As a result, the government has been systematically understating the imbalance between Social Security’s resources and its liabilities. In part, this is a happy problem: Improvements in health, particularly in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and the decline in smoking, have people living longer — longer, even, than Social Security forecasts project. But that means more retirees drawing more checks, and a tightening of the ratio between beneficiaries and working taxpayers. The authors project that this will mean an additional $800 billion in Social Security expenses by 2031, and that the so-called trust fund will be depleted years before government experts expect. The authors, a Harvard professor specializing in government statistics and a Dartmouth professor of demography, find that the government’s statistical “methods are antiquated, subjective, and needlessly complicated — and, as a result, are prone to error and to potential interference from political appointees.” Expect the same from the expert panels entrusted with implementing Obamacare.
‐ Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein called tax increases on the wealthy “appropriate” during the fiscal-cliff theatrics, and then promptly made sure that Goldman Sachs executives were not among those facing hikes: The firm normally pays out bonuses and stock awards to top executives in January, but this year they were rushed through in the final hours of December in order to evade the New Year’s tax increase. Some $65 million in stock options was divided up among the bank’s bosses. Other firms followed suit, while notable lefty gazillionaires such as Al Gore and George Lucas worked to speed up deals in order to close them by year’s end. Goldman’s position is particularly obnoxious, in that the fiscal-cliff deal extends a tax subsidy for Lower Manhattan building projects — a program that provided $1.6 billion in tax-free financing for the bank’s corporate headquarters. Of course Lloyd Blankfein doesn’t mind tax increases: Somebody has to pay for his headquarters, and it might as well be you.
‐ The White House’s “We the People” initiative has received a petition “to secure funding and resources, and begin construction on a Death Star by 2016.” The 25,000-signature mark was surpassed months ago, which means the administration is required to respond. If there were ever a Keynesian stimulus project we could support, this is it. The amount of steel required for the American Death Star would cost $852 quadrillion, and manning the Death Star would undoubtedly create over a million jobs. This battle station would also provide the ultimate deterrent: Who would challenge America when we could destroy entire planets with a single shot? The Death Star could also function as the lifeboat upon which we could evacuate in case of a planet-wide disaster. Let us just remember not to place a small thermal exhaust port right over the shaft leading to the reactor system, or at least ensure that it is smaller than a womp rat.
#page#‐ Louis Michael Seidman, a law professor at Georgetown University, opens a New York Times op-ed by writing that our government is “broken” because of “our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.” Provocative! Does Seidman go on to explain how our government is broken? To show how its disappointing features result from provisions of the Constitution? To argue that any specific, currently operative provision of the Constitution is “evil”? You can guess the answer. Seidman wants us to “respect” those parts of the Constitution that he thinks deserve respect, but offers no explanation of how we are to distinguish those parts from the archaic, evil parts, and offers only mush about what we are to do when we disagree about which is which. As a precedent for constitutional disobedience he cites the Founders’ discarding of the Articles of Confederation. That was a revolutionary act by men committed to making the rule of law work. On the evidence of his op-ed, Seidman is not a revolutionary, because revolution is serious business.
‐ This past month, Syrian rebels have expanded their assault on Bashar Assad’s regime to target innocent Christians within the country. In one noted incident, members of the Free Syrian Army are reported to have kidnapped Andrei Arbashe, a 38-year-old Christian taxi driver, beheaded him, and fed his body to wild dogs. These violently anti-Christian rebels are supposedly members of Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which believes it is waging jihad in Syria. Rebels associated with al-Qaeda besieged the Monastery of St. James, which lies less than 60 miles away from Damascus in the desert. The jihadists were trying to prevent the celebration of Christmas at the monastery, but failed in the attempt. The Syrian Civil War has displaced over 300,000 Christians, and the increasing number of religiously motivated attacks threatens to erase the Christian community from the country.
‐ Egyptian currency reserves have fallen to about $15 billion, a level that the country’s central bank considers a “critical minimum.” Much lower than that, and the country may not be able to afford to pay for the food that it has to import. President Mohamed Morsi is hoping for a loan of $4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund to tide things over. Given the state of the Egyptian economy, the deal is risky enough, and made riskier still by the president’s reshuffling of his cabinet to strengthen the number of Muslim Brothers in it. Out goes Mumtaz al-Said, the finance minister, and in his place comes El-Morsi Hegazy, an expert on Islamic financial practice. The young and the secular are longing to take to the streets again, and should the IMF loan be postponed or hit some snag, they will have good grounds for protesting about the incompetence of the president and the Muslim Brothers whom he imposes on them.
‐ Cristina Kirchner, the Argentine president, has written an emotional letter to British prime minister David Cameron, and taken out advertisements in the British press, to say that the Argentines want the Falkland Islands handed to them. Again! The great Dr. Johnson thought that the Falklands were a pimple on the bottom of the world. A British pimple, though. Kirchner accuses Britain of colonialism, to which the islanders reply that they have not been colonized but are British by choice. Cameron is safe in holding a referendum to determine their future later in the year, because pro-Argentine sentiment is practically nil. Is Kirchner trying to divert the attention of Argentines away from domestic problems, or might she be eyeing oil reserves offshore? Thirty years ago, her predecessor put Mrs. Thatcher to the test. Just in case Kirchner is tempted to have another shot at invasion and conquest, the Falklands garrison has been increased and a new military airfield built to take heavy-transport jets.
‐ People may not be sure quite where Mali is on the map, but they are going to have to discover it. The country is mostly Sahara desert, which sounds unpropitious but turns out to be a setting every bit as suitable as Afghanistan or Iraq for a power struggle. Among the contenders piling in are the former president and various armed forces that staged a coup, deposed him, and brought about all the anarchy. Trained in Qaddafi’s Libya, Tuaregs — the local nomads and separatists, who speak their own language — have set up an independent state. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates have taken over another chunk of the country and in the name of Islam are terrorizing the inhabitants with public executions and floggings while busily destroying historic Sufi mosques and mausoleums in Timbuktu and preparing for jihad. There are already 400,000 refugees. The United Nations, France, and the African neighbors in dread of AQIM’s spreading out from a permanent base in Mali all agree that something must be done. In the final debate of the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney broached the subject, but in general it has escaped notice. Behind closed doors, the talk is of military intervention in the fall of this year. Yet another object lesson is unfolding of the misery of failed states and the helplessness they induce.
#page#‐ A woman in Oregon bought some Halloween decorations at Kmart. When she opened the box, she found something unusual: a letter from an inmate of the Chinese gulag. In broken English, mixed with Chinese, the inmate issued a plea for help. He or she — the letter was unsigned, of course — talked about the brutal conditions in this particular camp. These conditions are especially brutal for Falun Gong practitioners, the letter-writer said. Inmates are overworked, needless to say, but they are also tortured and killed. The letter in the Halloween box was like a message in a bottle. Amazingly, it floated into someone’s hand. Slave labor in China is one of the most underreported stories in the world. The Chinese gulag itself, laogai, is underreported. It took extraordinary courage for that inmate to secrete that letter in the Halloween box — no matter that the letter was unsigned. It can be tracked. China is full of courageous people, and maybe they will break free someday.
‐ Gérard Depardieu was a hero for a minute, dragging his millions just over the Belgian border and shouting back whatever the French is for “I am John Galt!” in the face of President François Hollande and his 75 percent tax rate. His admirers were willing to overlook some transgressions, including the recent drunk-driving charge resulting from his crashing a scooter — and even willing to overlook the fact that Depardieu is an awfully big guy to be riding a scooter. (He is at the moment preparing to portray Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a film about the disgraced IMF chief; make of that what you will.) That was all well and good, until he started brandishing his new Russian passport. To run away from President Hollande and his grasping taxmen to the relative (very relative) freedom of Belgium is one thing; to flee into the arms of a tyrant like Vladimir Putin is quite another, and Depardieu should be ashamed of himself. A public man with a degree of charm can get away with a lot of shenanigans, and Depardieu certainly has had his share. But when Sean Penn makes his pilgrimages to kneel at the feet of Hugo Chávez, or Harry Belafonte extols the murderous Fidel Castro, real damage is done — such is the power of culture. Depardieu’s celebrity is a loaded gun, but it seems that he is too loaded to know which way he is pointing it.
‐ Déjà vu, toujours gauche? Two thirtysomethings, Morgan Gliedman and Aaron Greene, were arrested in their Greenwich Village pad and charged with criminal weapons possession. They were accused of having seven grams of an explosive, two shotguns (one sawed off), a flare launcher, and several books on bomb-making in their possession. Gliedman, who gave birth shortly after her arrest, is the daughter of an oncologist; Greene is the son of an architect. The Gotham tabs naturally recalled the 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse that killed three Weather Underground terrorists. Gliedman and Greene have no known political affiliation. Too bad for them — maybe one day they could have been old chums of the president of the United States.
‐ For a former vice president once best known for being boring, Al Gore has had a remarkable post-political career. Gore’s political influence has helped Current TV, the station he started with wealthy lawyer Joel Hyatt, win carriage in more than 40 million homes, yet it has drawn astoundingly poor ratings. Former Democratic governors Jennifer Granholm and Eliot Spitzer hosted prime-time shows that attracted around 40,000 viewers a night, about 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the number of viewers Fox News had at a similar time. So Al Jazeera, the global news network owned by the government and royal family of Qatar, eager to spread its influence to the United States, purchased the network and its distribution deals for $500 million. The channel will now become Al Jazeera America, dispensing with all the current on-air talent Current employs. The marriage of Als appears to have been an arranged one: Current refused to even entertain bids from Glenn Beck’s network, The Blaze, explaining in a statement that “Al Jazeera has the same goals” as Current — among other things, “to speak truth to power.” (Gore, a vociferous opponent of fossil-fuel production of all kinds, seems to care not a whit about selling out to petro princes.) We wish the new owners the same success as the old.
#page#‐ In Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained, the word (brace yourself) “nigger” is used more than 100 times. Jake Hamilton of Fox Houston asked actor Samuel Jackson how he felt about such frequent use of “the n-word,” to which Jackson responded: “No, nobody, none — the word would be . . . ?” After some further back-and-forth, during which Hamilton squirmed and giggled nervously and Jackson, maintaining a stern demeanor, steadfastly refused to answer unless Hamilton actually said the word, they both cracked up and moved on to the next question. We can’t blame Hamilton for his reticence; few words are more abhorrent, and while there may be some cases where a white person can say the word without incurring universal condemnation (being a Democratic senator, like the late Robert C. Byrd, helps), considering how easy it is to misjudge, it’s safest to refrain completely. Yet if we cannot bring ourselves to say it when the topic of discussion is the word itself, we are affording it a talismanic power that only reinforces the tension it creates. You can’t face up to something if you can’t talk about it, as Jackson, at least, understands.
‐ A California teenager, along with her friend, was arrested for drugging her parents’ milkshakes in revolt against their “too strict” 10 p.m. Internet curfew. Thinking the frosty drinks a kindhearted gesture by their daughter, her parents accepted them, hardly suspecting that they had been spiked with sleeping pills to knock them out about an hour later. Suspicious and groggy the next morning, the parents used a drug-test kit and discovered traces of the hypnotics in their system. But, oddly, that was the extent of the girls’ mischief; once online, it seems nothing more took place than typical, harmless Web browsing. Nonetheless, the girls were charged with a couple of crimes — including one of conspiracy — and police are determining whether to try them as adults, which would likely result in some prison time. No longer do teenagers just wait until Mom and Dad fall asleep to sneak out and break curfew; now, adolescent rebellion actually induces their parents into the drowse.
‐ National Review has not been rich in money, though we work at it continually. We have been very rich in editorial talent, however. Our three editors have been WFB, John O’Sullivan, and Rich Lowry. The third of these began the job exactly 15 years ago, so we are marking an anniversary. Rich has steered our ship through an undeniably turbulent time for America. We are now asking ourselves — we the country, that is — “Who are we? What should America be?” In recent years, NR has been not only a magazine but a website as well, publishing loads of material daily. We are grateful for Rich’s efforts. We are grateful for the efforts of all NR-niks. By the way, the boss has not approved this little note — doesn’t even know about it. If there are repercussions, we hope readers will defend us. You could even send checks . . .
‐ In this issue, we give a send-off to Robert H. Bork, scholar, judge, veteran of political battles, and dear friend. He is most widely known for his role in politics — he was caught up in the unspooling of the Nixon administration, firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox, then hiring as Cox’s replacement Leon Jaworski, the man who ultimately brought Nixon down. Bork was brought down himself 14 years later by a liberal smear campaign, when Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court. His greatest influence, however, was as a thinker and writer. In his early academic career he revolutionized antitrust law; his later writings made originalism a standard paradigm for interpreting the Constitution. Originalism is no simple doctrine: Examining the Founders’ intentions can take us back to original conflicts (e.g., Marshall vs. Jefferson on judicial review). But it has reshaped the way many judges and theorists think about the law. Bork is most cherished by us as our lost companion, the mordant and delightful star of many an NR cruise. We got thereby a taste of what his students and family well knew: what a splendid man he was. R.I.P.
‐ In August 1990 something unthinkable happened: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded and ingested an entire country, Kuwait. Arab countries had tried to conquer Israel, in vain; Communists successfully sapped victim states through guerrilla war. At one bound, Saddam brought the world back to the Napoleonic era or the partition of Poland. What to do? The man on the ground, assigned to undo Saddam’s coup de main, was a four-star Vietnam vet, H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. Of course he could beat Iraq, but at what cost, in a world of 24/7 media (CNN had just debuted)? Schwarzkopf marshaled the vast forces that America and its allies contributed; he pummeled Iraqi defenses in an air war (Desert Shield); then in January 1991 he slipped a crushing blow around the Iraqi right wing (Desert Storm). Yes, Saddam’s elite Republican Guard escaped, as did Saddam himself. But those were effects of a political decision to end the fighting early. “Stormin’ Norman” had done the job assigned him, and was universally and properly feted. Dead at 78. R.I.P.
‐ When Hawaii achieved statehood, Daniel K. Inouye became its first U.S. representative. In 1962, he was elected to the Senate, in which he would go on to serve for just 17 days short of 50 years. In the Senate, he was a classic appropriator, a great friend of pork-barrel who would eventually rise to chairmanship of the appropriations committee. In the 1980s, he chaired the Iran-Contra committee; his televised jousting with Oliver North in that forum helped North become a national celebrity. But he will be remembered most gratefully for his heroism in World War II: The account of his bravery in the European Theater makes for compelling reading, and he richly deserved the many military honors he received, culminating in the Medal of Honor. Dead at 88. R.I.P.
Faced with a scheduled tax increase that had already been written into law, and a president and Senate majority determined to keep part of that tax increase, congressional Republicans split. Almost all Senate Republicans and Speaker of the House John Boehner voted for a deal that moderated the tax increases. President Obama wanted higher statutory income-tax rates on everyone making more than $250,000; he got them only on individuals making more than $400,000 and couples making more than $450,000. He also got a phase-out of deductions for couples making more than $300,000.
Most House Republicans voted against the deal in protest of the direction of budget policy. It is certainly worth protesting: Taxes are going up, and so is the federal debt. Republicans who opposed the deal did not, however, have in common an alternative strategy to cutting it, and many of them were happy to see it pass so long as they did not have to vote for it and thus appear to endorse tax increases. Boehner appears therefore to retain the confidence of most House Republicans, which is why nobody challenged him for the speakership. A few Republicans voted against him, but their effort to unseat him fizzled for the same reason the opposition to the deal was so weak: There was no alternative.
We don’t fault either set of Republicans for their votes. The deal had to be passed, and Republicans had to make their lack of enthusiasm for it clear. We do fault both sides for other things, though. No group of Republicans called for extending the payroll-tax cuts enacted at the end of 2010. For that matter, neither did any Democrats. (The Internet has registered the shock and anger of working-class Democrats who have found that their take-home pay has dropped even though they are not among the rich their leaders keep talking about.)
There is a chance that the next fiscal battles, over next year’s budget and over the debt ceiling, will go better for conservatives. The president needs Republicans to cooperate to raise the debt ceiling. They should provide that cooperation, since there is no realistic path to eliminating the deficit in a few weeks. They should, however, pair any increase in the debt ceiling with spending cuts. Tax increases should and, we trust, will be off the table. For Republicans to support a deal that concedes that they lack the power to prevent a tax increase is one thing; to vote affirmatively for new tax increases on top of the ones that have already gone into effect would be another. Around the world, deficit-reduction efforts have been more successful the more they have relied on spending cuts rather than tax increases.
The Democrats say that it is irresponsible for the Republicans to place conditions on raising the debt ceiling because, without an increase, the government would have to default on its debts, and the threat of a default will imperil consumer confidence, credit markets, and the economy generally. They also say, some of them, that for this reason the Republicans will never go through with it. In reality, the government has substantial authority to cover its debt service even if it hits the debt limit. Congress can and should expand that authority, both to reduce the risks to the economy and to nullify a Democratic argument for letting the debt ceiling rise. With that expanded authority, hitting the debt ceiling will mean a cut in government programs but no risk of default.
Republicans should also take heed of the lessons of the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. During the months preceding those shutdowns Republicans had boasted that they would get their way by forcing a shutdown. When they passed budget bills too lean for President Clinton, he vetoed them. The shutdowns turned out to be very unpopular. Republicans tried to blame Clinton for them — his vetoes were their proximate causes — but their prior boasting undermined that attempt. For Republicans to talk now about welcoming a partial government shutdown would repeat this mistake. They should say instead that they are eager to avoid a shutdown and hope that the Democrats’ zeal for higher spending does not cause it.
Conservatives have more leverage in the debt-ceiling negotiations than they did in those over the automatic tax increase. They would be foolish not to use it, or to squander it by overestimating it.