Magazine February 24, 2014, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

‐ We feared the ACA would make companies not want to hire. Good news! It just makes employees not want to work.

‐ The latest from the Chris Christie Super Bowl: David Wildstein, the Christie appointee to the Port Authority who was implicated in the infamous bridge-lane closings, said “evidence exists” that Christie knew about them (bad for Christie). But Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Democrat investigating the matter, said there was no such evidence in 900 pages of documents Wildstein submitted in response to a subpoena. “What he’s talking about must be something other than what he submitted” (good for Christie). Christie’s staff meanwhile released a memo of anti-Wildstein talking points, including even the datum that his high-school social-studies teacher once berated him in public (silly of Christie). Meanwhile, at the other Super Bowl, Christie was booed (standard behavior from fans, but unfortunately timed for Christie). In a year, all this may leave only a layer of grime, or it all may be gone — or Christie may be gone. But the process will be long, and not on message for a presidential hopeful.

‐ Obamacare by the numbers, according to the Congressional Budget Office — labor lost: equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs over the next decade; insurance enrollment: down 1 million from earlier first-year estimate; cost: $1.2 trillion over the next decade; number of Americans uninsured: 30 million. Which is to say: We are spending $1.2 trillion and taking a blowtorch to the work force in order to fund a semi-public insurance system that still leaves tens of millions uncovered. Our president likes to talk about “making investments,” but his rate of return is not looking very attractive. The real news from the CBO report is the agency’s increasingly dour assessment of our long-term economic prospects. Obamacare is one brake on the economy, and one that should be released. But it is not the only one. Undoing what Obama hath wrought may take donkeys’ years — assuming we can get the donkeys out of the way.

‐ Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address was his apology to Bill Clinton. He did not come out and say so, of course (the president is too stiff-necked for that). But his collection of tiny initiatives was just the sort of small ball that Clinton fell back on after the GOP took Congress in 1994, and that Obama disdained in The Audacity of Hope. Among the tiniest: the president of the United States announcing federal contract guidelines. This was a proposal to raise the minimum wage, catnip for Obama’s base. But the minimum wage will rise only for federal contract workers with new contracts. Congress will need to comply for the minimum wage to increase generally, let alone for anything more ambitious. There was talk in the speech of accomplishing great things via executive order. Was this a vision of sunny liberal uplands to come, or wistful bluster? Obama would like the first, but may have to settle for the second.

‐ Most Americans have undersaved for retirement — so much, in fact, that most of their “savings” are actually the value of their expected Social Security benefits. These savings are technically stored in U.S. federal bonds. To augment those insufficient nest eggs, President Obama has a new idea: get them to invest in even more federal bonds. Thus the “MyRA” he pitched in his State of the Union. MyRA dollars would be shielded from losses, but would have to go into the “G fund,” a fund that invests in specially available bonds for which the federal government pays an above-market return. The president’s proposal, in other words, encourages unwise investments: Financial planners generally counsel young investors and those with limited savings to invest in high-return securities such as equities rather than loans to the federal government. To induce Americans to save, we should reduce distortions in our tax code and make enrollment in retirement accounts easier — not subsidize financially illiterate decisions.

‐ Women in America, said President Obama in his State of the Union address, “still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.” It seems no amount of debunking will put this claim to rest. Even the feminist writer Hanna Rosin had “heard the line enough times” that she felt “the need to set the record straight” in Slate. “It’s not true,” she wrote after the speech. Bureau of Labor Statistics data do show that the median earnings of women who work 35 hours a week or more are 77 percent of the median earnings of full-time male workers. As the president is no doubt aware, most of this wage gap is due to the fact that women overall work fewer hours than men, take more time off from their careers, and enter less lucrative fields. Studies that correct for these factors find an unexplained gap of only 5 to 7 percent. Lingering workplace discrimination, which has been illegal since 1963, may account for part of this gap. But employers’ behavior is not what mostly accounts for the difference between men’s and women’s wages, and cracking down on them will not do much to eliminate it. What is wrong and an embarrassment is that the president is still trotting out this statistic.

‐ Congress is debating whether to give President Obama “trade-promotion authority,” which means that he can negotiate a trade agreement that then gets voted up or down with no amendments. The theory is that other countries will be more likely to negotiate with the president if Congress cannot rewrite agreements. Most post–World War II trade agreements happened under this procedure. Republicans are more eager to go along with Obama’s request than Democrats (Harry Reid’s against it) because they are more enthusiastic about free trade. In this case, though, it is hard to see the urgency of passing a bill. Negotiations over a trans-Pacific trade deal are well under way. The price of getting the trade-promotion authority is likely to be congressional demands concerning these negotiations that, if taken seriously, will slow them down. And in recent years it has been easier to get votes for actual trade agreements than for trade-promotion authority. (In the case of actual agreements, there are concrete benefits to set against protectionist scaremongering.) We are all for promoting trade, but the stakes in the fight over trade-promotion authority seem happily low.

‐ Wendy Davis’s Texas gubernatorial campaign is based on abortion and abortion, and also abortion, but she has become strangely reluctant to discuss abortion. Asked by a reporter when she believes that life begins, she pulled an Obama-style “above my pay grade,” mumbling through a mealy-mouthed non-answer: “You know, the Supreme Court of course has answered this decision, in terms of what our protections are.” (In point of fact, the Court ostentatiously declined to answer that question in Roe v. Wade and has never revisited the question.) Her campaign materials boast of a famous filibuster, but they do not say what the filibuster was against, that being restrictions on certain late-term abortions. She has gone so far as to describe herself as “pro-life” in public statements, a unique blend of cowardice and dishonesty. Like those who use “choice” as a euphemism for abortion, Davis does not have the courage of her convictions or the intellectual honesty to be plain about her position on the matter of the surgical dismemberment of unborn children. It is she who made this race — and her career — about abortion, yet she can’t string together two sentences on the issue. Texas must pine for the relative eloquence of George W. Bush.

‐ A new environmental-impact report about the Keystone pipeline states that it will have no environmental impact, or thereabouts. In theory, this clears the way for the Obama administration to stop dragging its feet and approve the project. But the campaign against the Keystone pipeline was never about its environmental impact, a fact copped to by Matthew Yglesias and other liberals in moments of candor. It was, and is, simply a fundraising tool. Because there is a border involved, the Keystone project now is at the mercy of Secretary of State John Kerry, who refuses even to offer a timetable under which he might act on the issue. At this rate, the oil will start flowing sometime during Chelsea Clinton’s administration.

‐ The Guttmacher Institute’s latest survey of abortionists suggests that the abortion rate continued to fall through 2011, when it hit its lowest rate since Roe v. Wade. The institute is part of the abortion lobby, and it spins the decline: Pro-life laws cannot be responsible, because states that did not adopt them saw their numbers fall, too. The institute would prefer to be able to say that increased use of contraception has played a role, but admits that the evidence does not show this. It may be that the reduction is bound up with a broad turn away from abortion in public opinion that is both a cause and a consequence of those state pro-life laws. Whatever the explanation, the fact that there are more than a million abortions a year remains a betrayal of our nation’s founding creed.

‐ The February 3 issue of The New Yorker featured an unusual piece for that left-leaning bastion of commentary and opinion: “A Botched Operation,” by Eyal Press. It is a stomach-churning portrait of Steven Chase Brigham, an Ivy League–educated abortion provider who has been barred from the National Abortion Federation and whose clinics have been repeatedly sanctioned for substandard practices. Press, whose own father performed abortions, doesn’t shy away from the gritty details, citing instances of blood on the floor in Brigham’s clinics and women screaming in pain, as well as the “ghoulish discovery” of “a freezer filled with red biohazard bags that contained 35 advanced-gestational fetuses” in an unmarked building in Elkton, Md. After the liberal media’s near radio silence on the Kermit Gosnell trial, The New Yorker’s coverage of Brigham’s exploitative abortion practices is a step in the right direction. “Why is he still in business?” the subhead of  The New Yorker piece reads. It’s a good question. The better question is, Why is anyone still in that business?

‐ At least 43 of California’s Obamacare navigators have criminal convictions, according to statistics released by the state insurance exchange in response to a records request from National Review. While a financial-crimes conviction automatically disqualifies would-be navigators elsewhere, in California, one approved navigator had accumulated two forgery convictions and a burglary conviction over a twelve-year period. Others had welfare-fraud and forgery convictions, and at least seven navigators had committed more than one offense. That’s disturbing, given that navigators handle highly confidential consumer information, including Social Security numbers, financial data, home addresses, and health records: everything on an identity thief’s wish list. Covered California (the state’s insurance exchange) wouldn’t release all the records NR requested for fear they would “discourage participation in this critical program.” Maybe they should.

‐ Congress passed a “farm bill,” a quinquennial monstrosity that sets spending levels for the federal food-stamp bureaucracy and regulates the generous irrigation of farmers’ bank accounts. The “reforms” included, as well as the spending cuts, are insignificant. In theory, the bill will spend less than would be spent under the terms of previous farm bills. But the “savings” — $16.6 billion out of a $956 billion law — take ten years to accumulate in a bill that’s intended to cover only the next five years. House Republicans achieved just one serious, sensible reform, in the food-stamp program, which makes up 80 percent of the bill’s spending: “Heat and eat,” a loophole that encouraged states to make contributions toward citizens’ utility bills in order to qualify them for greater food-stamp aid, is finally dead. We have realistic expectations for farm bills, but this one still falls short of them.

The Unemployment Trap

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama called on Congress to extend federal emergency unemployment benefits that expired in December 2013. “I’m also convinced we can help Americans return to the work force faster by reforming unemployment insurance so that it’s more effective in today’s economy. But first, this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people.” The president didn’t seem to recognize the internal contradiction in his speech: The extended insurance was surely a significant cause of the surge in long-term unemployment that has left us with a lingering unemployment problem.

Extended unemployment benefits lower workers’ incentives to search for jobs and to take jobs that may not be a perfect fit, and they may also lower firms’ incentives to hire new workers. It might seem intuitive that these incentives sometimes lead workers to delay their return to work, but many on the left dispute this. There is, however, a long line of literature demonstrating that unemployment insurance (UI) extends the duration of unemployment spells. A classic paper by Bruce Meyer and Lawrence Katz in 1990, for example, used data from a large number of U.S. households to show that a potential increase of one week in unemployment benefits lengthened a spell of unemployment by about a fifth of a week. Using their calculations, increasing unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 99 weeks — the increase in UI benefits since 2007 — would on average lengthen a person’s time in unemployment by several months. The problem with such an increase is that it can create a structural problem. A person who has been out of work for a little bit of time has a much easier time finding a new job than a person who must explain a lengthy period of unemployment.

While the Meyer and Katz result is well documented, it may not necessarily apply to job searchers in this particular recession. After the massive financial calamity, perhaps 99 weeks was an essential and equitable response to the absence of job offers for most everyone and did little to extend stays on the unemployment rolls.

SOURCE: OECD. Note: A similar pattern was apparent when using months of UI benefits available in 2007.

The academic literature may well resolve this in the fullness of time, but international data can shed some light on the debate now. Some countries extended benefits greatly, some did not. The key question is, Did those with longer benefits see a bigger increase in long-term unemployment?

The nearby chart explores the relationship between UI duration and the change in the proportion of unemployed workers who were unemployed for a year or longer between 2007 and 2012. The sample is for all OECD countries, with Australia and New Zealand omitted for lack of data, Belgium because its UI benefits are unlimited in duration, and Greece and Ireland because their employment situations were extreme outliers in the sample. There is a clear positive link. Countries with longer-lasting unemployment benefits saw a significantly larger increase in the share of long-term unemployment. The correlation between the two measures is highly statistically significant.

The data suggest that if the U.S. had not increased the duration of UI benefits to 99 weeks, but had instead left them at 26 weeks, the percentage of the unemployed stuck in long-term unemployment would be 8 percent instead of 37.7 percent, which amounts to about 3 million fewer long-term unemployed workers. Now, some of this effect might have resulted from workers’ dropping out of the labor force. But other workers might have avoided the fate of long-term unemployment by being spurred to take jobs more quickly or to search more vigorously in the early months of unemployment, knowing they could not rely on UI indefinitely.

Going forward, finding policies to help the long-term unemployed should be a high priority for all politicians. Extending benefits further would only make the problem worse.

‐ The Republican National Committee changed the rules for the 2016 primaries. Some conservatives say that the new rules condense the primary season too much, allowing the candidates with early money to coast without having to prove their mettle against insurgents. The argument for moving the convention earlier, though, is a strong one: Under the campaign-finance laws the nominee cannot start spending general-election money until then. So a candidate can secure the nomination and then spend months being battered without the means to respond. Maybe that’s why the rules changes passed by a vote of 153 to 9.

‐ There is something about the world that can’t stand an independent, conservative black man. Lately, William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, had some words for Tim Scott, the conservative Republican senator from South Carolina. “A ventriloquist can always find a good dummy.” Barber believes, or claims to believe, that Scott is a tool of far-right elements who control him. Republicans asked the national NAACP to disavow Barber’s statement, which the NAACP refused to do. For his part, the senator responded with good grace. And David Gregory, the host of Meet the Press, asked him whether he thought there was a “dark vein of intolerance” . . . running through the Republican party.

‐ Conservative author and activist Dinesh D’Souza was indicted for funneling straw donations to the 2012 Senate campaign of New York Republican Wendy Long (D’Souza and Long are friends from their days at The Dartmouth Review). Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney who brought the case, is a straight shooter who has convicted a raft of crooked pols, most of them Democrats. Yet Alan Dershowitz, the liberal celebrity lawyer, opined that a felony charge was out of line: “It smacks of selective prosecution.” Except in revolutionary situations (cf. the Declaration of Independence), the law should be obeyed: Fiat justitia. But D’Souza would make a tempting target for prosecutorial overreach: His last project, 2016: Obama’s America, was both a blistering attack on the president and one of the highest-grossing documentaries ever. Now he has a topic for another one.

‐ Ben Bernanke stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve to general applause for his performance during the 2008 crisis. That applause is not entirely deserved: The Fed tightened money severely in the run-up to the crash and loosened it slowly after it happened. Its policy throughout was ad hoc and opaque. The Fed would be better off following a clear, predictable rule, but Bernanke showed no more interest in constraining the Fed than his predecessors had shown. Still, a look at the real-world alternatives — especially the European Central Bank, which tightened well into the slump and got a double-dip recession as a result — suggests that we could have done much worse. Which means that the applause is not entirely undeserved, either.

‐ “We have over a decade of experience with the Soviets cheating on arms-control agreements,” Jack Kemp wrote in the May 22, 1987, issue of National Review, opposing what became the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Now that, in January, President Obama informed NATO that Russia has repeatedly violated that agreement, we have another quarter century’s worth. Evidence of INF-treaty violations has been popping up in the Russian press since 2008, and the Obama administration has done nothing. The agreement was a bad idea in 1987, and it’s a bad idea today: It precludes us from developing intermediate-range weapons while China, North Korea, and Iran all charge ahead with building them. Most important, such agreements are pointless when this administration (and our arms-control bureaucracy at large) has shown no desire to punish violators even when the evidence is on the front pages of Pravda or the New York Times. Reports indicate that Congress will use the evidence of the Russians’ perfidy to resist any more nuclear-arms treaties. It should apply this skepticism more generally, to, say, any nuclear deal with Iran. Senator John Kerry learned about the INF violations in 2012 and privately expressed frustration over them — because, he worried, the revelations would get in the way of future treaties.

‐ Ally Financial (formerly GMAC) is a firm that makes automotive loans. It does not deal directly with consumers: When a dealer sells a car, he works out a loan agreement with the buyer, and if the terms meet Ally’s numerical standards, it may purchase the contract. Ally never meets its borrowers and does not know their ethnic backgrounds, yet the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently forced it to pay a large fine to settle a charge of racial discrimination. How was this possible, with no data on borrowers’ ethnicity? The CFPB used an algorithm that guesses a person’s race from his last name and residence, and, based on this synthetic evidence, it concluded that theoretical blacks had been charged slightly higher interest rates than theoretical whites. Not exactly a smoking gun, but, as usual with Obama-administration enforcers, the merits of the case were immaterial: Ally had an application pending to qualify for borrowing money from the Federal Reserve, CFPB’s parent organization, so it reluctantly coughed up the $98 million. Just another cost of doing business in the Age of Obama.

‐ In 2009, the Gibson Guitar company was raided by armed agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who seized a shipment of ebony from Madagascar because the company “did not ask for or obtain paperwork or official assurances from officials in Madagascar that the wood it was purchasing from Madagascar through its German supplier was legally harvested and exported from Madagascar, notwithstanding the information received by Gibson during the June 2008 trip to Madagascar.” Got all that? Two years later the company was raided again, on equally labyrinthine charges relating to some Indian rosewood. In 2012, the company paid $350,000 for its Madagascar paperwork boo-boo; the Indian case was dropped and the wood was returned. Now Gibson has signaled its defiance by offering the new “Government Series II” Les Paul guitar, with a fingerboard made from guaranteed authentic Obama-condemned Indian rosewood. We invite readers who combine a dislike of pettifoggery (especially when enforced by armed fish police) with an urge to get down with the heavy sounds to buy one — and, perhaps, to emblazon on its face the slogan THIS MACHINE KILLS BUREAUCRATS.

‐ At a certain point, the process becomes the punishment. Such has been the case for Eric O’Keefe, a conservative activist in Wisconsin who has found himself the target of a long “John Doe” investigation conducted by the Democrat-led Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. The DA charges that O’Keefe and other conservative organizations illegally coordinated their activities during the attempted recall of Scott Walker in 2012. O’Keefe charges that the DA’s office is “violating the constitutional rights of private citizens” and exacting political revenge for Walker’s victory. He has threatened to file a federal civil-rights complaint. For now, however, the aggressors are winning. In January, an appeals court in Madison rejected an attempt to shut down the investigation, leaving a host of conservatives stranded and unable to participate in the political process. They “froze my communications and frightened many allies and vendors of the pro-taxpayer political movement in Wisconsin and across the country,” O’Keefe complained. That may have been the intention all along.

‐ Speaking in Munich, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to issue a warning to Israel — reach an agreement with the Palestinians, on whatever terms, or else. “For Israel,” said Kerry, “there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign. . . . There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things.” The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had a response: “Attempts to impose a boycott on the State of Israel are immoral and unjust. Moreover, they will not achieve their goal.” For one thing, “they cause the Palestinians to adhere to their intransigent positions and thus push peace further away.” That sounds right. But it’s not just the Palestinians whose intransigent positions Israel now has to worry about.

‐ Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister of Canada, is an unusual Canadian leader, not least because he has a deep feeling for Israel. In 2010, Canada failed to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council. The reason is that the Canadian government, under Harper, was pro-Israel. Harper responded that he would not go with the anti-Israel flow, easier though it might be. He would not pretend that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was merely a matter of “evenhandedness,” and he would not excuse himself “with the label of ‘honest broker.’” Recently, he was in Israel and gave a speech to the Knesset. It made waves worldwide. He said that his country and Israel had many common interests, but, beyond that, “Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so.” He further said, “Many of the hostile forces Israel faces are faced by all Western nations,” and for the same reasons. “You just happen to be a lot closer to them.” He ended by saying that “through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.” This was a brave speech by a Canadian providing leadership in a West that sorely needs it.

‐ Tunisia has a new constitution, and after an almost unanimous vote of approval there were songs and tears and hugs and waving of the national flag in the National Constituent Assembly. The country may be small but it’s been the pacesetter for the seismic politics that have erupted in the Arab world. Three years ago, the longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali caught a plane out and Rashid Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party, caught a plane in after his long exile in London. People suddenly had to make up their minds as to whether they wanted Ennahda’s imposed Islamization. At a loggerhead, the Constituent Assembly had to be suspended. Riots were almost uncontrollable after Islamists murdered prominent secular politicians, and nobody was arrested. And then, in what some Tunisians are calling a miracle, Ennahda dropped its demand for Islamic law to be written into the constitution. Among other concessions, men and women are to have equal rights, there is to be free speech, and fatwas condemning to death apostates from Islam are banned. The leading constitutional scholar in Tunisia speaks of “a historic compromise between identity and modernity.” Reporters on the spot are recommending caution. Ennahda might sabotage its agreement; Tunisia has proportionately more jihadis fighting in Syria than any other Arab country; and the economy is shot to bits. For the time being, though, it is good news rare from those parts.

‐ Ukraine is in crisis. The political situation is one of stalemate between the unpopular Yanukovych regime and three opposition parties that have been pushed by the protests in Kiev into stronger forms of resistance than they probably intended. In response to this stiffening resistance, President Yanukovych has fired the prime minister and accepted the resignation of the government. But that is more gesture than real concession: Most ministers remain in office as “acting” ministers, and the acting prime minister is a closer ally of the president than was the previous officeholder. These maneuvers have not, moreover, restored anything like stability. Anti-government protests are now spreading more widely throughout western and central Ukraine while the Yanukovych forces are consolidating their hold on the east. Gangs and paramilitary forces are said to be arming themselves to keep control in their own areas. Kiev alone has several hundred thousand guns in circulation. A civil war is at least a possibility, which would be both terrible in itself — see Syria passim — and also dangerous as a temptation to Russia’s President Putin to intervene, seize some of Ukraine, and further advance his well-advertised strategy for the restoration of the USSR (minus Marxism). Though possible, this scenario can be averted. We are thinking in such extravagantly nervous terms because the West failed to respond at all effectively to Russia’s seizure of parts of Georgia in 2008. Putin drew the obvious conclusion that he could risk such adventures with likely impunity. Moscow has been revving up its neo-imperialist foreign-policy machine ever since. Europe (including Germany) and the U.S. should now make it clear that Ukraine’s sovereign independence is a vital Western interest. Any move against it will have serious consequences. They won’t be military consequences, of course, but, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated, there are many ways of seriously hurting an opponent without firing a shot. Most of the Ukrainian people will be on the anti-Putin side too. It is they, after all, whose unexpected resistance halted an audacious Yanukovych–Putin coup only weeks ago. So far they are the best people on the Western side.

‐ Argentina is a peerless deadbeat: In its 200-year history as an independent country, it has defaulted on creditors seven times, and it has just handed its bondholders a new round of losses by devaluing its currency. It is the Detroit of nations: In the early 20th century, it was the seventh-richest country in the world; today it lags behind Equatorial Guinea, undone by a poisonous combination of free spending, cronyism, and mismanagement. Its inflation rate at this writing is pushing 30 percent, its peso having lost nearly 40 percent of its value in a year, and the government is attempting to impose price controls, with the usual catastrophic results. As the collapse quickened, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left the country for a “summit” in Cuba, an appropriately symbolic move. (Note: If your event is being hosted by Castros, it is not a summit, but a nadir.) Meanwhile, her hybrid Marxist-Keynesian (the New York Times’s description, not ours) economy minister is using the national economy as a guinea pig for his pet theories. The Economist once described Kirchner’s politics as “Socialism for foes, capitalism for friends,” and 41 million people are again getting the worst of both worlds: Bondholders will take a haircut in Argentina, but Argentines have to live there.

‐ Jay Leno is wrapping up his time hosting The Tonight Show, a gig that began in 1992. There were some bumps along the way. Early on, the critics said that NBC had picked the wrong man for the job — David Letterman was funnier, edgier. But Letterman’s ratings on CBS trailed Leno’s. Then, in 2009, NBC brass forced Leno to give way to Conan O’Brien, because he would be funnier, edgier. But ratings dipped, affiliates complained, and NBC had to bring Leno back. Do you note the pattern? Those who fancy themselves edgy want comics who fancy themselves edgy, but more people wanted jokes bowled into the 1–3 pocket, night after night. Leno’s humor was good-humored: He could draw blood, but he never struck to maim or disfigure. He treated his targets warmly when they were his guests; his end-of-the-road interview with George W. Bush, who presented him a painting (Bush’s retirement hobby), was typical. Thanks for the good nights.

‐ Rutgers University now offers a class called “Politicizing Beyoncé,” which, the instructor explains, “will explore race, gender, and sexuality in America” through the diva’s life and music. The goal is to “shift students away from simply being consumers of media toward thinking more critically about what they’re engaging on a regular basis.” At last, a way to get college kids to talk pretentiously about pop music! Students will wrestle with “such topics as the extent of Beyoncé’s control over her own aesthetic and whether her often half-naked body is empowered or stereotypical.” We’ve often wondered about that ourselves. Yet while Bey (as we insiders call her) is a considerable improvement over Snooki, the demotic runt who in 2011 was paid $32,000 to speak at Rutgers, it remains unclear on what grounds she has made it into the university’s curriculum alongside quantum mechanics and medieval poetry. On the bright side, though, classes like this are sure to give Rutgers grads a leg up in the job market, as long as there are record stores to be staffed . . . oh, wait . . .

‐ A 46-year-old on top of his profession dies of a heroin overdose. Would Philip Seymour Hoffman have taken a script with such a hackneyed premise? If he had, he would have found a way to play the role memorably. In real life, this was his fate, as the actor was found dead in his Greenwich Village office. Hoffman said he had given up drugs when he was 22, yet he had recently checked into rehab for a heroin-related lapse. We will leave it to celebrity biographers to discourse on the specter of emptiness that seems to haunt so many actors, who must be all things to all roles, and the worth(lessness) of the short-term addiction therapies they favor. Supporters of reformed drug laws seek change because of the woeful expense and social cost of present policies; none of us should be deceived about the toxic effect of drugs on the reckless. Dead at 46. R.I.P. Never to be born: all the interesting plays and movies Hoffman might have illuminated.

‐ Pete Seeger was a Communist — stooge is the wrong word, for that implies ignorance, and Seeger knew what he was doing. As a young folk singer, he recorded peacenik tunes during the Hitler–Stalin pact (why go to war against such an objectively progressive alliance?), then crooned for rearmament once Hitler ended it. He did not criticize Stalin until 1995 — 39 years after Khrushchev. He wrapped his politics in a bright haze of upbeat uplift — an aesthetic that had a political purpose. The American hard Left wants a nation of mobilized (and manipulable) community activists. The main inspiration of collective action in America, the church, is not to their taste; individual sadness, from lonesome songs to the blues, is not to their taste either, except as an occasional grace note. Despite his musical skills, Seeger flattened everything he played and sang. He was a force for bad, politically, musically, morally. Dead at 94. Goodnight, Irene.


Wrong on Principles

The House Republican leadership has been confronted by devilishly difficult tactical choices over the years. But what to do on the issue of immigration right now isn’t one of them. The correct course is easy and eminently achievable: do nothing.

The old Reagan catch phrase calling for non-action — don’t just do something, stand there — has never been more apt. Yet the House leadership rolled out a set of immigration principles including an amnesty for illegal aliens, and presumably will follow up with a push to pass them through the House. This is legislative strategy as unforced error.

The basic tactical reason not to act now is that the last thing the party needs is a brutal intramural fight when it has been dealt a winning hand on Obamacare. The other prudential reason not to act is that President Obama can’t be trusted. Since the president refuses to enforce key provisions of his own health-care law, let alone provisions of immigration law he finds uncongenial, he obviously can’t be relied on to follow up on his end of any trade of amnesty for enforcement. Finally, the House leadership’s principles — although vague — represent bad policy.

They say that nothing can happen unless “specific enforcement triggers have been implemented.” Of course, the architects of the Gang of Eight Senate bill made all the same assurances and then came up with meaningless triggers and insisted on legalizing illegal immigrants before anything else. The way to do enforcement first would be to pass enforcement bills and leave it at that, although they would, of course, never make it through Harry Reid’s Senate or get signed by President Obama.

According to the principles, “there will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws.” For some reason, House Republicans have fastened on eventual citizenship as the key issue. It isn’t. What will matter most to the illegal population is simply getting legalized. The experience of the 1986 amnesty was that most formerly illegal immigrants didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to become citizens. And it is the initial legalization itself that will act as a magnet to new illegal immigrants.

The principles make a suggestive reference to a temporary-worker program to address “the needs of the agricultural industry, among others,” without, of course, explaining why we need more low-skilled workers in the midst of a struggling labor market beset by stagnant wages. We salute Senator Jeff Sessions for blowing the whistle on this folly and relentlessly making the pro-worker case against ever-higher levels of legal immigration.

We believe in incremental immigration reform, but, pace the Republican House leadership, that doesn’t mean simply chopping up the Gang of Eight bill and passing its constituent parts piecemeal. Rank-and-file conservatives in the House should firmly reject the course that their leadership wants to take, and convince it to reconsider. We hope, in short, that they make a clarion call for inaction.


Healthier and Wiser

The new health-care plan from Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Richard Burr (N.C.) is the best one to emerge from Congress yet, and marks real progress in the campaign to replace Obamacare. The plan aims to make health insurance affordable for roughly as many people as Obamacare was intended to, but without the higher taxes, the regulatory micromanagement, the threat of rationing, the reduction in consumer freedom, the vast new bureaucracies, or the perverse incentives. And while not perfect, it largely succeeds in these objectives.

The senators would let the uninsured buy coverage on the individual market with the help of a tax credit. Existing employer-provided coverage would be mostly unaffected, although the tax break for it would be capped (building on one of the few sensible elements of Obamacare).

The plan includes more regulation of health insurance than we would prefer in an ideal world. It retains Obamacare’s mandate that insurers let 26-year-olds get covered on their parents’ policies, for example. The key thing, though, is that the bill allows insurers to continue to sell insurance, properly understood.

Obamacare requires insurers to cover sick people on the same terms as healthy ones, and since that rule drastically reduces the incentive of healthy people to buy insurance it imposes a tax to coerce them into doing so. The senators would address the difficulty many people with preexisting conditions have in getting health insurance in a very different way. They treat it as a serious but discrete problem, not as a reason for restructuring the entire health-insurance market. Legal protections for people who have maintained continuous coverage would be strengthened — thus increasing rather than decreasing the incentive to buy insurance — and high-risk pools would be funded to help people who got sick while uninsured.

The bill also gives states a new option: When someone has not used a federal tax credit toward the purchase of insurance and then needs medical care, the state may, if the person does not object, treat him as having bought an insurance plan equal in value to the credit. The number of uninsured Americans would thus fall without the individual’s being in any way coerced to buy anything from any company.

States would get a new deal on Medicaid: The bill caps the federal payment to them but gives them more flexibility in using it. Ideally they will simply cash the money out for most of their Medicaid populations, allowing them to buy into the regular insurance market instead of staying in the subpar Medicaid one.

All in all, the plan is a major advance for free-market health care — even compared with the situation that obtained pre-Obamacare. Fewer people would be locked out of health-insurance markets by federal tax policy, more competitive pressure would be brought to bear on insurers and health-care providers, and the government thumb on the scale against catastrophic coverage would be lighter.

One of the great liberal conceits of the age is that to extend insurance coverage to the uninsured and make sure the sick do not fall through the cracks requires the centralized political management of the health-care sector. Given those objectives, the administration and its allies insist, Obamacare or something like it is the only game in town. The great service that Senators Coburn, Hatch, and Burr have performed is to explode that myth.

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

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