The headline above an Associated Press story on the 2012 election read, “Obama’s team banks on his ‘regular guy’ appeal.” We’re not in the habit of giving advice to the Obama campaign, but: Maybe bank on something else?
An enduring problem for liberal presidents is that the people they govern just cannot seem to rise to the chief executive’s high standards of idealism and self-sacrifice. The canonical expression of liberal presidential disappointment in us, the citizenry, was Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” etc. Now we are hearing similar complaints from Barack Obama. Back in September, he told an interviewer that we have “gotten a little soft.” Then here he was the other day at a fundraiser in San Francisco saying that “we have lost our ambition, our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge.” Well, Mr. President, our willingness to do those things sprang from the desire to improve our lives and those of our fellow citizens through honest individual enterprise — the motive force for all our nation’s progress. Since that desire is presumably a human universal, we should ask what is currently stifling it. The answers are not hard to find: excessive regulation, taxation, and litigation. Is there any prospect of this triple burden’s being lightened? Not under Barack Obama’s administration.
Combine our Puritans Gone Wild sensibility — both salacious and censorious — with our endless news cycle, and a presidential candidate accused of sexual offenses is like a house snatched up by a tornado. Herman Cain is now in the funnel. Politico started it with vague charges that one, then two, and eventually three unnamed women had been harassed by Cain while he was president of the National Restaurant Association. Two of them received payouts from the association, of the kind that corporations award both to hush up embarrassing truths and to cut short frivolous litigation. Then Sharon Bialek, accompanied by shock-lawyer Gloria Allred, came forward to accuse Cain directly. Then one of the anonymous accusers was identified as Karen Kraushaar, now a Treasury Department spokesman. Cain, in his latest major comment before press time, declared, “I have never acted inappropriately with anyone — period!” If any of these accusations proves to be true, Cain is done: Bill Clinton rode out his tornados, but the country, and especially the GOP, would not stand for a repeat. If they peter out, Cain still stands as an amateur in the big leagues: Politico had alerted him to its story days in advance, yet his early responses were slow and bumbling (at one point, he accused the Perry campaign of planting the stories, without evidence). The sex storm artificially prolongs Cain’s prominence in the polls by winning him conservative sympathy, and by distracting from less sensational signs of political unreadiness.
Rick Perry gave a speech in Manchester, N.H., to Cornerstone Action, a conservative group. He chucked the stiff demeanor that has served him so ill in candidate debates; plugged his tax plan, saying that even Timothy Geithner could fill out the forms; and got a standing ovation. But selected clips of the loosier-goosier moments (keyword: maple syrup) went viral, and liberals piled on: Comic Jon Stewart and non-comic Rachel Maddow suggested he was drunk. This is unfair: You could edit Abraham Lincoln to make him sound like Hee Haw. But Perry is in a near–death spiral, where all the previous stumbles of a rocky rollout create the expectation of new ones. Herman Cain’s boomlet arguably helps him, giving him time to regroup while the spotlight falls elsewhere.
Gov. Mitt Romney came out for entitlement reform in a speech. Federal Medicaid funding should be divvied up among the states and its growth capped, he said. Social Security benefits should grow more moderately than planned. Medicare beneficiaries should be able to take their share of the program’s funds to purchase the insurance policy of their choice — including the choice of the traditional Medicare program. On all of these points there is now a consensus among Republicans: The party will not be divided going into the election, which once looked possible. Governor Romney was wise, in his speech, to explain that the alternative to the politically dangerous steps he advocated was not doing nothing, but rather President Obama’s preferred option of higher taxes and rationing. Republicans will of course have to respond to the inevitable distortions of their agenda, and remember always to connect it to its goals: an affordable retirement system, a stronger economy, and better health care.
The “supercommittee” charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years has arrived at a familiar impasse on taxes. Most Republicans say they will not countenance any net tax increase, while most Democrats refuse to entertain restraints on entitlement spending without one. The essential choice before the supercommittee, as before anyone concerned about the country’s long-term fiscal health, is how much to tax the middle class and how much to spend on entitlements for it. Raising middle-class taxes in order to afford more middle-class benefits would be a mistake: If we want people to have more resources in retirement, let them keep the additional money themselves. The only sensible argument for a tax increase is political: It may be the price needed to secure real entitlement reform, and if so may be one worth paying. But why should Republicans commit in public to tax increases, as a few of them favor, in return for no public concessions on the other side, which is what they are getting? The stakes in this negotiation are high, since the law that established the supercommittee imposes automatic cuts to the defense budget if it fails. If it does, Republicans will simply have to continue to fight for entitlement reforms and a strong defense. They can succeed on the supercommittee only if it is clear that failure is an option.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) blasted President Obama’s “politics of division” in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. Ryan proceeded through a series of contrasts between Obama’s approach and that of Republicans: spending restraint vs. tax increases, the goal of upward mobility vs. an obsession with inequality, free markets vs. an alliance of “bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists”; American success vs. European decline. These contrasts are too schematic: Liberals have criticized Ryan for implying that the U.S. has more economic mobility than Europe, when the best evidence suggests the reverse is now true. Some of Europe’s economic policies compare well with ours, such as its low taxes on corporations. But Ryan is quite correct to insist that we not view economic policy through the distorting lens of economic egalitarianism. We suspect that Americans care more about mobility, and it is heartening to see a political leader give voice to that sound instinct.
The median wage — the paycheck taken home by the worker in the middle of the income distribution — has fallen to the same level as in 1999. What looks like stagnation is actually worse, since a higher proportion of the population was employed back then. At least taxes are lower now. The recession and anemic recovery explain the recent wage trends. But wage growth was not robust even before the crisis hit. Rising health-insurance premiums ate up a larger and larger share of workers’ compensation before they ever saw it. Without a more competitive and transparent system of financing health care, we will keep running in place even when the economy revives.
According to the Census Bureau, the proportion of men ages 25 to 34 who are living with their parents rose from 14 percent to 19 percent between 2005 and 2011; for women, it merely ticked up from 8 percent to 10 percent. The largest causes of the trend seem to be the economic downturn and its disproportionate impact on young men. While one might suspect this stems from a deeper and continuing infantilization of modern American men, the number was lower in 2005 than it was in 1995. Given all the other phenomena these numbers are tied to — the continuing economic malaise, the questionable job market for low-skilled men even when the economy is doing well, the dearth of men whom today’s women find marriageable, etc. — we can only hope these men find jobs and secure their independence.
Pres. Barack Obama, kicking off the vote-buying season, announced a plan under which college-loan repayment schedules will be reduced for some borrowers. Under current law, borrowers can apply under the Income-Based Repayment program to have their loan payments capped at 15 percent of their income and any remaining debt forgiven after 25 years of payments. Under Obama’s plan, those numbers will change to 10 percent and 20 years, respectively. (The change had been scheduled to take place in 2014, but President Obama decided to fast-track it.) This is a nod to Occupy Wall Street, the collection of petulant middle-class permanent adolescents camped out in Zuccotti Park in New York City and elsewhere, whose top complaint appears to be college-loan debt. The government should get out of the college-loan business: Its loan guarantees and interest-rate shenanigans simply shunt streams of cash into the higher-education market, encouraging ever-higher tuition rates. A college education is extraordinarily valuable to some people, and less so to a great many others. In neither case should the government subsidize it.
Nothing succeeds like failure. That was made clear by the latest news about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, where ten top executives will share $12.8 million in bonuses for persuading Americans to modify mortgages on homes facing foreclosure. Never mind that the federal programs involved — HAMP (the Home Affordable Modification Program) and its benighted offspring, HARP (the Home Affordable Refinance Program) — succeeded in modifying only a handful of mortgages, and those often for people who could not afford them. Never mind also that Fannie and Freddie, which of course got us into this mess to start with, have just asked for another $6 billion to tide them over until their next request for funds. The question is why undead Fannie and Freddie are allowed to continue staggering on, wreaking destruction and wasting money at every step. It’s time to dispatch them with a stake through the heart before they do even more damage.
Once there were the Wise Men — rich WASPs who moved seamlessly between Wall Street and Washington (usually the State Department), building America’s mid-century empire even as they tended their portfolios. Now we have the Wild Men — same career paths, different results. Their epitome is Jon Corzine. The former Goldman Sachs CEO won a Senate seat in New Jersey in 2000, and the governorship in 2005. He spent a combined $100 million in the two races. But the Garden State, under his stewardship, was an even bigger spender. In 2009, New Jerseyans replaced him with Chris Christie. Corzine went back to the private sector as CEO of MF Global, a multinational bond dealer. He snapped up Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese debt, betting that the Eurocrats would not let these countries fail. But as the market in bad euro-debt softened, MF Global went bankrupt. About the only base Corzine hasn’t slid into, spikes flying, is higher education. Are there any Ivy League schools with billion-dollar endowments he might manage?
Michelle Obama was firing up the crowd at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Jacksonville, Fla.: “Let’s not forget what it meant when my husband appointed those two brilliant Supreme Court justices, and for the first time in history our daughters and our sons watched three women take their seats on our nation’s highest court.” She continued, “But more importantly, let us never forget the impact their decisions will have on our lives for decades to come — on our privacy and our security, on whether we can speak freely or worship openly, and, yes, love whomever we choose. That is what’s at stake here.” Love whomever we choose. Do Republicans plan to ban love? Is Mrs. O. making an allusion to same-sex marriage? Doesn’t her husband oppose it, currently? Speak freely. Isn’t it Obama-supporting liberals who impose speech codes on campus? Worship openly. Is it conservatives who have driven religion out of the public square? Etc. The first lady’s speeches aren’t any more closely reasoned than her husband’s.
Are teachers overpaid? Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation have a new paper arguing that they are. Conservatives have long pointed to widening wage gaps between similarly situated public- and private-sector workers as evidence that powerful public unions have hijacked the labor market. Liberals have responded that, when one takes into account the average public-sector worker’s greater education and experience, they are actually underpaid relative to the private sector. But what if all that education isn’t worth that much? Biggs and Richwine marshal data showing that education majors enter university with below-average SAT, GRE, and IQ scores, but receive above-average GPAs, and go on to make more money than other students with similar cognitive abilities. In any generalization there are, of course, many exceptions. But if this is the rule, it is consequential. Arguing that teachers are overpaid because they are relatively dumb is not the easiest sell in a culture that values educators. But acknowledging it, and fixing it, are critical for a culture that values education.
The top 1 percent is a funny thing. If you got rid of all the 1 percenters tomorrow, a new top 1 percent would take its place. There will always be a top 1 percent. This dynamic is more ironclad than the aphorisms about getting rid of drug dealers, kudzu, or cockroaches. They used to sing “There’ll Always Be an England”; well, that’s mere wishful thinking compared with the mathematical imperative permanently requiring a top 1 percent.
That’s why the sloganeering about the top 1 percent is simultaneously brilliant and daft. It dehumanizes the villains of the tale by turning them into a permanent mathematical abstraction. No reform will ever go far enough because there, on the horizon, like a moon you can sail toward for all eternity without ever getting any closer to, will remain the 1 percent looking down on the lumpen-ninety-niners with cold disdain. In this sense the “top 1 percent” is a more Marxist formulation than anything found in Marx. Karl talked about the inexorable laws of historical progress and the ironclad rules of Hegelian determinism. But he at least conceived of a day when the dog would catch the car. The 1 percenters are such a complete abstraction that they will remain for all eternity like the unreachable final drawing in one of those Escher paintings of an Escher painting of an Escher painting.
Hence also the stupidity of it all. For while there will always be a top 1 percent, the people occupying that category come and go with remarkable frequency. The permanence resides entirely in the abstraction, not in the reality.
According to IRS data, from 1992 to 2008, 73 percent of the 400 richest taxpayers were in that category for only a single year and only one-tenth of 1 percent of them were in the group for the entire 17-year run. Meanwhile, roughly 80 percent of American millionaires are the first generation in their families to be rich.
In other words, the top 1 percent is a mathematical palace that many people visit, but where few reside for long. The same largely holds true for the way stations of economic progress. Four-fifths of 40-year-old Americans do better than their parents did when they were 40. It’s also worth noting that the material stuff — electronics, food, cars, etc. — of today’s poor is fundamentally superior to the stuff poor people had in earlier generations. A twentysomething with a car, an iPhone, and a modestly equipped apartment is, in significant respects, richer than the richest 1 percent from a century ago, whether he feels that way or not. And many poor Americans are richer than rich people in other countries.
Now, to point this out doesn’t mean everything is fine. The fact that the grading of such things is subjective and relative doesn’t justify complacency. If you are born poor in this country, it is still too hard to make yourself un-poor. Scott Winship, who wrote about economic mobility in the last issue of NR, explains that “picking the right parents” remains the best way to ensure relative economic success in life.
But that is not an indictment of America; it is an indictment of bad parents. If you changed the habits of the heart at the bottom of the economic ladder, those at the bottom would have a much easier time climbing out of it. And that’s why reducing these things to quintiles and percentages is so evil. Fueled by envy, the self-described 99 percenters exonerate themselves of all responsibility for their woes and place the blame on abstractions, as if being in the top 1 percent were not an admirable accomplishment but the unfair happenstance of a wholly random lottery.
Under current law, online retailers can be coerced into collecting and remitting sales taxes only in those jurisdictions in which they have a physical presence. A bill sponsored by Republican senators Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee would change that, forcing firms such as Amazon and eBay to calculate taxes and keep records for the 8,000 or so sales-tax jurisdictions in the United States, offering sales-tax simplification in exchange. A similar bill was proposed by Democratic senator Dick Durbin of Illinois earlier in the year, and a separate effort is afoot to have the so-called supercommittee institute new Internet-tax measures as part of its deficit-reduction plan. A series of exemptions and the vagaries of law have given online retailers an advantage in certain situations, and there is no good way to resolve that. Imposing a heavy new tax-compliance burden on these firms unquestionably will obstruct their businesses. If we wish our economy to prosper, it makes little sense to force vital and innovative new enterprises to adopt business practices that would have been familiar to Richard Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck. The free and dynamic Internet economy should be the model for reforming unproductive and outdated arrangements with roots in distant history — not the other way around. If online commerce is to be taxed at all, it should be taxed at the business-unit level — meaning that if the product ships from Topeka, Topeka gets the sales tax — and there only. This would keep compliance burdens low and promote tax competition, a beneficial thing.
How socialists love dams! No propaganda magazine out of the USSR failed to include a picture of some mighty dam; and the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtse River is Chinese Communism’s proudest engineering achievement. Nothing says “heroic materialism” like a dam. No surprise, therefore, to see Rachel Maddow on MSNBC standing in front of the Hoover Dam telling viewers: “You can’t be the guy who builds this. You can’t be the town that builds this. You can’t even be the state that builds this. You have to be the country that builds something like this.” So the Hoover Dam was built by government employees? No: It was built by a consortium of six private companies. It was financed by government money, though, wasn’t it? Only if you think there truly is such a thing as government money: The dam was financed by taxes drawn from the economy. The federal government supervised the project, at least, didn’t it? It did — and the consortium had to fight all the way against pettifogging regulations and efforts by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to have the workforce unionized. The Hoover Dam was finished early and under budget, by American business.
Sunlight may not be an efficient form of energy, but it continues to be the best disinfectant, as the $535 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan to now-defunct solar-energy company Solyndra reminds us. Uncovered documents have already shown that senior White House officials tried to influence the loan-approval process in favor of Solyndra, whose chief investor happened to be a prolific Democratic fundraiser. The Obama administration is now refusing to comply with a House-issued subpoena to turn over additional documents relating to the loan. Reasonable people can debate the question of executive privilege, but the debacle has certainly shone a bright and unflattering light on a president who pledged to make transparency the “hallmark” of his administration and hold himself “to a new standard of openness.”
Not content merely to stand and marvel at the scale of its $8 billion budget shortfall, the state of California has devised a plan to spend yet more. The objet d’affection? A high-speed-rail line between San Diego and Sacramento. The project’s purpose is ill-defined, and its projected cost equal to an entire year’s state budget, but that does not seem to have discouraged its advocates, even as the price tag has risen from the $43 billion figure when it was approved by referendum to a potential $98.5 billion, according to the latest estimate of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and the “high speed” part has been called into question. It appears that the fastest thing about the proposition is the way it has been dashed through: “It’s being rushed through without proper research and without vetting it to the public,” Assemblyman David Valadao (R.) said. That blur in the distance? Fiscal responsibility in the Golden State.
On November 8, Ohioans voted to repeal Senate Bill 5, a 302-page law of collective-bargaining reforms that Gov. John Kasich and the state legislature approved in March. Unlike in Wisconsin, where similar reforms have survived several assassination attempts by the Left, in Ohio, public-employee unions won the election by defining the issue: Senate Bill 5 was an overreach by newly elected Republicans flush with power. Despite the GOP’s protestations, the argument stuck: Voters soured on the law even though majorities of them favored certain aspects of it, such as the requirement that public employees pay at least 10 percent of their wages toward their guaranteed pensions. It didn’t help that the unions outspent their rivals by almost three to one, but Republicans could have done better: They could have passed these reforms in several smaller (and more politically palatable) pieces of legislation that would have been easier to defend. Chastened by defeat, they seem prepared to do just that. We say, Give it another go.
After the Department of Justice threatened a civil-rights lawsuit, Ohio’s Cuyahoga County agreed to print bilingual ballots — and so voters on November 8 saw three proposed statewide laws displayed in both English and Spanish, side by side. Beneath the English versions, the ballot asked, “Shall the law [or amendment] be approved?” To record their choice, however, voters had to look below the Spanish-language question, “¿Debérá aprobarse la enmienda?” and mark ovals labeled “Yes/Sí” and “No/No.” The odd design, observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “causes confusion.” Even more confusing is why the federal government would force foreign-language ballots on anyone: Most immigrants who naturalize have to demonstrate competency in English. Cuyahoga County is an especially strange target because less than 5 percent of its population is Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census. Its recent election now becomes the latest perversion of the Voting Rights Act, which has been confounding our language, Babel-like, for more than a generation.
The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which receives at least $60 million annually from the federal government, informed nurses in its same-day-surgery unit that beginning in October they would be required to assist in performing abortions. Nurses who objected were threatened with termination, and twelve of them have filed a suit against UMDNJ for violating state and federal laws that explicitly prohibit such coercion in publicly funded institutions. A federal court has issued a temporary restraining order against the hospital until a hearing scheduled for November 18. UMDNJ has a long history of lawlessness: It was the subject of a federal criminal investigation several years ago for massive Medicaid and Medicare fraud and the awarding of no-bid contracts to the politically connected. “This place is a public embarrassment,” said U.S. attorney Chris Christie at the time. It is still that.
Two employees of Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia abortion mill — where babies were routinely delivered alive and then stabbed with scissors, where Gosnell instructed his employees where to sever a baby’s spinal cord to “ensure fetal demise” (his expression), and where the infant bodies were disposed of in shoeboxes and spring-water bottles, sometimes after having their limbs cut off for Gosnell’s gruesome collection of specimens — have pled guilty to third-degree murder in connection with eight deaths at the clinic. But only those eight.
On Halloween, according to the U.N., the world’s population hit an estimated 7 billion. All the predictable hand-wringing ensued from all the predictable quarters, though by this point the anguished response has a ritualistic quality, since it was the fourth time the odometer has turned over since Paul Ehrlich’s hysterical 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb ignited a wave of neo-Malthusianism. Malthus’s and Ehrlich’s argument was simple: Fixed amount of arable land, ever-increasing population, result starvation. Yet while the world’s capacity to feed people may not be infinite, there is no reason to believe that 6 or 7 or 10 billion is anywhere near the limit. It is now clear that science can expand agricultural production greatly; that starvation is almost always the result of bad government, not finite resources; and that prosperity and modernity, especially the education of women, will lead to a natural decrease in birth rates. So we greet Baby 7B by saying the more the merrier, and hoping his or her generation will realize that the best fix for the purported ills of overpopulation is not planned economies, forced wealth transfers, or draconian limits on family size, but technology, democracy, and free markets.
Those who know about Israel’s intentions toward the Iranian nuclear weapon aren’t talking, and those who are talking don’t know. Which is why Israeli president Shimon Peres has upset the applecart by telling the world that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is likely. Or again, with more nuance or possibly more linguistic clumsiness, he said, “The possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied than the application of a diplomatic option.” On behalf of David Ben-Gurion’s government half a century ago, Peres was procuring arms and is widely thought to have pushed for Israel to have a nuclear program. Now in his late eighties, he has long since become the national peacenik. Can it be coincidence that Israel has been practicing long-range air strikes and holding large-scale civil-defense exercises simulating the response to all kinds of missile attacks? The International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog, also happens to be publishing an unprecedented warning that Iran has reached the final stages before fitting nuclear warheads onto missiles. In the circumstances, Peres might have been put up to propagating misinformation, disinformation, or a bluff or double bluff, or maybe he was just testing whether Washington could campaign seriously for international sanctions. One way or another, the strategy of defense against Iran by keeping heads deep under the sand appears to be coming to an end.
Earlier this fall, the Palestinian Authority made a bid to become a full member of the United Nations, despite not having achieved statehood through a peace agreement with Israel. The bid failed. But the PA has now been successful at becoming a full member of a U.N. body, UNESCO. More than a hundred nations voted in favor of the Palestinians’ admission. The United States immediately cut off funding to UNESCO, as a 1990s law requires: U.N. bodies that admit the Palestinians as a full member, despite no legitimate statehood, shall not benefit from American largesse. So, UNESCO has just lost 22 percent of its funding. The 107 nations that voted for the Palestinians’ admission probably thought they were doing them a favor. To encourage Palestinians in the belief that they can get what they want without making peace with Israel does no one any favors.
Cuba is embarked on a very modest program of market-oriented reforms: Cubans will be allowed to set up independent businesses, to buy and sell automobiles, and to buy and sell real estate — all within very narrowly limited confines. Amusingly, co-dictator Raúl Castro explained his newly liberal attitude thus: “The state has no business getting involved in a matter between two individuals.” Well, well. There is now a fairly well-defined arc to socialists’ reform projects worldwide: The more robust the socialism, the quicker the country’s impoverishment; once the impoverishment has reached a certain sufficiently desperate stage, reforms begin — at first by turning a blind eye to black markets, and then by instituting official reforms in key areas. And then — nothing, usually. China, Cuba, even North Korea have seen various degrees of liberalization, but none of them has emerged, or shows any sign of emerging, as a decent and democratic society. Even the Russians, for whom the West had high hopes during the age of glasnost, are slipping back into authoritarianism. So Cubans will be allowed to buy houses — on the Castros’ terms, with the Castros’ permission, unless the Castros change their minds. Any new openness is to be welcomed, but there is more to life than the housing market.
It used to be an iron rule of immigration, applied in all nations, that rights of settlement were conditional on the immigrant’s not being a charge on the public fisc. That rule is long gone in Europe and the Anglosphere. All advanced Western nations are plagued by foreigners who freeload on the welfare systems that citizens have built up over decades. Now, however, Switzerland seems to be moving back toward the older, wiser dispensation. In the more conservative Swiss cantons at least, information sharing has been established between social services and immigration authorities, so that welfare-dependent immigrants can be identified. The Zurich-based newspaper Tages Anzeiger reported on the case of a Turkish woman who moved to Switzerland in 2006 to marry a Turk already resident. The man was abusive, so the woman left him following the birth of their daughter in 2010. Thereafter mother and child lived solely on welfare benefits. After the divorce came through, immigration authorities in Zurich deported them. The old rule was a sound one; we hope this is the beginning of its revival.
The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo celebrated an Islamist political victory in Tunisia by naming the Prophet Mohammed editor-in-chief and depicting him in cartoons. For these jokes its Paris office was firebombed. “We won’t let it get to us,” said editor Stéphane Charbonnier. It got to Bruce Crumley, Time’s Paris bureau chief, who wrote a scathing account of the attacked. “Idiotic,” “divisive,” “destructive,” “stupid,” “outrageous,” “unacceptable,” “condemnable” — that’s the language Crumley unloaded on Charlie Hebdo. Crumley found the magazine’s “claims . . . of exercising free speech” “unconvincing,” since “in Western nations . . . that right no longer needs to be proved.” Doesn’t it? Theo van Gogh, Dutch filmmaker, was murdered, and Kurt Westergaard, Danish cartoonist, suffered a home invasion, all for treating Islam harshly or even lightly. Didn’t Crumley notice? The case for free speech, alas, seems to need proving to some of its primary beneficiaries.
The German artist Martin Kippenberger died in 1997, but his works still generate controversy. In 2008, an Italian museum defied Pope Benedict by refusing to remove Kippenberger’s sculpture Feet First from an exhibition. Feet First shows a green frog nailed to a wooden cross. Now Herr Kippenberger’s work is in the news again. A different sculpture, titled When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling, is currently on display at a gallery in Dortmund, Germany. This piece, valued at $1.1 million, is a tower of wooden slats with a plastic bowl at the bottom. The bowl is deliberately discolored to make some kind of “statement” (don’t ask us). One of the gallery’s cleaning staff, however, took the discoloration at non-ironic face value and scrubbed it clean. “It is now impossible to return [the sculpture] to its original state,” lamented a gallery spokesman. Really? How difficult is it to stain a bowl? And if they hadn’t told us about the incident, would anyone have known?
The acronym STEM has been showing up a lot in newspaper reporting about education. STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” These are obviously fields in which a modern nation needs plenty of expertise. Does the U.S. have enough? The administration does not think so: President Obama has called on colleges to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with STEM majors. So how’s that going? Not well, reports the New York Times. Forty percent of students planning engineering and science majors either switch to other subjects or drop out altogether. Principal reasons: STEM subjects are difficult and unglamorous, and lead to only mediocre wages. The last of those reasons follows from the temptation, which is irresistible to U.S. firms and unrestrained by any government action, to preferentially employ cheap foreign STEM graduates over Americans. The second follows from the last, and from our culture’s fascination with finance, law, and entertainment. The first is adamant.
In 1979, William Niskanen was working for Ford — which was then on Washington’s doorstep, hat in hand, begging for protection from the Japanese menace, in the form of quotas on imported Japanese cars. Niskanen argued to Ford’s executives that all of the political favoritism in the world would not save the company, which was making subpar cars with terrible fuel economy. Niskanen was fired for his advice, even though Ford ultimately took it. (A prophet is not without honor, except in his own boardroom.) Ford survived, and so did Niskanen, who went on to have a brilliant career offering similarly good advice to American business and political leaders, spending 23 years as chairman of the Cato Institute. Educated at Harvard and the University of Chicago, a veteran of the Reagan administrations in Sacramento and Washington, Niskanen was principled rather than partisan, intellectually honest, curious, and famed for his gracious manner. As an academic, he was an important proponent of public-choice economics; as a leader, he helped make Cato the invaluable institution it is today. Dead at 78. R.I.P.
That was quick. After scarcely two months, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began as an urban, idealistic Woodstock, has entered its Altamont phase. The left-wing tent cities, scattered across the country, have become magnets for bums and criminals and centers of dirt and disease. The mother camp, at Zuccotti Park in downtown New York, has set up an 18-person “safety tent” to accommodate women terrorized by groping, predatory males. A female Occupier in Vancouver died of a drug overdose; Occupy Portland announced an outbreak of head and body lice. Washington, D.C., Occupiers protesting an Americans for Prosperity conference shoved a 78-year-old woman down cement stairs, sending her to the emergency room with bruises. The worst came in Oakland, where cops accidently fractured the skull of a protester who was an Iraq War vet with a tear-gas canister; a week later Occupiers rampaged through the city streets, and successfully shut down the nation’s fifth largest port.
The Occupy movement brings together three distinct but converging groups of people. Self-styled anarchists (actually left-wing revolutionaries) are more common in Europe than here, though they did stage a riot at a 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Given the chance, they will push Occupy demonstrations directly to the confrontation stage. Most of the warm bodies are young people, from college age and up. In 2008, many of them were thrilled by Barack Obama; three years later, hope has changed. They have reason to feel hopeless: A healthy economy provides opportunity, but a stretch of 9 percent unemployment means spending your extended adolescence in your parents’ basement. Rather than readjust their priorities or understand why recessions linger, they rail at the nature of things.
Alongside the violent and the unhappy are the organizers: the remnants of ACORN; labor unions looking for a left-wing Tea Party; and enabling local politicians, eager to strike poses. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is an egregious example of the last: The archetypal Wall Street tycoon, anxious to cast himself as a rights crusader as his third term ends, encouraged Occupy Wall Street in its early days, though he has begun to change his tune.
The movement could end in ugly confrontations or the adjournment provide by winter. But it will leave an aftertaste. Those who were not molested may look back to their days in tents as Arcadias of idealism and solidarity. Aging baby boomers cheer on Occupy from the sidelines, remembering the Sixties; Occupiers will do the same, world without end. In the shorter run, the aftereffects could be acute. Play-acting communal organizing has given thousands of people a taste of parallel institutions; if the recession dips twice and hard, and if Obama loses a painfully close race, Occupy veterans may try again, with revolutionary zeal.
THE WORLD ECONOMY
Greece on Fire
A Greek default appears to be imminent, and a change of government is under way. Prime Minister George Papandreou promised and then canceled a national referendum on conditions to be imposed on Greece by the European Union in return for another bailout. When it became clear that his government would not survive the turmoil, he entered into negotiations with the opposition to select the premier of a new national-unity government, the purpose of which is to ensure the continued flow of bailout payments. As of this writing, the favored candidate was former European Central Bank executive Lucas Papademos.
So the Greek people are not to be allowed a vote on their own national economic policies. That is the European Union in miniature: economically incoherent and politically incompatible with democracy and national sovereignty. This incompatibility has come to a head now over fiscal questions, but it might have come to a head as easily over questions of national defense or immigration — questions in which the interests of a France or a Finland are very different from those of a Bulgaria or a Cyprus, but which in any case will be decided in accord with no country’s national interest but in accord with the interests of the bureaucratic elite in Brussels.
There is very little reason for Greece, Spain, and Portugal to share a single monetary policy with Germany and France — their public finances, labor conditions, balance of trade, and other economic fundamentals are radically different, and cannot be brought into harmony without something approaching a soft dictatorship. The business cycles of the members of the European Union are not coordinated, and neither are their economic interests. Less competitive nations such as Greece suffer particularly from sharing a currency with highly productive nations such as Germany, because it takes away the option of using currency depreciation to make one’s exports more attractive on world markets. Germany, a strong exporter, has benefited from this arrangement. There is some wisdom in human traditions, and it turns out that the Germans and the Greeks have separate countries for a reason — one of them being that they are separate peoples.
But Greece needs the money. Unhappily, the Europeans aren’t much in funds these days, which has them appealing to China for assistance in their bailout scheme. Which is to say, not only would the deal make Athens entirely subordinate to Brussels, it would make Athens entirely subordinate to a Brussels that is partly subordinate to Beijing.
The best and least likely outcome of this mess would be to have the economically stable northern-European countries break away to form their own union. The second-best and more likely outcome is for Greece to leave the eurozone, voluntarily or involuntarily. Either scenario would probably entail a default and would bring about massive economic disruption, and not just for the Europeans. But the alternative is a prolonged, slow-motion crisis and the entrenching of the one-size-fits-all, central-planning approach from Brussels that is a very large part of the present problem and no part of its solution.